Saturday, May 1, 2010

Nan Watkins on Translating Yvan Goll

The two poems of Yvan Goll’s that appear in the Spring 2010 issue of the BPJ are from his last manuscript, in German, called Traumkraut or Dreamweed. They are the inventions of a patient lying in European hospital wards, fighting the incurable leukemia that was diagnosed in New York in 1945 but would not take his life until 1950, in the American Hospital in Neuilly, near Paris.

I first came across Goll’s work when a friend showed me English translations of a few poems. Then I read Galway Kinnell's very beautiful translation, from the French, of Goll's Lackawanna Elegy. Goll was Alsatian and bilingual in French and German. I see translation as an act of liberation: freeing a work from the box, the prison, of one language and giving it life in another. Hence my desire to liberate Goll's work into English.

Goll specifically chose to write the fifty poems that comprise the volume Traumkraut in German rather than in French. The poems inhabit a world of fever, pain, lament, and finally tenderness and love. Goll becomes obsessed with a "Traumkraut," a strange hallucinatory plant that gives him a kind of "new birth" to confront his fatal illness. Immediately from the neologism of the title, the translator is confronted with finding an equivalent expression in English. "Traum" means "dream," and "Kraut" can mean "cabbage," "herb," "plant," "weed." The German word for weed is "Unkraut," so I decide to couple the English "dream" with "weed," thus preserving the rhythm and assonance of the German title as well as the paradoxical sense of the undesireable, the unwanted, linked with dream. Curiously, some earlier writers had used the term "Dream Grass," but since Goll refers to his Traumkraut's bloom and flower in various poems, I have rejected that translation.

Some of these same problems of "non-existent" words and compound nouns occur in the poem "Rosedom" as well. German has the creative facility of forging words together to make strong new compounds, but English is shy of that. In my translation of the many new compounds in "Rosedom," I want to retain the idea of a single word, rather than separate words, i.e., moon rose, so I hyphenate the English words to become moon-rose, brain-rose, etc. Somehow it does not work for me without the hyphens. Flowers and roses are a favorite metaphor for Goll, so it is a stunning reversal for him to include such harsh and negative imagery in the poem ("unrose," "raves in fevered fields," "blazes for the roseless").

English is a Germanic language, so when I seek word choices for these poems, I invariably begin with those with Germanic roots: In "Rosentum," for instance, the second line reads: "Die in Tierköpfen brennt," For "Tier" I choose the word "beasts" rather than "animals," both for its alliteration with "burns" and for the stronger monosyllable. In line 4, I want to convey the meaning, but also Goll's push of language, so "Aus Schädeln geschädelt," becomes "Skinned from skulls."

"Old Men" is Goll's glimpse of the dying men around him in the hospital ward, as well as the hint that he knows he is becoming one of those men. I try to use the force of monosyllables and the crunch of consonants to convey the harshness of the scene.


  1. Nan,
    You say, provocatively, that poems are imprisoned in their native languages, that you are liberating Goll's poems in the act of translation. Does this imply that poems become more fully themselves as they accrue existences in multiple languages? This seems to contradict the commonly held belief that all translations are poor approximations, failures even, since a poem's language is so embedded in the culture in which it was conceived.

  2. Dear Lee,

    I like your question. We can begin by agreeing that a poem reaches its highest expression in its original language, embedded in its original culture. But rather than focus on what is "lost in translation," I prefer to think of what is "gained in translation."

    I want to argue that a poem, that literature, in a good translation, can be more fully realized when it becomes re-embodied in other languages, other cultures. By being translated, a work is liberated from its own monolingual culture into the multilingual world where cross fertilization among languages and cultures takes place.

    Edith Grossman, in her recent book "Why Translation Matters" (Yale University Press, 2010), relates fine examples of this cross fertilization. She writes: "When he was a young man, García Márquez had an insatiable appetite for Faulkner's fiction and devoured his novels in Spanish translations, along with the books of many other authors writing in other languages." (17) García Marquez himself writes of reading James Joyce's "Ulysses" in Spanish translation: "It not only was the discovery of a genuine world that I never suspected inside me, but it also provided invaluable technical help to me in freeing language and in handling time and structures in my books." ("Living to Tell the Tale," 247; translated from the Spanish by Edith Grossman)

    Think how impoverished our literature would be without our writers and readers having assimilated the works, primarily through translation, of Homer, Virgil, the Bible, Dante, Cervantes, Tolstoy, Goethe, Baudelaire, Rumi, García Márquez. As for Yvan Goll, I am hoping that my translations will launch his poems into a wider sphere of English-speaking poets and readers for all the reasons stated above.

  3. *** Hello Nan . . . the whirlwind of roses caught my attention . . . and yr nicely-phrased observations about whether to round them up with or without hyphens
    *** you assert that much is "gained" when a poem is "liberated" by "a good translation" ... be hard to refute any of that ... but I wonder what you (and any other skilled hard-working translators out there) think about bottom-feeders like me who, late at night, "render" poems from their English language translations into second- or even third-generation English language versions without ever looking at the poems in their original language because we couldn't read a word in the first place ... I have done this in the past with Han Shan, Huang Chao, and the Cherokee sacred formulas and am at it again with Petrarch ... I do know about 10 Cherokee words, including those for hello, dog, and fry bread ... my questions: (1)what if any useful function does "rendering" poems rather than translating them have?; (2)to what extent do legitimate translators rely on translations already executed by others?; and (3) if the answer to #2 is "a lot" when does the reliance on other translations become, in fact, another sort of rendering?

  4. As one who has written and taught in academic German contexts over the years, I can only applaud your careful and imaginative rendering of these densely packed lines, Nan! Thank you for liberating Goll for us.
    The debate over translation reminds me of the religious issue about translating the Bible and Qur'an into English. Christians, especially, have had no compunction about "liberating" the ancient Hebrew and Greek into hundreds of languages. in the process either inventing their written form or changing the meaning of many of their words. Meanwhile, Muslims have resisted "translation" from the Arabic, tho I notice that some of the newer "translations" of the Qur'an are calling themselves "translations" rather than "interpretations." At least a translation opens a door into the author's word-world that might invite the foreign reader in. At the very least, it can transform the reader wherever she or he is.

  5. Thomas Rain CroweMay 3, 2010 at 12:06 PM

    As a translator (among others I have translated Yvan Goll) and a "renderist" (the poetry of Hafiz in my case) as George Ellison calls it, I would have to say that both approaches to 'liberating' a poem or work from another language is viable. While literal translations from one language to another are virtually impossible and with some writers being only translated by scholars and/or language professors, writers themselves working as 'renderists' are a necessary component to getting the poetic or proseaic voice of the writer/poet in question to a wider reading public. As in the world of Nature, diversity is the key. And in the world of literature and translation, diversity is also necessary--to have as many different translations and renderings of a writers work to choose from, with hopes that the amalgum of translations will lead to one or more versions of any given work that come as close to what the author was originally trying to say as is possible. Renderists working with previously translated work by reputable translators and 'working' that work into a more poetic (in the case of poetry) voice or form is equally as important, in my view, as those who sit with a text meticuously composing translations word by word. As he points out, this approach to the transfiguration of language has been going on for a long time. So, kudos to Mr. Ellison for his versions of Petrarch, Han Shan and the Cherokee, and to Ms. Watkins for her 'literal' translations--with hopes that discussions like these will lead readers to the WORK of Yvan Goll and that the discussion, here,will migrate beyong the intellectually hypothetical in terms of the process of translation and will also include commentary on his work, life, etc. as someone who needs to be included in the canon of European writers.
    Thomas Rain Crowe

  6. *** Mr Everett calls attention to "these densely packed lines" ... indeed ... they are so pared to the bone in Nan's versions that it's almost impossible to "render" them further and make sense ... yet, tying to do so (just for the fun of it)did lead me to examine the text of Rosedom in a more focused (and enjoyable) manner, word by word, than would have been the instance if I had simply "read" them ... I don't know exactly what they "say" or "mean" but the last 7 lines of Rosedom are remarkable

  7. *** my bad,Thomas ... I got bogged down in the "intellectually hypothetical"

  8. Bill,
    What cogent observations concerning the diverse ways that Christians and Muslims have treated the texts of their Scriptures. The question of "changing the meaning" to suit the intentions of the translator may be at the heart of why Muslims have declared their official Arabic text to be the only true version. I like your conclusion that translation opens a door to another word-world that can transform the reader.

  9. We are surely in trouble the moment that we get comfortable with what translation is. Judging by the lively responses on this little blog, there's no danger of that any time soon.

    Translation of poetry is, obviously, impossible. That's what makes it art, and that’s why Nan Watkins can pull it off.

    As one more among the rabble of agents provocateurs flushed out from under the poetic rock heap by Watkins, Goll et al, I venture this Swiftian modest proposal: let’s put Yvan Goll through the meat grinder and see what comes out at the other end.

    Taken down, down, to its most crude and elementary level, ‘translation’ might be seen as code-breaking: find corresponding words in the target language, tune ‘em up according to grammatical rules, and voila, you’ve got a translation. This is what we get from machine translations like’s ‘Babelfish’. A more sophisticated approach is used by’s ‘Google Translate’. The people at Google use a statistical word association technique: clusters of words in one language are associated with clusters of words in the target language, and the best fit is the translation.

    Yes, you guessed it. Here it comes. Here’s Yvan Goll’s Griese in the original, and via Watkins, Babelfish and Google:

    Euer nelkenfarbenes Fleisch
    Das noch von mageren Vögeln zehrt
    Und daran Feuer fängt
    Singet langsamer ihr Greise
    In dem verwandelten Wind
    Und laßt die Sonne bröckeln
    Zwischen den Fingern
    Der blaugefiederte Schlaf
    Hat Totenzähne
    Und die Stimme des Kalks

    Old Men
    Your carnation-white flesh
    Lives off scrawny birds
    And thereby catches fire
    You old men, sing slower
    In the shifting wind
    And let the sun crumble
    Between your fingers
    The blue-feathered sleep
    Has the teeth of death
    And the voice of lime
    translated from the German by Nan Watkins

    Your nelkenfarbenes meat
    Still of lean birds
    lives and to it fire catches
    Sing to it Greise slower
    In the changed wind
    And let the sun crumble
    Between the fingers
    The blue-pinnated sleep
    Has dead teeth
    And the voice of the lime
    translated from the German by Babelfish

    Old men
    Your flesh-colored carnation
    It still draws on lean birds
    And it catches fire
    Sing to her slow old men
    In the transformed wind
    And let the sun crumble
    Between the fingers
    The blaugefiederte sleep
    Has dead teeth
    And the voice of the lime
    translated from the German by Google

    Wow, those machine translations are pretty terrible, nicht wahr?

    The difference between Watkins and the machines is… poetry.

  10. George,
    So glad you were snagged, at least briefly, in the whirlwind of Yvan Goll's "Rosedom!" How wonderful that you took the time to focus upon the poem, word by word, beyond mere "reading," to feel the power of Goll's language.

    I'm not sure we always need to distill metaphor down to a "meaning" that we can sum up in a crisp phrase. Can we not enjoy it and savor it for what it is? I am a musician, and as you are moved by the poem, I can be greatly moved by a nocturne or a symphony. I can swim in the sound of the music, yet I can not tell you its "meaning." Good poetry is like that for me. While I can certainly carry away an idea, perhaps even a strong emotion from a poem, I don't always need to pin down a meaning.

    As for your questions of "rendering" and "translating," let me think about that a bit.

  11. George,
    I love the thought of people like you, secluded in a study burning the midnight oil, trying to decipher, extract, render the essence of a poem from one language into another. It can be a never-ending task, as many professional translators have confessed.

    As you and Thomas and Bill have pointed out, the attempt to transport this essence into another language has gone by many names: translation, transmutation, rendering, interpretation, free translation, versions. In literary translation, some may go so far as to attempt an act of transubstantiation.

    I believe that "renderings," as you describe them, are indeed useful as a step toward pinning down a more formal translation. We experiment and try many different versions before settling on one that seems best.

    As for your second question, I'm afraid I can't say "to what extent" translators rely on previous translations, but it has been a practice carried on throughout our literary history. More recently, it was Robert Bly who suggested to his fellow poet Coleman Barks that he release the stern academic translations of the Sufi poet Rumi "from their cages." Again, an act of liberation.

    In recent decades we have seen many examples of this. Thomas Rain Crowe speaks of his "primary translation source" as H. Wilberforce Clarke in his recasting of 100 Poems of Hafiz in "Drunk on the Wine of the Beloved." We are constantly trying to make our literary translations accessible to contemporary readers. Opinions vary on whether we call these translations or versions or renderings.

    Perhaps the ideal in translation could be accomplished by a person with a full command of both languages and the artistic sensitivity to make aesthetic decisions in the new language equal to the original.

  12. William,
    It would never have occurred to me to consult Babelfish or Google Translation--wonders never cease! I have to admit I've always considered machine translation an anathema. But that's because I am involved with literary translation.

    Please bring me up to date. Are there fields that are using machine translation in a serious way? Beyond idle curiosity or simply trying to find the meaning of a word or phrase? I can only imagine the potential harm done by relying on an incorrect or outright wrong machine translation. While human translators are also subject to error, the professional organizations (ATA: American Translators Association and ALTA: American Literary Translators Association) have done a lot to raise the standard of translation in all fields.

    Do tell us what you know of applications of machine translation in today's world.

  13. "Perhaps the ideal in translation could be accomplished by a person with a full command of both languages and the artistic sensitivity to make aesthetic decisions in the new language equal to the original."

    *** Nan ... the above is nicely said . . . I had to go away for awhile ... FWIW here is the rendering of Rosedom I did several nights ago when the midnight oil was, quite literally, burning bright in Coon Cove:


    Burn on Rosedom
    in the moonlight.
    Burn on brain roses
    skull skinned from beast heads.
    Burn on rose
    wheel and turn.

    Rave on rose
    wheel and turn
    into the rose’s eye
    and walk in a trance
    across the burning ground.

    But if the gate rose
    flowers in wrought iron
    and my rose-hand
    rises against the sun-rose
    and the sand-rose withers

    O rose! . . . rose of roses . . .
    blaze on alone for the roseless . . .

    *** first thing we can agree upon is that it's not a very good poem while the original (in yr translation) is an excellent poem ... but rephrasing the opening stanzas into "burning" and "raving" segments helped me get a handle (I think) on where Goll was headed so that even though the 3 lines "and my rose-hand / rises against the sun-rose / and the sand-rose withers" are just about irreducible I do think I can "sense" what they signify
    *** my next observation is really off-the-wall ... I hope you will be interested ... if not, blame Thomas for inviting his rowdy friends ... as I was trying to get a grasp on what Goll was doing snatches of Van Morrison started to pop into my mind from The Burning Ground, Rave on John Donne, and the line in "Cleaning Windows" about "walking down the street with the wrought-iron gate rose" . . . so I used them . . . would you as a reputable translator ever work that way? . . . how much "poetic" freedom can you allow yourself when liberating poems? . . . I agree with you that "we don't have to distill metaphor" but I do think it's "fun" trying to do so late at night when there's not much else to do

  14. Hello again, George,
    I am impressed that you are taking time to get inside the Rosedom poem. You have made forceful stanzas using the imperatives "burn" and "rave" to propel the poem forward. And I love hearing that you were inspired by the Van Morrison song. All this is good.

    When you put me on the spot and ask how much freedom can we use in translating, I guess it boils down to taste and preference. But I believe that if you are aiming at a "faithful" literary translation, you would want to stay as close as possible to the imagery and style of the original.

    Translators ask themselves many questions, as you are doing now: is it ethical to "improve" the original by making a "better" translation than the original? May I use anachronisms when translating a poem centuries old? May I recast the form of the poem? What about meter and rhyme in the new language? How close must this all be to the original?

    My aim is to attempt to be as close as possible to the original without sacrificing artistic expression in the translation. Thomas referred above to my "literal" translations, but I like to think I have gone beyond the literal. I don't want to hamper my freedom of expression in English in terms of style or word choice, but I also don't want to create Nan's version rather than Goll's version.

    I'd love to hear what others think about this.

  15. Translation is "ein weites Feld", to be sure. Nan, you express what I believe about it very well in your comment.

    "Perhaps the ideal in translation could be accomplished by a person with a full command of both languages and the artistic sensitivity to make aesthetic decisions in the new language equal to the original."

    The sine qua non of really good, successful translation, particularly of poetry, I believe, is a native-quality nuanced understanding of both the original and the target languages, and the cultures in which they exist. Then, as you say, an aesthetic sensibility is absolutely essential as well, because, after all, translation is at bottom an act of artistic creation, or, perhaps more accurately, "re-creation." Getting the mot juste is hard enough in one language and that much more difficult in a second one. It's a daunting task, as there are almost always a number of possibilities, and choosing the ones with just the right set of resonances is tricky, indeed. (Your musical analogy is spot on, by the way.)

    All the same, literary translation is exhilarating and can be quite addictive, I've found

  16. Yes, Gerlinde--exhilarating and addictive! Your mention of "getting the mot juste" reminds me of a passage in Gregory Rabassa's ever-fascinating memoir discussing his life as a translator:

    "Words are treacherous things, much moreso than any translator could ever be. As is obvious, words are mere metaphors for things....
    "If a word is a metaphor for a thing, why does a single thing have so many metaphors in orbit about it? Here we have the dire consequences of Babel. If Mama Lucy had speech, her Ursprache must have spread out and scattered into more variants than the birdsongs of a single species. This has left us with a welter of words to designate one simple thing. Stone can never sound like pierre, so are the two words interchangeable simply because they represent the same object? Since Flaubert would either say or think pierre when he picked one up does stone cover his thought when we translate him?....
    "As it moves ahead (progresses?), a language will load a word down with all manner of cultural barnacles along the way, bearing it off on a different tangent from a word in another tongue meant to describe the same thing...." from Gregory Rabassa's "If This Be Treason," (New York: New Directions, 2005, pp. 5-6).

    Exhilarating indeed!

  17. Nan, at the risk of permanent banishment from the Beloit Poetry Forum, I'll briefly respond to your questions. Automated translation services are a very big item globally, with an annual market estimated for $12 billion. Most of it is extremely prosaic stuff, business reports and the like, using combined machine-human protocols, with a first run using translation software then buffed up by a real person. In Google, words are translated based on their statistical association rather than via direct word correspondence, employing a language 'corpus' of millions of words. Google uses a vast file totaling 20 billion words. But how to apply this to translating literature, or especially poetry? It's more than unlikely; it's impossible: the statistical association method relies on clusters of words which have been found together in the past; while poetry does the exact opposite, putting words and images together which are poetically interesting because they haven't been found together before! On humans vs. machines, the last word goes to John Updike: "Many of the brain's remaining mysteries need for solution mere wiring diagrams.... A computer could handle the stimuli and responses of living without any component that says 'I'. But within the human brain there is a watcher, who always recedes, and who answers every question with another question."

  18. Thanks so much, William, for bringing us up to date on the uses of machine translation. I had no idea it was used on such a wide scale globally. It's a great Updike quote, reminding us of the ever-present watcher within us who answers every question with another question.

    Let me also add a NOTE ABOUT POSTING TO THIS BLOG, since I have received several complaints that people's postings have not been accepted.

  19. Nan, I love what you are doing. MORE AND MORE I see the value of talking one
    language into another. those who try to make a science of it are dead wrong.
    it is a matter of producing a version that brings the poetic spirit from tongue
    to tongue. I see that we have one language only and within that we possess
    variations on a theme: TALK.

  20. I've followed this debate all my writing life. I remember Clayton Eshelman and Jack Hirschman's Hollywood translation workshops of the 60s. generating a similar aesthetic as Neeli says above.
    But reading this blog--thank you so much, both Nan and Thomas, I'm glad to get it--I couldn't help think/know/remember that we all come from different language access places. For me, in the encounter of a poem, anyone's, or even my own in an old journal, to rewrite, replace, interpret, riff on what I was saying is extremely problematic. Please hear me, I am not saying such should not be done (I think most probably it should be) but that for some of us the first words, the original ones, are Genesis, are so sacred, it is almost impossible to fly from.
    I'm grateful for you flyers, but I want them to at least acknowledge us stranded here in the roots.

  21. Neeli and Sharon,
    So very good to hear from you. You remind us flyers of the origin, the essence, the source for all we do. We are grateful for you who are rooted in a love of language so deep that it cannot change those first words. Pre-Babel Ursprache? But then... some of us feel the insistent urge to follow Icarus. Our wings may melt, but there is such exhilaration in the trying, in the flying.

  22. Nan - the poems are beautiful - and I admire your thoughts on translating - the simple but important use of the hyphen - what it can do to make words grow from other words - the marvel we have of opening the door into the experience of other languages - in some sense -poems, poetry - always, an act of translation....

  23. Nan-your translations are lovely and provocative, and your commentary got me thinking a lot about translation as a generative and perhaps under-theorized act of creativity (do you know of any good books on translation as a creative act?). Thanks so much for sharing and please keep at it!

    -steph ceraso

  24. Nan - a question more specifically about Goll, or rather the Golls: in the PMLA journal of January, John Felstiner translated an essay by Yves Bonnefoy, "Why Paul Celan took alarm"/"Ce qui alarma Paul Celan", in which accusations of plagiarism made by Claire Goll, after Yvan Goll's death, to Paul Celan are described as having played a dramatic part in Celan's life.
    While Bonnefoy (himself at times a "flyer", at times "stranded in the roots", to adopt Sharon Doubiago's delightful terminology) makes a strong abstract point that "No plagiarism is possible in poetry." (something that, itself, has a lot to do with the possibility of translating poetry), he still seems, concretely, to relay these accusations in a way that sheds a negative light on Claire Goll, and (quite an "and", precisely) on Yvan Goll's work.
    I don't really know what to think about this, so I was wondering if you would care to comment, from your perspective as Yvan Goll's translator. Has this polemics influenced the reception of Yvan Goll's work? How can we conceive the relationship between Celan and the two Golls, both from a poetical and (if we have to, but don't we in this case?) moral point of view?
    I'd love to hear your perspective on this. Thanks in advance for your insights, and congrats on the great translation work (more important than the debate I'm sorry to have to raise...)

  25. Richard,
    Thanks for stopping by and making the observation about hyphens. Punctuation certainly can be an issue in writing as well as translating (another form of writing). I've seen whole discussions on the ampersand, the semicolon. With the late poems of Yvan Goll, I followed his preference for minimal, almost non-existent punctuation. I like very much the clean, stripped-to-the-bone look.

    Hi Steph,
    Yours is an interesting question: are there published theories of translation as a generative or creative act? The literature on theories of translation is extensive, and I have seen remarks in larger studies claiming translation as a form of creative writing. Since the Romans began translating Greek texts into Latin, translators of European languages have struggled to adapt a theory of translation that can become a practical guide for the act itself. (I can't speak for the vast array of non-European languages and literatures.)

    John Felstiner, in his classic "Translating Neruda," wrote: "Translating a poem often feels essentially like the primary act of writing, of carrying some preverbal sensation or emotion or thought over into words." (p. 32) I understand this to be the creative process. But I think we can fairly say that translation as a creative act has been "under-theorized." Now there's a subject for you to tackle!

    In addition to the Rabassa and Grossman titles mentioned previously, here are a few titles to pique your interest:

    "The Translators Invisibility: A History of Translation," Lawrence Venuti (Routledge, 2008).
    "The Translation Zone: A New Comparative Literature," Emily S. Apter (Princeton University Press, 2006).
    "Translation: Theory and Practice: A Historical Reader," Daniel Weissbort (Oxford University Press, 2006).
    "Lexis and Creativity in Translation: A Corpus-Based Study," Dorothy Kenny (St. Jerome, 2001).
    "Reading Rilke: Reflections on the Problems of Translation," William H. Gass (Knopf, 1999).
    "Theories of Translation: An Anthology of Essays from Dryden to Derrida," eds. Rainer Schulte and John Biguenet (University of Chicago Press, 1992).
    "Translation Spectrum: Essays in Theory and Practice," ed. Marilyn Gaddis Rose (State University of New York Press, 1981).
    "Translating Neruda: The Way to Macchu Picchu," John Felstiner (Stanford University Press, 1980).
    "After Babel: Aspects of Language and Translation," George Steiner (Oxford University Press, 1975).

  26. Antoine,
    To go straight to your questions: Yes, I believe that the fallout from the scandal of Claire Goll publicly and repeatedly accusing Paul Celan of plagiarizing the work of her deceased husband has, in fact, affected the reception and reputation of Yvan Goll and his work. In my attempts to publish my translations of Yvan Goll's poetry, I have encountered, among some, a reticence or dismissal, a kind of subtle boycott of Yvan Goll's work, as if it were tainted by association with the Claire-Goll / Paul Celan polemic. Celan's work, on the other hand, has been widely and well translated into English, and he is considered a major figure in post-war German literature, while Yvan Goll's reputation languishes in the shadow of Celan. In some, the allegiance to Celan and his suffering from this "Affair" is so great that they have come to casually dismiss the work of Yvan Goll.

    This diminishment of the work of Yvan Goll is what I felt upon reading Bonnefoy's essay with Feltstiner's introduction in the recent PMLA. I find this attitude particularly regrettable, because during the short period of months that the dying Yvan Goll (age 58) knew Paul Celan (age 28), the two poets had a very high regard for each other. It was only after Yvan's death from leukemia that the long-term polemic between Yvan's volatile widow Claire Goll and Paul Celan broke out. It has taken a 925-page tome, published in German in 2000, to document the argument, and even the volume's title, "Paul Celan--Die Goll-Affäre," makes one think that Yvan was actively involved. From what I can ascertain from my reading, Yvan Goll is entirely blameless in this "Affair."

    As for the relationship between Celan and the two Golls, you can see from the above that, over time, the original cordial friendship that Celan had enjoyed with both Claire and Yvan changed radically upon Yvan's death. Yvan, being thirty years older than Paul, felt a paternal affection for the young poet and they admired each other's work. There is, of course, great irony in that Claire dedicated the remaining 27 years of her life to tirelessly promoting the work of Yvan, yet her legacy of the polemic she raised with Celan is what most people remember. I like to think that today we should be able to read both Yvan Goll's and Paul Celan's poetry, in the original and in translation, apart from the later scandal, and judge for ourselves their worth.

    Finally, with your involvement in the French literary scene, can you offer us a different perspective?

  27. Nan, I am particularly struck by your description of poems as being imprisoned in their own languages. I have always felt that poems like all forms of art are inherently imprisoned in the mind of their creators. The work of art shares a special bond with its creator, brought about by a singular language that is cultivated by the creator’s personal experiences and unique perspective. Therefore the full meaning of a poem or work of art cannot be fully comprehended by any given reader, but in fact is augmented in meaning by way of interpretation. Though the general ideas are obviously not original, poetry translation becomes a work of art in itself. Sometimes translations can even lend new meanings to a poem by virtue of a different culture's limited or abundant vocabulary available for any given word. It takes great creativity to take information from one language and make it compatible with that of another in a way that emphasizes the same ideas presented in the native language. Let’s not forget the example of Chapman’s Homer, its free form translation stood out so drastically against the other rigid and urban translations preceding it that it left Keats speechless upon a peak in Darien. Clearly Chapman had an artistic agenda in giving imagery and breathing life into a poem of great importance, imprisoned far too long in the text of ancient Greek. Thanks,

  28. Nan,
    Thank you for your answer and precisions on Celan and the Golls. At the very least, I agree that we should be able to receive someone's work independently from what their special other said or did after their death! The fact that this does not trouble more people who dismiss Yvan Goll's work based solely on the polemics in question, is surprising. That said, it is also a very tender topic, and I could understand that Bonnefoy, having been Celan's friend throughout times of crises which apparently included directly suffering from Claire Goll's accusations, might have a difficult time looking farther than that. I would be really interested in knowing how Bonnefoy (or for that matter Felstiner,who also takes a personal stand in his introduction) would reply to your assessment of his article.
    As far as I can tell, in France Goll is also an extremely secondary figure, whereas Celan is Celan... I wonder if he's better known in Germany? (outside of "Die Affäre")

  29. Peter,
    Your good message evoking Keats's ecstasy upon reading George Chapman's free translation of Homer set me to thinking how many translators, and hence their translations, have opened doors to new perceptions for people everywhere. Think of the consequences of Martin Luther's translation of the Bible into High German. Not only did that become a basic text for the Protestant Reformation, but it set the standard for spoken and written German to this day.

    Think of Edward FitzGerald's translation of some hundred poems from Omar Khayyam's vast Rubaiyat, which gave new life to the 12th century Persian poet's verse and is still quoted freely today. In the twentieth century, Coleman Barks, as noted above, made the verse of Sufi poet Rumi familiar to millions of readers. Together Gia Fu Feng and Jane English brought wide readership to the ancient "Tao Te Ching" through their accessible translation.

    In casting an eye back over literary history, we can salute and thank not only the famous translators but the many unheralded (and sometimes anonymous) translators who labored to recreate texts from foreign languages. Long before we had the easy global communications of the Internet, translators were unlocking foreign worlds and distant times, in both poetry and prose, to readers across the planet. Translators hold the keys to the doors in the Tower of Babel.

  30. Antoine,
    I would have to say that Yvan Goll's work is relatively unknown in Germany today, but various titles are in print and available to the interested reader. Along with his plays, novels, libretti, essays, etc., Goll's original poetry (in German, French and English) is available in a boxed set of four volumes, edited by Barbara Glauert-Hesse, from Argon, 1996. Glauert-Hesse has also edited a selection of Goll's German poems ("100 Gedichte") that appeared with Wallstein Verlag in 2003.

    It wasn't until three years after Yvan's death that his widow Claire and Paul Celan had disagreements concerning their translations of some of Yvan's work. This led to Claire's reproaches against Paul Celan, which then escalated into the extremely complicated Affair that Bonnefoy discusses in his essay, and which is still being debated nearly 60 years after it began.

    It is my hope that we can finally leave the discussion of The Affair behind and focus on Yvan Goll's work. During his lifetime, Yvan Goll was an important figure in artistic circles in Berlin, Paris and New York. His work deserves to be read and considered on its own merits by audiences today.

  31. Nan, what a lively discussion this is! Knowing only a little German I feel unqualified to jump into it, but I'll make a few comments, most having little to do with the theories of translation. First, every practicing poet ought to attempt translation occasionally as a way of keeping her own language supple and open to new sound patterns and rhythm. I've done a little Rilke and a little from a few Spanish poets. I've also tried to write some short poems in Spanish. Rainer Maria Rilke was/is the big one for me, and I fell in love with the Norton translations early on. They tend to be fairly literal and I like that. I've numerous translations of Rilke on my shelves but keep coming back to these. They are, I suppose, the "Genesis" of my personal Rilke. Intriguing the parallels between Rilke and Goll, the leukemia, the roses....Nan, I will have to go in search of more Goll.
    It was T.S. Eliot, I believe, who said that we are called not to evaluate a poem but to become it, and I think that's what happens in any passionate engagement with a poem. We can work, as poets, from a poem we love into liberating that poem into our own words, hence the value of modeling a poem on one that calls strongly to us.
    Poems we love become ours in a mysterious way, and they will have their way with us, shape-shifting throught the rest of our interior lives. The reader liberates the poem. Dougie McClain, the singer, has said that the old songs and ballads are ghosts waiting for a living voice to give them life. Perhaps also with poems? Translation is a way of doing this.
    I remember a contentious discussion of the Spanish translation of my poem Weep Willow, from Black Shawl, with several people in the room disagreeing over the translation of the verb "weep." I sat there in amazement. They argued as if something really important was at stake there. I myself just loved to read the poem aloud in Spanish and was grateful to have been able to see this poem rendered into another language!
    Nan, this makes me want to get out my German books! And to read Rilke aloud again, in German. I do believe the finest translations are those made by a poet with a working knowledge of the original language and its context. My friend Fatemeh Keshavarz has done this with her translations of both contemporary and traditional Persian poets, including Rumi.
    And then, you have the wonderful collaboration of Milosz and Robert Hass that has enabled M's poetry to be brought into our lives. I wonder how much Polish Hass knew. Of course Milosz was fluent in English and translated some of his work himself.
    Basta! What fun to get involved in this discussion! Thank you, Nan

  32. Kay,
    It's wonderful to hear your many thoughts on the making of poems and translations. I like your idea that it is the reader who liberates the poem, yet poems "will have their way with us, shape-shifting throughout the rest of our interior lives." Nothing stays the same, not even words on paper (or a computer screen).

    And your suggestion that every practicing poet should attempt translation occasionally. Translators often imagine that they are the closest readers of a poem, because they must recreate it anew in another language--a process they find parallel to creating the original poem out of the poet's thoughts. The translator must study, inhabit, and feel the poem in every aspect, far more deeply than the individual words that make up the text of the original.

    I'm glad to hear you are a Rilke fan. Some say his work defies translation, but when you take that stack of Rilke English translations and compare them, you begin to apprehend some of the "shapeshifitng" of his genius. Galway Kinnell, who made his own translation from the French of Goll's "Lackawanna Elegy," teamed up with the German Hannah Liebmann to translate from the German for "The Essential Rilke." I like to think that he wanted to get as close as possible to Rilke's originals, and the way he did that was through translation. Yet another example of a poet practicing collaborative translation.

    Recently I read Adrienne Rich's comment posted on the Writer's Almanac on May 16th: "Poetry is an art of translation, a connective strand between unlike individuals, times, and cultures." It's fascinating to see how she uses the word "translation" to define the process of writing poetry. To translate is literally "to carry across"--so the poet is carrying her thoughts and impulses across to language, and the translator is carrying thought-laden words from one language to another. We are all kin to Charon, ferrying the essence of our souls from one place to another.

  33. When the translator touches a poem, it becomes her or his own, though we try to bring across the spirit and the meaning of the poem. As Nan points out, the meaning is not always so clear, nor is it necessary for that matter. I have always been intrigued by the similarities between poetry and music. Just as someone can appreciate a song without knowing the meaning behind it, so can one enjoy a poem simply as a work of art without getting hung up on what the author meant by it.

    As a translator, I have referred to various online translation generators, including Bablefish and Google, and I have found them quite helpful at times; however, these sources are never to be relied upon. I find that comparing different machine translations along with dictionaries, others’ translations, and one’s own understanding of the language being translated is helpful when working through a tricky line. Then, the translator must make the decision on what is poetic in the target language, because finally the translator’s job is to make it work as a poem. For this reason, I try to become unattached to the original poem. Thus, I think the translator can take a great deal of liberties with the poem. After all, translation is impossible, right?

    I have attempted renderings based on poems translated from diverse languages and have translated the work of several Spanish poets, including that of Pablo Neruda and Federico Garcia Lorca. Of course, with renderings one can only work with others’ versions, but in translating from the original language it can be helpful to compare the work of others. I try to avoid reading other translations of a poem before I first attempt to translate it myself, so as to avoid attachment to a particular version, unless I need help in a particularly tricky spot. How do you deal with the influence of other translations in your own process?

    Thank you for bringing Goll’s poetry into modern English so eloquently, and I must say that I have always admired the conversational layout of yours and Thomas Rain Crowe’s book “10,000 Dawns: Love Poems of Yvan & Claire Goll.” Perhaps another collection is in the works?

  34. What an illuminating discussion! Thanks, Nan for getting this started with your work on Goll's poems. He is a new poet for me, through your translations. Your discussion of word choice (Beasts not animals, weed not flower) to stay close to the Germanic roots of English is particularly fine and offers a reminder that there are cultural aspects of language that should not be left behind in translation ... I'm not against "rendering" as George wrote of it, but I think we can get too far afield, losing much of the poet's original music and meaning ... it has been shown that language both expresses and creates cultural world-view - this is one reason that the loss of a language is so tragic for a people: it signifies the erasure of a way of being and interacting in the world. This has been much on my mind of late, as David (my husband for those who don't know us) has been working with Cherokee artists and craftworkers to create a series of videos for the Mtn. Heritage Center ... and has learned much about the difference in understanding of a simple concept ("Goodbye" for instance) that is encoded in Cherokee vs. English. Thankfully, the new immersion school is helping Cherokee preschoolers to connect with their grandparents before the language was extinguished .. a few weeks ago, a Welsh film crew came to document their program as a footnote to the great project (ongoing these last 25 years or so) to reinstate the Welsh language. Particularly with Welsh, in which so much great poetry was written/sung at the very inception of Western culture, I think we can see that when poetry is divided from its native rhythms,lexicon, and purposes ... and even, I feel, from its native place ... it can still be beautiful or moving ... but there's nevertheless a kind of diminishment.

    When I read poems in the original French, for me there is an untranslatable essence that is part music, part cultural/historical underpinning, maybe just part biology! -- that the translated poem never seems to approach.

    I'm not downgrading translation, though! -for without it I would not have Neruda, or Cafavy, or Rilke ... or Goll. Thanks again, Nan, for your work.

  35. I'm so glad to see the comments from Caleb and Jeannette joining us in wrestling with the pros and cons of the whole idea of translation. In the end I see it as a tradeoff--in the translation, we lose the subtleties of the original poem embedded in its native language and culture, but we gain a whole new viewpoint by freeing the original into a new language where both readers and writers benefit from the fresh (foreign) perspective. The poem itself is breathing beyond its national borders, as a traveler takes in the novel air of a new country.

    Our just-retired North Carolina Poet Laureate, Kathryn Stripling Byer comments above that she encourages a poet "to engage in translation as a way of keeping her own language supple and open to new sound patterns and rhythm." Those rich cultural traits that Jeannette rightly extols inspire the translating poet to new uses of her own language. And if the literary translation succeeds, the reader is also privy to these new perspectives.

    I did a double-take reading Caleb's comment that in the revision process of his translating a Neruda poem, for example, he sometimes consults Babelfish or Google Translation along with dictionaries, etc. The young generation is not afraid to employ new techniques! I still haunt Roget's Thesaurus and a battery of dictionaries, both German and English, but as I noted above, I had never thought of employing machine translation generators. I will now at least give them a look. As for consulting translations done by others, I stay away from them completely when I am in the process of translating. Only after my own work has rested for a long enough period that I can return to it with some objectivity do I sometimes consider other translations. Reading someone's else's concept of the original poem can be disrupting to my own concept, but it can also be helpful with "a tricky line" or show me something I hadn't noticed before in the original.

    And I find your comment, Caleb, that you "try to become unattached to the original poem," an interesting step in your process of making the translated poem stand on its own. A cutting of the umbilical cord so that the new poem can thrive independently. Nice thought!

  36. Speaking of translation... has anyone else seen Anne Carson's latest "book" called "Nox"? It's Nox in a box that cradles a single long accordianed sheet of heavy paper artfully realized by New Directions. It's a pastiche of words, old photos, clippings, scribblings, inkblots, fragments of handwritten letters, and stamps reproduced so realistically as to nearly tumble off the page. At the heart of the endeavor is a blurred image of a Latin lament, Catullus CI, the elegy Catullus wrote some 2000 years ago upon the death of his brother.

    Nox (Night) is Carson's personal response to the death of her own brother. As a high school student years before, she had been captured by reading Catullus's poem number 101 and has attempted ever since, unsuccessfully she says, to translate the poem. Plunged into the long night of grief from her own brother's death, she tries yet again to translate Catullus 101.

    Unfolding the very long accordian sheet, (after the front matter) the reader finds on the left a Latin word followed by a column of dictionary entries translating the word in various contexts. To the right is a paragraph or two of Carson's musings, or perhaps a shred of that handwritten letter. Looking closely, the reader realizes Carson has taken each Latin word of Catullus's poem, one by one, and listed the many possibilities for translating that one word. Often she includes references to night.

    This is the dark night of the soul. At first, it all may seem so esoteric as to be extravagantly indulgent. Yet I was completely drawn into it. It is one woman's attempt to excavate the meaning, to extract the kernel of truth that tells us why we all must endure loss. The vehicle that propels her in her search is translation. That process of trying to articulate, in any language, the inexplicable, the unexpressible.

    You may think this box would be unaffordable, but New Directions offers it for $29.95. My guess is it will find its way into many a library.

    And to answer Caleb's question: my latest project is translating a "selected poems" of Yvan Goll, a daunting task. I am also in the final stage of negotiating publication of my translation of Goll's "Traumkraut" or "Dreamgrass," the home of the two poems found here in the Spring 2010 issue of the "Beloit Poetry Journal." That book is also one poet's exploration of loss--in this case it is the impending loss of his own life. Somehow the very attempt to gain understanding through the act of writing a poem seems one of the bravest acts of all.

  37. Nan, I have found the Carson poems I've read (as in The New Yorker) both irritatingly esoteric in personal as well as scholarly/historical terms--and self-indulgent. But you make this new book sound really interesting.
    Jeannette makes some on-target comments about the cultural context of language. And the Cherokee project, which I didn't know about, is something I'd like to know more about. I'm trying to recall which Irish poet said "The landscape is a text we've forgotten how to read." Maybe Mahon or Longley? The quote was used in a Heaney essay about how place used to be embodied in the language, the poetry, the stories. I like the idea of language, place, and culture being intertwined.
    Thanks again, Nan

  38. While I was rambling about the translation process, I did pose a question that has been plaguing me, the question of how to deal with the work of other translators in doing my own translations. I'm glad Nan agrees with me that it is best to avoid the influence of others' translations, but I'm stuck in a pickle—I feel like I should be reading ALL translations of Neruda (among others) that are out there, but the only ones I translate are the poems that I have not read in translation (or at least don't recall reading). Naturally, when I read a translation I especially admire, I try to translate it myself. This never works. I get too attached to the way I heard it the first time. I find myself trying to make it different from that version. And, alas, it's hopeless. However, with Neruda’s "Ode to the Tomato,” for example, I translated it first before looking at other versions, found the other versions helpful, but ultimately liked mine best. So, the problem: I must deprive myself from reading translations of the authors I'm attempting to translate, but it’s so hard to put down a good book.

  39. Nan, I've enjoyed this discussion very much. I wonder if you would comment on your approach to working with a co-translator as opposed to translating work on your own. I apologize if you've already commented on this topic and I've managed to miss it.


  40. Caleb,
    To get back to the subject of reading published translations by others: I think reading and dissecting the translations of others can be a very important learning experience for the translator. Kay Byer mentions her stacks of Rilke translations, and you can be sure that she, as a working poet, has sat down comparing the many versions--most likely looking for the best poem in English. While that is also the translator's goal, the translator's angle in comparing various translations is to gain understanding of other viewpoints of the original language. Each translator brings a separate background of experience to the task, so each finds different facets, treasures, weaknesses in the original and works to express that or perhaps to minimize the weaknesses. That's another question--improving upon the original!

    My thinking is to stay fiercely away from reading other translations when you are in the early process of seriously translating, as opposed to George Ellison's tender and personal renderings and experimentation by the midnight oil. Of course it is sometimes difficult to separate the renderings or doodlings from the serious attempts of translating with the goal of publishing. And it is certainly possible that the best lines can come out of those midnight experimentations and doodlings. I usually experiment more freely after I have laid down the initial draft. So it is a messy business! For me, translating is a long, uneven process over many months and years. Gregory Rabassa says "translation is never finished." I agree! One reason for that is because the translator him/herself is growing and changing and not remaining static.


  41. Ce,
    We haven't discussed the process of collaborative translating other than to mention certain teams of two who have worked together. I have not worked with anyone else as a co-translator, so I can't comment on that. Is there someone out there who can?

    I did have a wonderful collaborative relationship with Thomas Rain Crowe when we translated the love poems of Yvan and Claire Goll. Thomas translated from Yvan's French and I translated from Claire's German. Because there were editions of their poems, "10,000 Dawns," in both German and French, we could compare our translations; we had many a good discussion of word choice and general tenor of each poem. It was very helpful to be working with someone else when trying to refine the entire manuscript.

    I think many translators consult others in the process of their work, even if only as attentive critical readers. Though I work chiefly on my own, I consult many people and show my work to many readers before I feel it is near final form.

  42. I'd like to close out our translation blog with a bouquet of thanks to the people at the Beloit Poetry Journal, especially Lee Sharkey, for making this possible, and to all you enthusiastic bloggers for making it happen. It has been a joy to explore with you the multi-faceted, never-ending world of translation. Don't forget to drop by the BPJ now and then. Spread the word!

    Thank you! Vielen Dank! Je vous remercie! Grazie! Þakka þér! شكرا لك!

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    cảm ơn bạn! Благодаря ви! σας ευχαριστώ! takk skal du ha!

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