Poem as Firework, Poem as Bone China: A Dispatch

A dispatch from the "Found in Translation" event at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London

We run through groups of snail-paced tourists from Trafalgar Square to arrive just in time for the start of “Found in Translation” at the ICA, almost walking directly into Michael Hofmann on entering the filling cinema. We take our seats just as he walks down to join fellow poet and literary translator Jamie McKendrick and German poet Jan Wagner on stage. While everyone settles down to an ominous soundtrack straight out of Star Wars, I take in the two rows of bulbs, like the lights that surround the mirror in a theatre dressing room, running the length of the ceiling. Some of them are out, which fits an event that glows but never quite reaches its full brightness.

In the introduction, Jan Wagner is sprightly and upright with a schoolboy haircut, Jamie McKendrick cradles his leather satchel before sliding it onto the floor, Michael Hofmann plays with his hands, lets them hang down either side of his chair, then finally folds them in his lap. Microphones are reluctantly taken up. McKendrick hugs his to the side of his head, Hofmann whispers to his like a little friend.

As a warm up, each writer has brought a translated poem to discuss. McKendrick has chosen a translation of Georg von Trakl’s “Die Ratten” (‘The Rats’) that he first read while at university that made him suspicious with its jarring word choices, and which he describes as ‘a mess’. Wagner obligingly reads the German, McKendrick the English, without feeling.

It’s so much of a mess that it drove him to look at the original on the opposite page of the book for some indication of what had gone wrong, even with practically no German. He wonders aloud whether the strange verbs “resonate as unusual in German” too. He cannot accept rats that flit (“flitting is for swallows and bats”) or “hiss”; “pfeifen” in the German is more commonly “to whistle”.

“Poems use an estranged language anyway, so there’s two levels of strangeness in translation”, he suggests, which is to say that the translation will sound strange, but it must be in a convincing way. When he imagines that the final line must be powerful in the German, so lacking is the final English line, it’s his only brief moment of excitement, as if the letdown was a promise of something special and secret beyond reach.

Hofmann reads a wonderful poem called “The Biology Teacher” by Polish poet Zbigniew Herbert and translated by John and Bogdana Carpenter (who he holds in highest esteem), a poem filled with frogs and beetles and injustice. Hofmann calls Herbert’s work a kind of anti-poetry–“no clutter, no dressing…aerodynamic”–and the translation has the right kind of strangeness,, a “non-normative” feeling about it as opposed to the wrong kind exhibited in the Trakl translation, such as an “alien word order”: ‘leg of a dead frog/touched with a needle/is contracted violently’.

As no one present speaks Polish, the German and English translations are compared to see if similarities and differences can be deciphered. The “golden microscope” (sometimes “golden binoculars”) that appears in the English has transformed into a “golden monocle” in the German, which some audience members seem to find alarming. Does that matter? Hofmann doesn’t think so: “It survives it.”

Jan Wagner has brought along Dylan Thomas’ “Death Shall Have No Dominion”, translated into German by Erich Fried. He enthuses about Thomas’ “formal extravagance” but his enthusiasm falls momentarily flat when he asks if either McKendrick or Hofmann will read the English, to which they look nonplussed. After neither of them show the decency of taking up his invitation, he reads it himself. I don’t mind, Wagner is a wonderful reader in both German and in English, and I doubt he really minds either.

The translation uses half-rhymes, just as Thomas does, only not necessarily in the same places, and has a “lovely music” about it due to carefully thought-out word choices for the purposes of alliteration. Instead of using the usual German word “verrückt” for “mad” as in crazy, Fried uses “toll” to go with “tot,” and similarly manages to make changes that reverberate through the poem as a whole.

One doesn’t say dead-as-a-doornail in German, but you can “sleep like a stone,” so being dead as a stone – “tot wie Stein” – isn’t far off. The daisy of the original then returns as a “Steinbrech,” a saxifrage. Wagner announces with genuine delight that “you could imagine that this is the poem Dylan Thomas would have written if he’d been writing in German”.

He remarks that Fried wanted the reader, on reading his translations of different poets, to think there were in fact multiple translators: “Is it possible to vanish?”. McKendrick says that when he was translating The Faber Book of 20th-Century Italian Poetry he wanted it to have a ventriloquistic quality, but this is not necessarily a must: “I didn’t want them to all sound the same…but at the same time I don’t mind if a translator has a strong voice.”

Hofmann describes himself as agnostic on this point. “You’ve just got your own voice, you can only stretch it one way of another,” before trying to close the discussion by saying “This question makes me feel awkward”, like he’s confessed to something he didn’t mean to. “What if it is all me” he adds, rather grimly, then, resolutely, and not for the last time: “it’s whatever works, whatever has intensity”.

Kann er nicht ein bisschen lauter sprechen!” the women next to me repeatedly hisses whenever Hofmann talks. “I don’t think he can speak louder,” I reply, “He always speaks this quietly.” And that’s not necessarily a bad thing: I don’t want or need all my writers and translators to be animated and clear public speakers. Maybe he’s shy, perhaps he’s uneasy, those are both fine. Of course, if it’s due to a lack of patience, or good spirit, or because he doesn’t want to be there I wonder if he is the right choice for such a discussion. And I say this out of the need to energise and educate everyday readers and writers into being interested and knowledgeable about translation.

Hofmann’s essays, like his poetry and translations, are exquisite, unmatchable. His public face, however, is exhausting. Perhaps it’s he who’s tired from having to justify something that just is ‘right’ and without a need for explanation for him. No one would begrudge him of having conviction, maybe of not being able to communicate it.

Wagner takes the discussion elsewhere.

Why did both these poets become prolific prose translators, rather than focus on translating poetry? Hofmann talks about not trusting himself to be “impartial” and of wanting to avoid “getting there with wet hands and no water”. Prose, he continues, “survives transportation, there’s less chance, less complications.” For McKendrick, prose translation is aspirational in that it allows him to write whole books when he’s unable to do so himself. Saying that, he says wearily, he’s translating book number 4 of 6 by Georgia Bassani, and admits he wished he’d stopped at 2.

Hofmann jumps in with the Grimm fairy tale of the Ferryman—a story about translation. The ferryman is condemned to ferry people across a lake until someone comes to replace him. A ferryman “übersetzt” (“ferries”), which is the same work for “translates,” “übersetzt”). Translation as purgatory.

My guest, who knows just as much as I do about translation (apart from a foreign language), makes a great point about Hofmann’s/Grimm Brothers’ metaphor on the train platform later: “You often say that there’s such a small group of translators that get to translate books. Do they not pass on the torch because they can’t, or because they don’t want to? What would they do if they weren’t translating these books?”

It may well be a question of purpose for these writer-translators: writing your own work may not give you the same satisfaction and sense of worth as translating the work of others.

There is frustration when one’s hard work isn’t appreciated by neither the writer nor readers and critics. “I try and treat him as if he’s dead” McKendrick says of his current writer affectionately. ‘There were only 6 real conflicts in the last book. I won 4-2. Or it might have been 3 all.” And then there are the readers of translations who have expectations of what a language should sound like in translation. “One review criticised me for not getting the musicality into a poem, which is ironic seeing as there’s music in mine but purposefully none in the original,” McKendrick laughs, “to a critic who doesn’t speak Italian, all Italian sounds like libretti,”

When Hofmann speaks of his translator, German poet Marcel Beyer, his demeanor softens: “He wanted to wait until he was writing poems himself before he translated my poems, he didn’t want to do it during a dry period, which I appreciated.” Being translated and translating actually brings about a strange relationship with one’s own language, its limits, its strengths: “He made me seem to myself to be devious and obstructive…I felt I made things difficult for him, before I knew there was him” Hofmann says.

Hofmann reads Beyer’s translation of his poem “Digital Recordings” and Wagner asks if he recognises himself in the poem. “With its colloquialism and high tone education? Of course I recognise myself!” One of the greatest challenges for Hofmann is that the English language itself makes translating into English and writing English poetry difficult. “It’s hard to write in beautiful English; it’s plain, dowdy, un-self-aware,” It seems a real moment of reflection when he announces near the end of the evening that he regrets “not remaining a foreign poet in English instead of an English poet in English”.

For McKendrick, being translated into Italian meant having to let go, both to his form and even his content. 10 syllables in English, he tells us, will be 16,17,18 syllables in Italian and he gave the translator more freedom than a writer typically would.

“I worried about how sacrificial my phrases were” he admits, “I was prepared to throw out this and that”. Hofmann wisely points out that there are really two ways of regarding a poem before committing it to translation: “Poem as firework, poem as bone china,” The former is where disintegration, extrapolation and epiphanies will take place, the other where the upmost care is taken to not lose a sliver of what appears in the original. One is hot, one is cold.


Jen Calleja is a writer, literary translator from German, editor and curator based in London. She is The Quietus’ columnist for literature in translation and her articles and reviews have been published by the TLS, Huck and Modern Poetry in Translation. Her own short fiction has appeared in Structo and TEAM and she has been shortlisted for the Melita Hume Poetry Prize 2015. She edits the Anglo-German arts journal Verfreundungseffekt, is former acting editor of New Books in German and is guest literary curator for the Austrian Cultural Forum London throughout 2015. She has translated prose and poetry for Bloomsbury, PEN International and the Goethe-Institut and is currently translating Nicotine by Gregor Hens for Fitzcarraldo Editions.