What does it mean to translate a poem from a foreign language? At first, this may seem like an easy, if not silly question. It means simply taking the words and phrases of the poem, translating their meaning into the target language, and arranging them into pleasing verses, maybe even ones that rhyme if you’re lucky – right? The German verb for translation, übersetzen, may even provide a useful image: consisting of the two words über (across, over) and setzen (to place, to set down), übersetzen evokes for me the act of taking an English word, traveling with it across some divide, and setting into the realm of the German language.
What happens, though, within this divide between languages? If we take a moment longer to think of this task, to consider our relationship to the words, nagging questions start to arise: are we familiar with the words we’re reading as native speakers? Have we learned the words as a second language? What ideas, images, and memories do we personally associate with words and phrases that make for unique interpretations and relationships to words that differ widely from one person to the next? How do such personal interpretations vary from more collective, group interpretations of certain words or phrases? Can the same impact of a word be translatable across languages and social groups? How many different layers of meaning can be linked to one word? How could a translator convey all of this in another language system?
By this point our happy confidence in the straightforwardness of translating poetry falters. Probably even our confidence in the fixity of meaning in the words we use everyday is also a little shaken.
The work of bilingual German poet, Uljana Wolf, makes this tension of translating poetry between two languages even more fantastically visible. In one particular collection of poems, Falsche Freunde (False Friends), Wolf plays with cognates, false cognates, idiomatic phrases, homophones and homonyms between the German and English languages. She jumps between each language smoothly and at times almost imperceptibly, in effect making the reader – once she catches the shift – stop, question, look back, and read again.
Reading these poems aloud makes for an even more challenging and fun exercise, as the reader must suddenly choose how to pronounce words that sound very different and have very different meanings between two languages. An example of this switch occurs in the first line of Wolf’s poem bad bald brief bet-t, where she plays blurs the lines between two systems of grammar, pronunciation, and meaning with the word “bald”: in German, it is an adverb meaning “soon” and in English, it is an adjective describing lack of hair. Further still, “bad” could indicate the German “bath” and/or the English opposite of “good”; the English phrase “take a bet” simultaneously plays on the German homonym “Bett,” meaning “bed”; “Brief” means at once the English adjective for “short” and the German noun for “letter.”
In these examples, the possible sounds, meanings, and interpretations of the poem all the while travel back and forth across the two languages, in the end never really settling in one, but rather suggesting a meaning somewhere in between English and German.
For poetry that seems to defy the very idea of fixing words to a single language and system of meaning, how does one even go about translating it?
Renowned translator of German to English, Susan Bernofsky, took on the challenging project of translating Wolf’s Falsche Freunde this year. For Bernofsky, the fact that most Germans can understand English and yet the reverse is not true, meant eliminating the initial possibility of inverting the “linguistic equation and translating the words that appeared in English within the German context to make them German within the English poems.”
Nevertheless, her translation of Wolf’s work, which at least on the surface is entirely in the English language, creatively maintains the unsettled meaning of the words and phrases that readers find in Wolf’s original text. As Bernofsky explains, one way she achieves this effect is by estranging the English words, which, in the original German version of the poems, “had an estranging function, just by being in English.”# To see for yourself the in-between space that both Wolf and Bernofsky occupy, read the following poem and its translation below:
bet ~ t
am anfang bald, und bald am ende wieder: unsere haare, und dazwischen sind sie nicht zu fassen, nicht in sich und nicht in griff zu kriegen, weder im guten noch im bad. stattdessen morgens zu berg (take a bet?) und nachts out of bed (siehe ad). am besten hältst du sie als igel, der hat noch jeden hare besiegt. liegt aber eine strähne im brief, gareine lange, halte sie unverfänglich an die wange.#
Susan Bernofsky’s translation:
In the beginning bald, bald at the end once more: in between, this hair is hard to grasp, tricky to pin it up or down, for better or for bed. standing on end instead (fake a bet?) and at night out of hand (see the ad). perhaps best to crop it hedgehog close: he always gets his hare. But should you find a strand within a letter, long or brief, press it sweetly to your cheek.
To gain more insight on Bernofsky’s fascinating and complex process of translating Falsche Freunde, I encourage you to read Bernofsky’s own blog entries (here, here, and here) written during her work on this project. While you’re at it, be sure to read the rest of Bernofsky’s blog on all things regarding literary translation and more!
For more CLUJ blog posts on translation, click here.