The English language translator of Heinrich Boll, Leila Vennewitz, lived quietly and largely unheralded in Vancouver for more than 50 years, primarily in the West End, at 710 Chilco Street, near Lost Lagoon, with her second husband William Vennewitz, who predeceased her on March 23, 1997. "Since his death I have not had the heart (or the stamina) to continue translating," she wrote.
Leila Vennewitz died on August 8, 2007, having had rheumatoid arthritis for thirty years and a hip replacement in August of 2005. In her final years, she could no longer read for pleasure due to a degenerative eye condition but, as she noted in 2006, "I am unspeakably thankful that I can still write." She is survived by her daughter, Carla Reed; three granddaughters: Julia Reed, Dr. Jennifer and Gordon MacPherson, and Jill and Scott Constable; also by three great grandchildren, Alison and Owen MacPherson and Lucas Constable.
Born in Hampshire, England in 1912 as Leila Croot, of English parents Horace and Winifred Croot (nee Daw), she grew up in Portsmouth where her father sometimes took her to watch football. She greatly admired and loved her brother John, whom she regarded as a "soul mate." He was later knighted as Sir John Croot. She attended the Sorbonne in Paris, where she began her study of German at age 18. She later studied in Germany. Before coming to Canada, she spent 12 years in China where she studied Chinese and Italian. Her first marriage to Hans Melchers was amicably dissolved after a year-and-a-half. She was later irritated by erroneous books about Shanghai, where she had lived.
Her translated publication of The Clown by Heinrich Boll in New York in 1965 marked the beginning of her series of translations of Boll's works. Heinrich Boll, who died in 1985, was a winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1972. For many years she also translated the works of Martin Walser. Other authors she translated include Uwe Johnson, Hermann Hesse, Nicolas Born, Alexander Kluge, Friedrich Durrenmatt, Jurek Becker, Uwe Timm, Walter Kempowski and Alfred Andersch. She privately confessed she was not an admirer of Gunter Grass.
In 1968 the Society of Authors in London awarded her the Schlegal-Teick Prize for her translation of Boll's End of a Mission (Ende einer Dienstfahrt) and in 1979 she received The Goethe House P.E.N. Prize from the American Center of P.E.N. Award for her translation of Boll's And Never Said a Word (Und sagte kein einziges Wort). In 1989 she received the German Literary Prize from the American Translators' Association for Breakers (Brandung) by Martin Walser. In 1994 her translation of Narcissus and Goldmund (Narziss und Goldmund) by Hermann Hesse was shortlisted for the Schlegel-Tieck Prize. Shortly after her husband's death in 1997, she received the Helen and Kurt Wolff Translator’s Prize for translation of Jurek Becker's Jacob the Liar (Jakob der Lügner). "I went to Chicago to collect it, alone," she wrote. She had been married to William for 56 years.
In 2003 she donated her papers and manuscripts pertaining to her Boll translations to the Lilly Library at Indiana University. Compensated by a tax refund, she donated funds to the university for an annual translation prize. Later, she privately wrote, "Personally, I have no sense of obligation to posterity beyond the legacy of my translations and 'papers.'"
In a conversation at her apartment with Alan Twigg on February 23, 2006, she said she had always wanted to be a translator, she never made a major blunder in her work, she never had much trouble with editors and she preferred to take her time on each project. Vennewitz preferred to view the translator as "the boss," not unlike an orchestra conductor. She never had an agent and she pioneered the ability of translators to gain copyright for their own translations. She maintained she had always followed the early advice of a fellow translator: "Be bold."
Vennewitz also said she always felt like an Englishwoman in Vancouver, a foreigner, and quoted a Rupert Brooke poem about dying far from home. Her ties to England remained strong. While watching a documentary on Windsor Castle, she cried when she saw the Queen. "She was the one who tapped my brother on the shoulders," she said. Estranged from her only daughter, she quoted Jane Austen about the past, saying, "Only look back on what brings you pleasure." Fond of Italy, she once visited Tuscany for three weeks with one of her three grand-daughters and felt as if she could live there. "I'd probably convert," she said.
In March of 2006, she wrote to Alan Twigg, "I am not qualified to air any views on German literature. With some exceptions, the only German literature I know -- well enough to discuss -- is what I have translated, or what other major translators have chosen to work on. This is by necessity a narrow field, but it might also be called deep and highly specialized."
[BCBW 2007] "Translation"