Christian Hawkey’s Beating Heart

Christian Hawkey has written an extraordinary book about Georg Trakl, the great German Expressionist poet: Ventrakl, recently published by Ugly Duckling Presse. All the time Hawkey was working on this project, all I ever heard him say about it was that he had been trying his hand at translating some Trakl poems, and so I was in no way prepared for the book itself when it arrived. Yes, it does contain translations of Trakl’s work, but far more than this it is a compilation of original poems (many of them composed using experimental translation techniques), open letters and short essays resembling prose poems, and each of these documents can be read as a declaration of ambivalent but nonetheless deeply heartfelt love for this most talented and troubled of German poets. Young Trakl, trained as a pharmacist, served in the First World War and found himself left singlehandedly in charge – without benefit of drugs or any other medical aid – of a tent filled with 90 wounded soldiers, many of them dying and some in such pain that they shot themselves to end it. The experience broke him – though it seems he was troubled even before this; his early history included incest, for one thing, and some of the most touching passages in Hawkey’s book are devoted to Trakl’s youngest sister, Greta, Gretl, Margarethe, who like her brother struggled with addiction and took her own life several years after her brother’s suicide by opium at age 27.

In Hawkey’s short essay on a photograph of Trakl as a toddler, we learn that 19th century mothers tried to cheat death of the sons who were said to die more often than daughters by dressing all their infants as girls, producing an early childhood that remained ungendered until the “breeching” of boys at the age of 4 or 5. In another, this time addressing a photograph that shows the poet as a grown man, Hawkey notes a sense “that your [i.e. Trakl’s] feet are not quite touching the floor.” The essays on photographs scattered throughout the volume are some of my favorite parts of the book – they are at once fanciful and informative and display both a depth of research and the ever-changing tactics Hawkey tries out as he approaches his subject, alternating between apparently objective description, questioning, speculation and plea. These ekphrastic pieces are interspersed with Hawkey’s readings of particular poems and lines by Trakl – notably the opening of “Grodek,” one of Trakl’s best-known poems (“In the evening the autumn woods resound / With deadly weapons”) – which Hawkey explicates as standing in for the experience of the moment when the entire pastoral tradition of the nineteenth century was blown apart by the mechanized/dehumanized violence of World War I. We tend to think of Trakl as the sort of Nature-drunk Expressionist whose work shows him to be heir to the late-19th-century French symbolists Rimbaud and Baudelaire, and he was that; but his poems also bear witness, in highly abstract form, to the anguish of the generation that saw modernity roll into the Black Forest on tank tracks. Hawkey shares bits of this background with us throughout the book, so that by the time he presents his own translation of “Grodek” as an epilogue, he has convinced us of the context in which the poem is asking to be read.

Hawkey’s main engagement with Trakl, though, comes in the form of the poems in many different forms scattered throughout the volume. These tend to be much more Hawkey than Trakl. “I am unfolding a moth into a fluttering mouth,” begins one poem entitled “You Bent My Megahertz”; another asserts: “Voles hump under the Holland Tunnel; wonder follows / A white hand down blue holes.” Hawkey has borrowed from Trakl, most obviously, the use of color to define a field containing otherwise dissociated objects, and less obviously the sense of an overarching design knitting together weirdly assembled objects in a list – the strategy that always makes Trakl’s nature poems seem so odd, as there are invariably items on his lists whose inclusion renders an entire scene uncanny, such that we sense the inner jangledness of the point of view assembling these tableaux. Hawkey’s own work has always been about using language to startle the mind out of its habitual patterns of perception, and in this sense, Trakl is his strategic ally. And in fact it becomes apparent over the course of the book, with its many poems that are so clearly Hawkey’s own while also being curiously Trakl-inflected, how deeply Hawkey’s work has perhaps always been indebted to that of the older poet. Trakl’s infatuated symbolism, in which desire always appears to quiver about blue trees and black lakes and red skies, jolts in startling ways oddly akin to the visual inventiveness of Hawkey’s work.

At the same time, the engagement with Trakl also forces the younger/older poet into territory not previously charted in his work. The last thing anyone would think to call Christian Hawkey is a confessional poet; he generally appears in his poems wearing not so much a mask as a full-body wetsuit. In Ventrakl, however, he shows a new side of himself as a poet, because it soon becomes clear that his study of Trakl is profoundly, passionately, even tormentedly personal. In passage after passage he speaks to Trakl directly, in the second person, in what eventually starts to seem a desperate effort to connect with this poet who lived a century ago and died when he was far younger than Hawkey is now. Beyond all notion of tribute and homage, I sense a hidden undercurrent of anxiety trembling in the interstices of this book: What does it mean, Hawkey appears to be asking between the lines of every page, to discover oneself to be the kindred spirit of a man whose life appears to have been bracketed by eternally insatiable hungers, violence and despair? Trakl is an odd bedfellow indeed. And yet his life and work have exerted a hypnotic fascination on so many writers. Hawkey’s memorable book shows us why.

Two Translation Awards from the Academy of American Poets

The New York-based Academy of American Poets – which provides one-stop-shopping for everything poetry: readings, festivals, prizes as well as on-line poems, essays and interviews via their website – has just announced two translation prizes for 2011:

The Raiziss/de Palchi Fellowship for the translation of modern Italian poetry is awarded every other year to an American translator for a work-in-progress. It comes with an award of $25,000 and a six-week residency at the American Academy in Rome. This year’s judges will be Thomas Harrison, Jane Tylus and Paolo Valesio.

The Harold Morton Landon Translation Award, given for a book of translated poetry published during the previous year, comes with a $1000 award. This year’s judge will be David Hinton.

Postmark deadline for both awards is Jan. 31, 2011.

If you’re competing this year, good luck!

Oh, and I’ll leave you with a fun fact about the Academy of American Poets: Their website was originally designed by my friend Bruno.

Translation and Memory

The other night I was talking with a translator friend, Bill Martin, about the similarities between translating and groping for submerged memories. The conversation went something like this: Bill started telling me about the experience of translating the transcript of an RAF terrorism case aloud for a filmmaker wanting to get a quick overview of its contents, and he said that any time the words weren’t coming quickly enough, he found himself physically acting out whatever gesture was being described. I do this too when I’m translating (or writing, for that matter) – it’s as if the muscle memory you call on when you perform the physical gesture can help summon up the words. I told Bill this reminded me of the moment when you’ve just woken up from a dream you can’t quite remember but feel as though you’re on the verge of remembering: you don’t know what happened in it, but the shape of the feeling its mood created is somehow there as a sort of abstract solid, something vaguely physical. This in turn reminded him of the way long-submerged memories sometimes make their way back to the surface, as he had experienced not long before when he ran into someone who remembered having met him at a dinner party in Paris a dozen years before. Bill couldn’t remember the evening in question, but then the man e-mailed him a photograph taken at that long-ago party, and even though the man himself wasn’t in the photo (he was holding the camera), looking at the picture brought back Bill’s memory of the evening and the stories of the other people who had been present at the dinner. He described this “coming back” of the lost memories as feeling like a physical return. And I, too, had experienced something similar just the night before when I met a man from Minneapolis – a town I visited many times in early childhood when my family was living in Rochester, MN. Minneapolis exists in my memory primarily in the form of a daycare center containing an indoor slide shaped like an enormous gray or light blue elephant housed in a large department store called Dayton’s (you climbed up stairs set into its back, and the slide was in its trunk). Well, if you went to Dayton’s, this man now said to me, you must also have seen the glass box of monkey musicians in the toy department – Dayton’s was famous for them. And as he described them, the memory of these mechanical musicians dressed in little red suits began coming back to me. I remember the feeling of looking up at them in their box and watching them perform, and am utterly convinced that I did see them as a child, though I cannot quite remember what they looked like. Composing this sentence, I find myself making the hand gesture that accompanies this memory, clapping my two fists together with their imaginary cymbals.

P.S. Bill just reminded me that the link between the two parts of our conversation was that we were talking about the search for the right word in the translation process in terms of embodiment. This is something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately.

(Photograph of Bill and me © Beowulf Sheehan but cropped by me)

Two New Reviews of Visitation

I was delighted to read Phillip Witte’s thoughtfully detailed review of Jenny Erpenbeck’s novel on Three Percent this week; it’s one of those reviews that really show the reviewer took the time to get inside the book and process his thoughts about it before sitting down to write. Witte even cites the recent interview with Jenny in Vogue. And then, just as I was about to blog it, a second new review came in, done by Ron Slate on his blog On the Seawall. Slate, who also goes into a wonderful amount of detail, quotes quite a lot from the novel, so if you’re interested in a preview, this is a good place to get one.

Translationista Under Construction Today

Translationista is being translated today into an improved Blogger format to provide for better searchability and access to older posts. So if you happen to stop by and find things looking strange, it just means that you are witnessing a transitional moment in the history of this blog – please come back later!

Translationista Turns One (Month)

One month ago today I decided to start blogging about literary translation and in the process have discovered how much I love writing about it. I can’t stop. And I’m grateful that readers have been tuning in: the blog has had over 2100 visits thus far. So until further notice, I plan to keep chattering away about translation problems, translation triumphs, translation prizes and more. Right now I have a backlog of topics I want to write about, so please do keep checking back for updates. Some technical updates are in the works as well. My wonderful web guru Timothy Schneider, who recently rewired all the coding on my professional website, is working on creating a better archive for Translationista so that it won’t be so difficult to locate older posts, and we’re also thinking of relocating the blog to – I’ll keep you posted. Also, since it’s been brought to my attention that people have been tweeting some of my blog entries (thank you!), I’ve decided to celebrate this blog-birthday by inaugurating the Twitter handle “uebersetzbar,” which I will use to slingshot blog posts into the ether. Übersetzbar (ü is a German spelling convention for “ue”) means “translatable,” and I’ve picked it as my handle as an affirmation of my belief that there are no works of literature that are not translatable; there are only works whose translator has not yet been born. Oh, and if you’re wondering why the word übersetzbar shares an ending with wunderbar, which everyone knows translates as “wonderful,” it’s because wunderbar actually means not “full of wonder” but “wonderable,” i.e. such that one might well marvel at it. There is so much about translation that is wonderable, and I hope you will find it übersetzbar as well in this little blog. I thank you for reading me.

(And a big thank-you to Polly Jones for the use of her cupcake painting.)

Translation Challenge of the Day: Eiweiß

It’s the strangest thing, but it turns out that authors like to play with language. And more often than not this playfulness translates directly into translator migraines. Today I’m working on a fun little food-themed essay-story by Yoko Tawada entitled “Okonomiyaki,” and she leads off with an exchange about protein – which in German is most commonly referred to as Eiweiß or “egg white.” There’s a historical explanation for this: albumin from egg whites (which themselves are also called albumen – both from “albus,” the Latin word for “white”) was among the first proteins discovered back in the 18th century. In the Tawada piece, she describes an exchange in which her narrator informs a German interlocutor that, gram for gram, tofu contains more protein than chicken. That’s impossible, he responds: Soybeans don’t lay eggs. Where’s the Eiweiß supposed to come from?
So the question for me is: Where’s the humor supposed to come from? Explaining a joke is a surefire way to kill it, but without explanation this joke would be stillborn anyhow. The easiest way around the problem would be to add an explanatory footnote, but no one likes footnotes in translations, particularly when the thing being footnoted is the punch-line of a joke. My strategy in cases like this is generally to smuggle into the translation just as much additional information as is needed to allow the reader to follow; ideally, the interpolation will be seamless, elegant and unobtrusive. In this particular case, I am considering two different lines of approach, one that is more historical, and one that is more linguistic. The latter is more obviously justified here, since other forms of linguistic playfulness show up elsewhere in the essay. For example, there’s a bit where Tawada describes a “Kammmuschel” (queen scallop) in such a way that it soon becomes clear she’s describing the word itself: it “has two pillars and three ms in its shell.” In my version, that bit now reads: “The scallop has two pillars in the middle of its shell.” It doesn’t really matter that my scallop loses the “queen” in its name – it’s not a queen in German anyhow, it’s a comb – since the only reason Tawada chose that particular form of scallop was the unpronounceable three ms in the middle of its name. It’s only fairly recently that one finds triple consonants in German words: only since the national spelling reform of 1996 (which served primarily to make the written language uglier, if you ask me). Before this, whenever the creation of compound nouns produced triplets, one would always be pleasantly elided, so that e.g. the word “bedsheet” (Bett + Tuch) would be written Bettuch and not – as it is now – Betttuch, which to me looks like something that belongs in a cemetery. Because these triple consonants are relatively new in German, you really notice them when they turn up, which is why I think Tawada was inspired to riff on the structure of this word. But I digress. Here are my two just-now-brainstormed options for handling the Eiweiß passage:

Human life is a coming and going of proteins. Once I remarked to an acquaintance in Frankfurt that 100 grams of tofu contain more protein than 100 grams of chicken.

He shook his head in denial and said: That’s impossible. Soybeans don’t lay eggs. The most important proteins are albumins. Albumins come from albumen, the white of the egg. Where is this albumin supposed to come from?

Human life is a coming and going of proteins. Once I remarked to an acquaintance in Frankfurt that 100 grams of tofu contain more protein than 100 grams of chicken.

Since Germans use the word Eiweiß (egg white) to mean “protein,” he shook his head in denial and said: That’s impossible. Soybeans don’t lay eggs. Where is the egg white supposed to come from?

I’m leaning toward the second option. What do you think?


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