May 15, 2011

The final passage

One of many books on hunting
traditions translated by Oskar
Yesterday I learned that my friend Oskar Kasperl had died last Sunday. He was a great translator and a very unique man. When I sat in his living room and looked at the rows of books he translated, including many of the most important teaching texts in the GDR for agriculture, veterinary science, dog training, hunting and other subjects I love, the thought in my mind was that if I could manage 20% of that in my remaining years I could look back on a very successful life as a translator.

I first got to know him as the stubborn old man who walked with two crutches but kept his gardens immaculate, by himself, through sheer force of will. He reminded me of a favorite uncle who died over 20 years ago who, when crippled by arthritis so he could no longer bend over to tend his garden, brought his garden to his great height with boxed beds raised on high tables. Oskar was not one to let small matters like age, infirmity and pain beat him.

When I got to know his daughter, who was trained as a translator and interpreter of English and Bengali, I had no idea the two were related. She and her husband sat with us often and told about "Oskar" and his wild life as a translator and hunter. He worked in a team with his wife, dictating as she typed at high speed. His output was enormous. His contributions to education and knowledge sharing did not go unappreciated at the highest level. Erich Honecker once gave him a wish to honor this contribution on a milestone birthday. The wish was to own a drilling, a traditional three-barreled hunting rifle. At the time, private possession of such weapons was virtually impossible except to the SED's most faithful - of which he was not one. The wish was granted. When he gave up his hunting license at age 88, the drilling passed to me somewhat to the amazement of the local police, who had granted special permission for him to keep that gun until the end of his life after he had given up the rest of his arms collection acquired after the German reunification. The gun itself is 30 years old; the scope on it is probably 15 years older than that. I have other, technically better rifles and scopes, but this one somehow shoots better than all the others as I have found time and again on the range and in the field. When I carry it, I feel a special connection to a friend and the traditions he cared so much about.

Oskar made a difference in this world as a translator and a person. He was certainly no saint, and home life was often not peaceful. But his abiding love for his children was never in doubt, and this was obvious whenever his daughters spoke of him. I visited one tonight, and we sat for many hours in the kitchen eating Russian pancakes and garlic soup and drinking coffee, talking about him and his life and its many crazy tales. Perhaps some of these will be written down; perhaps the writings will be translated. I know just the illustrator for the tales. Her work reminds me of the best illustrations of Roald Dahl's stories, and Oskar's are often just as strange. When I was leaving, his daughter told me about a cache of old photographs she had discovered, which she had never seen before. She saw herself as a tiny baby held in the arms of a father radiant with pride and love. I know that feeling, and I know that light will never dim.


  1. A fascinating story about someone who was clearly anything but a run-of-the-mill person.

    My commiserations upon losing a friend who was clearly held in great esteem.

  2. Today, the 24th of May, his funeral was held at the cemetery in Hohen Neuendorf. It was deeply moving to hear his friends and family tell about his life, and although it was not a religious ceremony, the reading of 1 Corinthians 13 by one of his good friends was very fitting.

    A life like his is truly one to be celebrated, and as one daughter put it, it was never boring. Not for him or those close to him. Today I heard for the first time how he chose the path of a freelance translator in the early 1950s in the GDR and resisted the attempts of the government to eliminate freelancers in the 1960s. No jobs for months and no Plan B. It makes some of the conditions that are complained about today seem like a joke. He was an inspiration to his children and to his friends, and he will remain one for a long time still.


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