The Most Translated Writer You’ve Never Read: Stefan Zweig and His Austria

Stefan Zweig, 1900

Stefan Zweig, 1900 (wiki)

Before I travel, I like to immerse myself in some of the culture of the place. Soon to embark on a trip to Central Europe, I’ve been watching foreign films and discovering the work of authors I’ve never read. One of these authors is Stefan Zweig, prolific writer and especially master of the art of the novella. Zweig was born and raised in a wealthy Viennese family, moving as an adult to Salzburg. Zweig sensed immediate danger following Hitler’s rise to power in neighboring Germany in 1933, and after a run-in with the authorities, he and his wife Friderike departed Austria as though for a weekend. They fled first to England, at which point Zweig and Friderike divorced. He then married his secretary, Lotte Altmann, with whom he moved to the United States. After several years in North America, the couple moved to Brazil.

Although in the 1920s and 1930s Zweig was one of the most translated writers in the world, after his death he fell into obscurity outside his native German language. Within certain literary circles, however, he was known and read, which is likely how numerous Zweig titles were reprinted by Pushkin Press starting in the 1990s. More recently, the New York Review of Books press has published several Zweig titles, including the novella I read, entitled Chess Story and alternatively published under the title The Royal Game.

One of six woodcuts to the chess story The Royal Game by Stefan Zweig. Artist: Elke Rehder, Germany). Wikimedia

One of six woodcuts to the chess story The Royal Game by Stefan Zweig. Artist: Elke Rehder, Germany). Wikimedia

Without giving away the plot (it’s only 80 pages), the narrative takes place during the course of a ship crossing and ultimately pits two very differently oriented chess players against one another. As the story progresses, the background of the more mysterious player is revealed, uncovering the terrible circumstances of his skill.

It was likely the Pushkin Press edition of Beware of Pity, one of Zweig’s few full-length novels, that director Wes Anderson discovered about six years before his film The Grand Budapest Hotel was released. Anderson loosely based the film on Zweig’s writings and the character of Zweig himself. In fact, numerous films have been adapted from Zweig’s stories, beginning in the 1930s, including Max Ophuls’ 1948 Letter from an Unknown Woman.

Zweig’s stories are nuanced yet potent, intricately crafted to tell large and universal stories in a small, sometimes even claustrophobic space. Zweig’s own story in some ways tells an illustrative tale of the 20th century and its darker moments. Zweig and each of his wives were able to escape the Nazi regime and live freely elsewhere in Europe and then the Americas. Living in Petropolis, Brazil, Zweig and Lotte seeing the deterioration of the way of life they had known in Europe, combined with the guilt they felt over the fates of the millions of Jews unable to escape Hitler, led to their suicide pact in 1942. Peter Gay, a professor emeritus at Yale University, wrote the introduction to the NYRB’s edition of Chess Story. In it, he refers to Zweig as “one of Hitler’s posthumous victims.”

In addition to his prodigious output of over 30 novellas and short stories, Zweig composed numerous works of nonfiction, primarily biographies, and a memoir, film poster_zoom SZweigentitled The World of Yesterday, which detailed his reminiscences of Vienna and several other European capitals. Zweig  completed the memoir, according to various reports, either several days before or one day before he and Lotte killed themselves in Petropolis. Now Zweig’s life itself is receiving a film treatment—in German, actress/director Maria Schrader’s Vor Der Morgenrote; in English, Stefan Zweig: Farewell to Europe.

We’ll be in Austria for a few days, and in Salzburg, where Zweig made his home and wrote his books in the years leading up to his forced exile. In Salzburg now, just south of Furtwangler Park and just west of St. Peter’s Abbey, sits the Stefan Zweig Centre, which houses a museum exhibition of Zweig’s life, a library, and an event space, which, two weeks ago, screened Maria Schrader’s recently released film.

Stefan Zweig Center, Salzburg (wiki image)

Stefan Zweig Center, Salzburg (wiki image)

A writer’s relationship with his hometown and birth country often seems notoriously fraught, or complex at the very least. In Zweig’s case, he was rejected by Austria under the Nazi regime and fled, in fear of his life, only to take his life himself. Perhaps he believed he would never be able to return, or perhaps he felt he wouldn’t dare to, if or when the war should end. Whatever the exact motives for Zweig’s untimely death, the wealth of writings he left behind speak to a vanished world, yet in reading his stories, we find it is one we still inhabit.

Here’s a question for you: What author(s) would you recommend in translation?



11 thoughts on “The Most Translated Writer You’ve Never Read: Stefan Zweig and His Austria

  1. What a literary find! Fascinating indeed. Eager to see the film. I haven’t read a lot in translation, but most memorable is Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude.

  2. Thank you for introducing me to a new author. I will definitely read some of his work. My suggestion for a favorite author in translation is Jorge Amado. Years ago, “Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands” made me laugh out loud. Of course there’s Tolstoy. I like the Maude translations, but I understand there are other new, good ones.

  3. I had always taken translation for granted until I read this article in the NYer, entitled “The Translation Wars”: It introduced me to the husband and wife team Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, whose translations made Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky best selling authors in the late 20th century.

    The article also discusses the much maligned Victorian translator Constance Garnett, whose transactions of major Russian writers were said to make them all sound alike. In her defense, I’d say, well, she did introduce them to English readers, and for that I thank her. In the end, though, I much prefer Pevear and Volokhonsky.

  4. Nice read! I’m currently on the Icelandic Sagas – a massive compilation by Viking – and it’s great. (Yes, this is in prep for going to Iceland in two weeks)
    I hugely recommend the revised Moncrieff Proust translation, but maybe that’s because that’s the way I fell in love with Proust!
    For ancient stuff, it always seems like more of a big debate. I only recently re-read the Odyssey in the Fagles translation – which was hotly debated back in 1998 and considered inferior to the Lattimore;)

  5. Icelandic Sagas! I think I know a member of an august group of writers who will want to talk to you more about THAT. Kate Gilbert, meet Stephanie Knapp.

  6. Once I read the author’s name, I had difficulty getting past another ‘Zweig’ whom I had known years ago – a dentist who performed a gum graft surgery on me, which was quite frankly, more painful than childbirth! The memories we conjure… and yes, who knows why he and his wife took their lives, but memories certainly played a part in that, I’m sure. Our memories have the ability to conjure up a host of emotions, including guilt, shame, and fear. The irony of his passing at his own hand after escaping death at another’s only adds to the sadness. Well done piece!

  7. Pingback: Stefan Zweig’s Dream of Europe: What has been achieved? — Devolution Review

  8. Pingback: Stefan Zweig’s Dream of Europe: What has been achieved? –

  9. Pingback: Stefan Zweig’s Dream of Europe: What has been achieved?

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