Friday, February 09, 2007

Ashes for Breakfast

The taximeter skips ahead twenty cents at a time—money it takes
Forever to earn if what you do for a living is turn hexameters.

Durs Grünbein, "Berlin Posthumous," tr. Michael Hofmann, from Ashes for Breakfast: Selected Poems, Faber and Faber, 2006

I do not often read German poetry in translation in English, because I tend to want to read the original instead. But I knew I wanted to read this book someday, as I am a great fan of Durs Grünbein's poetry; I wanted to know how his work comes across for those who read English but not German.

If I was ambivalent about reading the book, though, the explanation is clear: I spent five years in the late nineties translating a lot of Grünbein myself. In a sense, I learned how to translate by translating Grünbein. When the moment came for a collection to be published, the initial proposal was for Michael Hofmann and me to co-translate the book. When Michael and I talked about the idea, we decided it did not make sense: our approaches to translating Grünbein were just too different. (One symbol of these differences is that I translate Grünbein's rhymed works as rhymed poems and Michael does not.) When given the choice between Shields and Hofmann, FSG and Faber and Faber went for Hofmann.

So I approached Ashes for Breakfast with some trepidation: what if I hated the book? Would that just be a sign of resentment?

Well, I don't hate the book; I love it. It is a great pleasure to read Hofmann's translations and to imagine friends of mine with no German finally being able to get a sense of what makes Grünbein such a remarkable poet. I especially recommend the sequence "Variations on No Theme." And here's something I like from "Memorandum," to go with the quotation from "Berlin Posthumous" above:

Poets, so they tell us, are awkward customers
Not up to much. Even laughter has a keener, full-throated edge
When they're not around. They're not very amusing.

Poets may or may not be amusing (many blogging poets are very amusing), but Grünbein's often bitter humor is.

A line from the title poem made me wonder about how newspapers are printed these days (while also reminding me of Anthony Hopkins and his ironing of the newspaper in The Remains of the Day):

I have breakfasted on ashes, the black
Dust that comes off newspapers, from the freshly printed columns.

I don't think newspapers have that problem anymore, do they? My two newspapers, Die Basler Zeitung and The International Herald Tribune, do not seem to leave marks on my fingers anymore!

I do realize that many translators feel that they should not try to translate rhyme and meter, as the attempt to do so might distort the sense of the poem, but I do miss the rhyme and meter of the original. Some of Grünbein's poems heighten their dark comedy with the rhyme, and the line I began with about hexameters seems odd if the poem is not in hexameters. (It also contains a lovely echo of Goethe's image, in the Roman Elegies, of tapping out hexameters on the back of the woman he is sleeping with.)

Yet one poem in Hofmann's selection did make me wonder further about the translations in this book in general:


with old auto tires, broken glass,
household junk, and the bones
of a small fort

of polystyrene and crap,
where, on a lagoon of oil,
with cotorni of bubbles

a yellow plastic duck
bobs round on its axis,
caught by low-lying branches.

waves of crystal waters, come.

I like this poem. It happens to be one I know very well in the original version, because I once planned (and even began writing) an essay on Grünbein that was to begin with it (and I did write a poem called "Waves of Clear Waters" about how I first discovered Grünbein). And of course I translated the poem myself:


with old car tires, glass,
garbage, and an imitation
of a small weir

of cellophane and junk
in which amidst the foam
exposed on a film of oil

a green plastic fish
sways between the twigs,
spins lightly on its axis.

waves of clear water, come.

Leaving aside all the other differences between the two translations (and perhaps can see why an edition with Michael and me as co-translators was not a good idea), many of which I did not notice until I went back to my version, I immediately noticed that Grünbein's "green plastic fish" had become Hofmann's "yellow plastic duck." In part, I noticed this because a comic version of the thesis of my unwritten essay was that Grünbein is a (green) fish, and my thesis does not make sense if the English poem turns the fish into a (yellow) duck. (The serious issue the essay would have addressed is the near-absence of the first-person singular in Grünbein's first three books and its partial appearance in his fourth.)

But more seriously, the shift from fish to duck raises two concerns for me: first, I do not understand the motivation for the altering of the image, and it seems to change the metaphorical implications of the poem quite considerably. The toy may be plastic, but a fish floating on the water is dead, while a duck floating on the water is not.

Secondly, and more generally, it makes me wonder whether Hofmann has altered Grünbein's imagery elsewhere in the book as well. Is this move from fish to fowl an isolated case? Or is it a symbol of Hofmann's translation procedure in general? If so, then those who discover Grünbein through this book might wonder whether the scaly Grünbein of the original German has become feathery instead. Or to put it another way, Hofmann has produced a wonderful collection of poems that are a great pleasure to read, but they might be more "yellow" than "green" (as in Grünbein).

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