Why it is difficult to translate poetry

Translating poetry as an extreme sport

From Marina Agathangelidou

All lyric translators have probably experienced the following scene in small variations at least once: You sit or stand together in a relaxed atmosphere, a half-full or half-empty glass in your hand, at some point it is your turn to introduce yourself, or is just being introduced by someone, yours is speaking Translation work and even admits, because the questioner insists on knowing what to translate in such a way that one also translates poetry, among other things. There follows a short but noticeably embarrassed silence, broken by worried questions such as: "Oh, isn't that super difficult?" Or "But can you translate poetry at all?"

Even if such questions naturally include a suspicion of the professional situation of the lyric translator ("Is lyric translation at all a professional activity?"): The repeatedly emerging, concealed or clearly expressed distrust of translating lyric - a mistrust that Incidentally, it is also shared by many translators who only translate novels or non-fiction books - seems primarily to arise from the idea that poetic language generally deviates so much from the usual, socially acceptable use of language that the endeavor of translating poetry only becomes could be compared to a circus act or an extreme sport. This notion is often based on the outdated conviction that the intellectual achievement of the translator mainly consists in transferring meaningful content, i.e. clearly expressed and interrelated meanings, from one language to the other as faithfully as possible. The fact that meanings in such a form can hardly be found in a poem also speaks for the enormous difficulty of the translation work.
Admittedly, what I don't like so much about such a way of thinking is that it keeps poetry at a distance by giving it a special status. If one thinks in such a general way, one often tends to overlook the fact that what happens in poetry in a very condensed form, namely that the meaning is produced through the interplay of content, tone, rhythm, form and composition and usually remains open, can be found in basically any high-quality literary work; regardless of whether it is written in prose, verse or intended for the stage. Likewise, in the case of an express or implied reluctance to use poetry and poetry translation, the fact that different positions exist side by side within the lyrical genre, i.e. that the degree of deviation from everyday speech from poem to poem can vary, is not taken into account; just think of the poetic language of Bertolt Brecht compared to that of Paul Celan.
But perhaps it is also the poetry translators who are to blame for the fact that the majority of people regard the translation of poetry as something exotic. They rename the difficulties that a lyric text causes them to play and experiment rooms, talk conspiratorially with one another and feel a clear contempt for the crime fiction translators. In addition, poetry translators are granted a certain freedom not only in dealing with the language, but also in choosing the texts to be translated, which makes them feel particularly privileged. When translating poetry, you can choose what you want to translate much more often than is the case with prose or theory; Such discoveries, preferences and suggestions are usually very well received by the magazine and book publishers who are active in the niche of poetry publication. The fact that you have to translate one or the other thriller from time to time, or even take on dry technical translations, because you can't keep your head above water only with such suggestions, even if they are positively received, is better left unmentioned in nice introductions.
After moving to Berlin in 2010, I threw myself into new lyrical discoveries, especially familiarized myself with the lively Berlin poetry scene and transferred new, bold and radical poetic voices (such as those of Ann Cotten), which, as I thought, each provided an answer to the question of what the poetry of the 21st century might look like in its own way. So it came about that I even translated a long poem about Berlin, namely the volume of poems Gegenensprehstadt-ground zero by Gerhard Falkner, published in 2005 by kookbooks, which thinks language and city together and brings them into dialogue.
So I had enjoyed this freedom of choice and suggestion for a few years when I got an assignment at the end of 2016, which this time, for a change, was not based on my own attempts to convey contemporary German poetry to Greece and sounded quite challenging: it was called Constellation of Debt Project, led by the poet and sociologist Nathalie Karagiannis. It was a collective poetic dialogue between ten Greek and ten German-speaking poets on the subject of guilt and debts, with the financial crisis in Greece and the political relations between Greece and Germany being affected by it being the starting point and background of this lyrical exchange. The issue of guilt was deliberately broadly defined in the project concept and included interesting aspects that were not considered often or not sufficiently. This Greek-German dialogue was based solely on the translations of the new poems created in the context of the project, all of which were made by me, the translator of the project.
The performance of the project was of particular interest: In “Constellation of Debt” the participating poets formed ten pairs, each consisting of a German-speaking and a Greek poet. The poets were asked not only to reflect poetically on “Debt”, but also to realize it performatively by alternating the roles of “believers” and “debtors”: They owed each other poems that were written within agreed deadlines had to be "paid". Their texts related to each other, certain topics and motifs were taken up, further developed and varied.
The resulting poems could not have been more different in form and content. The polyphonic, dialogical character of the project and the great diversity of the poetic voices represented in it made up the particular difficulties I had to struggle with as a translator during the project. The same factors now make it particularly difficult to choose a single text example from this large corpus of poems. Nevertheless, I take the liberty of choosing the poem “Zeit und Geld” by Monika Rinck (* 1969), which on the one hand speaks for itself and offers good insights into the poetics of this wonderfully peculiar poet, and on the other hand allows me to make a few general final comments:
Time and money
"Oh dear! Oh dear! I shall be too late!"
The White Rabbit
Money is inherently temporal because it has to circulate
Samuel Weber


What will happen when time is really money?
The poor die and the rich will live on.
The artist's stapling assistants generate
a work that no longer belongs to them. You staple
they staple even on public holidays, on Good Friday
the artist's great work together. Truth!
God gave his Son to redeem us -
to take the guilt of mankind,
Your faith is your credit, the higher, the more believing.
And let the enormous debt increase
then the condition of salvation.
And they are all in debt to one another, or are married
and then are all related to each other.
I dissolve time into viscous lotions.
I wade through the mud in which the hours
fill with emptiness, bubble. Time and money.
That is just the serving suggestion of this poem.
What was lost: the beginning
that does not follow an order - the foggy step,
to the clearing, to the layers,
which do not yet exist to be separated from each other.
And then they broke up
in the light of the glittering birches.
In my Greek translation the poem reads as follows:
Χρόνος και χρήμα

"Oh dear! Oh dear! I shall be too late!"
The White Rabbit
«Το χρήμα είναι ουσιωδώς χρονικής φύσεως, επειδή πρέπει να κυκλοφορήσει."
Samuel Weber

Και τι θα συμβεί δηλαδή, αν ο χρόνος είναι όντως χρήμα;
Οι φτωχοί πεθαίνουν και οι πλούσιοι θα συνεχίσουν να ζουν.
Οι βοηθοί του καλλιτέχνη με το καρφωτικό γεννούν
ένα έργο που δεν τους ανήκει πια. Καρφώνουν
ακόμα και τις αργίες, τη Μεγάλη Παρασκευή
καρφώνουν και συρράπτουν
του καλλιτέχνη το μεγάλο έργο. Την αλήθεια!
Ο Θεός έστειλε τον υιό του για να μας λυτρώσει -
ν ’απαλλάξει την ανθρωπότητα από τα χρέη της,
η πίστη σου είναι η πίστωσή σου, όσο πιο υψηλή τόσο πιο πιστός.
Και η συσσώρευση του τεράστιου χρέους είναι
τότε η προϋπόθεση της λύτρωσης.
Και όλοι είναι μεταξύ τους χρεωμένοι, ή παντρεύονται
και είναι τότε όλοι μεταξύ τους συγγενείς.
Διαλύω τον χρόνο σε παχύρρευστες λοσιόν.
Τσαλαβουτώ μες στη λάσπη, όπου οι ώρες
γεμίζουν με κενό, βγάζουν φουσκάλες. Χρόνος και χρήμα.
Δεν είναι παρά μόνο η πρόταση σερβιρίσματος για αυτό το ποίημα.
Αυτό που χάθηκε: το ξεκίνημα,
που δεν ακολουθεί καμιά εντολή, το αβέβαιο βήμα
προς το ξέφωτο, για να ξεχωρίσεις τα στρώματα,
που δεν διαμορφώθηκαν ακόμα.
Και τότε ξεχώρισαν μόνα τους
στο φως των σημύδων που αστράφτουν.
The poem contains all the elements of a typical poem by Monika Rinck - if there is such a thing at all: a mixture of cheerful and sober tone, wit and seriousness, cheek and elegance, pop culture and philosophy, everyday objects and abstract considerations that make poetic thinking which is mainly driven by leaps of thought and free associations and supported by sound figures or even etymological connections. To mention just a few: the repetition of the ending “–en” in the second verse (“The poor die and the rich will live on”); the sound connection between "went" and "beginning" as well as the sound play of "step", "clearing", "layers" and "light" in the last stanza; First and foremost, the ambiguity of the word “believer” (in financial jargon, a creditor is someone who demands payment from someone else, the debtor), on which the poet bases her equation of faith and credit. (In the Greek translation, since the game with the word "believer" was not reproducible, I created an etymological connection in the words with which I transferred "faith" and "credit": "πίστη" and "πίστωση" .)
To come back once more to the joys of translating poetry: when you translate poems like the one by Monika Rinck quoted above, you learn not the individual words, but rather the principle of the poem, the combination of elements, the interplay between form and content transfer. Above all, in order to stick to financial jargon, one learns to aim for the added value of meaning. And that's not exactly a little. Even if you sometimes have to be considered a strange bird for that.

The text is the edited version of the text published by the author as part of the symposium “Parataxe VI. Ü-Berlin. The International Translators of Berlin ”on November 23, 2019 at the LCB.

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