Twenty Pointers to Translating Poetry

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Recently I took part in a panel discussion about the art of translating poetry. It was chaired by Connie Bloomfield from UCL and held at the Enitharmon Gallery in Bloomsbury. I was joined by David Harsent (translating Yannis Ritsos), Emma Wagstaff and Nina Parish (co-editors of Writing the Real: A Bilingual Anthology of Contemporary French Poetry) and Jane Duran (translating Lorca). Part of the evening was spent comparing our differing approaches to translating a poem in Catalan by Josep Lluis Aguilo. Inevitably, we differed on our approaches both to the specific and general issues raised by poetry translation. But it has prompted me to gather up these 20 thoughts on the issues in this blog post.

While preparing it, I also happened across further observations on the issue as quoted in the recently published Peepal Tree Press translation of Pedro Mir’s Countersong to Walt Whitman. The late Donald Walsh is quoted as saying “The translator’s first task is to discover exactly what the author has said . . . He must try to re-create in his language the miraculous fusion of thought and expression that produced the original work . . . the translator’s role is humble and secondary . . . he must do his best to circumvent obstacles . . . his duty is to express not himself but his author”.

As what follows will suggest, I find myself largely in agreement with such views – though the compromising, tentative, humble processes that Walsh describes here and the inevitably pyrrhic kind of victories one can expect from them are unlikely to make for dramatic headlines in literary journals or publishers’ blurbs – but I believe this is what the best translators do.

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Twenty Pointers to Translating Poetry

  1. Ask the big question: can we translate a poem? Because there are so many uncertainties, so many sacrifices, the absolute and perhaps only truly safe reply is to say: ‘No – too much will be lost’. But see #13 below – and now go to #2 (who wants to be safe anyway?)

 

  1. Ignore such crushing absolutism as expressed in #1. Roll up your sleeves and, like Shakespeare’s Ferdinand believe “some sports are painful, and their labour / Delight in them sets off”. Whatever the apparent obstacles, just do it: start shifting those logs of poetry translation if only because you want the challenge, if only because it’s a fascinating process – but mainly because it’s important (see #20)

 

  1. Know that to translate is to incur guilt. The moralistic tone in discussions of translation proves the importance of the task and suggests the passionate intimacies involved in this weird relationship between source author, translator and reader

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  1. Define translation broadly (1): responding to the emoji on my phone is an act of translation. Plus, it is not merely to transpose to another language, but from one language period to another, one language level to another (formal to vernacular), to paraphrase with clarity, to lay out logical and grammatical links more clearly, to interpret signs, symbols, gestures, facial expressions

 

  1. Define translation broadly (2): any good poem is a form of translation. Transtromer saw poems as manifestations of invisible poems written beyond languages themselves. Rita Dove says translators often understand best that any poem is merely a silhouette of our attempt to capture elusive original communications – like stepping stones across a river, the better to hear the silence

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  1. Think of turning the original source into something in the target language with the same information and with the same force as the original

 

  1. Use these simple methods (naturally used by native speakers to achieve greater clarity in communication – thanks, David Bellos) to begin to convey information and force:
    1. Synonymy – word for word replacement (literal translation)
    2. Expansion – replacement of problematic words with longer versions in the target
    3. Contraction – replacement with nothing, elision, skipping, abbreviations – turning a blind eye
    4. Topic Shifting – rearranging the sequence of the expressions for more clarity
    5. Change of Emphasis – other methods of making parts of the original expression stand out from the rest, in order to assist communication
    6. Clarification – adding expressions (not in the original) – making what was implicit in the original more explicit

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  1. Accept it – poetry is poetry so its translation is mostly a question of force – the shades and emotional colours, the rhetorical temperature, the ramifications of meaning of a word/phrase/form

 

  1. Discuss this: force is what Robert Frost called the sound of sense – poetry’s confessedly ineffable tones, gestures, interrelations, patterns – and to convey it we need to match such constituents (though not necessarily preserve them like lifeless bones)

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  1. Measure the force in a source poem via a process of triangulation – determine your direction of travel via multiple reference points connected to the source text – not only the text but also good old-fashioned literary interpretation, wider cultural perspectives, the source author’s wider oeuvre, anything you can lay your hands on

 

  1. Empathise and keep ego quiet – imagination is the major part of this triangulation process: so work hard to imagine what motivated the poem, re-live the act which gave rise to it and is enmeshed in it (thanks, Yves Bonnefoy). In translation we hope to release it from its source form into a new form that resembles/matches its original intention, intuition, yearning

 

  1. Measure the success of your empathetic act not by a term-for-term resemblance to the original poem (thanks again, Yves) but by the ontological necessity of your new words/forms/images

 

  1. Contradict my #1 – so it turns out, translation is possible if, with Bonnefoy, we regard the process of translation as poetry re-begun                                                                       . .
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  2. Be inspired by Charles Tomlinson’s formulation of the task: we look to preserve not the metre, but the movement of each poem – its flight, or track through the mind

 

  1. Close the source text, says Michael Hofmann, rightly, once your translation is beginning to gain some height in its flight. Close it!

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  1. Don’t confuse translation with versioning – the permission we give ourselves is different. To translate puts us in a position of responsibility to both the source text and a working English poem, equally. Versioning puts us in a position of responsibility only to a final working English poem

 

  1. Ask yourself how might I like my own poems to be treated – translation or version? Will you feel well served or misrepresented? Pleased or aggrieved? I’m not pre-judging your choices, but they will affect your view of your own translating processes

 

  1. Discuss this: Peter Robinson argues versions result in failures of tone or meaning, that they impoverish and almost invariably lower the tone, reducing the complexity of the original. But surely, such radical revisions might equally result in a better poem than the original? Still – neither will be a translation

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  1. Label versions and translations appropriately – we have a responsibility to the paying public who, in my experience, are always very clear about what they want to read

 

  1. Keep translating – because the desire to translate and read in translation is optimistic, humanistic and hopeful. Contra Babel, it provides evidence of a powerful urge towards community and communication. It shows there is more that unites us than divides us

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2016 Forward First Collections Reviewed #3: Ruby Robinson

This is the third in the series of reviews I will post over the next two months of the 5 collections chosen for the 2016 Forward Prizes Felix Dennis award for best First Collection. The £5000 prize will be decided on 20th September. Click here for all 5 of my reviews of the 2015 shortlisted books (eventual winner Mona Arshi).

The 2016 shortlist is:

Nancy CampbellDisko Bay (Enitharmon Press) – click here for my review of this book
Ron CareyDistance (Revival Press) – click here for my review of this book
Harry GilesTonguit (Freight Books)
Ruby RobinsonEvery Little Sound (Liverpool University Press)
Tiphanie YaniqueWife (Peepal Tree Press)

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Thanks to Pavilion Poetry/Liverpool University Press for providing a copy of Ruby Robinson’s book for review purposes.

It wasn’t until his second book that Don Paterson was inviting his reader into the “little church” of the poem. Ruby Robinson’s first book’s opening poem ushers us in through “the trap / door of a modern barn conversion” and though full of apparent comforts (paintings, chairs for guests, soup, bread, socks, duvet) it’s really a decidedly unnerving place. The walls are explicitly said not to have eyes, but the narrative voice surely knows too much about us: our loneliness, right down to our “deepest thread, like a baked-in hair”. And even if the walls do not watch, they are full of the “shadows of stags [. . .] cast like stalking giants”. There’s a lot in Robinson’s book which reminds me of another debut collection from way back in 1983 where the lovers describe themselves as “fascinated by our own anaesthesia, / our inability to function”, the TV buzzes half-watched in a corner, emotions grow ever more dysfunctional, “shorter and faster now”, and there is talk of separation in halting, heavily punctuated non sequiturs.

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That was Michael Hofmann’s Nights in the Iron Hotel (1983) and Robinson’s book shares an interest in disconnected scientific facts to express the troubling gulf between thought and feeling. One of Hofmann’s characters moves “the fifty-seven muscles it takes to smile” and Robinson’s ‘Time’ sets out from the knowledge that with a stethoscope a rodent’s heart murmur can be divided into “constituent beats”, spurring the lovers to analyse themselves as closely, as if that might reveal something important about their emotional lives. Stethoscope and heart-beats recur in ‘Love’ where again the biological processes of nerve impulse and ventricles are searched for something resembling meaning. ‘Breathe Deep’ does the same with the stomata on the undersides of leaves and this close observation (of a certain type) lies behind the collection’s title. The process of ‘internal gain’ occurs when we are under threat and is an increase in our perception (of sound especially) so that we hear Every Little Sound. As with Hofmann, Robinson’s attention to detail – a sort of hyper-perception – is really a symptom of a soul in trouble. Reading these poems is often like watching a fragment of material caught on a barbed fence, trembling and thrilling hopelessly in the wind.

The world of Every Little Sound is a thoroughly deracinated one – most everything has been torn up by the roots. Amongst snow, bluebottles, the word ‘thanks’, the remains of a kebab, ‘Hope’ notes “one IKEA bag like a dead bird whose wings won’t die”. All these items, hardly more than listed, seem to be thrown “overboard” into uprooted, meaningless chaos yet the human mind still despatches its uncertain “search party”. The emotional impact of many poems in the book lies in this: the continuing desire to make some sense in the face of chaos. In the midst of a discussion of romantic feelings, a narrator reflects, “I am // in touch with my feelings” but the line-break subverts the truth of the statement and the poem ends in disconnects of feeling, a brusqueness of tone, the brutal chopping of punctuation: “I could tell he felt like crying / and I didn’t mind. We finished our beer, shook hands, went home”.

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Another poem’s narrator talks of her “nerve endings in exile (‘Love II’) and in ‘This Night’ (which might be a distant parody of Lorenzo and Jessica’s “In such a night” speeches from Act 5 of The Merchant of Venice) the narrator confesses she is “more in love tonight, with ideas / and arbitrary things, / than I am with you”. Even in the throes of sexual ecstasy, there remain “two glazed eyes, observing it” (‘Orgasm’). ‘Winter’ uses both right and left justified lines to create an unnaturally evenly-spaced robot-toned prose passage about keeping a tortoise in the fridge through winter. This is where the real originality of these poems is to be found alongside several pieces which evoke the inevitable consequence of such deracinated perception – the fragmentation of the sense of self. Robinson has named Ted Hughes as one of her influences and, in one of the best poems here, ‘Unlocatable’, we hear him in the representation of psychic fragmentation through the physical. The narrator records her dismemberment at her own hands; at one point “a crow on a hard shoulder / delicately inspect[s] the entrails”. Her head is sawn off until the self lies in fragments, “half-witted, unpicked, flaked / out, half a leg, a spewing mouth, brittle hair, / scooped-out heart”.

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There are moments in the book when this sort of Hughesian shrillness and hyperbole-ramped-past-10 is reached for too easily. But ‘Unlocatable’ also  hints at the real life grounding for the edge-of-panic, urgent, deadly serious nature of Robinson’s shattered vision. In the poem’s penultimate stanza we are told:

 

My mother, somewhere,

like a drowned fish on the very end of some

fucker’s very long line

smashing herself against the floor

to an unnatural beat

 

To her great credit Robinson does not use past dislocations in her childhood and family relationships to pursue poetic confessionalism or misery memoir. This potentially gossipy backdrop is aptly sketched only in a fragmentary manner across several poems (the reader left to piece things together as must the family).

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‘Truth’ seems to be an ars poetica of sorts and it is the finding of the mother’s voice “behind the sofa”, the gathering up of this “small voice” and handing it round (as poems?) that spurs the writer on. In particular, the mother’s experiences seem to find echoes in other people, in the media, in the family. A reference to the “death of a violinist” seems obscure but is surely to Frances Andrade whose history of sexual abuse by a music teacher led to her suicide. As I’ve said, the exact events of the mother’s life are left unclear but there is no doubt that men have played a destructive role. One of the more explicit poems, ‘My Mother’, records tragically self-destructive attitudes in her belief that men “cannot be blamed” and that a woman must “know her place, should wait”. Robinson is more clear elsewhere that comments made by her mother have yielded material for poems (including the book title). The images of men are seldom appealing or sympathetic: both ‘Undress’ and ‘Ire’ suggest manipulative and coercive figures, more often than not treating women as sex objects: “He peeled the duvet away // slowly, dragging heat from the flesh / just as you’d freeze-dry meat or fresh fruit”. Robinson mostly treats these issues on a personal level though in ‘Flashback’ the wider context of sexual abuse and domestic violence comes into view with allusions to Radio 1 DJs, another woman’s suicide, courtroom scenes and the earlier image of the fisherman reappears: “He keeps her on a line like a fish / against a rip current”.

All these elements feed into the major poem in this book, ‘Apology’. This seems more explicit about the relationship between mother and daughter and is a howl of survivor guilt, regret, anger, apologising to her mother that things in their lives have turned out as they have. The book’s jacket blurb talks about the poems’ expressions of connectedness and a capacity to love but it has to be said there is precious little of these themes and most of what there is comes in ‘Apology’. Written in spilling, rolling 3/4 line sections (like Ginsberg’s Howl perhaps) the narrator obsessively apologises (mostly for things beyond her control, of course): “I’m sorry you’ve had to withstand such torrents of knowledgeless advice and legal toxification”. More than anywhere else in this painful book, this poem manages to ask, “Is it too ambitious to hope?” The answer given is not reassuring or confident: “We learn to accept the clouds for what they are and wait, patiently”. For the end of a major poem this is undramatic and anticlimactic but Robinson’s aim throughout is more concerned with telling the truths as she and her family have experienced them than with crafting something more consolatory. The final poem is addressed ‘To My Family’ and enacts an interesting withdrawal from such painfully personal material. Robinson retains/regains an artistic distance that augurs well for future collections which will have to draw inspiration from other materials. There is a quiet, deserved, hard-won confidence here: “I’m just words. And you have not the tenacity / to smother me, so I’ll wait here, written, biding my time”.

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‘I Hear the Unheard Heart’: the Poems of Rose Auslander

What follows is a review – originally published by Poetry London earlier last year – of Rose Auslander’s poetry. As I say below, her work has been surprisingly little noticed in the UK literary world. The situation is rather different in her own culture where she is well-known and much admired as this entry on the germanlit.org website makes clear. She is an unusual and original poet well worth seeking out and you can find this book on the Arc website.

While I Am Drawing Breath is a revised version of Mother Tongue, Anthony Vivis and Jean Boase-Beier’s 1995 volume of  Rose Auslander’s poems. That book strode across an effectively empty stage and the same is surprisingly true of this new version: there are really no rival translations into English currently available (she’s not even included in Michael Hoffman’s Twentieth-Century German Poems (Faber, 2005)). This sadly reflects Auslander’s reception through the first half of last century. Only at the age of 64 did her work begin to be noticed, though until her death, 23 years later, she received prizes and accolades, mostly in Germany. Her relative neglect is surprising given her extraordinary personal story, surviving the worst horrors of the twentieth century, and the vivid, gem-like minimalism of her work.

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The life is important. Rose Scherzer was born into a German-speaking Jewish family in 1901, growing up in Czernowitz (then part of Austria-Hungary). The First World War forced the family to Vienna, then Budapest, but later Auslander returned to study at Czernowitz University. She made the acquaintance of philosopher, Constantin Brunner, but in 1921 emigrated to America with Ignaz Auslander (to whom she was briefly married). She returned to Czernowitz only to find it occupied by the Nazi’s in 1941. She lived in the Jewish ghetto, surviving against the odds, writing poetry and meeting Paul Antschel (later Paul Celan). The town was liberated by the Russians but while Auslander tried to arrange for the family to emigrate to America, her mother died, precipitating her daughter’s breakdown. She did not write in her native tongue again for another 10 years.

While I Am Drawing Breath contains work written in these later years (it’s a shame the arrangement of this book gives no sense of chronological development). By then the friendship with Celan had been revived and Auslander abandoned the rhyme schemes and metrical patterning of earlier work for a more free, highly compressed, yet colloquial style, rejecting all punctuation. It is this style that German readers recognise as her distinctive achievement and is the culmination of the tragic restlessness of her life as well as her fascination with language. It was hard to speak of what she had witnessed:

 

From the eyes

of sated man-eaters

smoke surges

and my words

have blackened

in it

(‘Smoke’)

Paul Celan

Eloquence, volubility, the pleasures of the text risked disrespect for the victims of war. Auslander’s words are never far from mourning:

I call out

my willow-word

to the sunken souls

the squall has

driven down

to the pebbles

(‘Willow Word’)

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Yet she seldom speaks directly of pogroms and persecution. ‘And Shut Out Their Love’ does record the advent of “guns and jagged banners”, but Auslander’s imagery is more mythic, more folk tale: hunger, blood, fire, snow, ashes, smoke. Faced with the “unbearable reality” of the Czernowitz ghetto, the options were to despair or dwell in “dreamwords” and there are strong escapist longings as in ‘In Those Years’ with its snow-bound world into which come seductive rumours of  a “country / where the lemons flower” (an allusion to Goethe’s 1795 lyric ‘Mignon’). ‘Immer Atlantis’ (translated here as ‘Atlantis Always Glittering’) re-creates that mythic city:

there are always celebrations in swaying gardens

well-proportioned people

always holy and delicate

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But her friendship with Brunner suggests Auslander was pursuing something more complex than the sort of consolatory fantasy this suggests. He warned against the dangers of superstition, or pseudo-contemplation: unfounded beliefs creating a distortion of true insight. Auslander regards language itself as a ‘third way’, a melding of self and world, without the risks of denying reality. In ‘Mother Tongue’, movement along the “word path” leads to transformation “from myself into myself / from moment to moment”. In ‘Words’, language is neither slave to reality nor liberated self-expression, but “my source”. In ‘The Net’ the goal is “one word / which says it all” as Brunner suggested, an ascent to a plane of spiritual (geistig) contemplation encompassing love, art, and philosophy.

That Auslander’s work pursues such goals without tumbling into arid abstraction and commentary is one of the pleasures of these tough, unselfpitying poems. She is open to “dull brown” as well as “radiant blue” (‘As If’) and her obsession “for binding words” is an attempt “to reach even further / into this known / unknowable / world” (‘Sentences’). What she hears through the cuckoo, rainbow, snow, camomile, mills, carnivals, islands and trees is a spiritual realm, given validity not by any organised religion but by the suffering she has endured:

I hear the unheard heart

in my breathing

like a clock made of air

then the melody of the music-box

is alive in my temples

its tones muted like the moving spheres

(‘The Unheard Heart’)

A new translation of Brecht’s ‘Of poor B.B.’

Having posted last week about Brecht’s poem ‘Of poor B.B.’ it felt pretty inevitable that I should have a go at translating it myself. Though it can’t always be the case, most translations are like this – undertaken as a tribute to the original poet and poem, a public declaration that this fascinated me, an attempt to really work out how the text functions and achieves its ends. Disseminating the text to the target language’s reading public is also an aspect of this tribute paid.

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David Constantine, writing in Modern Poetry in Translation (No. 2 2015) about Derek Mahon’s recently published translations (Echo’s Grove (Gallery Press, 2013)) considers the “liberties” Mahon tends to take with such work to produce “almost” original poems in English while allowing their sources to remain audible. Mahon does this by working from “cribs of one kind or another” and Constantine suggests that this has become a very common practice. Indeed, “Mahon practices the belief that you don’t actually need to know well or even at all the languages you translate out of; even – a possible sub-text – that knowing them might be a disadvantage” (MPT, No. pp.111-113). As someone who was remarkably poor at languages at school, this is something I have found myself saying in recent years since going public with a few translations (for example, see post on translating Rilke). I like to think of the source poem as a series of gestures – like a dance performed by the original author – so the translator must try to achieve similar effects but with his/her own body (of language). A crib will guide me to the main movements, even to much of the details, but tone, emotional colour, shades of irony are harder to trans-late and cannot merely be copied. This gesture made by this body, if repeated precisely by my body, will more likely look awkward, or meaningless, or comic when it was intended as serious. I have to achieve the end (as far as I see it and understand its intended impact – you have to rely on the translator for that certainly) by using the resources at my disposal, my physique, my body of language.

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In practice, what this means is that once the basic outline and incontrovertible details are in place in a translation, I have to close the source book and try to pump some life into the target text. Ted Hughes imagined a poem without true life in it as limping (Poetry in the Making, p.15); a translation without true life in it is only going to be a halting performance you’d rather not witness, worrying about whether such a gesture was intended or not, ironic or not, you fear the whole is not coherent, a mere series of movements, not a dance at all. I’ve always liked Charles Tomlinson’s formulation of the translation task: in introducing his now 50-year-old translations of Fyodor Tyutchev, he claimed ‘The aim of these translations has been to preserve not the metre, but the movement of each poem – its flight, or track through the mind’ (Versions from Fyodor Tyutchev 1803-1873 (Oxford: OUP, 1960)).

Happily, ‘Of poor B.B.’ is not a text of great complexity. Brecht is usually concerned to communicate clearly and he says in ‘On Rhymeless Verse with Irregular Rhythms’ (Poems 1913-1956, pp. 463-471)) “what was needed was the tone of direct and spontaneous speech”. He mostly wanted to use “everyday speech” and “sobriety of expression” which he felt was “by no means irreconcilable with poetry”. So Brecht is not exactly Rilke or Mallarme for the translator. Looking at Hofmann and Hamburger’s translations (as referred to in last week’s post), most of Brecht’s dance is clearly conveyed with little variation between the two versions. Though Brecht’s lines are pretty irregular he does keep a ballad-like rhyme in lines 2 and 4 of each quatrain and I miss this in Hofmann’s version. Hoffman also (to my mind) overelaborates in a few of his English choices. “Sterbsakrament” (Hamburger has “last sacrament”) becomes “every sacramental perquisite”. Hofmann’s narrator looks at the two women in quatrain 4 “insouciantly” and his pine trees “micturate” (when the point of the contrast with the city asks for something more downright like Hamburger’s “piss”). I don’t think lexical adventures here are quite right for this poem. Also in quatrain 7, Hofmann’s antennae “underwire” the Atlantic. Brecht is referring to transatlantic cables but the allusion to supportive bras seems distracting and gives mankind’s efforts too much power. I read the point as suggesting our technology is dwarfed by the ocean in the remarkable image that our best advances merely entertain (“unterhalten”) or “amuse” (Hamburger) the Atlantic.

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Regarding the hat donned by the narrator to fit in with city folk, Hofmann’s “top hat” seems a little too up-market, while Hamburger’s “hard hat” conjures up a building site. I have gone for “bowler hat” of a clerk or business man. The sound of the birds in quatrain 6 is important. Hofmann’s “bawl” catches the anti-pastoral tone of the poem but Hamburger is forced by the needs of form to go for “twitter and cheep” (to rhyme with “sleep”). There is also some ambiguity in the final stanza where the narrator hopes to keep his “Virginia” alight in the coming earthquakes of social disruption. The German suggests the cigar will hopefully not go out (“nicht ausgeher”) and the cause: “lassen durch Bitterkeit”. Hofmann renders this as hoping the cigar will not “go bitter on me” whereas Hamburger (again in part for the sake of form) hopes to keep the cigar alight “embittered or no”. Hofmann’s phrase feels too narrowly concerned with the smoking experience but Hamburger’s rather awkward phrase does successfully suggest what I see in the final lines – the narrator’s hope (if not altogether sincerely) that he himself may avoid becoming bitter. My solution tries to hold both literal and transferred metaphorical senses of the bitter cigar equally within the line. I’ve come to think of this as important to the poem as the narrator is blessed with a degree of self awareness as much as he is cursed with a cynical, dismissive hedonism.

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Of poor B.B.

I, Bertolt Brecht, came from the black forests.
My mother bore me into the city
while I was in her womb. And till my dying day
the chill of the woods will lie there inside me.

In the asphalt city I’m at home. From the beginning
supplied with every last sacrament:
with newspapers – and tobacco – and with brandy.
To the end, suspicious, lazy, content.

I’m amicable with the people I meet. I don
a bowler hat in just the way they do.
I say: they’re animals with a quite peculiar smell.
And I say: so what – I am too.

In the morning, in my vacant rocking chairs,
I sometimes set for myself a couple of women
and carelessly gaze at them and converse with them:
in me you have one here you can’t rely on.

When night falls, I gather men around me;
we address each other as ‘gentlemen’.
They swing their feet onto my table tops.
They say: things will improve for us. I don’t ask when.

Come morning, in dawn’s grey light, pine trees piss
and their vermin, the birds, start to shriek.
At that hour, in the city, I drain a glass and fling
my cigar butt away and, troubled, fall asleep.

We have settled, a superficial crew,
in houses that to our minds will never fall derelict
(we’ve built tower blocks over Manhattan Island
and spindly antennae that tickle the Atlantic).

What will last of cities is what blows through them: wind!
Houses make happy eaters: wolfed in a moment.
We know it – we are temporary
and after us comes nothing really worthy of comment.

In the earthquakes that are to come, I hope I’ll keep
my Virginia lit, not doused, grown bitter.
I, Bertolt Brecht, carried off to the asphalt cities
long ago from the black forests inside my mother.

tr. Martyn Crucefix

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Bertolt Brecht’s ‘Of Poor B.B.’

I have taken too little heed of BB, the poet. The chances are that you have too. This would certainly have been the case in 1976 when John Willett and Ralph Mannheim published Brecht’s Poems 1913-1956 (Eyre Methuen) with its stellar cast of translators. The Introduction to that selection pointed out that, until well after his death in 1956, “Brecht the poet remained like an unsuspected time-bomb ticking” under world literature. It’s our desperate bad luck that most of us have only ever been encouraged to approach Brecht through his dramatic theories, then his plays, “only coming to the poems as a by-product of his theatre work”.

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Things may have changed more quickly on mainland Europe, but only 10 years ago Michael Hofmann could still argue that the “prevailing British view of [Brecht was] as an arid theorist of drama [. . .] and  the author of a few baffling but conniving plays” (Introduction to The Faber Book of 20th Century German Poems). In fact, Hofmann thinks of Brecht as the writer who took “poetry into the twentieth century”, its single most crucial figure. Against the claims of Eliot, Valery or Lorca this may seem a bold statement but Hofmann is thinking of poetry as “a living counter-force in socio-political reality [. . .] poetry of dissent and fear and protest and rebuke and pleasure”, an art that is “heartening and inspiring”. There is some risk of this drifting back towards BB the purveyor of proletarian political messages, but Hofmann’s contrast of Brecht with “his great counter-pole” in German poetry, Gottfried Benn, a poet of more familiar “private griefs and musics, of monologue, of fascination”, makes Brecht’s distinctive contribution clearer.

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In beginning to explore Brecht’s poetry I’ve been looking at poems from 1925-1928 and, like plenty before me, I’ve become intrigued by ‘Of Poor B.B.’ (German original and Michael Hamburger’s translation here; Hofman’s translation read here). Apparently the poem derives from lines jotted down on a speeding express train at 9.30pm in April 1922, when Brecht was travelling home to Augsburg after spending a difficult first winter in Berlin. The impact of the Great War is still visible here but Brecht is also very interested in exploring the impact of big city life. ‘A Reader for Those who Live in Cities’ was the title of a projected group of poems from around 1926.

Bertolt-Brecht

From the notes in Poems 1913-1956 it’s possible to reconstruct Brecht’s early draft which, compared to the final published version, demarcates town and countryside more simplictically: “I, Bertolt Brecht, came out of the black forests.” Paradoxically, the use of his own initials in the title and the bold use of his full name in the opening line, actually distances the poem from the straightforwardly autobiographical. BB is a representative figure and his move from countryside to town (is this the Industrial Revolution?) was wholly passive, beyond his control, as he moved while still in his pregnant mother’s body. In fact Brecht’s mother had died before he began visiting Munich and Berlin and the poem claims that the “coldness” of the forests remains inside BB and will do so till his “dying day”. Quatrains 3, 4 and half of 5 of this ballad-like ABCB poem-draft also characterize the cold, unrestful, uncomfortable woods, even to the extent that the pine trees “piss” with rain and the birds are “vermin”.

The early draft’s modernist anti-pastoral seems to be confirmed by the opening of the second quatrain: “In the asphalt city I’m at home” and quatrain 5 follows the noise of the bird-vermin in the trees with the seemingly-content city-dwelling BB: “At that hour in the city I drain my glass”. But there is clearly trouble in the urban paradise. Quatrain 2 portrays BB at ease (with a dig at religion in describing newspapers, tobacco and brandy as ‘sacraments’) yet there is something unsettling in the three adjectives that follow: BB is mistrustful, lazy content. Having drained his glass and stubbed his cigar he “worriedly” goes to sleep. In quatrain 6 of the draft the reasons for this worry are clarified (one of the changes in the final version is to remove some of these more logical connections) as BB plays a guitar to an uncomprehending audience and has “difficulty understanding” himself as the city dwellers seem “different animals”. Quatrain 7 wonders whether this is because he has been “carried off to paper and women” (which I take to mean the ‘pleasures’ of the city) from the black forests which still thrive “in me” along with the “roar of pines”. So the early draft suggests BB’s displacement to the city has not achieved an escape from the darkness and coldness of the black forests of his birth and he seems therefore ill-equipped to live truly contentedly in the modern city.

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Michael Hofmann

Brecht’s revisions of the poem between 1924 and 1925 make it both more modern and more mysterious. Hofmann has described the result as “strange and pitiless”. The most clear change is in the final version’s quatrain 3 where BB makes efforts to fit into city life (being friendly, polite, wearing a hat), finding other inhabitants “animals with a quite peculiar smell” (I’m now quoting Michael Hamburger’s rhymed translation). But then BB admits “does it matter? I am too”. The draft’s more ‘easy’ theme of the outsider is being dismissed. Two new stanzas follow in which BB seems ever-more at home in the city, with both its women and men. With the former he is “untroubled”, boastfully suggesting he is “someone on whom you can’t rely”. With the men he heartily hails them, feet up on a table as they say “things will get better for us” but he knows not to “ask when”. BB is now wholly complicit in the urban insincerities, the lies and pretence that make life bearable.

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Michael Hamburger

So the changes show neither city nor the black forest offers any real contentment or fulfillment and it’s this profound sense of alienation that Hofmann links to the Modernist pessimism of an Eliot: “nature and culture, friendship and love, are all travestied and diminished”. This is why BB still falls asleep “worriedly”. In the new stanzas (7, 8 and 9) this pessimism becomes positively apocalyptic as the poem becomes about a cultural moment, a whole culture. Quatrain 7 uses the first person plural significantly; we are “an easy generation” (Hamburger) or “a whimsical tribe” (Hofmann) living in great cities that we hubristically believe are “indestructible” (Brecht refers to Manhattan here, a place he had yet to visit in 1924). In reality, of our cities only the “wind” will survive and we are (in our hearts and as we fall asleep perhaps) dimly aware that “we’re only tenants, provisional ones / And after us there will come: nothing worth talking about”.

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Had the poem ended here the comparison with Eliot’s 1922 wasteland pessimism would be more apt but, in the apocalyptic “earthquakes to come”, BB hopes to keep his Virginia cigar alight and whether we read this as a perky priapic image, a gesture of New World hope, or insouciant resilience to prevailing socio-political conditions, it’s here that we find something heartening and inspiring, even if the tone is mostly pyrrhic. The concluding balladic repetition (“I, Bertolt Brecht, carried off to the asphalt cities”) now reads like a more determined declaration of identity, a will to life, to a better world. This is despite the whole poem’s extraordinarily thoroughgoing portrait of alienation and cultural decadence. There’s life in poor BB yet.

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