Don’t Mind the Gap. What could be more apt a slogan for a conference on Anglo-German encounters in literature hosted by the German Academy for Language and Literature in London between 13 and 17 May. Among panels, talks and readings with guests from the poetic and literary scenes of Germany, England and other countries as well as the Academy’s special prize winners Neil MacGregor – former Head of the British Museum and now co-chair of the Humboldt-Forum in Berlin – and Anne Birkenhauer, a renowned translator of Hebrew into German, the conference featured an evening on writing and translating of poetry.
In the London Institute of Contemporary Arts German poet Jan Wagner chaired a highly concentrated and friendly discussion between Jamie McKendrick and Michael Hofmann, both British poets with a unique take on the evening’s topic: McKendrick has translated extensively from the Italian and Spanish and Hofmann, son of the expatriate German novelist Gert Hofmann, has become a poet writing in what is not his first tongue. To say it briefly: There were essentially two experts, two poets translating and two poets being translated present in this discussion and the format of the night really exploited this. It moved from an expert introduction of the important questions regarding potential pitfalls of translations to a truly personal engagement of the poets with their own work, to which translation leads them and which the audience was allowed to witness in this panel.
Standing out among the poems, which each panellist had brought along was Hofmann’s choice, The biology teacher, as the translation from the Polish by Zbigniew Herbert was entitled. Even without any knowledge of the polish original it was clear that Hofmann felt the gap between the two languages strongly, that the English would remain an imitation, rather than a translation of the Polish. ‘English has become very un-self-aware as a language’, Hofmann said. The discussion brought out, how compromise and sacrifice is always at the heart of translating poetry. Anyone who has put himself to the challenge of translating a poem before will know the problem: poetry is highly economical, uses dense and allusive language and, once complete, it is rigid in its form. Translation requires the opposite: freedom of expression, alternatives and most importantly it cannot afford ambiguity. Or can it? Should the reader of the translation be brought to the poem or the poem be brought to the reader? The great translations of the Classics of Homer and Vergil showed how essential these questions could be to the cultural identity of a society. How different would our literature be, had we chosen to force Homeric hexameter epic onto the English language? You name the issue, but whenever we read poetry that has been translated from another language, we should really think twice how and why it got there.
The next step was to inquire into McKendrick’s and Hofmann’s own experience of translating. ‘Often you are better off just learning the language’, McKendrick ironically remarked at some point and retold an anecdote of his relationship with the Italian poet Valerio Magrelli, whose poets he translated. Pages and pages of remarks that the Italian had made about the translations were boiled down in the process of endless telephone calls to about 6 points which show what the real crux of translating poetry is: interpretation. When the translator’s interpretation is at odds with the poet´s, who is to hold sway over what the translation should read? Is writing a poem in translation not also writing a poem and what happens to the artistic license when a translator is merely carrying out a job he is assigned? These disagreements can be tremendously fruitful for the criticism and understanding of an author’s work. As to his agreements with Magrelli, McKendrick remarked: ‘Out of the six, I think I won 4-2. Or maybe it was 3 all’…
At last things became really personal as the two poets read out their own poetry in translation. The sense of having one’s own work taken away must have been particularly poignant for Michael Hofmann, who as a native German speaker confronted his own work translated into his mother tongue. The question whether a translated poem is anything like what the author would have written, if he could write in that language, is of course imminent. Hofmann himself had felt ‘very uncomfortable’ about justifying what he translated himself, and with ‘whatever works is best’ he showed himself highly charitable to other people’s translation of his poetry. McKendrick in turn showed how the experience of translating can enrich the experience of being translated as he tried to keep his nose out of foreign poets´ translation of his work. With his light touch of humor, he merely recalled his surprise at how much of his poetry ‘could be missed out’ in the process of making sacrifices.
Wagner had begun the discussion by reading translations of Goethe’s famous poem Wandrers Nachtlied II, in English. The point of this was to question the authorship of the translations and by the end of the evening the problem behind this had unfolded a bit more. Translating poetry requires sacrifice and choice and to responsibly make such decisions, we need to interpret the poem. McKendrick, Wagner and Hofmann have shown that poets are right to struggle with this question, not accepting either to be writing someone else’s poetry anew in another language, or to simply transfer what exists into other words. There must be something in between, something that is found in translation.