Shaken or Stirred?

Translationista has been on vacation for the last three weeks, but now that summer is drawing to a close, I’m ready to get back to my mission of making the world safe for translation. Not that things feel that safe in New York these days. We just got shaken up by an (admittedly tiny) earthquake, and are possibly about to get whirled around in circles by Hurricane Irene, unless she peters out on her way up the coast, as I certainly hope she will.

Meanwhile I was delighted to see my translation of Uljana Wolf‘s False Friends prominently featured on the website of the Iowa Review, where Erica Mena has written the sort of review every translator dreams of getting. Besides the fact that Mena clearly loved the book, she writes in extraordinary, perceptive detail about the language of my translation, analyzing it both in its own right and with respect to the overall strategies of the original text. I very much like the way she reads, and am thrilled that some of the effects I was hoping to achieve in the translation worked for her. One in particular was estranging the English words used in the original poems, where they by default had an estranging function, just by being in English. I had originally considered just flipping the linguistic equation and translating the words that appeared in English within the German context to make them German within the English poems, but in the end I decided not to (with one exception that I’ll leave it to you to find). The German/English relationship is not symmetrical: Most educated Germans can read English, while knowledge of German is relatively unusual among English-language readers (though I am always surprised how many of my American poet friends do in fact speak and read some German). But the bilingualism of these poems was intended to be playful, not scholarly, so I decided to play around with the English Uljana used to complicate the relationship between original and translation in a way that would be in keeping with the overall strategy of her poems. For instance, in the “B” poem Mena cites, I transformed “out of bed” into the more ambiguous “out of hand.” And to give credit where credit is due, it was the volume’s editor, poet Matvei Yankelevich, who suggested turning “make a bet” into “fake a bet,” noting quite correctly that I was letting an opportunity for humorous estrangement slip through my fingers. As readers of this blog know, I love working with editors, particularly ones who are skilled at bringing their own aesthetic savvy into alignment with the spirit of a project; sometimes the slight distance from which an editor views a book (not having just slogged through four previous drafts of it like the weary translator) puts him/her in a position to suggest the most brilliant tweaks. Thank you, Matvei! And thank you to Erica Mena for this close, insightful reading of the poems.

False Friends is also featured in a wide-ranging new essay, “Towards a Conceptual Lyric: From Content to Context,” published by the wonderful Marjorie Perloff in the online journal of culture Jacket2. Perloff, too, writes about the “B” poem, and to my delight she describes it as a love poem. As I see it, there is a love story loosely interwoven through most of the pages of this book, which speaks again and again of distance and approach, linguistic divides and other romantic challenges, letters arriving from afar, cohabitation and compatibility. The “O” poem (in which “our lips conjoin without translation”) is even erotic. And though in general I don’t recommend relying too heavily on the authorial fallacy, I do think it relevant to note in this case that poet Uljana Wolf is married to poet Christian Hawkey, and that talking about poetics is a form of lovemaking.

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