El número 5 de la revista Little Star: A Journal of Poetry and Prose (Nova York, 2014) publica unes cartes que W. G. Sebald va escriure al seu traductor a l’anglès, Michael Hulse, mentre aquest traduïa The Emigrants (1996), Rings of Saturn (1998) i Vertigo (1999) per a l’editorial The Harvill Press, de Londres. En una d’aquestes cartes Sebald explica al traductor l’origen de les històries d’Els emigrats i reflexiona sobre el concepte de ficció en la seva narrativa:
About the degree of fictionality in Die Ausgewanderten [The Emigrants]: I quite understand your concern & can assure you that all four stories are, almost entirely, grounded in fact, except that, in the Bereyter story I have added (a very few) touches of Wittgenstein’s life as a primary teacher & that the fourth story is a sort of collation of two lives. Aurach’s Lebens—& Vorgeschichte [life and prehistory] is that of my landlord in Manchester & the details about the painter are based on Frank Auerbach who came to England from Berlin much at the same time as my landlord. There is, thus, practically nothing in the stories that could be said to be “invented”, apart, that is, from the appearances Nabokov makes in all four stories. And I hope that this too is not unjustified. The passage about the butterfly boy in Kissingen is based on Speak Memory & whilst I do not know wether Aurach’s mother ever happened to see the young russian boy in Kissingen, what is certain is that they were both there at the same time. The same goes for Nabokov & my great uncle Adelwarth in Ithaca. So what I did was no more than extending the vectors a little. Fictionalisation, as I see it, is, in this text, not a matter of substance, that is to say it is nothing to do with making up characters, events that befall them in complicated plots. Rather, the sense of fiction, the feeling that one is at a level removed, by a notch or so, from reality is meant to come out of adjusting the “sehschärfe” [sights] of the telescope one looks through, so that some things seem very distant and others (especially those which are in the past) quite close & immediate. That is why negotiating the tenses, as you probably found when translating, was so difficult. There are many more modes of the past than those allowed by Imperfect, Perfect & Pluperfect! I don’t know wether any of this answers your questions at all. Perhaps we can talk about it sometime.