Philip Boehm was born in 1958 in Texas. He studied at Wesleyan University, Washington University in St. Louis, and the State Academy of Theatre in Warsaw. He is not only a lauded literary translator of works from Polish and German into English, but he is also an accomplished playwright and director. Boehm is the co-founder of the Upstream Theatre in St. Louis. The theatre is known for its productions of works from international authors.
A Translating virtuoso
Translating from both Polish and German into English, Boehm has worked with a diverse selection of texts. He is the translator of over 20 works, including Stefan Chwin’s Death in Danzig, Franz Kafka’s Letters to Milena, Ingeborg Bachmann’s Malina: A Novel, Nobel Laureate Herta Müller’s The Hunger Angel, Gregor von Rezzori’s An Ermine in Czernopol, and Hanna Krall’s Chasing the King of Hearts. For his work, Boehm has received awards from the American Translators Association, the U.K. Society of Authors, National Endowment for the Arts, PEN American, the Austrian Ministry of Culture, and the Texas Institute of Letters.
In a statement from the jury that awarded Boehm the 2013 Helen and Kurt Wolff Translator’s Prize for his work with Rezzori’s An Ermine in Czernopol, the awarding committee praised Boehm’s 'virtuoso translation', noting that,
With this translation, rich in alliteration, assonance, elaborate sentence structure, and changing rhythms, Philip Boehm makes another masterpiece…
Boehm credits both the years he spent living in Poland and his investment in theatre with helping him develop the ear for voice and rhythm that characterizes his sensitive translations. When discussing his translation of Krall’s novel with English PEN, Boehm commented on the importance of maintaining the style and rhythm of the Polish original
Rhythm does have meaning. Establishing the pace came with finding the voice. The laconic style of the original is reinforced by the language itself: Polish does not use articles, and often the subject of a sentence can be inferred from the context or implied from the grammar. I did make a conscious effort to streamline the English, but only after first attempting to capture the full meaning of the Polish sentences. Consequently the English is differently laconic than the Polish.
While much of his international acclaim is directed at his translations, Boehm has also found success in the theatre. He is the author of a number of plays, including Mixtitlan, Soul of a Clone, Alma en venta, The Death of Atahualpa, Return of the Bedbug. Soul of a Clone was the featured debut performance at the Upstream Theatre and was deemed 'a terrific first impression' and designated a Critic’s Choice by the Chicago Reader.
While it is easy to see how his experience in translation affects his theatrical work – he translates many of the plays staged at the Upstream Theatre – Boehm notes that his work in theatre influences his translations. Discussing the challenges of translating 'what is not said' in Hanna Krall’s Chasing the King of Hearts, Boehm observed:
The challenge is to find language that is taut enough to contain the silences. This is as much a matter of rhythm as word choice. It’s a problem I’m very familiar with from my work in the theatre.
Fueled by his awe of language and ear for rhythm and voice, Boehm’s work brings otherwise inaccessible Polish and German texts to an English-speaking audience – both on stage and on the page.
Author: Alena Aniskiewicz, July 2015