The Serving Suggestions of a Poem: Translating Poetry as an Extreme Sport
By Marina Agathangelidou
Everyone who translates poetry has probably experienced some variation of the following scene at least once in their lives: you’re sitting or standing at a gathering with a glass in your hands that is half full or half empty, and at some point it’s your turn to introduce yourself, or, you’ve just been introduced by somebody else, and you talk about your work as a translator and even admit after insistent questions about the nature of your work that, amongst other things, you also translate poetry. A short but noticeably awkward silence follows that is only broken by questions of concern, such as: “oh, isn’t that really hard?” Or: “can you even translate poetry?”
Even if there’s a hint of doubt about the professional viability of translating poetry in questions like these (“can you really survive just from translating poetry?”), the implicit or explicit mistrust of poetry translation – a mistrust which, incidentally, is also shared by many translators of novels and nonfiction – seems mainly to arise from the idea of poetic language deviating from the standard and socially acceptable use of language to such a great extent that the endeavor of translating poetry can only be compared to a circus act or an extreme sport. This idea is often supported by the antiquated belief about the translator’s intellectual obligation of transferring the contents – i.e. the clearly expressed and interrelated meanings – from one language to the other as faithfully as possible. That such meanings are rarities in poetry is also said to account for the enormous difficulty of working in translation.
What I admittedly don’t like about this way of thinking is that poetry is kept at a distance after being assigned a special status. If one thinks in generalizations like these, one tends to overlook the fact that everything that takes place in a very compact form in poetry – namely, meaning being produced and remaining for the most part unresolved in the interplay between content, sound, rhythm, form and composition – can also be found in every ambitious work of literature, whether written in the form of prose or verse or intended for the stage. Furthermore, the explicit or implicit reservations about poetry and its translation ignore the fact that different positions exist within the realm of poetry – that is, the degree of deviation from the spoken word can vary widely from poem to poem; just look at the difference between Bertolt Brecht’s poetic language and that of Paul Celan.
Perhaps translators of poetry are also to blame for their work being viewed as something exotic by most people. Translators list the difficulties a poetic text presents in its playfulness and experimentation; they talk in conspiratorial tones to one another and display contempt for translators of thrillers. Furthermore, translators of poetry are granted a degree of freedom in the use of language as well as in the selection of translated texts, both of which make them feel particularly privileged. In the world of poetry, you’re allowed to choose what you want to translate more often than in prose or theory; individual discoveries, preferences and recommendations are mostly well received by magazine and book publishers who are active in the niche of poetry publications. But when you’re introducing yourself at a gathering, it’s often better to leave out the fact that you can’t survive on such suggestions (no matter how well received), and that you have to translate a thriller or take on dry technical translations to stay afloat from time to time.
But this sense of freedom is how I was able to dive into new poetic discoveries after moving to Berlin in 2010 where I became familiar with the city’s lively poetry scene while also translating radical, bold and new poetic voices (such as Ann Cotten) that I thought provided their own individual answers to what poetry could look like in the 21st century. This is also how I eventually came to translating Gerhard Falkner’s Gegensprechstadt-ground zero. Published in 2005 by kookbooks, Falkner’s long poem about Berlin thinks about the city and language in unison and puts them in dialogue.
I had been enjoying the freedom of making selections and suggestions for some years when I received a contract towards the end of 2016 that for a change was not based on my own attempts to put Greece in touch with contemporary German poetry. This contract also sounded like quite the challenge: led by the poet and sociologist Nathalie Karagiannis, the project was called Constellation of Debt and created a collective poetic dialogue between ten Greek and ten German-speaking poets on the subjects of liability and debt. The starting point and context of this lyrical exchange was the financial crisis in Greece as well as the subsequent political relations between Germany and Greece. The subject “debt” was purposely given a broad definition in the project concept and it included interesting aspects that had never been properly taken into account, if at all. This dialogue between Greek and German poets was based solely on the translation of the poems written for especially the project, all of which were prepared by me, the translator of the project.
The way the project was performed was particularly interesting: there were ten pairs of one German and one Greek poet participating in “Constellation of Debt” and the poets were invited to perform indebtedness by alternating roles between “creditors” and “debtors” as well as by reflecting on the theme of “debt” in poems. That is, each poet in the pair owed their partner poems that had to be “paid” before an agreed upon date. Their texts then referred to one another and certain topics and motifs were adopted, elaborated upon and modified.
The resulting poems couldn’t have been more different with regards to form and content. The polyphonic, dialogical nature of the project and the wide range of poetic voices were the challenges I had to face in the translation, and it is these very factors which make it difficult to select a single example from the large body of poems. I’ll take the liberty and share Monika Rinck’s “Time and Money,” a self-explanatory poem that offers insight into the poetics of this magnificently idiosyncratic poet while also allowing me to make a few general remarks in conclusion:
Zeit und Geld
"Oh dear! Oh dear! I shall be too late!"
The White Rabbit
Geld ist wesenhaft zeitlich, weil es zirkulieren muss
Was wird denn geschehen, wenn Zeit wirklich Geld ist?
Die Armen sterben und die Reichen werden weiterleben.
Die tackernden Assistenten des Künstlers generieren
ein Werk, das ihnen nicht mehr gehört. Sie tackern
auch an hohen Feiertagen, am Karfreitag tackern sie
des Künstlers großes Werk zusammen. Wahrheit!
Gott hat seinen Sohn gegeben, uns zu erlösen –
der Menschheit ihre Schuld zu nehmen,
Dein Glaube sei Dein Kredit, je höher, desto gläubiger.
Und das Anwachsen der gewaltigen Schuld sei
dann die Bedingung der Erlösung.
Und es seien alle einander verschuldet, oder heirateten
und seien dann alle miteinander verwandt.
Ich löse die Zeit in zähflüssige Lotionen auf.
Ich wate durch den Schlamm, in dem die Stunden
sich mit Leere füllen, blubbern. Zeit und Geld.
Das ist nur der Serviervorschlag dieses Gedichtes.
Was verloren ging: Der Beginn,
der keinem Auftrag folgt – der benebelte Schritt,
auf die Lichtung, um die Schichten,
die es gar noch nicht gibt, voneinander zu lösen.
Und dann lösten sie sich
im Licht der glitzernden Birken.
Time and Money
"Oh dear! Oh dear! I shall be too late!"
The White Rabbit
Money is intrinsically temporal because it must circulate.
What would happen if time were really money?
The poor die and the rich would keep living.
The artist’s stapling assistants produce
a work that no longer belongs to them. They staple
on religious holidays, on Good Friday, they staple
the artist’s major work together. Really!
God gave his son for our redemption –
for taking the blame away from humanity,
Your Faith is Your Credit, the greater it is, the more devout.
And the accumulation of massive debt would then
be the condition for redemption.
And everyone would be indebted to everyone else or would get
married and then everyone would be related.
I dissolve time into gooey lotions.
I wade through the mud in the hours
filled with emptiness, bubbling. Time and money.
Those are only the serving suggestions of the poem.
What has been lost: the beginning
that doesn’t follow any mandate – the foggy step
towards the clearing to separate
the layers that don’t even exist yet.
And then they dissolved
in the light of the glistening birches.
Found in this text are all the elements of a typical Monika Rinck poem (if there is such a thing): the mixture of cheerful and sober tones, jokes and seriousness, cheekiness and elegance, pop culture and philosophy, everyday objects and abstract considerations serving a poetic thought that is driven primarily by mental leaps and free associations while being supported by tonal elements or even etymological connections. To name but a few of these: there’s the repetition of the ending “-en” in the second verse in the German original (“Die Armen sterben und die Reichen werden weiterleben); the phonetic connection between “ging” and “Beginn” as well as the tonal interplay between “Schritt,” “Lichtung,” “Schichten” and “Licht” in the last stanza; but above all there’s the dual meaning of “Gläubiger” (in financial jargon, a “Gläubiger” is a creditor, i.e. the person who demands funds from someone else, the “Schuldner” or debtor), on which the poet bases her equation of faith (“Glaube”) and credit.
And now I’d like to return to the joys of translating poetry as a final remark: when you translate poems like the one cited above by Monika Rinck, you learn to deliver the poem’s principle, combination of elements as well as the interplay between form and content, and not just transfer individual words into the target language. Above all, you learn – to stick with the financial jargon – to aim towards the surplus value of meaning. And that’s not nothing. Even if it means you sometimes have to be regarded as a weirdo at parties.
This text is an edited version of the lecture the author presented at the symposium “Parataxe VI. OB Berlin. The international translators of Berlin” on November 23, 2019 at the LCB.
First release in German:
Translated by Shane Anderson