Sunday, March 18, 2007

German Poetry anthology

A few weeks ago, I finally received my contributor's copies of Michael Hofmann's Twentieth-Century German Poetry: An Anthology (FSG, 2006; Faber & Faber, 2005). I contributed two translations of poems by Lutz Seiler.

The anthology is superb. J. B. Leishman's translation of Rainer Maria Rilke's "Orpheus. Eurydice. Hermes" is worth the price of the book alone, and then there's his co-translation (with Stephen Spender) of the Ninth Duino Elegy.

But I also like this little tidbit by Paul Klee, translated by Harriet Watts:


topped by waves,
topped by a boat,
topped by a woman,
topped by a man.

Christopher Middleton's translation of Gottfried Benn's "The Evenings of Certain Lives" (the lives in question being Rembrandt's and Shakespeare's) makes a fine introduction to Benn for those not familiar with a poet ranked by many in the German-speaking world as the equal of Rilke and Paul Celan. Michael Roloff's version of Nelly Sachs's "Chorus of the Rescued" will probably open a few eyes as well, not to mention her "Two hands, born to give" (translated by Ruth and Matthew Mead and Michael Hamburger).

There's a generous selection of Bertolt Brecht; it's always nice to be reminded how wonderful a poet he was. Middleton's version of "Thoughts on the Duration of Exile" was my favorite here, but John Willet's "To Those Born Later" also deserves mention.

One of the great post-war German poems is Günter Eich's "Inventory," here translated by Charlotte Melin. This is surely new to most English speakers who have no German, and it, too, makes the book worth getting.

For me, the highlight of the selections from Celan is John Felstiner's version of "Deathfugue," which means that translations of mine have now appeared in an anthology with some by my mentor. His version of "Tübingen, January" also struck me here, with its resonant conclusion:

if he spoke of this
time, he
only babble and babble,
ever- ever-

("Pallaksch. Pallaksch.")

The last Celan poem is the positively accessible "Don't write yourself," again in Felstiner's translation:

Don't write yourself
in between worlds,

rise up against
multiple meanings,

trust the trail of tears
and learn to live.

The Ingeborg Bachmann selections are also on target, the highlight being Peter Filkins's version of "Departure from England," with its surprising conclusion: "I have never set foot on its land."

Michael Hamburger's version of Günter Grass's "The Egg" is the highlight of the Grass section. But he gets short shrift compared to Hans Magnus Enzensberger; although I love Enzensberger, the poems in the lengthy selection here did not strike me. Perhaps it was just the wrong day for them as I read them; perhaps he is a poet whose hard-earned lightness in German does not translate well?

My two Seiler translations include one of the poems in the sidebar: "my birth year, sixty-three, that."

My only very small complaint is that the poem chosen to represent Oskar Pastior's work is likely to turn off quite a few people who might otherwise like his work. But that is my only quibble with this excellent anthology.

1 comment:

SarahJane said...

thanks for pointing this out - and how nice for you to be included in that with the translations. I would definitely be interested in reading some of those, loving Celan and Bachmann especially. I also enjoy Enzenberger.... I haven't read Eich and should, so I think I may be due for an Amazon visit soon. good to know your thoughts.