The Architecture of Translation

Yesterday I spent several hours with German poet Uljana Wolf – a book of whose poems I’m translating for Ugly Duckling Presse – going over the texts of the poems. This certainly isn’t something I always do with an author whose work I’m translating, but Uljana herself translates from English to German and speaks outstanding English. She also tends to have excellent ideas about navigating the thornier passages in her poems, which is particularly useful in the present case, since the book in question is an abecedary of sorts, each poem inspired by “false friends” or German/English cognates that wind up meaning completely different things in the two languages, and written in a mix of German and English. The “i” poem, for example, invokes the German word “igel” that appears doubly in English: both as its semantic equivalent “hedgehog” and its homophonic translation “eagle,” which get linked in a semi-narrative passage involving the sorts of animals that figure in fairy tales. In any case, being able to pick Uljana’s brain during the final revision process was invaluable, and certain choice tidbits in the translation are her personal contributions; in the “c” poem, for instance – a sensual take on love – the word “donut” that got deconstructed in the German into “du not go, or i’ll go nuts” (du = you) now reads, in the purely English version, “do nut go, or i’ll go nuts.” It’s a shame that the overtly bilingual character of the poems has to be glossed over in the translation, but the fact of the matter is that while most educated Germans read enough English to understand bilingual poems with ease, making substantial use of German in the translations would limit the poems’ readership dramatically. In any case, while revising we found ourselves swapping phrases back and forth and pinching out individual words and bits of lines that didn’t quite work, replacing them with others. And it invariably happened that the rhythms of these missing building blocks presented themselves before the words themselves could be found, a phenomenon I’ve written about elsewhere. While we were talking about our collaboration afterward, it occurred to us that this way of thinking about the translation process was well described by the great Heinrich von Kleist‘s aphorism: “The arch stands because each of its stones wants to fall.” Kleist described this phenomenon in a letter to his betrothed, Wilhelmine von Zenge, whom he was attempting to educate epistolarily, and even drew a picture to show her what he was talking about:The point of the arch was to serve as an allegorical symbol of human fortitude in the face of trials. Kleist recycled the image eight years later in his play Penthesilea, in which a consort of the beleaguered Amazon queen uses a quite similar phrase to encourage her regent to buck up. In any case, something in our conversation reminded me of this image, and when I quoted it, Uljana pointed out that it also described the very activity we’d been pursuing all afternoon: trying to find just the right combination of (individually fallible and failing) words that would prop each other up to hold the lines of poetry together. If you are curious to see the results of our efforts, I’m afraid you’ll have to wait until approximately April for the appearance of our book False Friends: A DICHTionary of False Friends, True Cognates and Other Cousins, by Uljana Wolf. I’m sure we’ll be throwing a nice book party when the time comes, so watch this space for details.
(Photo of Uljana Wolf © Timm Kolln)

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