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.