New Books in German talks with Professor Karen Leeder, Professor of Modern German Literature and Fellow of New College Oxford, about her award-winning translations of the poets Durs Grünbein and Evelyn Schlag and the delicate art of translating poetry.
Helen Nurse: Firstly, congratulations on winning the 2021 Schlegel-Tieck Prize for your translation of Porcelain by Durs Grünbein!
Karen Leeder: I was grateful and pleased that Seagull took a risk on Porcelain, as it’s not self-evident that a book like that can be financed or will sell: a book-length cycle of poems, with images, on a complex and difficult event (the Allied bombing of Dresden at the end of the Second World War), that (to make things worse!) had a mixed reception in Germany…. Memory culture in Germany is very politicised, so that in remembering, recalling and writing about the Second World War one still enters a minefield. And there have been big debates in German literary circles since about 2000, as many writers (e.g., Günter Grass in his Crabwalk) kicked off the discussions about how Germans today can come to terms with their history, and their family’s history and talk about the truth of what happened in Germany. But to me Porcelain seemed like an extraordinary work that travelled huge distances in a very small space, and I knew I had to translate it.
Helen: Is there an over-reverence in the attempt to come to terms with Germany’s past sometimes? There’s often an extremely earnest willingness to get it right.
Karen: Yes, I mean, it depends on what it is to ‘get it right’, because there’s the danger that, in trying to talk about what they experienced, Germans come off as trying to style themselves as victims. And of course, then you come very close to the voices of the New Right, which are very loud in Germany, and instrumentalize memory as part of a political agenda to recast the Germans as the victims of the Second World War. Every year the reconciliation ceremonies in Dresden on the anniversary of the bombing are met by increasingly large and loud demonstrations by the political right. So, it’s a difficult path to tread. You want to tell the truth about the many women that were raped, particularly as the Red Army came into Germany. Or about the many people who were driven out or were the victims of the Allied bombing. The poem attempts to do that kind of work but is acutely aware also of the pitfalls. And the other thing is the question of generations; in Germany and in Britain, people have been comfortable with the idea of bearing witness. It becomes more difficult when you get into the idea of ‘postmemory’, i.e., that you’re writing about something you didn’t experience personally. Here again, the kind of the tone in which you do that is vital. It links back to the famous quotation from Adorno that to write a poem after Auschwitz is barbaric. In fact, one of the criticisms of Porcelain in Germany was that it was too cynical, too flippant, on the one hand; and too full of pathos on the other…. So how do you talk about trauma in a voice that does it justice, but also doesn’t seem to be assuming positions which you can’t ethically represent?
Helen: Durs Grünbein references that a couple of times himself, doesn’t he? In the first poem, he opens with “Why complain, Johnny-come-lately? Dresden was long gone / when your little light first appeared on the scene.” Or in poem 10, “War /trauma, these things are not carried in your DNA.” It is almost as though he feels he doesn’t have any legitimate claim to a reaction. I know the German response to the book was mixed, but how has the English reaction been? It was published during the pandemic so that can’t have made things easy.
Karen: Interestingly, I’ve given a couple of seminars and talks about it, and I’ve had some extreme reactions to it – some anger and a very visceral sense that this story and these events live on in families even after 75 years, and there’s a sort of presumption in trying to talk about it now. That took me aback, because I assumed, especially in English, it would move out of the territory of that kind of problem. But, of course, many people have German heritage, and it touches a raw nerve. The poem thematizes that question of who has legitimate claim to tell the story and how. Durs Grünbein’s family experienced the bombing; he talks about his mother’s escape as a child and how the family talked about that memory. He absolutely knew what he was doing when he wrote the poem and wrote it in the way he did. He talks elsewhere about how if art is settled and everybody loves it, then it’s not doing the right thing. Literature has to provoke; literature can and has to touch those spots that are raw and difficult. So yes, I mean the pandemic was difficult. We had so many lovely events lined up and of course they went online, but the advantage of that is they were able to reach more people.
Helen: Was there a certain poem in the cycle that stood out as being particularly difficult to translate, or that you kept circling back to?
Karen: Well, I knew immediately when I read this sequence of poems in German that it had to be translated into rhyme and rhythm, that there would be a tension and a power, and really something about the heart of it lost if I did a free or a ‘free-er’ version. Though I was warned against it too. Especially in the American market, rhymed, rhythmic, more classical poetry is not something people are familiar with – especially in translation. There is an argument that certain rhymes or certain conventions are part of a kind of historical clothing which differs from language to language and so by trying to transport this into another language, you’re damaging it. Certainly, when I’ve judged translation competitions, I’ve been very powerfully impressed by people who discover different ways of doing it. For example, turning a classical poem into haikus takes the original out of its historical clothing, but finds something that has the same sort of register or foreignness or a kind of in into a particular language. And rhyming in German is much easier than it is in English. You’ll see that many contemporary poets writing in English use half-rhyme and pararhyme, because English is a language which just doesn’t settle into rhyme as easily as Italian or French or even German. So that was the major challenge. I think it’s also about feeling that in translating you don’t want the pursuit of the formal to stand in the way of the power of the language. But for me it was clear that the urgency of this poem is about fragmentation and brokenness, is about the aspiration for wholeness, which is there in the rhymes and the rhythm, but also the way that this gets fragmented, gets broken, gets challenged by the thoughts that are there. And for me this had to be enacted in English too, otherwise a huge dimension of the poem would have been lost.
Helen: I was fascinated by Durs Grünbein saying that the metre came very naturally to him and that he wanted it to sound like a natural speaking voice, yet he also mentioned that he used trochaic meter which seems like it would produce the opposite effect, as that doesn’t mimic natural speech patterns at all.
Karen: Well, it’s interesting, this goes back to the difference between how English and German-speakers experience what they hear. The classical tradition in German adopts that kind of metre, so it’s familiar from classical poetry, whereas in English if we go back to the sound that dominates our historical ear, then it’s Shakespeare, it’s iambic pentameter and so something written in a more classical metre doesn’t sound natural. It doesn’t feel natural in the same way. I do think rhythms work differently in different languages, even if you can agree how they scan.
Helen: How was it working with Durs Grünbein?
Karen: He was terrifically generous and helpful. I learned a huge amount. There’s also a story here about the context of the poem, as the German was published with no notes at all. That was a conscious decision (although he had prepared notes). I think that might have partly led also to misapprehensions in German: because people didn’t recognise that quite a lot was quotation, hidden quotation, and it made people ascribe attitudes to Grünbein that were in the poems. Whereas the poems soak up myths and many, many literary works, but also historical documents, Nazi documents, and contemporary right-wing political voices, meaning it’s quite hard to know who’s speaking at any point.
It was clear the cycle needed notes in English for references that would be much less familiar to an English readership, so I used some of Durs’ very personal notes and added more with a focus on an English-speaking audience. I think it works well – even German readers have told me they understand and appreciate the English version because it fills in these gaps. All those quotations were an issue in and of themselves, of course. For example, there are many, many references to the Holocaust poet Paul Celan, who is referenced in the title of the poem (Porcelain, Por Celan). You wouldn’t know necessarily, apart from a feeling that the rhythm is a bit wrong here, or there’s a slightly odd register there that sent me scurrying back to the translations of the Celan poems themselves. I didn’t want to overload the volume by picking them all out and footnoting them, but I wanted the alert reader, who might be reading with the knowledge of Celan’s work, to be able to hear them a little. It was about placing the non-German reader in a position that they might hear these things too. So yes, Durs was incredibly generous, helpful and thoughtful and it was great to work with him.
Helen: I would imagine the translation would have been incredibly difficult without recourse to the poet himself.
Karen: Yes, I think that could be true. There is a freedom, of course, in not working with a poet. Durs had a very strong sense of what the work needed to say and the difficulties in Germany, so he was to my mind perhaps occasionally slightly more defensive about the poem in its context than I thought one needed to be. It’s always a process of negotiation, but in the end, he was very happy to let me be, and he trusted me, which is just where you want to be as a translator.
Coming back to your original question, one thing has occurred to me. When you are translating a whole collection, there are sometimes poems that immediately speak to you and that you find forming in your head in English as you read the German. And then there are some that you feel much more at odds with and don’t suggest themselves at all. And then of course there are a few which only find their form much later, after multiple drafts and many struggles. In the case of Porcelain, interestingly, these were the often ones where I felt that the German itself wasn’t quite as clear or as powerful. But, then again, there are the ones that really sing, that are so powerful in German, that in a sense, they just translate themselves.
Helen: The poem that struck me as being both beautiful but also horrific was poem 31. Such beautiful, yet destructive imagery and the poignancy of the aluminium strips of anti-radar foil appearing to the child like twinkling lametta.
Karen: Number magic is one of the things that comes up a lot in Durs’ poetry. One day it would be good to write something about the way the poems link with each other through the numbers in this cycle…. There are a couple I end up reading a lot when people ask me to read. Poem number 3 … “Say after me: it doesn’t take much to make / a moonscape of a city. Or charcoal of the folk / who lived there.”. Or poem number 7, which is so clever, brilliant and beautiful, and is about a child looking at the cherry stone in the Green Vault in Dresden. The poem homes in on the minute carved cherry stone, a Baroque image of absolute destruction, there is this amazing historical telescoping, but it is also a self-conscious poem about art and trauma. It was one of first ones that I translated actually, and the rhyme sort of came and once again there is an extraordinary balance between horror and delicacy. But also, it’s one of those poems that goes into the tiny, tiny detail, seen under a magnifying glass (in fact it’s one of several poems that mention optical instruments), then you zoom out to outer space. That double perspective and the need to hold both in tandem, is something that operates quite a lot in the cycle.
Helen : I wanted to ask how you came to translating poetry? Is it something you’ve always been drawn to, or did it happen by accident? Because it is a field that many, many translators shy away from.
Karen: That’s right. It goes back to when I did my doctorate on what was then contemporary poetry from East Germany. I wrote on the youngest generation of poets in East Germany, who were the same age as me when I was writing and they were writing poetry in a largely underground samizdat way – poems in magazines, illegal magazines which they passed from hand to hand. There was a music scene and an art scene, so a very vibrant poetry came out in the late 70s and 80s. And it just wasn’t known in this country at all. In fact, Durs Grünbein was on the margins of that scene, but only really on the margins. So, nobody knew these poems, and I was very excited about them. And I wanted people to know about them, so I started translating them. I then got very interested in translating Brecht and Rilke, writers that I was also passionate about and wanted people to know. By then I was hooked. And for me I feel entirely t home in this world. But it’s true, I think translators are hesitant about poetry. And let’s be straightforward – it doesn’t pay very well. And that’s where I’m lucky in that I make a living as an academic, so I only translate things I really care about. If I were doing it for the money, I wouldn’t have that luxury.
Helen: I think it would be difficult to make a living as a full-time poetry translator. I have often wondered whether poetry translation is becoming a realm almost solely for academics, as it requires a high level of erudition to be able to do the work. Or are there people who are doing it outside of those fields?
Karen: Oh, definitely. In fact, it’s generally poets who translate poetry, sometimes whether or not they know the languages that they’re translating (which is a different question…). It is true there is a tradition in the universities of academics translating poetry from the classics to contemporary work, but it tends to be looked down upon and thought of as a kind of manual spadework which needs to be done, but which isn’t the real deal. I hope I have shown that doesn’t need to be the case! Very often it’s a vital stepping stone to allow other translations of the works in question too. But we are lucky here that there’s a vibrant, wonderful scene of poetry translation, for example, Sasha Dugdale’s amazing translations of Maria Stepanova. Jamie McKendrick is a fantastic poet and also translates from contemporary Italian poetry. Stephen Romer from the French. And in German Martyn Crucefix, Iain Galbraith, I could go on. There are powerful, important poets who are key mediators in this business. In one way or another, you’re right, it is quite a niche field. If translation is already a niche, then translating poetry within the translation world is even more niche. But it’s vital because so many accounts of literature focus only on novels. People say they are telling us about a national literature, but they’re only actually telling us about the prose. And there are so many different things going on in drama, in film and in poetry.
Helen: Or in the case of Ulrike Almut Sandig, all of these together in one body of work, as she mixes all the media together, for example in Landschaft.
Karen: Yes, I find her genuinely exhilarating to read, and listen to: she challenges genres and oversteps them, mixing them up very deliberately. She is so musical. That whole more experimental end of literature is hard, it’s harder to read, and it’s harder to translate – look at Annie Rutherford’s versions of Nora Gomringer or Andrew Duncan’s Thomas Kling. There’s such a danger that it’s eclipsed and lost beyond national boundaries. But we would be losing so much if we didn’t know about it.
Helen: Oh, absolutely. And it’s so vital, isn’t it? But I can see why it’s not always supported and thankfully Seagull do this.
Karen: Yes, all kudos to the publishers who stick their necks out by publishing poetry in this country and abroad, Seagull is fantastic. It’s now in its 40th year this year and its German list, its French list, etc. have changed the face of translation over the years and made so many works present.
Carcanet are the people who brought out Evelyn Schlag in the UK, and then there’s Bloodaxe, Arc, and magazines like MPT and so many others. I was on a panel once with Michael Schmidt at Carcanet. We were talking about translation and the importance of translation. At one point he said to me as an aside, you know, this book of yours that won all the prizes, it’s sold about four copies! It’s a badge of honour and a kind of extraordinary commitment for publishers to do this and we should be very grateful to them.
Helen: As we are running out of time, let’s move on to Evelyn Schlag, as I would love to hear more about her work. Carcanet say your translation “traces a uniquely Austrian imagination at the heart of contemporary European poetry”.
Evelyn Schlag is a really distinguished Austrian poet and novelist. She won the Hay Gold Medal for Poetry back in 2018. She won the Austrian Art Prize for Literature in 2015 for her writing. And yes, she isn’t very well known beyond her context, so I’m grateful that Carcanet have stood behind her and allowed me to translate her poetry, which I think is totally singular. Nobody else sounds like her in German. Nobody sounds like her in English either. She’s a one-off. There’s a capaciousness about her poetry, a depth, she is very elegiac. I would put her among the elegiac poets, in fact, she’s translated Douglas Dunn’s Elegies, but she is also angry, funny and smart.
One of the tasks as a translator very often is to find a voice for whoever you’re translating that is not the same as what already exists in English (because otherwise, why would you be translating them into English?) but that taps into something recognisable for the audience at home. Often, other translators will tell you this, they read things that are similar to get that voice, to help them identify what it is. This is especially the case with novels, 19th century novels, for example, you want to immerse yourself in that world, hear how it might sound. But very often with these poets, there isn’t a ready-made voice. You’ve got to create it. You have got to create a space for it and nudge with your elbows to find a place for it. And with Evelyn that’s very much the case. She’s a bit like the Anglo-American tradition in her irony, but then again, not. It would be wrong to try and place her in that tradition, so it’s about finding a frequency, a space. There’s this interesting thing that poet and novelist Ulrike Draesner talks about – how babies in the womb listen (I’m writing a lot about listening at the moment) and they try and find a space, a frequency that isn’t taken already by the voices outside, so that they can be heard when they first cry. It’s a lovely image, isn’t it? I think that’s great, and I think with poetry you need to find an untaken frequency to allow the voice to be heard.
Thank you, Karen, for being so incredibly generous with your time
and for sharing your wonderful poetry translations with us. We really appreciate it!
Click here to watch Karen Leeder reading from Porcelain by Durs Grünbein