Meandering thoughts on literature and translation
What is Europe? What kind of a union have we signed up to anyway? I signed up to a union of minorities and of regions and not a strong centrist Europe that would be dictated by Berlin. Having said that, being the son of a German father, I grew up in a house full of German-language books and journals. I even remember, though my German wouldn’t have been good enough at the time, seeing journals coming to the house that were edited by people that I would later translate myself. People like the (former) East German poet Peter Huchel. I loved translating Huchel into Irish: An Spealadóir Polannach has some beautiful illustrations by Bernd Rosenheim and was an Irish-language Book of the Year when it came out. He is such an interesting figure, Huchel!
So, why do I translate? Goethe was probably one of the first people in Europe to talk about Weltliteratur, or world literature, and to create an east-west cross-pollination in his West-östlicher Diwan. The same impulse is in a lot of my own work. Three volumes of Guthanna Beannaithe an Domhain, in which shamans, sages and saints rub shoulders, including Hafez, beloved of Goethe, are of a higher spiritual, cultural, poetic and aesthetic order than quite a lot of the contemporary German-language poets that I have translated, with fellow mariner on these rough seas, Hans-Christian Oeser. I’m more of a Gaelic voice for those traditions – tweeting a daily haiku in translation, for instance – than a champion of modern German literature.
I’m not convinced that we know what we mean, in Ireland, by saying we are Europeans. Do we feel European, prefer European cuisine, cinema, literature to that of the Anglosphere? No. Our first duty is to find out, as writers and as artists and as citizens and people, what we are as human beings and can literature, can the arts, enlighten us on this question? To tell you the truth, I find more solace, more insight and more wisdom in the cultures of the east than I can find in the cultures of the west. The Anglosphere bores me. But, one must engage with it and with the West because one is living here and, like it or not, I’m a Western!
It’s interesting to be an intermediary between cultures through the medium of Irish because English is not really a vital tool in Ireland, or even much in merry England, in terms of translating other cultures. I would say there is more being done in Ireland through the medium of Irish, in terms of literary translation – much much more – than what’s being done through the medium of English. That may be just due to a few individuals like myself or it may be because there is more of a translation tradition in the Irish language. Where I worked for most of my working life, An Gúm, hundreds of books were translated since its foundation. Some of them just popular classics really but others of quite important literary value, including works by German writers, Thomas Mann and lighter stuff by Erich Kästner. Believe it or not, Kästner’s Emil und die Detektive has been translated twice into Irish and in one version a detective is ‘bleachtaire’ and in the other it is ‘lorgaire’.
In my home environment my father was a medical doctor but had literary leanings. His novella Paradies der Armen was well regarded, for a while, and we had German writers calling to our house in Kilfinane, Böll and Hagelstange among them.The house was full of books. Working most of my life in An Gúm where there was a strong translation tradition, which really isn’t there anymore and more is the pity, it was natural once I had honed translation skills there, albeit working on children’s literature and school texts, and honed some editorial skills, it was natural to put these skills to work after I had retired from An Gúm.
I’m a prolific translator and may be one of a handful of people who recognizes and claims that there is no real substantial difference between personal creative work and literary translation. I think it is often more or less of the same quality, it springs from the same creative source. In other words it is not something mechanical I do, it’s an essential part of my creative, intellectual and spiritual life and suits my chameleon nature and my Whitmanesque understanding of the human being as ‘containing multitudes’.
I’ve worked with my friend and colleague Hans-Christian Oeser on a wide-ranging series of modern German poetry translated into Irish and English and I think apart maybe from Hilda Domin and the Iranian poet who writes in German, Said, I can’t say that my heart was enraptured by all of the material we were working on. A lot of modern poetry, in all European languages, apart from some of the lesser known languages such as Estonian, has gone astray. I don’t think it speaks to people anymore. My Irish volumes by Estonian poet Kristiina Ehin and Macedonian poet Nikola Madzirov are of far more interest to me, as poetry, than quite a lot of the German volumes. No names mentioned!
A lot of modern German poetry is self-reflexive, heavily intellectualised, it no longer speaks from the heart, no longer sings from one heart to another. So really, a lot of it is quite tortuous. Torture might be a better word because for a poet and a literary translator, a poem is throbbingly alive, and to see a poetic tradition atrophy is a terrible thing.
It is far too early to say anything about contemporary German poetry but I think 90% of it won’t last whereas when I look to some of the eastern European poets that I have translated, I can sense purer wellsprings of poetry there and a deeper music than I find in a lot of German poetry today. Put bluntly, Kristiina and Nikola are magicians. Why has the magic gone out of much German poetry today?
It is important to be critical on this matter and to find out some of the reasons for this. Why is Estonian poetry – and the poetry of Kristiina Ehin in particular – in a superior vein to a lot of contemporary German poetry? I knew her father. Met him in Köln. Translated some of his surreal haiku into Irish. When he died, Kristiina published an elegy in the Estonian literary newsletter, ELM, which would knock you over! I jest not! Knock you over it would. Where does that magical power come from? From a shamanic tradition of course. She is a poet who lived as a nature warden for a number of months on an island. Alone. I can think of a lot of poets who wouldn’t last a week.
One of the reasons why magic has gone from a lot of modern German poetry is because after two World Wars the notion of ‘national’, ‘natural’ wellsprings for poetry was something disdained by the modern German intellectual. With good reason. Folk songs and romping in the early-morning dew were frowned upon as being suspiciously linked to Blut-und-Boden literature.
On my first trip to Germany, to my father’s part of the world, Schleswig-Holstein, as a teenager, I enjoyed a few beers with lads of my own age. I tried to impress them one evening with a few songs I had learned at school, Im frühtau zu berge wir gehen fallera. They looked at me aghast. You see, they had been listening to AFN (American Forces Network in Germany) and all they wanted was Ray Charles. I love Ray Charles myself but why is it an either or situation, I asked myself. So I sang ‘Take these chains from my heart’ and I was a hero again but I wondered what chains were forming around the hearts of these young Schleswig-Holsteiners, the magical casements that were closed to them. I court controversy with talk of magic but Irish is not yet a politically correct language and anybody with a Dinneen can open up his dictionary and see words such as iomas gréine: a sun-bubble caused on herbs which if eaten gives the gift of poetry. What would happen if we distributed such bubbles free of charge in the financial centres of Frankfurt, Dublin and New York?
A magical connection with nature and folk arts? This notion was abused by the Nazis and the Hitler Youth, so out goes the baby with the bathwater. Now the Estonians would never dream of throwing all of that stuff out, their magical connections with landscape and with nature and with song and dance and with music. The Germans did it and poetry has suffered because of that. Slowly but surely a generation has arisen that says we are no longer going to take the shame and the blame because of what our grandfathers did. We have to shake this off. We have to renew our roots in a common humanity, never forgetting the horrors of war and of genocide, but nevertheless returning to some wellsprings of real connectivity with the life of the planet, the forests and hills, the mountain streams and the early dew, the frühtau, blindly rejected by a whole generation. I’m not talking Eichendorff here (whom I love) or a return to Romanticism. Connectivity to the wellsprings of poetry. Yes and to race and history, and memory, and language, even if people want to forget. How can you?
Haiku can teach us to reconnect with the earth and with the seasons, with the heavens, with natural elements, air, water, fire, earth – and poetry that is disconnected from such wellsprings becomes dry-throated and painful.
Even Irish-language poetry today is showing signs of damage, the type of damage done to Tara, the rape of the temenos. Some of our Irish-language poetry is now showing signs of etiolation, infected by the artificiality of modern life which we have allowed to dominate our lives. Depersonalisation is becoming a problem in Irish society, is it not? I wrote a controversial essay in which I said poetry in Irish is going astray. A lot of what I said was a bit over the top, phrased to create a bit of controversy, a debate, a discussion about where poetry in Irish was at the moment. The anticipated debate didn’t happen. Did people shy away from it? Was there a lazy consensus about contemporary Irish-language poetry which universities, in particular, did not want to examine very closely? I got a lot of interesting e-mails and private correspondence in reply to that controversial essay which convinced me that there is a debate that’s worth opening up. Who will kick the can down the road again, a little more vigorously this time? It probably won’t happen. One advantage that Germany has over us is demographic. A critic in München can say what he feels about some poet or novelist in Berlin or Frankfurt, knowing that he’s not going to bump into said scribe on his way to the theatre. Not so here. A critic can’t open his mouth because his wife is related, by marriage, to the scribe’s godfather or some such inhibiting factor.
Back to German poetry: the next trilingual volume, German/Irish/English from Hans-Christian Oeser and myself will be poems by Martin Walser, taken from prose diaries. And, ‘here we go again,’ as Ray Charles sang: cynicism, despair, anguish, neurosis, intellectualism . . . do poets not realise that they are killing off poetry? Do they not wonder why readers have deserted them en masse?
Trakl and Heim were two poets that my father liked and I enjoyed translating them into Irish. Walser? Hmm… I don’t know… Sometimes one decides to do an Irish-language translation of a body of work, not necessarily because one likes it. It might in fact be quite the opposite. One might want to explore something that is completely outside of one’s own realm, one’s own experience, and try to get under the skin of that other creative life. Every poem you translate has certain qualities, ‘nutrients’ that are going to enrich your own poetic imagination, your use of language, your ear, so that some day in the future a phrase will occur, a pause, a word, a theme or colouring will occur, something you might not have possessed without having translated this body of work. Trakl or Huchel or whoever, it is the whole life of a man or woman in many respects, condensed into these thoughtful words or passionate words, the joys, the sufferings, the experiences, the disappointments, the boredom, the ecstasy. Everything that that person has seen and heard and felt goes into a well-formed, well-made poem and when you translate it, what happens? You take all that experience or at least you absorb the substance of it and it’s something alive and spiritual and even physical. It is sound. It is vibrational. There’s something mysteriously alive in a real poem and you take that life and it’s a responsibility, a sacred responsibility, to handle that life, and to give it as it were another life on the page, in another language. Translator as midwife. By so doing, you are also enriching your own imaginative and spiritual life in immeasurable ways. So that’s why it is worth doing. And I do it every day now. I am tweeting a haiku a day and blogging poems that I like, making almost instantaneous translations from sites such as Poetry Chaikhana: Sacred Poetry from Around the World, usually using English as a bridge language, sometimes looking at originals, when I can find them, such as the medieval German of Mechthild von Magdeburg. There’s a transcendent joy in instantaneous translation, as in instantaneous composition of haiku: it happens so fast that it doesn’t pass through the interpretative faculties, as Barnhill puts it. Where these little dandelion seeds will land, who knows, but in this digital age they could land anywhere and that’s interesting in the sense that one feels that one is no longer writing in complete isolation, even in a minority language with very few readers, very very few readers. But in a digital age you don’t know where these little dandelion seeds are going to travel on cosmic cyber-winds. They could land anywhere, in New Mexico for instance, or in Berlin.
I have one selection of my own poems translated by Hans-Christian Oeser into German: Ein Archivar großer Taten
I wish a lot more was happening in outward translation. I’d love to see more work coming out of Irish and into the world. Not just myself, of course, but my contemporaries Cathal Ó Searcaigh, Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill, Gearóid Mac Lochlainn, Liam Ó Muirthile, Colm Breathnach, Biddy Jenkinson, Paddy Bushe and so on. They and many others – and those are just some of the poets – have created a serious body of work that needs to be translated into the languages of Europe and beyond. It’s sad to see how little is being done in this regard. It’s a form of criminal negligence if the truth be told.
A lot of Irish-language translation if it is going to reach a wider audience worldwide must first be translated into English as a bridge language and then let them work in Korean, or Mongolian or Slovakian or Latvian or whatever from the bridge language; but we haven’t enough translations into English, not to mind other languages and it’s important to have a large corpus of contemporary and classical Irish language literature available in English so that others can translate it into other languages. And I know that a lot of people think that you shouldn’t use a bridge language, you should just translate from Irish into Korean or whatever it is but that’s nonsense. If you are a good literary translator you will be able to do a very good job on a novel or a book of poems by using a bridge language. I have read people like Kadare, the great Albanian novelist, in English via a French translation. I don’t know of the existence of any Albanian work of his in English translation so French as a bridge language into English has been very satisfactory for me as a reader.
Your aim as a translator is to provide a rounded literary or reading experience for the reader. Now I’ll give you an example. Recently I have translated poems by a Hindi poet Rati Saxena, obviously not from the Hindi, into Irish. I’ve got a lot of very interesting blurbs by different critics and writers and reviewers and poets themselves on this particular book, which is going to be published in the next few months, and these were people who had read the Irish-language versions only. They hadn’t read the English cribs. The poems in English were often no more than cribs. They weren’t really great poems in the form that I got them. I had to recreate them, a bit like reconstructive surgery. I had to dig a bit to find the poetry, excavate. I found it. I know how to find it if it’s there. I have fulfilled my task if I have created poems that are interesting enough for people to sit down and write blurbs which say that these poems are provocative or that they raise questions about whatever the poems raise questions about – maybe women’s rights in India or that kind of thing or other poems of a more philosophical nature. One could find a very long continuous stream of thought and feeling in her work which you don’t find in a lot of poems from Europe where traditions have been broken, as I alluded to earlier on. So we’re back to the west-east diwan again!
In all the translations that I have done, my hope is that I have made something out of these texts that can be read with interest and even with joy because, ultimately, I am not interested very much in reading things simply out of interest or in translating things out of interest. Interest? No, joy! There must be joy. Joy is the factor. Joy is one of the essential ingredients which infuses true creativity and joy is missing from a lot of modern poetry, for reasons we needn’t analyse now but we have alluded to some of them. Without joy there is no true creation. There’s no point in sharpening your pencil or opening your computer without joy. We’re not doing it for the money! The money doesn’t even cover your costs. The act of translating and the act of creating, the act of writing is an ode to joy.
Or why get up in the morning?