NEA Literature Fellowships

Ross Benjamin

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(2012 - Translation)

from The Frequencies by Clemens J. Setz

[translated from German] 

I watched the solar eclipse with my mother. We went to the main bridge, which leads to the city center. The only thing that can be said about a total solar eclipse is that it feels like a gigantic mistake. Everything is wrong: the shading and the fall of the folds in the clothing of the bystanders, their hands and faces, the buildings of the area, the water of the river over which you view the spectacle in the sky; it’s wrong how your sense of hearing behaves, suddenly dulled, as under water or behind glass. You move in the sudden darkness among other onlookers reminiscent of Homer’s depiction of the dead: humble figures who take up as little space as possible, colorless and full of longing for light.

For a minute the ghostly ring of the sun hung in the darkened sky like a bullet hole in metal with those flickering frayed edges around the opening. Shortly before, the heavy body of the moon had rolled over the sun, it takes about two seconds and you don’t believe your eyes: coin-shaped and sky-colored, it has advanced slowly and steadily for half an hour and bitten off more and more of the solar disk, and suddenly it becomes substantial, like a black camera lens, and lies down over the sun, not elegantly or hypnotically, as you would expect from the moon, but cumbersomely and clumsily, like a drunk rolling onto a sleeping woman. 

As quickly as an eyelid closes, it is dark. You have to take off your glasses, or else you’ll be completely blind. For a second it’s pitch-dark, then an inner emergency generator starts up and your gaze staggers around dazedly, brushes against buildings, trees, people, everything in the wrong color and position. The river is now moving along much more slowly, like someone driving past the scene of an accident and craning his neck in slow motion. Its color is the unhealthy bronze-gray of bog corpses.  Most people let out a cry when the sun was swallowed up by the black sack. Some began to clap in confusion, in an eerily slowed-down way, as if they had at the same moment become aware of their clapping hands -- and immediately stopped.  

After your eyes, in the few seconds remaining for them to do so, had grown accustomed to the new light conditions, everything was bathed in an unnatural half-light, a light that in terror mixed up all the colors, but made lines and contours stand out more sharply. Everything now seemed hopeless and depressing. The whole thing must have been a terrible error. Something had gone wrong, in the middle of the routine movement of the bodies; perhaps the earth had slid out of its orbit and drifted off into space, or a gigantic solar explosion was burning up the far side of the moon and lending it that nightmarish background glow.

Excerpt in German

About Clemens J. Setz

Born in 1982 in Graz, Austria, Clemens J. Setz is a writer, poet, dramatist and translator, as well as an overtone singer, jazz pianist, mathematician, and magician. For his novels and short stories, he has been awarded various prizes, including the 2010 Bremen Literature Prize and the 2011 Leipzig Book Fair Prize. The Frequencies, a 716-page novel that explores how seemingly small collisions of everyday lives can have rippling consequences, exemplifies Setz’s elegant and meticulous craft, his acute observation and expansive imagination, his empathetic depiction of his characters’ all-too-human idiosyncrasies, his revelatory approach to detail and his stylistic flair.

Ross Benjamin is a writer and translator living in Nyack, NY. His translations include Friedrich Hölderlin's Hyperion (Archipelago Books), Kevin Vennemann's Close to Jedenew (Melville House), Thomas Pletzinger's Funeral for a Dog (W.W. Norton & Co.), and Joseph Roth's Job (Archipelago). He was awarded the 2010 Helen and Kurt Wolff Translator's Prize for his translation of Michael Maar's Speak Nabokov (Verso). He is a graduate of Vassar College and was a 2003–2004 Fulbright Scholar in Berlin. His literary criticism has appeared in The Times Literary Supplement, Bookforum, The Nation, and other publications. He is currently at work on a novel. His website is

Photo by Lauren Benjamin

Translator's Statement

I am enormously grateful to receive an NEA fellowship to translate Clemens J. Setz's The Frequencies. It is a chance to introduce to the English-speaking world a young Austrian writer who opens up new literary horizons. Setz's prose is rich with astonishing images and similes, musical cadences and counterpoints, improvisational digressions, quasi-mathematical thought experiments and playful feats of dexterity. It also has a consistent simple grace and precision and intelligent humor. For a translator, such a multifaceted, deft and beguiling performance is an invitation to spread one's own wings. Setz has done something exciting and distinctive in German, stretching it in unexpected directions. To reproduce this in English, my task will be to awaken possibilities slumbering in the language with the same poetic luminosity, musical ear and exhilarating vitality that Setz brings to his writing. The challenge of translation is to exploit the full potential not only of one's abilities but also of the language into which one is translating. That is precisely what makes this project so appealing.