Q: Why do you translate in the first place? And why German?
Why I translate -- or why I think any poet should -- stems from my dated notion of apprenticeship that was already dated when I took it up -- and there are now Germanists who make entire careers out of what I call an act of apprenticeship but who fail to appreciate what the ape says at the end of Ingeborg Bachmann's libretto for Der junge Lord: "Im Deutschen waltet ein bedeutend ernst Geschick." But once upon a time it seemed to me that any good poet should translate, and the poets who I was reading during the late 70s all bore this out. The little collection of Georg Trakl translated by James Wright and Robert Bly comes to mind. And what my contemporaries were doing supported my notion, too, including the younger poets I befriended who were all a little farther along in their development than I was. Several were already doing translations. I am thinking of the people I met on visits to Oberlin College, namely Wright's son Franz, who was translating Rilke and S. Daniel Simko, who was translating poets in his native Czech and Trakl, too. There was a young woman there at the time, Susan Pensak, who was translating the poems of the Argentinean Alejandra Pizarnik.
But really I had enough to do just to find my own voice. This was so even while I was at Columbia in the early '80s, where some of my classmates, such as Peter Filkins, took Frank MacShane's famous translation seminars -- where I could not show my face because I was still smarting from having flunked the one German course I took in college. (It was some boring TA-led thing, and I stopped going to classes and forgot to withdraw in time to avoid the automatic F.) And I could not see myself in those seminars making due with my high school and autodidactic German.
So, I put off trying my hand in translation while earning my MFA at Columbia and an MA at Rutgers. Instead, I put more time into another aspect of this rite of apprenticeship: my work reclaiming the work of Weldon Kees. This, too, was what I thought good poets should do: put back the missing people in the tradition. And this certainly was a challenge, for Kees literally was a missing person. But after I was well underway with him, after I left the East for Cincinnati, where I am from, I came back to no job and no real prospects in the winter of 1985. Eventually, I found work as a nurseryman and truck driver, and at this farthest remove from my old academic life, I began to translate some of Ingeborg Bachmann's poems.
I had totally forgotten that Peter Filkins had gone to Vienna on a Fulbright to do the same thing or that I.B. as she is called by those who serve her, was already a crowded field. There was just something that seemed missing from Mark Anderson's translations -- another Columbia person who was the first to publish a selection of her translations in English. I took heart in something that Michael Hamburger said about Bachmann, however, that her work is "ductile," and invites a number of ways in which to read her -- this coming from her brush with Wittgenstein and his Tractatus.
Bachmann, however, was an incredible challenge for someone with my yet-underdeveloped skills. But I was like Parsifal in this, whose name means "pure fool," and began to work my way through many of her poems and deliberately tossed out anything that would influence me so that I could, by my accretion of mistakes, get her right. In this I was helped by German-American named Rick Ahner (who we, a mutual friend and I, called "Blood and Honor" for his military past), who had a portrait of Goethe in his apartment and played violin when he was not a line mechanic for a company that relied on topnotch West German machinery to
Q: What led you to begin to translate the poetry of Franz Werfel?
I remember picking up this monograph on the translation arts and reading, to my horror, that it was a field unto itself with long disquisitions on the merits of machine translation and other scholastic minutiae that had nothing to do with my notion of apprenticeship. That was when the law book company I worked for took over an office space where someone once received an East German literary magazine devoted to the writing of its particular region, whose subscription I adopted. It was in one of these I discovered my first Franz Werfel poem, which I translated as an exercise, really, since I had switched from Bachmann to the poetry of Thomas Bernhard -- where no one was working at the time and where no one seems to be still.
extrude aluminum aerosol cans. Eventually, I translated several dozen of her poems and even two of her radio plays before running into that crowded field where much of what I had done had been done by the kind of professional translation arts academic who suffer the dilettante poet-translators I admired not at all.
Bernhard is a story in itself and cutting my teeth on him after Bachmann would seem even more reckless. But I had some success with him and found a common voice -- I think because where I live, Southwestern Ohio, is not dissimilar from the rural and degenerate backwaters of Bernhard's Austria. I could, at last, tap into my German Catholic peasant origins and get the full flavor of his work in an English rendering. However, getting his work published has been more of a challenge in that he saw his poems as one book, one unit, which they are now as I can see -- so I could not publish them in the way that translators and poets make their mark -- in the journals. My Bernhard effort, for now, is waiting for the University of Chicago Press to make a decision. This hiatus caused me to look for another poet to take up, especially after my work in Kees is finished up. And I arrived on Franz Werfel after taking another look at the poem of his I translated, "Hekuba." Once I took out some of his poetry collections from the library, I fell in love with them and started translating them like water. Eventually, this group became the "e-chapbook" that Slope.org published in its number 14 last winter.
Why German? Why Franz Werfel? TAR brings you James Reidel on translation
JAMES REIDEL has published poems in The New Yorker, The Paris Review, TriQuarterly, Verse, The New Criterion, Ploughshares, Conjunctions, and other journals. His translations of Thomas Bernhard and Ingeborg Bachmann have appeared in The Greensboro Review, Artful Dodge, Painted Bride Quarterly and Web Conjuctions. He is the author of Vanished Act: The Life and Art of Weldon Kees, which is scheduled for release next spring by the University of Nebraska Press.