Some Favourite Transmutations

A translator can be lucky. I don’t know French; but it’s obvious at a glance that translating Apollinaire’s calligram “Heart, Crown, and Mirror” is made far easier than it might otherwise have been by the fact that the capital “Q” for “Qui”, which sits atop the crown like a giant pearl, is very effectively replaced by the capital “W” of “Who”, which resembles a large gemstone with big facets. Many other capital letters simply couldn’t have done the job. All the translator had to do in this happy case, however, was plug in the obvious equivalent.

A very different situation faced Erich Kästner when he took on the challenge of translating T.S. Eliot’s poem “The Naming of Cats”. Kästner—best known in the English-speaking world, perhaps, for the children’s novel on which the Parent Trap movies are based—had to deal not only with “sensible everyday names” such as Peter, Augustus, Alonzo, James, Victor, Jonathan, George, Bill Bailey, Plato, Admetus, Electra and Demeter (only one of which he retained), but also with “peculiar” and “more dignified” names such as Munkustrap, Quaxo, Coricopat, Bombalurina and Jellylorum. He made no attempt at retaining these, but came up instead with Schnurroaster, Tatzitus, Katzastrophal, Kralline, Nick Kater and Kratzeleise, names which suggest he may have been a more practical cat-person than T.S. Eliot, since several of them play on German words for “paw”, “claw” or “scratch”.

Kästner called his poem not a translation but a “Nachdichtung” (Cassell’s says, “imitation, paraphrase, free rendering”—which covers a lot of possibilities). This brings up an interesting subject. Every poetry editor receives submissions subtitled “After Somebody”, Somebody being the name, supposedly, of an internationally respected, perhaps already canonised poet who wrote in Portuguese, Gujarati or some other language the editor doesn’t read. Without time-consuming inquiry, the editor is in no position to judge in what sense or to what extent the submission “follows” the original. Is the attribution even legit? Could it be an in-joke, a leg-pull, a dash of snobbery or window-dressing? It certainly could. It could also be a subtle, integral part of the fiction, a pledge of literary devotion, or an accurate signpost, gratuitous for some but very helpful for the majority of readers. Editors cannot be blamed if they cut a long story short by announcing that (with discretionary exceptions, of course) they won’t consider any submission presented as a “version”, and by insisting that “translations” must be accompanied by written approval from the copyright holder of the original.

Which isn’t to say that a successful “version” doesn’t require poetic insight and skill. Before I turn to some favourite translations, allow me to point out one version I particularly admire. It’s based, as it happens, on a poem by Erich Kästner: “Feine Leute, 1200 Meter hoch” (roughly, “The Better Class at 1200 Metres”). The version is by Noel Macainsh, who taught for many years in the English Department at James Cook University in Townsville. He delighted to point out literary connections between Germany and Australia, notably in his scholarly articles on Christopher Brennan.

“Feine Leute, 1200 Meter hoch”, which appeared in German textbooks used in Australia in the 1960s and 1970s, gently satirises wealthy, refined tourists who holiday at alpine ski resorts but never leave the comfort of their grand hotels from the moment of arrival to the moment of departure. All their time is spent drinking tea, waiting for the post, dancing, and talking about their love of nature and sport though they never get onto the snow or take a walk through the woods. Macainsh transfers all this sideline sophistication to Queensland’s Gold Coast. In “At Surfers’”—which I know only from its appearance in Overland in October 1980—the tourists sit and drink tea, read their mail, tango, get as far as the beach and apply “suncream”, but never swim or sail. In stanza structure, metre, rhyme scheme, pattern of repetition, theme and tone, the Australian poem follows the German poem closely, but without exactly borrowing a single phrase or image. In my opinion, it’s an authentic “version”. Within its modest bounds it’s a transmutation. There’s no “After Erich Kästner” below the title; I wonder how many Overland readers noticed and appreciated Noel’s cleverness.

Turning to poems offered as translations. What a thrill it is to discover one that not only makes the original accessible, but also measures up to it as poetry. It’s like discovering a great film adaptation of a loved novel.

Such miracles of transmutation are sometimes produced, of course, by those professional translators to whom we are immeasurably indebted for their tackling of book-length texts from languages we don’t know and for their provision of cribs to help us with literatures we’re learning. The prolific composer Joseph Haydn is supposed to have said that all his children were well brought up but that there were changelings among them. Professional translators must have similar thoughts about the results of their, often, insufficiently recognised labours.

Some of my favourite transmutations, however, are achieved by amateurs: by literary enthusiasts, essentially creative people themselves, people with flair, imagination and ideas, for whom an initial encounter with a particular text means love at first sight, creating a chemistry perhaps never to be repeated.

The glow of transmutation is best sustained, and is most immediately striking to the reader, in short poems composed in traditional forms. In The Annotated Alice, Martin Gardner reprints what he rightly calls “a magnificent German translation” of Lewis Carroll’s “Jabberwocky”. Gardner’s note explains that this translation, “Der Jammerwoch”, “was made by Robert Scott, an eminent Greek scholar who had collaborated with Dean Liddell (Alice’s father) on a Greek lexicon. It first appeared in an article, ‘The Jabberwock Traced to Its True Source,’ Macmillan’s Magazine, February 1872.” A pseudonymous Thomas Chatterton claims to have attended a séance at which the spirit of one Hermann von Schwindel insisted that Carroll’s poem was the English translation of an old German ballad. It sounds like postmodernism, except that the immensely sophisticated joke is whimsical and innocent, not designed to confuse, disturb or subvert.

I’ll try to convey the quality of Scott’s translation by comparing stanza five of it with the original:

One, two! One, two! And through and through
The vorpal blade went snicker-snack!
He left it dead, and with its head
He went galumphing back.

This becomes:

Eins, Zwei! Eins, Zwei! Und durch und durch
Sein vorpals Schwert zerschnifer-schnück.
Da blieb es todt! Er, Kopf in Hand,
Geläumfig zog zurück.

The metre is identical with that of “Jabberwocky”. The rhyme of lines two and four is close. “Todt / Hand” in line three acknowledges the rhyme “dead / head” in the original, while the archaic spelling of “todt” fits the “old German ballad” theory. Line one follows Carroll word for word. Line two Germanises Carroll’s invention vorpal by adding the appropriate adjective ending; then the wonderful fantasy past-tense verb zerschnifer-schnück echoes snicker-snack in a Monty Pythonesque or Fawlty Towers way, retaining the onomatopoeic impression of deft speed of action, while apparently combining elements of real German words that might add up to something like “slashed to pieces”. Line three is made slightly more melodramatic than the original by, first, the division into two sentences, second, the exclamation point for “there it lay dead!” and third, the added detail that the hero carried the Jammerwoch’s head “in his hand” (shades of David bringing the head of Goliath to King Saul).

Line four presents the challenge of galumphing, one of Carroll’s best-known and most enduring portmanteau words. According to Gardner’s annotation, the OED defines it as a combination of gallop and triumphant, meaning “to march on exultantly with irregular bounding movements”; but every reader probably forms his own idea of the hero’s mood and gait. I’ve heard a First World War veteran describe British tanks on their first deployment on the Western Front, in 1917, by saying, “they went galumphing by”. Scott’s solution is a very realistic-looking nonsense German adverb that might possibly mean “riding easily, without being in any hurry”, or might possibly mean something else.   

“Der Jammerwoch” gives no hint of strain or fatigue on the translator’s part, preserving instead what Gardner rightly identifies as the special quality of the original, “a careless lilt and perfection that makes it the unique thing it is”. Vigorously recited, as I have proved, it’s great fun for listeners familiar with the original but not a word of German.  

My old high-school copy of The Penguin Book of German Verse, introduced and edited by Leonard Forster, describes the “almost untranslatable burlesque and nonsense poetry” of Christian Morgenstern (1871–1914) as inhabited by figures who “lead a Lewis Carroll life in the amiable realms of a higher absurdity with serious undertones”. “Almost untranslatable” is hyperbole; because the Junior Voices anthologies edited by Geoffrey Summerfield and published by Penguin in 1970, with British children between seven and eleven in mind, include fine translations of Morgenstern classics from Galgenlieder (Gallows Songs, 1905) such as “The Experiment”, “The Knee”, “The Sniffle” and “The Fence”. One Morgenstern poem that might daunt any translator, however, is, “Der Werwolf”, because its “higher absurdity with serious undertones” depends on a point of German grammar.

Any English speaker who has tried to learn German for more than a week knows that it has four cases, which are differentiated by inflections. Modern English has three cases: nominative, objective and genitive; but these are only regularly differentiated in our use of pronouns (I, me, my; he, him, his; they, them, their). German, on the other hand, retains many case markers that English has shed, notably for forms of the definite and indefinite article; and German regularly uses a case for which no distinct forms survive in English at all, the dative. The grammar tables of German textbooks produced in the English-speaking world usually list the cases as nominative, accusative, genitive and dative; in the German-speaking world the order is usually nominative, genitive, dative, accusative. (Who was it who said that life was too short to learn German? He or she exaggerated.)

One word inflected in both English and German is the interrogative and relative pronoun who. English has, in order of vitality: who, whose, whom; German, in the usual German order, has: wer, wes(sen), wem, wen. Perhaps you have guessed the point on which Morgenstern’s poem turns. In “Der Werwolf” (one e in German) a werewolf (two e’s in English) goes to the grave of a village schoolteacher one night and asks the teacher to decline him. The teacher rises and (pedantically/absurdly) does so: “Der Werwolf, des Weswolfs, dem Wemwolf, den Wenwolf”. The werewolf is delighted and asks the teacher to tell him his plural forms. The teacher has to admit that German (like English) has packs of “wolves”; but (also like English) no plural for who. The werewolf is shocked, because he has a wife and child. Being no scholar, however, he respectfully thanks the teacher and leaves, blinded by tears. It’s a terrific parable of conscience, law, authority, destiny and sorrow. It welcomes the interpreter like a landmine.

Someone attempting to translate this poem into English might do something with whowolf, whosewolf, to whomwolf and whomwolf; but a true transmutation takes place in the translation by Mark Scrivener, which Les Murray published in Poetry Australia (October 1979) during the golden days of his editorship there. Scrivener glimpsed, grasped and exploited to the full the possibility offered by the fact that were in English, like all finite verbs, marks tense. In “The Werewolf”, the creature begs the village teacher to conjugate him, which he does: “the werewolf, the waswolf, the amwolf, the arewolf and the iswolf”. The flattered werewolf then asks for his future forms and is told there are none: an auxiliary verb will or shall must be used with be. The translator’s ingenious move has wonderfully caught both the “higher absurdity” and the “serious undertones” of Morgenstern’s original. In German it is decreed that the werewolf shall always be alone, wife and child (German Kind) notwithstanding; in English it is decreed that he, his wife and his “kind” have no future. By means of an inspired dynamic equivalent the translator has delivered Morgenstern’s impact across an apparently impassable divide.

One final comment on moving between English and German: Austrian singer-songwriter Wolfgang Ambros, who produced memorable Viennese dialect covers of Bob Dylan songs in the late 1970s, found that, as a general rule, everything one says in German comes out about a third longer than in English. Ambros appears to be right, because translating in the opposite direction often seems to present the problem of needing to add relevant and meaningful ideas to renderings of formal verse. Successful solutions to the problem are illustrated by comparing the opening lines of some famous German hymns with their best-known English renderings. “Wir pflügen und wir streuen” by Matthias Claudius (1740–1815) becomes, whether we sing it in church or hear it in Godspell, “We plough the fields and scatter”; “Gott ist gegenwärtig” by Gerhard Tersteegen (1697–1769) becomes, in the words of John Wesley, “God reveals his presence”; and “O Haupt voll Blut und Wunden” by Paul Gerhardt (1607–1676), built by J.S. Bach into the St Matthew Passion, becomes “O sacred head sore wounded”.

I could easily segue into an appreciation of one more favourite transmutation, Thomas Carlyle’s translation of Martin Luther’s hymn, “Ein’ feste Burg”. “And, though they take our life, / Goods, honour, children, wife …”: so much more effective, as well as closer to the original, than “Let goods and kindred go, / This mortal life also” and the like. But this essay is already long enough.  

To all literary alchemists, past and present: as they say in German: “Respekt!”

Robert Handicott is a poet and teacher who lives in Queensland.


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