Authors: Durs Grünbein
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For upwards of twenty-five years, you have written English poems, and translated not poetry, but German prose. You felt no particular disquiet at this separation of powers. But finally, you don't want to spend your entire life in avoidance of something, in fear or disdain, however well grounded. There are translations of foreign poets to which you feel deep gratitude: Cavafy, Akhmatova, Zagajewski, Montale. You love your Waley and your Pound. In fact, the first poet you ever read, at the age of eight, was in translation: Zbigniew Herbert. (The poem was “From Antiquity,” the one about the barbarians and the little salt god, and you've never forgotten it.) Above all, you feel an attachment to the idea that you have some German poet twinâthe one who, unlike you, stayed at homeâwhom it is your duty and your sacred pleasure to translate into English.
I would never claim Durs GrÃ¼nbein as my twinâhe's a much better poet, and he's five years youngerâbut I did experience this feeling of kinship when I first met him and heard him read, ten or twelve years ago in Rotterdam, and many times since. For various practical, urgent occasions, I have supplied English cribs for his poems: another time in Rotterdam, once in London, at a talk in Hamburg. We share a derisive melancholia, an interest in amplitude (much more developed, in his case), a love of the Russian poet Joseph Brodsky, a fascination and a belief in the classics (again, much more developed in his case). At the same time, I am painfully aware of many things that divide us; medicine, neuroscience, animals, ancient history, contemporary art, responsible metaphysics are all avocations of GrÃ¼nbein's of which I am, as they say in German,
Innocent. There is a formidableness, a dauntingness about GrÃ¼nbein that I don't have, perhaps can't do, and find it difficult even to respond to.
You see, the different countries and different languages have evolved different types of poetsâalthough, thrillingly, probably for the first time in history, one's formation as a poet is almost bound to be cosmopolitan nowadays and polyglot, and if it isn't, it damned well should be. I'm saying that I grew up as an English poet: small-scale, occasional, personal, wincingly witty, articulate about dirt. GrÃ¼nbein is much more like another English poet, whom Brodsky also revered, but who was so much a one-off in or from the English tradition, that he described himself as “a minor Atlantic Goethe”: W. H. Auden. GrÃ¼nbein is squarely in the line of German poets: a
and an intellectual. Further, there is a frontality and an abundance in himâmassive poems, great sequences of numbered partsâthat I can only wonder at. He has solved the problem of inspiration that Rilke worked at in his
of 1907 and 1908. GrÃ¼nbein has such facility and industry, it is as though there had been a Rodin in
life once as well.
What you translate has to come out of you; you have to be able to encompass it, in other words. You can't quite say things you couldn't have said, even if you have been given them to say. (In an odd way, this is more of a problem for poet-translators, who tend to suffer from self-consciousness and squeamishness, and a firmer sense of their own edges, than others, who are perhaps better able to slip into costume and lose their inhibitions.) You have to work on your own plausibility, your range, your idiom, your connections, and you try of course to extend them. Perhaps you're like a parrot, saying back things the way you've heard them said. (But always it has to come from you.) Temerity takes you further. And for me that's a real motivation: I should like to learn temerity. But there are many poems and places where GrÃ¼nbein is too skillful, too euphoric, and too rhetorical for me to follow him. Sonnet sequences, poems praising Italy, his more neutral and classicalâunPoundianâvein of classicism (what I think of in him as “marble”), anywhere, in fact, where rhymeâto Rilke the vector of praiseâpresents itself as an issue.
Accordingly, inevitably, I have to diminish him. Sometimes this will express itself in the range of poems that I feel able to tackle at all, sometimes in my inability to match, even to gesture at, his forms. (Though Brecht said: “When poems are translated into another language, most of the damage tends to be due to people trying to translate too much. Maybe they should confine themselves to translating the poet's ideas and attitudes.”) Translation is most often describedâperhaps can only be describedâin metaphors, many of them drawn from the world of performance. (We've already had the actor, and the parrot.) Here, I'm tempted to say that translation is like tracing. Going over an original on onionskin paper. Well, in the case of those designs of GrÃ¼nbein that most resemble architectural drawingsâand there are many poems of his like thatâI can't cope with the finickiness and the perfection. But what I suppose I do haveâand GrÃ¼nbein has declared himself willing to accept this, in fact, in his generosity, not even to see it as a
a second-bestâis my own “line.” My own idiosyncrasy and distinctiveness. I have the ability, I think, to go over lines, and make it seem like freehand. (I have learned to do this, both from my own writing and from making so many prose translations. The worst thing in a translation, it seems to me, is the appearance of being remote-controlled,
) You have to look comfortable, voluntary. The GrÃ¼nbein translations will look likeâI hope to God they do look likeânot the product of steel rulers and midnight oil, but like poems that want to be poems. I may not be able to limn them from the outside, but I hope I can animate them from within.
I am aware of course of the likelihood of there being something specious and sentimental about this argument. (I
say that, wouldn't I? Well, of course!) Actually, I'm not at all convinced that this is the better way, or that the specter of the point-for-point and formal translatorâLowell called him the “taxidermist”âhas been put to flight. Auden, by way of a germane instance, used to say he first looked at the “contraption” of a poem, and only then at whatever it might express. I fear my versions of GrÃ¼nbein won't be all that interesting as “contraptions.” The exemptions I can see (once again, like Montale to Lowell) are those poems of his with bulk and quiddity, those poems of his that are interesting as prose.
I have perhaps one last thing to cheer me up and lead me on. As I've said, one of the things that GrÃ¼nbein and I share is a love of the poet Joseph Brodsky. Really from the moment I first heard Brodsky, in 1981 as a recent ex-undergraduate in Cambridge, I had the sense of his poems existing in a weirdly trefoil or trinitarian fashion: there were the trim, carved stanza shapes, the vast oceanic surge and melody of them (especially of the Russian), and the wry modern first-person concreteness of them. And while I liked very much Anthony Hecht's “Lullaby of Cape Cod,” and the poet's own astonishing English versions of “A Part of Speech,” my favorite translations are a couple that were done by a Slavist, Barry Rubin, which are unrhymed and unscanned. Here is the beginning of “San Pietro”:
Three weeks now and the fog still clings to the white
bell tower of this dull brown quarter
stuck in a deaf-and-dumb corner
of the northern Adriatic. Electric