Uljana Wolf - Being truly between languages, the texts in this collection place themselves squarely against monolingual identity politics, whether invoking Anna O, child language, aphasia, or the isolation of asylum seekers in Bavarian forests.
Uljana Wolf, i mean i dislike that fate that i was made to where, Trans. by Sophie Seita. Wonder, 2015.
when it is time for oranges, ist keine zeit, no time at all, für nichts.
Winner of the second Wonder Prize, I MEAN I DISLIKE THAT FATE THAT I WAS MADE TO WHERE brings us Sophie Seita's playful translations of one of Germany's most innovative contemporary poets, Uljana Wolf. Being truly between languages, the texts in this collection place themselves squarely against monolingual identity politics, whether invoking Anna O, child language, aphasia, or the isolation of asylum seekers in Bavarian forests. Where the poet discovers multilingual lengevitch, the translator-writer turns the switch, and off we go following the „blur-print“ of their interlaced language: „a spark, a faltering unresting sway; en- wringed.“
Here poetry is b/read for w@nder, with Wolf’s imagination and wry wit hard at work in each of Sophie Seita’s delightful combinatory gleams. My head makes treasure-noises reading both these women and in reading them I too — you too! — join their palimpsest, their/our ingenuity of presence and annalanguage, and we’re glad.- Erin Mouré
Uljana Wolf has already brilliantly explored the border between languages in the false cognates of Falsche Freunde. Her new book examines a different border: of language loss (pathological, political) or acquisition. Heavy matters presented with a light, elegant touch and luminous inventiveness. Sophie Seita’s translation skillfully navigates this complex “interlace-space” where you “can’t see the would for the trees. - Rosmarie Waldrop
This is poetry, as its excellent publisher explains, written between German and English, which is to say that it finds its depth and playfulness — and seriousness — in the liminal zone of the unsayable. Wolf is a genius. Here’s the tiniest example:
they say surplus, i say bloody overplus, blossom guff. they ruffle and puff up pillows, i hiss: what can all this green stuff be? - flavorwire
Uljana Wolf, False Friends, Trans. by Susan Bernofsky, Ugly Duckling Presse, 2011. READ ONLINE
False Friends is concerned with the poetics of translation, with the ever-shifting border made material in the crossings between languages. This DICHTionary (Dichtung = Poetry in German) is an alphabet of prose poems following the double-helix pattern of so-called false friends in the German and the English—words that look and/or sound similar in both languages, but differ in meaning. At any given moment, each of these words might be used with German in mind, or English, or both. Other times these "friends" do not appear explicitly in their poems but instead remain standing behind them with suitcases full of etymology and misread linguistic maps. In the encounters between these words, mistranslation or misunderstanding is perceived as a program to generate poetry, a space of constant transfers and a playful plea for the irritations of translation in a world more and more defined by a globalized language and culture.
consider the woodpecker's third eyelid sliding supportively across its pupil. with its help, you can strike home any point without eyes popping from sockets.
Why This Book Should Win: Ugly Duckling is one of the most consistently interesting presses (or “presseses”?) in the world, and Susan Bernofsky one of the greatest translators ever.
Today’s post is from Erica Mena and is actually a chunk of the review she wrote of this for the Iowa Review. Click here to support the Iowa Review and read her full piece.
False Friends by Uljana Wolf, translated by Susan Bernofsky, is a delightful foray into language and poetry. Even for someone who has no knowledge of German, the playful shifts between the English translation and the German hinted at behind it are enlightening: both Bernofsky and Wolf clearly delight in the slipperiness of language and sound.
Cognates and homonyms suffuse the poem, toying with seemingly straightforward sentences and twisting them around against themselves. Bernofsky sustains this density of sound against the lightness of the tone, a balance she creates through deft rhythmic and rhyming patterns. The rhythmic quality of the prose poems is striking. In much of the book, Bernofsky hits regular iambic meter, and the poems are stuffed with internal rhyme with equally surprising (because non-lineated) sentence-end rhymes. The bouncy rhythm and dense sounds drive the reader forward through sometimes nonsensical phrases, foregrounding the absurdity of language.
Many of these prose poems read as though they could be nursery rhymes for precocious, hyper-literate children:
he who has a hat has what? i ask. broad-brimmed, you say, a roof above one’s head, cornered, crushed, and most likely of felt—so you’ll feel sheltered till a gust comes blustering by.
But there is exquisite darkness in the images:
still, it would be sinful, you say, not to speak of swans: six is silence, seven love, and in the end there’s a one-wing surplus. seems silly perhaps, but fairy tales save us many a swan song. so i say: consider the woodpecker’s third eyelid sliding supportively across its pupil. with its help, you can strike home any point without eyes popping from sockets. and after that first flutter of hard knocks, the silence cannot hurt you at all.
This book moves deceptively quickly, thanks to all its brilliant poetics and puns. It’s worth a second, third, even a fourth read. It demands to be read out loud, in the way that good poetry does. The book is organized alphabetically (“a DICHTonary of false friends true cognates and other cousins” reads the text on the title page). Each letter gets a short, 6–12 line block of prose full of alliteration and punning. The alphabet runs the gamut in English, then the second section of the book begins (on noticeably different paper, and printed differently, to accentuate the shift) in German. The original German poems have one obvious difference from the English: they are titled with words rather than listed under the letter of the alphabet. So “A” is, in German, “art / apart.” What especially stands out is that almost all the words in the German section that function as a title are English words—or at least, cognates to English words.
There are English quotes and phrases peppered throughout the German section as well. In “bad / bald / bet-t / brief” Wolf writes, “stattdessen morgens zu berg (take a bet?) und nachts out of bed (siehe ad).” The corresponding line in Bernofsky’s English reads, “standing on end instead (fake a bet?) and at night out of hand (see the ad).” Bernofsky takes the English embedded in the German and re-appropriates it to fit the rhythmic and sonic requirements of her line. “Fake a bet” is similar enough to “take a bet” at least in terms of sound, but it means something stranger, more open-ended. The same goes for “at night out of hand” rather than “out of bed.” The English that Wolf originally used would have made clear sense as a phrase in Bernofsky’s translation (though to a German reader in the original may have been somewhat more unclear). Bernofsky tweaks the phrases with inspiration to unsettle the poems. The project of the book is to toy with language and meaning, with things that sound similar and even the same across languages but mean strange, funny, unusual, and odd things. This is the joy of cognates, as any language learner will tell you—the surprise they can bring to the familiar. By defamiliarizing these phrases, Bernofsky brilliantly constructs an unfamiliar reading experience in English. - Chad W. Post
To speak multiple languages is to travel between universes. Few of us seriously ask why such travel evolved at all, why human beings speak multiple languages instead of just one. The story of Babel is a fable; how did hundreds of linguistic worlds actually come to co-exist in the space of one physical world? In After Babel, the critic George Steiner attempts to think through the multiplicity of human languages, writing:
If we postulate, as I think we must, that human speech matured principally through its hermetic and creative functions, that the evolution of the full genius of language is inseparable from the impulse to concealment and fiction, then we may at last have an approach to the Babel problem.
Steiner refers to the Biblical story, but his approach is less religious or mythical than it is historical and linguistic. He surmises that people developed different languages to pursue two simultaneous goals: to imagine a not-yet-true future that was more advantageous than the present, while hiding these strategically vital ideas from those outside the social group. Necessity and creativity combined to encourage the development of various languages, even among groups of people living in close proximity.
And within these languages grew a powerful vehicle for the exploration of human experience and the expansion of imagination: literature, art made out of language. Each language has its literature, its history of experience and imagination in that particular universe.
In this light, Steiner’s Babel problem is not simply a problem in the usual sense. As translators work to express parts of one universe in the words of another, they often find themselves laboring between the languages, in an uncharted space of linguistic surplus that is deeply uncertain but also full of possibility.
In her translator’s afterword at the end of Uljana Wolf’s i mean i dislike that fate that i was made to where, Sophie Seita mentions Rosmarie Waldrop and Theresa Hak Kyung Cha as exemplars of literary artists working inter-lingually, using multiple languages in a single text to draw maps of worlds between linguistic worlds. To these I would add such contemporary writer-translators as Christian Hawkey and Dagmara Kraus (whose poetry I have translated), as well as Birgit Kempker and Robert Kelly’s fabulous collaboration in German and English, Scham/Shame. In their work, these artists create spaces for languages to interplay and for readers to experience the thrill of simultaneous alienation and familiarity, disconnection and reconnection—in essence, spaces where being between languages is a source of enchanting uplift.
This willingness to create between languages is an approach to addressing the Babel problem and it is also the space that Wolf and Seita’s work occupies: the dizzying and transformative space the reader enters upon approaching this book. Although i mean i dislike that fate that i was made to where is Seita’s English translation of Wolf’s German poetry, this simple binary does justice to neither side of what it describes. Both texts, the original and the translation, are inter-lingual. They rely on linguistic multiplicity: they work in it; they are made of it.
Wolf has been working in this territory for several years, notably in her text, Falsche Freunde (False Friends in Susan Bernofsky’s ingenious translation). False Friends presents English and German as sisters who are not quite twins but who can sometimes wear one another’s clothing—with discomfiting and humorous results. Each language remains a universe unto itself, but in False Friends Wolf demonstrates how words that appear in two languages can act uncannily as wormholes, letting us step quickly into and back out of another world.
In i mean i dislike that fate that i was made to where Wolf returns to and expands upon this tendency to explore the space between languages. English and German seem to overflow their respective edges, oversaturating the text and giving it both buoyancy and depth. The linguistic overflow assumes several guises, linking them all as sublime moments in which people have access to a language that can overwhelm and supersede sense. One example is a child learning to understand and speak. Another is an aphasic slipping in and out of contact with language—a loss of control that can frustrate the speaker and her interlocutor in the same way that a secret would. There’s meaning underneath the static and the gaps but it remains simultaneously nearby and inaccessible. A third is a multilingual speaker flitting between languages, thereby at times obscuring her meaning, feigning to know more or less than she really does, or concealing truth and falsehood in the lockbox of unfamiliar language. These guises animate the book’s three sections, each of which explores the space between languages in a way related to politics, daily life, and creative work.
The first section, “i mean i dislike that fate that,” comprises two prose “Annalogues” which read as free-association soliloquies spoken in or near the voice of Freud and Breuer’s famous patient, “Anna O.” These solid blocks of text, mostly English transfused with German (and bits of French), are lyrical and digressive, as free-association language will be, and they careen through their blocky prose shape with fearless manic drive. Each is broken up (at the moment of page breaks) by a couple of very loose, sparse, interpretive poems, also quite inter-lingual, and so that the pattern of the pieces becomes a page of solid text followed by a loose scattering of lines, followed by a second wall of words, followed by another page of scattering. The reader is slotted into a rhythm, then jarred loose, then slotted back (the prose having continued unbroken from the first to the third page of the piece), then jarred again—all the while bouncing back and forth between English and German (often within the space of a single sentence).
The free-association pages of these pieces seem to skip along the surface of language, substituting one word (or language) for another, perhaps a slip-up born out of headlong momentum, or simply because the “wrong” word feels right in the rush of things. Things-in-the-world and the words that represent them seem to disassociate in a way we’ve come to align with insanity—and revelation. The momentum and musicality of the pieces pull the reader along at a whitewater pace, and readers who can read or recognize a little bit of German might feel a thrill as their brains auto-translate the German words and phrases in the course of their tumble down the page:
but when it is time for oranges, ist keine zeit, no time at all for thirst, für wasser.
let the tongue run free, looking for grounds between teeth, rejection, residence, waiting rooms. keeps me beschäftigt.
One effect of this is that the reader’s identification of truth, accuracy, and the rightness of finding the word wasser in the text (and the frisson of seeing it simultaneously as itself and as water) become linked to the inter-lingual moment and the space between languages. This moment is when things click, when the text that seemed slightly too mysterious suddenly fits its parts together in the reader’s mind. The music resolves, briefly, to harmony:
the other side of what. lemberg, tarnopol, stanislau. plant, and two years sans licht.
We have been driven to this moment of rightness, through eddies of incomprehension, past sense and then back into a small space of vindicating revelation in an “empty” spot between languages, a Babel place where no meaning should exist:
and they clear the room, disintegrated by my relentlessness. and yet i do not feel krank!
The inter-lingual space is revealed to be a stage of naiveté and guile, sincerity and play, control and freedom, obfuscation and revelation: excesses that can be balanced into beauty. This strange harmony offers a belated justification for Bertha Pappenheim, the real Anna O., who, like many other nineteenth-century women, was institutionalized when her doctors’ treatments failed.
The next section, “i was made to where,” is structured as three prose poems, collectively subtitled “three arches: böbrach,” which refer to a town in Bavaria near which asylum-seekers have been kept in conditions that precipitated protests and hunger strikes. Here, the book’s language politics expand. Where the Annalogues expose the sexist absurdity of demeaning female speech as nonsensical or hysterical, the three arches comment on contemporary diaspora, asylum, and the status of refugees as people caught between lands and between languages. The fear, the helplessness, the often powerless freedom of an in-between position are rendered in sentences that feel incomplete, perhaps purposely frustrated by administrative obfuscation, or perhaps set free of meaning by a gap between languages.
Between the nearly universal sounds and silences of nature, the spruces don’t break into silence, the bland blanketing dullness of German officialese, because Regen is county seat… ‘the location is not our fault,’ and the impotent language of the refugees (rapidly vanishing into the snowy blankness of rural Bavaria), a different kind of inter-lingual space is opened:
the words for this are white or gone like the last bus from the village. at night stillness lumbers in chills: the forest for the foreign
This space presents no revelation, instead swallowing the various languages into helplessness. Humanity endures in small moments of dark linguistic humor,
like you can’t see the would for the trees, they hand out no papers to you
but this space is ultimately as desolate and empty as the Annalogues were overstuffed with oranges, animals, and specifically-named places. In this section, here is nowhere, a place with no usable language and no sayable location, like Guantanamo or a Gulliverian nightmare. Sentences can start and end anywhere, can contain anything or (more likely) nothing, since there is no one to really hear them:
only the forest bureau forages duties is up to no good, he takes you in white quoted frogmarch.
Wolf published her book in 2013, the year of the hunger strike, and since then Germany has accepted thousands of refugees from Syria and neighboring countries amid heated domestic and international debate. Hundreds of thousands more desperately await resettlement. The wait can last months or even years, time spent suspended in uncertainty in isolated transit camps, and asylum-seekers in Böbrach protested with hunger to make knowledge of their impoverished living conditions public. Is it fair to say that asylum-seekers unable to advocate for themselves in German have been reduced by circumstance to child-like linguistic powerlessness? Is it safe to assume that the representatives of the state hide their intentions behind a language that the refugees don’t speak? Is it right to understand that immigrants exercise a measure of resistance by speaking to each other in their own language?
The final section, “babeltrack: notes on a lengevitch,” is organized around five more prose poems, and explicitly unites the three guises that structure the book. The section is partly a diary of Wolf’s reactions to reading the linguist Roman Jakobson on aphasia, which he links to childhood linguistic development. The idea in play is that an incompletely functioning sense of language might be the key to a certain porousness, a looseness of connection between word and idea and thing-in-the-world that unmoors the speaker (and reader) in ways both frightening and exhilarating. Wolf’s response provides the extension to living inter-lingually, and Seita quietly dramatizes the further extension of translating this passage when she performs for the reader the difficulty of finding a word for “the difficulty of finding a word.” She translates Wolf’s compound word, wortfindungsschwierigkeiten, as hard-word-finding. The subsequent passage describes the experience of living between languages as
little access problems in conversations, i mean timing, a kind of conversation-smudging, where you must prepare for the blur-print, so as to get a blur or berry in, right, but you’re just sitting there and others hevva juicy red chin.
With hevva, Wolf refers to the subtitle of the section, the lengevitch of the early twentieth-century American poet Kurt M. Stein. Stein wrote poetry in the dialect of German-American immigrants who never quite released themselves from the grip of their mother tongues into unencumbered American English. The speakers in Stein’s poems often find themselves incapable of communicating successfully in either German or English, mudding along in between with humorous results. They hevva problem with lengevitch, out of which Stein makes wonderful, fun poetry. Wolf is, similarly, creating poetry out of the disconnect she observes, slyly finding the words (with Seita) to deliver the experience of hard-word-finding:
all these words then pounce on each other, the different kind, wild and not child, they’re in cahoots inside my head, these failing trails, exultant foreign arrangement of folds, folds are falten, me falta, es fehlt mir, this word, which means miss, me falta, in the language of this island, in another fala is ‘i speak’— a spark, a faltering unresting sway; en-wringed
Wolf exercises beautiful control over these passages that detail the struggle to control two languages at once. She seems to help the languages themselves to share a secret, perhaps guiding them into the world by loosening her grip on both.
The book concludes with Seita’s afterword, which acknowledges the lineage of the writers mentioned above and which describes the book as a collaboration between the author, the translator, and many textual sources of inspiration, conversation, and “writing-with” that informed the composition and translation of the text. Seita’s insightful notes not only help the reader understand the collaborative nature of the work, they illuminate an approach to writing and translation that harmonizes beautifully with the text itself: i mean i dislike that fate that i was made to where comes to us through the minds of Wolf and Seita, through the universes of English and German, and it invites us into a space that includes all this and the possibility of imagining even more. - Joshua Daniel Edwin
False Friends by Uljana Wolf is reviewed in the Iowa Review
Uljana Wolf's False Friends and the conceptual lyric reviewed by Marjorie Perloff in Jacket2
from In Tattern
łódźaperture on october
window to courtyard:
biggest photo wallpaper
you ever sat facing
pigeons on roofedge
with clay feet
on god’s conveyor belt
no wingpair none
whose beat reaches you
an old photo
in overexposed wind
passengerswe weave ourselves
on the switches
against the train’s
postas if you’d
in a coffer
and the lock
as if it were
the ovens sleptI
when we awoke with nests
in our hair we named night
the convalescent fathers slammed
all the traps shut shovel-handed
the ovens slept without shep
herding us into their oblivion
when we were sick from soot
and the dry-bulk of archives
we moved with our grandfathers
into a boarded-up signal tower
watched the old rail guards
set their hands on the lever
through the dead switch line
ran a tremble as of traveling
when the discarded wagons
on the sidetrack dreamed
of reloading point at the oder’s knee
of freight chutes and culm
we stole one sluggish car
from its rail from its bed
letting sparks in empty warehouses
leap in our direction
The small train stations without a town.
but when we scattered out on
an open stretch between sites
since the stars too one says
stoke their ovens above us
we sparked through landscape
that lay like fly ash around us
once more the route through to
the house of the switch operator
legnica / liegnitz
when we traveled in trains men
who weren’t our fathers carried
the country in hand-braided baskets
(mushrooms beers) drowsily in the compartment
the smoke from their mouths still
hung like night long stuck in our hair
Two Poems from DICHTionary
(A German-English dictionary of false friends, true cognates and other cousins)
(A German-English dictionary of false friends, true cognates and other cousins)
F fall / falls / fast / fell / flog to flog a dead horse: vergeblicher sport. wir wollens lieber wieder fliegen sehn, ohne striemen stehn im stall, im herbst, in jedem fall before it fell: well & lebendig. und falls wendig, fast as water: schillerndes fell, wir striegelten faster, dass keiner einen riegel schöbe vor den quell, eine regel, oder riemen, oder was sich sonst hier schindend pflog.
F fall / falls / fast / fell / flog to flog a dead horse: what foolish sport. we’d rather see it fly again, see it stand unwhipped within its stall, or failing that, before it falls: well & alive. and if it’s lithe, let it be quick as water, a shimmering coat, we curried it cunningly, that no door be barred before the font, no rule or strap to halt us in our labors till we make the hoofbeats scan. ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~
V [vase] a vase is a vase is a vase und das gilt, scheints, für jedes wort das tiefer ist als breit. bereit? ornament is not a vase although it comes with one. word is some people come in what they think must be a vase, for they deflower it. what a lack of depth, and wit. ornament, ornament, i’m tired of your bored lament. you need a lover who would write a vase a letter: dear vessel, you’re not a word.
a vase is a vase is a vase and it’s the same for any word that’s deeper than wide. shall we look inside? ornament is not a vase although it comes with one. word is some people come in what they think must be a vase, for they deflower it. what a lack of depth, and wit. ornament, ornament, i’m tired of your bored lament. you need a lover who would write a vase a letter: dear vessel, you’re not a word.
The German poet and translator Uljana Wolf was born in East Berlin, and studied German literature, English, and Cultural Studies, in Berlin and Krakow. Her poems have appeared in journals and anthologies in Germany and all over Europe. Given the ease with which Uljana Wolf’s poems appear to be written – with her playful use of language and sense of rhythm – one might think that writing poetry comes easily to her. Yet, with only two published volumes, she is certainly not one of the most prolific writers of her trade. Actually, the author seeks to avoid putting words into the world that don’t really need to be there, which is why it is assumed that she will have discarded any number of them on her way.Being on the road plays an essential role in the life of Uljana Wolf. Not only does she live seasonally between Berlin and New York, but the experience and possible interpretations of linguistic, social, and political boundaries appear to be the central theme and intellectual concern of her writing.
In her first poetry collection, kochanie, ich habe brot gekauft (kookbooks, 2005), the motif is already being explored – specifically, the German-Polish border and its historical dimensions and connotations. In her second book, falsche freunde (kookbooks, 2009), a variety of other border phenomena are linguistically examined. For example, the poems in the section entitled ‘Aliens’ are based on a checklist of diseases and disorders that American inspectors used at Ellis Island for the evaluation of immigrants. In turn, present-day border control is reflected on in a series of erasures – government texts and instructions for security technology are critically exposed and converted into poetry by means of deletion.
Borders define; they denote countries and other stationary entities. At the same time, they are also the sites where friction and movement occur: border traffic, trade, migration, deportation, smuggling, as well as all of the violations and experiments done to overcome and infiltrate those boundaries. Uljana Wolf’s poems are themselves sites of continuous transfer, always in motion and prepared to subvert any preconceived notions. According to the poet, a poem should not be static, but “a language-citizen of a state of being, a state of becoming, that itself is still moving . . . and is open to outside influences”.* This poetic motion and external influence often result in hybrid forms, which are particularly suited to crossing genre and language barriers because they are less clearly defined and consumable.
With one of such hybrid forms, Wolf approaches a different type of border phenomenon in the namesake cycle of her second book: “false friends,” or words in two languages that orthographically or phonetically resemble each other, which sound or look the same, but have different meanings. In another section, ‘Subsisters’, she investigates the transformative influence of subtitles, which are used to enable language border crossings. In this section, there are two versions of each poem – the original and a new version, as it would be perceived with subtitles.
Borders are often also language barriers, and yet, Wolf says, “languages don’t abide by borders, or paper. Nor do they stop at other languages”.** In her poems, she is much more interested in how languages meet and blend, thus showing that linguistic identities are often more complex than we think. This also shows translation as a linguistic border experience with its own charms. Since, for Uljana Wolf, each language has its own characteristics, putting poems into the target language is often an act of reinventing, of poetic reconstruction. Therefore, for her, translation is a creative form of writing.
This very free and flexible understanding of translation includes the possibility of misunderstanding, which is ultimately just another type of understanding. The concept of “translation as poetic practice” encompasses the idea that translations of one’s own “untranslatable” poems are considered as authentic to the original work, even when they were made by fellow authors who do not have a strong command of the source language and when the poems are in part rewritten.
Uljana Wolf is herself a translator, particularly of English-language and Eastern European poetry. Among others, kookbooks published her and Steffen Popp’s translation of a collection of Christian Hawkey’s poetry, as well as her translations of the prose poetry of Matthea Harvey. Furthermore, she and Hawkey have also collaborated on erasures of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s sonnets (in English and from Rilke’s German translation).
Uljana Wolf is nationally and internationally in continuous conversation with other poets. She admires authors like Ilse Aichinger for her commitment against turning a blind eye to one’s history and for her relentless poetics. Or the contemporary poet Caroline Bergvall, whose “Meddle English” and language mixing are concerned with forms of linguistic, social and gendered violence or estrangement. Wolf sees this as a suitable method for poetry to take part in the social discourse on power: to try to develop a poetic practice through an engagement with social issues and counter-movements. She lists elements of this method as “research, forming relationships, awareness of forms as sediments of past or present functions and discourse, difference, illegal crossings, etc. ”** It quickly becomes clear that these elements can easily be found in the writing and writing process of Uljana Wolf herself. - Heiko Strunk
Uljana Wolf is a German poet, teacher and translator based in Brooklyn and Berlin. She published four books of poetry with kookbooks (Berlin), most recently meine schönste lengevitch and SONNE FROM ORT, a collaborative erasure of Elizabeth Barrett-Browning’s sonnets with Christian Hawkey. English translations of her work appeared in three chapbooks, my cadastre (Norby Press), false friends (Ugly Duckling Presse) and ALIENS: an island (Belladonna*). A Spanish translation of her work, Fronteras del lenguaje, was published by La Bella Varsovia/Cosmopoética (Córdoba 2011). Wolf received several grants and awards for her work and for her translations, among them the prestigious Peter-Huchel-Preis for her debut, kochanie ich habe brot gekauft in 2006. Wolf translated numerous poets into German, among them John Ashbery, Charles Olson, Matthea Harvey, Christian Hawkey, Erín Moure, and Cole Swensen, and was the co-editor of the Jahrbuch der Lyrik 2009. She teaches German and poetry translation at the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn.
Christian Hawkey and Uljana Wolf, Sonne from Ort, Kookbooks, 2013.
In the Age of Theory, which (please god) we may have passed through by now, the subject of translation was about as rich a manure pile as you could’ve stepped in. And if translation hadn’t already existed as a practice, post-structuralists would’ve had to have invented it. For however the distance between a work and its translation into another language are bridged, the two shores never meet, even if their mutual geographies are only a spitting distance apart: two continents, one having split off from the other, with indeterminate drift. In this way, a work and its translation are analogous to the abyssal situation between a thing and its word. Thus, translation creates another layer of uncertainty, exacerbating the arbitrariness of linguistic relations. And that’s not a theory; it’s a fact. Actually, it’s a theorist’s wet dream. As if reading weren’t already hard enough….
Still, a relationship exists, and our need to extend our connection to others inspires great translations. Great translators are writers who have fallen in love with a work in another language, and through ardor and erudition attempt to consummate their love in another bed of their own making. But there’s never any true touching; rather it’s a kind of zero-gravity dance in which the partner following mimics the actions of the lead partner. They resemble each other yet their differences remain absolute.
Translation can also serve as a kind of mask, the persona of one writer donned by another. The excitement of expressing new feelings and ideas through the vocal adoption of a source work in another language is inspiring—you are suddenly saying things you could never say before.
Between 1845 and 1846, Elizabeth Barrett Browning translated 44 sonnets from the Portuguese, traditional love poems written in another language that she carried over into English. Um, check that. In fact, as we’ve known almost from the beginning, Sonnets from the Portuguese are original (mostly Petrarchan) sonnets that Barrett Browning wrote to Robert Browning during their courtship. Unlike some famous poetic hoaxes that were popularly misconstrued in the 18th century (mostly in the form of epic), Sonnets from the Portuguese tapped into a genuine lyric feeling that Barrett Browning spun with terrific skill into one of the most popular poetic works in English. While the other impersonations are now little more than academic curiosities, Sonnets from the Portuguese has never been out of print.
Barrett Browning’s work wasn’t a hoax. In response to a real situation, she adopted a vocal mask of her own invention to express native feelings perhaps otherwise inhibitive. Of course, there is also the added charm of the appealingly exotic — they are not, for example, Sonnets from the Bosnian, the first title she considered before Robert Browning suggested the one we now know, with its more cultured sense of Romance associated with a language, as they say, of the heart. (“My little Portuguese” was also Robert Browning’s pet name for her.) This may strike some readers with a fragrance of pastiche, and there’s more than an element of kitsch in the weave. Barrett Browning’s sonnets are elevated, allegorical, passionate, agonized; they have the sound and they elaborate on the conceits with which readers of poetry remain familiar. And these qualities have often appealed to poets of other tongues, Rainer Maria Rilke being one, who called the sequence “one of the great bird calls of the heart in the landscape of love,” translating them into German in an edition published by Insel Verlag in 1908. (—There is something just a little kitschy, too, running through Rilke, that one detects in his art-love, chrysanthemums, and unicorns . . . The Santa Claus of Loneliness, W.H. Auden called him!)
When Sonnets from the Portuguese, written originally in the language of Victorian England, was carried over by Rilke into early twentieth century German, it crossed several borders at once: linguistics, nation/culture, gender, time. Fast forward through international modernism, two world wars, a divided Germany, the revolutions of 1968, Vietnam, postmodernism…. Welcome to 2013, and the publication of Sonne from Ort, an erasure project conducted by U.S. poet, Christian Hawkey (b. 1969) and German poet, Uljana Wolf (b. 1979), a married couple with a new baby and a new co-authored book — the record of their own courtship, perhaps? —transmitted through the mirroring process of translation and erasure — a method of redacting some words in an original work while leaving others, in this case to reveal hidden alternative lyrics embedded in the highly wrought finished poems we already know well from generations of reading. The title, Sonne from Ort, emerges from the original by virtue of an erasing. The new title, with its mix of German and English, translates loosely as Sun from Place (or Location, Site, a specific spot); “ort” is also Middle English for something like “leftover,” and the essential derivative nature of erasure keeps that meaning active, too (not to mention the homonym, always visible, of son).
Erasure projects can smack of preciosity, instilling a false new value into an old thing we were never really interested in to begin with — for example, taking an old obsolete book and, by erasing or covering over some portion of text, revealing a new boring work lurking inside the dull original. But when Tom Phillips picked up an obscure Victorian novel back in 1966, and then altered every page of it by painting around words and phrases, he created, by virtue of connecting disparate syntactic units, new associations, in a sense thereby creating an entirely new narrative, in a new way. Not only that, the painting itself is brilliant, matching the cut-up of printed text with startlingly fresh colorful patterns and designs that complement the affect of carving out new sinuous meanings from an otherwise inert text block — the plates are vibrant and ghostly at once.
The flatness of the new visual composition has more aesthetic life and discovers or creates a verbal text and texture suggestive of a depth not too evident in the original. It’s a new book, not just a found one. Thus, W.H. Mallock’s novel, A Human Document, which no one reads, nor will read (if they ever even did) becomes Tom Phillips’ A Humument, one of the great and most popular artist’s books of the latter 20th century.
The impressiveness of the result lies in Phillips’ determination to create a new original plate for every page of a typically long derivative novel. To see such a strong wedding of postmodern approach to dusty antique material was exciting, and the work still conveys a fresh exuberance; it’s still fun to read and cool to contemplate. When Mary Ruefle copied him 33 years later with a different Victorian text and a pot of white-out, it was impossible to feel much interest in such trail-following (as much as I like her distinctive, original poems). – David Bowie, thinking of himself, famously said that it’s not important who does something first; what’s important is who does it second. Not always true, we know now if we didn’t before. (For readers who’d like to make up their own mind, Ruefle’s A Little White Shadow is published by Wave Books and widely available.)
Christian Hawkey and Uljana Wolf have benefitted from these earlier procedures and imitations: having taken precise stock of erasure as method, they have re-conceptualized it in terms of translation, thus creating a new kind of virtual poem cube, with three pairings that face each other and continually recombine relations: English-German / Barrett Browning-Rilke / Hawkey-Wolf (— and we must remember that Hawkey & Wolf constitute an interpersonal triple rhyme of nationality, gender, and generation). Hawkey makes an erasure out of a lyric by Barrett Browning (it seems inaccurate to say he “erases” the text, merely; both he and Wolf create something new by taking something away; they uncover and add a text that did not previously exist; and the way they do it constitutes a kind of translation — about which more later); and Wolf does the same with the same sonnet as translated by Rilke. Hawkey’s erasure of the original Barrett Browning, and Wolf’s erasure of the translation by Rilke face each other, verso-recto.
But before one opens the cover, one is struck by the object of the book itself. The folks behind Kookbooks, one of the more intriguing independent publishers of poetry in Berlin, think seriously about book design as a meaningful integral textual feature. Whereas such a “project” as Sonne from Ort could easily inspire a kind of fetishized book object — the kind of memorializing of the book itself, for example, that one finds in Anne Carson’s Nox — in this case, the designer, Andreas Töpfler, has invented a typographic equivalent of crossed out or redacted units in each poem, so that the gesture of the hand erasing the text is maintained, but without the kind of fussy facsimile reproduction associated with a photographed page: the mechanical reproduction in Sonne from Ort represents the physical gesture of erasure and abstracts it. Here, for example, is XLIII, the penultimate and most famous sonnet in the sequence:
I’ll come back to the verbal text, but you can see right away that the erased lines are not the kind of uniform affectless black stripes that typically mark redacted language. These are not anonymous bureaucratic redactions, but rather artistic erasures; they have the authority and peculiarity of an individual decision, confident but improvised, and various in pressure, line, and measure. The strikes, cross-outs, erasures, redactions – call them what you will – look like an act of drawing, but they’re not. They’re the typographic representation of a physical human gesture that conveys an act of reading, a re-writing, a critical act — the vogue term is ‘intervention,’ in this case an entirely appropriate one.
If we back up and read the book as an object, we find a photo reproduction of the cover for the first edition of Rilke’s translation, made in 2013 into a paperback book wrap: a kind of wallpaper print that figures ad infinitum two purple gray mourning doves facing each other in profile. At the back of each is a redder purple blossom larger than the dove, and between them is a thin stalk rising into a blossom that sits at the back of another dove, etc. Framed in the center is the title plate; the title, author, translator, and publisher have been neatly whited-out by hand, leaving visible only the first half of the publisher’s name, Insel (Island, in German), which sits as a little island of print in the sea of whiteout. It’s a kind of erasure/translation joke, but not a trivial one, in which the word’s meaning is now concretely enacted, that infinite space between word & thing having been reduced by a length. But if Sonne from Ort is a textual island, it belongs to an archipelago. For here we have a perfect metaphor for the enface erasure book itself, which faces the book of translations by Rilke, which faces the book of sonnets by Barrett Browning, which faces the ghost of Portuguese originals that never existed . . . (It’s hard not to imagine Rilke’s own fancy being piqued by the rhyme between his name and hers: each poet with three names; each name two syllables, with two names alliterating: EBB / RMR).
And in Sonne from Ort, the Portuguese originals that never existed now face back to a set of poetic derivations that never existed, as such, until Hawkey & Wolf came along and erased a lot of words. So, how do the new poems work, what are they? Let’s return to that most famous penultimate sonnet. First the original by Barrett Browning (verso), facing Rilke’s translation (recto).
Now, again, Hawkey’s erasure of Barrett Browning (verso) facing Wolf’s erasure of Rilke (recto).
The relation between poets combines in at least four ways: EBB-RMR / CH-UW / CH-EBB / RMR-UW. We take interest, for example, not just in what Hawkey erased in Barrett Browning, and how what he left for us to read relates to the original, but in how the new derivative text of Hawkey’s relates to Wolf’s parallel choices; likewise, we are interested not only in Wolf’s parallel choices of erasure (vis-à-vis Hawkey), but in the original choices that Rilke makes as translator of Barrett Browning.
What do we find? First, that Hawkey has, in a sense, inverted the sense of Barrett Browning. He has translated, or carried over, Barrett Browning’s meaning, not into another language that approximates the language of Barrett Browning; rather, using Barrett Browning’s own language, but selecting which parts of her language to leave legible, he has carried the meaning to the other side of the emotional mirror. The lover who speaks does not express an undying love, as in Barrett Browing, but rather the death of love: “Let me count the ways / when feeling / ends.” Ja, but this is also in the Barrett Browning. It’s not not Barrett Browning. Nor is it. Erasing a famous work is not the same thing as erasing an obscure forgotten one: in the case of the former, the act of interpretation is more foregrounded. Where Barrett Browning elaborates the feeling and idea of amorous ongoingngess in an ongoing bourgeoning syntax that crosses line & stanza boundary, Hawkey cuts short to the blunt point in nine syllables: “Let me count the ways / when feeling / ends” : five syllables / three syllables / one. But just quoting the verbal text doesn’t convey the full affect of the erasure, that also tells us something essential about the emotional experience: that the three lines of Hawkey’s erasure unfold in a kind of reverse stepping down the textual stairs of the first quatrain. They literally reverse the advance of Barrett Browning’s syntax & line, and kill the pastiche of the love sonnet. At the same time, the newly fragmented poem has its own appeal; it is a kind of new ruin, with an ancient atmosphere. Hawkey’s is a cool act of criticism; but as good criticism should, it stays true to the work, even amplifies it (— paradoxically, in this case, by virtue of a minimalism). And what follows, in the grim quantification of erasure, is the disappearance of love itself. After great pain, one could say, a formal feeling comes . . . Here, the form becomes the container of an emptiness. And it takes dominion everywhere. When Robert Creeley wrote that “form is never more than an extension of content,” this is, in part, what he had in mind. But you can’t just quote the verbal text and understand the meaning; the full meaning is grounded in the graphic text, they are integral. To get it, you have to see Barrett Browning’s page, erased by Hawkey.
And what about Rilke/Wolf, on the facing page? Wolf’s Rilke’s Barrett Browning also counts, but not the ways, rather “meine // Lampen” — “my Lamps” — “oder” (“or”) she writes, “alle / meine Heiligen” — “all / my Saints.” “Let me count / my // Lamps / or / all / my Saints.” Wolf here invents new metaphor and also makes the ethereal more concrete, by erasing part of a compound word (“schein” from Rilke’s “Lampenschein,” or lamplight — a translation of Barrett Browning’s “candel-light”) in order to stage the presence of the object of the lamp itself, not just the light it casts, the lamp becoming metaphorically linked with “Saints.” The suspense of syntax as it maneuvers over the terrain of erasure is a narrative suspense wedded to the drama of figuration. But again, you need to read the typographical field of the whole page to understand the range of connotation initiated by the erasure. As does Hawkey, Wolf rotates Barrett Browning’s meaning another quarter turn past Rilke’s translation: the Saints are not lost, as in the original, but returned through the lamps into an ever-present companionability. We could say that the Saints of Love were only lost in the original, not lost, as we are given to understand, proverbially, in translation.
Such alternatives, reversals, fracturings, and other kinds of prismatic playing upon and with the originals may seem, in explication, all too clever-clever. But as with all poetry, context matters, and these erasures are best understood as the by-proxy love play between two 21st century poets, whose cunning grasp of poetic convention does not ironically cancel out emotional experience, but honors it by using it, refashioning it. One more example. Here’s the verso-recto of Barrett Browning XXIX and Rilke’s translation of it:
The bands of greenery—thoughts about the beloved—should fall and shatter, leaving the lover himself nakedly available and close. The poem is saying that in the presence of the beloved, poetry is unnecessary, maybe even a distraction, hindrance, or beside the point. It’s a classic paradox imported straight out of the Renaissance and the Petrarchan tradition of love poetry. Love poetry is always hoping to erase itself, because the love poem is itself a proxy vehicle, a love object that the lover most ardently hopes to replace with the object of the beloved. Here’s Hawkey’s erasure of Browning (verso) next to Wolf’s erasure of Rilke’s translation (recto):
In Hawkey’s erasure, thoughts of the beloved are replaced by thoughts themselves; as a poet loves poetry, so too does cogitator love thinking. If the erasure turns on the original, it is only translating the volta already always formally native to the sonnet: “Yet, O” –the poem makes its turn, the original “bands of greenery” do not fall, shattered to the ground, but continue to “breathe within …. a new air, / too near thee.” Breathing in proximity is what these erasures want to do; their method is to breathe new air into Barrett Browning’s poems by lightening her rhetorical, figurative, and syntactic elaborations, stripping the poems to reveal a freshened body in love. Poetic finish becomes refinished.
Wolf follows, calling back to Hawkey, “I think / with broad / // torn // -Ah”. Where Hawkey erases Barrett Browning’s “shattering,” Wolf holds onto Rilke’s translation of it, “torn,” reflexively marking the textual tearing: Rilke’s translation of Barrett Browning’s “hear thee” — “Dich-Ahnen” (“sense thee”) — reverts to a lover’s sigh, “-Ah” — the act of reception is thereby translated into one of projection: and this double action, of reception & projection, is a great metaphor for translation, reenacted in this book.
How do I love thee? Let me count the ways… /// 1) Let me count the ways / when feeling / ends /// 2) Let me count / my // Lamps / or // all / my Saints. Addition through subtraction; call & response. Add in the fact that Hawkey and Wolf also translate each other’s poetry elsewhere, and the project of their erasure book seems more and more like a beautifully rendered conceptual work that, in some sense, is about marriage: between people, poetries, textuality, life. An exploration of distance, of closing and opening the gaps, that is also a recognition of ongoing relation. So, a new book of poems, very much of the present, always already founded in the past, looking forward, and suggesting how the language & form of poetry continue to change.
That it’s so rare to find a work of conceptual poetry that is also so satisfying to read, not just to talk about, says something about our situation. But with poets such as Christian Hawkey and Uljana Wolf thinking and talking about what’s possible in poetry, poetry continues to seem possible. Neither theory, nor fact, that’s just my hope – and hope for poetry is renewed only by poems, wherever we may find them. — Joshua Weiner