His name was Carl Weissner. How the hell did I never hear about this guy?
I mean, it’s true that literary translators get far too little recognition outside their own circles for the work that they do, but still.
Weissner’s friend Pierre Joris reports in an interview-cum-eulogy that Weissner “called it splitsville” on January 24, 2012, but while he was alive he was translator to the stars. At least if your notion of a star is anything like mine.
Weissner was the German alter ego of an incredible roster of artists, including:
- éminence grise, febrile blasphemer, and trenchant comedian William S. Burroughs
- dispeptic science fiction genius and empty-swimming-pool-obsessive J.G. Ballard
- drunken bum Charles Bukowski
- rabbi/protopunkrocker Robert Zimmerman, aka Bob Dylan
- painter and partyologist Andy Warhol
- beloved novelist of gay life in America Armistead Maupin
- force of nature and law unto himself Hunter S. Thompson, and
- master orchestrator, soul patch innovator, and all around good human being Frank Zappa.
I mean, seriously?
And, just in case that wasn’t enough, Weissner made recordings of such historic folks as Allen Ginsberg, Ed Sanders of The Fugs, Charles Bukowski (again), and John Giorno. A collection of these is available on a CD he assembled called 12 Great Americans.
In his interview, Pierre Joris gives some idea of the scope of Weissner’s work:
An excellent writer (with unhappily too few books to his name) and a superb translator, Carl started out as part of the cut-up internationale, translating William Burroughs, putting together his own cut-up novel, The Braille Film (for my money, the best cut-up work besides WSB), and collaborating with several others, primarily the German writers Jürgen Ploog & Jörg Fauser, but also Claude Pélieu, Jan Herman, and myself, on cut-up texts and radio dramas. Carl was also the translator of the complete Bob Dylan oeuvre, of Zappa’s texts, of Nelson Algren, Allen Ginsberg, and others.
In the early ’70s Carl came across Charles Bukowski’s work, became his German agent, translator, and confidant—in Germany it is often claimed that Buk’s worldwide fame was due to Weissner’s work, and that the Euro-fame he gained was re-imported into the United States. In the TV interview above (unhappily only understandable to German-speakers) he tells the wild story of Buk’s funeral—worth hearing, as is the rest of the interview. In 2010 he published his first German-language novel, called Manhattan Muffdiver (Milena Verlag) though in recent times he had been at work on a story recounting the last delirious weeks of Arthur Rimbaud dying in Marseille. Hopefully he managed to finish this, and we’ll get to read it.
An example of Weissner’s cut-up work called Death in Paris is available on the Reality Studio web site, which also hosts another memorial. The Reality Studio piece helps focus attention on the many, varied, and important things Weissner did in addition to the translations for which he was famous:
Though his renown came from his translations of Burroughs, Charles Bukowski, Bob Dylan, J.G. Ballard, and many others, Carl was the epitome of a dying breed — the vanguardist. He experimented with language, published little mags, collaborated with other writers, and kept an entire network of correspondents hooked on his remarkable letters. In an interview, Bukowski once described how “a letter from Carl always was and still is an infusion of life and hope and easy wisdom.” Later the same was true of Carl’s emails. They were snatches of literature addressed to you personally. They made you want to save and print them. Often they were passed around among friends.
Yet another memorial, this time on Arts Journal, gives us a sense not so much of what Weissner did, though clearly he did a hell of a lot, but of the hold he personally had on people. Jan Herman writes:
When I heard he had died, I cried like a child. You’d think I deserved the purple heart for breast-beating. Shit. What a spectacle. I tell myself, “Don’t be sad. He would prefer a good laugh.” Besides, going out the way Carl did fits the man. No fuss. No muss. No bother. Complete surprise. The angels, if there are any, simply carried him off.
There will be a live, rather than written, memorial for Weissner on February in Mannheim, Germany, but I’m betting that there will also be a whole lot of private little memorials all over the world among people who knew him or appreciated his work — people online, people re-reading his work, or people finding out for the first time that he’s gone and saying goodbye in whatever way suits them.
According to Jan Herman, Weissner himself would probablywant to be remembered with laughter, so I’ll close with Weissner reading his version of Frank Zappa’s scandalous and unforgettable Bobby Brown Goes Down (followed by Zappa’s own rendition, for those of you who, like me, don’t understand much German) .
See you later, Carl. I really wish I’d found your work while you were alive, dude, but that’s the thing about our works: they have the ability to survive us. I’m off to read some of yours right this minute.