Paperback: 148 pages
Publisher: Black Lawrence Press (December 20, 2015)
Language: English and German
The myth of the Tower of Babel describes a humanity that has united in the years after the Great Flood. Joined by language and purpose, humans decide to build a city and a tower whose peak reaches the heavens as a testament to the conviction that people would never again be divided along sectarian lines. Of course, the god of the Old Testament didn’t like this idea. He cast groups of people across the globe and gave each a different language. The writers of the King James Version make the interesting choice of using the word “confound” to describe what the god of the Old Testament did to “the language.” How appropriate that the word can mean “to defeat utterly…bring to ruin,” “to overthrow,” or “to destroy the purity, beauty or usefulness of” depending on one’s perspective.
All literature is an act of translation on some level; what are words but representations of things and concepts that are inherently subjective to every reader? Can it be said that any writer’s work is a perfect representation of their thoughts? And how would we even know for sure? Okla Elliott begins Blackbirds in September: Selected Shorter Poems of Jürgen Becker by evoking Umberto Eco’s statement that translation is the “art of failure,” as it is impossible to take a carefully cast sentence, melt it in a crucible and to pour it into the mold of another tongue with perfect fidelity. Does a translator “ruin,” “overthrow” or “destroy the purity” of the original work? Of course not. In his introductory note, Mr. Elliott acknowledges the impossibility of his task while simultaneously proclaiming the beauty and necessity of translated work. Translating is “the best way to read a writer’s work,” makes a writer accessible to those who do not have the original language under their belts, and opens a poet such as Mr. Becker to analysis by scholars in other fields.
Jürgen Becker’s formative years coincided with the highs and lows experienced by Germany before and after World War II. Mr. Becker’s work is imbued with an appropriate weariness and a confirmation of the glory of nature that is sometimes corrupted (or confounded) by war and the people who wage it. The poet uses weather and the flora and fauna affected by it to draw metaphors, to reflect upon humanity and sometimes just to have fun. The tone of the original German lines and their translations is primarily one of knowing calm; Mr. Becker is not an angry firebrand, the kind of thinker who burns him or herself out in a few years of shouting truth to the world. No, the author offers us a slow burn that lends itself to deeper and longer moments of reflection and that result in eventual and powerful change.
True to his word, Mr. Elliott takes very great care to translate the poems without rewriting them. A particular example represents quite nicely the limitations and benefits of this approach to translation. Compare Mr. Becker’s “Vier Zielen” to its English counterpart, “Four Lines:”
Unter Pappeln sitzend, und wieder die Stimme
im Selbstgespräch, das nicht aufhört, bis
alles zermübt ist, der Wind erleichtert nichts,
der einfach durch die Blätter geht.
Sitting under the poplars, and once again the voice—
talking to itself—it won’t stop, until everything
is worn away; the wind doesn’t make things easier;
it just blows through the leaves.
Recite Mr. Becker’s lines aloud, even if you don’t have full command of German. Sounding out the words reveals some graceful alliteration. Those “s” sounds followed by those voiceless palatal fricatives of the “ch” phonemes replicate the sound of the wind through the leaves on an autumn day, doesn’t it? Unfortunately, the English language simply does not allow Mr. Elliott to recreate this effect with phonemes, so he must go in another direction. You’ll notice that the translator has employed em dashes and semicolons in place of some of the commas in the original, the effect of which matches the legato and adagio music made by waving tree branches.
Mr. Becker’s poetry is inextricably linked with the feeling of place. How appropriate then, that Mr. Elliott discovered his work while studying abroad in Germany. Blackbirds in September is a kind of travelogue; the poet titles his work after cities, municipalities, significant buildings and areas within cities. “Ostende” seems like a harsh and beautiful place that I would very much like to visit…with half my money hidden in my shoe. The staff of the “Hotel Belgica” likely doesn’t put chocolate on your pillows, but you probably bring home some great stories after you check out.
Mr. Elliott’s translations are conservative and respectful. The only notable diversions from the original poems occur when Mr. Elliott experiments with lineation. Taken as a whole, these infrequent experiments are profitable ones, preserving reasonable interpretations of Mr. Becker’s intent. Blackbirds in September does a great service, allowing English speakers to enjoy the work of the winner of the Georg Büchner Prize, one of the most prestigious in German letters. While it is tempting to classify Mr. Becker’s work according to its position in history, the poems also stand as intimate slices of one man’s life that allow us to meditate on our own. Humans remain separated by geography and language, a condition that has persisted since prehistory, no matter your beliefs. Mr. Becker’s poetry and Mr. Elliott’s representation of the verses remind us that we are nonetheless united by our place in nature and the indifference with which Mother Nature sees us.
~ Kenneth Nichols.