Poetry Friday: 1938, part 3

Sketch of Gottfried Benn

A sketch of Gottfried Benn, a poet silenced by two societies. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

As I was preparing to finish my 1938 Pulitzer winner, and enter into 1939 and the years of war, a poet caught my eye with whom I was totally unfamiliar: Gottfried Benn.  Benn was a German expressionist poet who had become so openly appalled by the tactics of the National Socialists (Nazis) in Germany that his poetry was banned by the German government in 1938–he was literally forbidden to write.  In a weird irony, Benn’s work was banned again immediately after World War II, when the Allies sought to silence him as one of many German writers who had initially supported the Nazi movement—Benn, as an anti-Marxist, thought initially that Hitler and his revolutionary crowd would create space for the kind of expressionist art that Benn wanted to flourish.  As a writer doubly silenced for his politics (and silenced particularly in this year of 1938 that I’ve been contemplating), I thought I should track down some of his poetry, and share a poem for our collective reflection.  For obvious reasons I couldn’t unearth anything he wrote in 1938—this is a poem he wrote in 1934, entitled “Einst” in its original German, and “Yesteryear” in the English translation I’ll post below, by Alexandra Chciuk-Celt:

Yesteryear: winter came down,
You would hang onto the shadows
Left by the ponds and meadows
And twilight towns.

Sphinx-blue the cities would glimmer,
Marking the ocean-snow track—
Where has that gone now, I wonder?
There’s no way back.

Those ancient gifts and that grieving
Which always made us so tough—
If we have truly suffered,
Is that enough?

This is my first opportunity on a Poetry Friday to really grapple with both sides of a translated work: that is, I know enough German from my years and years of Saturday morning German classes as a kid (and my college German work, both as student and tutor) that I can comment somewhat knowledgeably about the differences between the original and the translation.  (Side note: To those capable enough in German that you’d like to see all of the original, it can be found, among other places, at this German poetry site: Gottfried Benn’s “Einst”.)  While on the whole I think Chciuk-Celt does a really nice job of preserving the original’s rhythm and rhyme patterns (for the most part) as well as its content, I have a few quibbles I’ll voice along the way, and the first of these is the choice of “Yesteryear”—such a showily poetic word, never used in conversation—when Benn had chosen the much more prosaic “Einst”, or “Once”.  Sure, from context, he may well be referring to “Once” in a “once upon a time” sense, but her choice feels a bit forced to me, and really clangs on my ears.  “Once” is, to my ears, a much more dramatic and interesting word, both as a title and as the poem’s first word, and I really question the choice of “Yesteryear”.  But on to what Benn himself is saying.

I am intrigued by the ambiguity of the subject in this poem—Benn is talking to “you”, but who is that, exactly?  Is it a lover or friend, with whom he has a past worth looking back on with some nostalgia?  Is he talking to his country as a whole?  The German uses the singular pronoun—in English “you” is irritatingly both singular and plural—which may help a little, but that doesn’t mean the “you” isn’t “Deutschland”.  It also uses the informal pronoun, the word used for a friend or intimate acquaintance, but again the poem suggests that level of intimacy, I think, even in English.  It may seem that I’m being overly obsessive about trying to pinpoint the subject, but the last stanza of the poem makes me feel that it’s important: what is this shared suffering he references?  Can it be his country’s decades of debt and turmoil in the wake of World War I?  Or is it a more personal suffering?  And regardless, what would it mean if the poem’s subject thought it was “enough”, or didn’t?

Perhaps the finish of the stanza, with its emphasis on suffering, would make more sense if we had a better hold on the stanza’s first two lines: here I think the translator has really dropped the ball.  Her choice of “Those ancient gifts and that grieving / which always made us so tough” is to me a really poor rendering of “Alles des Grams, der Gaben / früh her in unser Blut”—granted, I really have no qualifications as a translator, but I think a much more literal rendering of that passage would read something like “All those griefs, those gifts / that were early in our blood”.  Chciuk-Celt’s inversion of the gifts and griefs, and her altering of their grammatical relationship to each other (for the sake of the slant rhyme) really takes some of the wind out of the sails, for me, and “early in our blood” is much more evocative (and really very different) than “always made us so tough”.  There may be a German idiom that she’s hip to there (and that I am not)…I don’t know.  It seems more to me like she really needed a rhyme for “enough”.  Anyway, taking my admittedly amateur reading back to the stanza, I find an interesting layer to the poem—grief as a gift.  A gift that, strange as it may seem, may be “enough” for someone—the word Benn actually used is “gut”, which certainly can mean “enough” (and may well mean that in context), but which of course carries the heavy connotation even for a native English speaker with “good”.  Is there something good, or at least sustaining and sufficient, about having lost—lost those twilight towns, the shadows of winter.  Lost the sphinx-blue light on the snow.

The alteration of the type to emphasize “suffering” and whatever is being referenced as “that” is original to Benn’s poem.  I continue to struggle with it, a bit, and find it both moving and a little remote.  I like the juxtaposition of griefs and gifts, and the images early in the poem, but I do wonder a little if what I’m making is less the sense that Benn intended, and more an invention of my own psyche.  If you have any thoughts to offer on the poem, I hope you will—given how many tried to silence this poet and his work, I think giving it a little voice this weekend would be a lovely thing to do for art, if not for ourselves.  And given my feeling that I have reached a sort of impasse with the work, I’d be especially glad to hear other takes on the poem, even very different ones from mine (maybe especially very different ones), in the hopes that it will add to my reading of the lines.  Vielen Dank, Herr Benn, for a poem that makes me think.


4 comments on “Poetry Friday: 1938, part 3

  1. liberlexica says:

    First, I don’t think you can ever be overly obsessive when it comes to analyzing German author’s grammatical choices. They’re fanatical about it, so why can we be? I’d say my German these days leans a little bit more to the academic side of things, but I remember reading some interwar/postwar poetry back in my college German classes. From what I remember, I get the distinct impression that the exploration of individual and shared experiences of suffering is a major theme- the idea that each individual German feels and carries their own experience of hardship and suffering caused by the war(s), as well as the idea of a shared group experience unique to all Germans (and perhaps that experience specifically “German”- i.e. anyone who was not German during the war cannot possibly know the experience or belong to that group). So, I think that your need to focus on the subject, the “who is the YOU referred to?” is exactly what the author is aiming for; there is a dual subject intended.

    I also agree that there is something wonky going on with the English translation in the “ancient gifts…tough” section. I think that the suggestion you made for the translation is more sensible, and perhaps preserves the original meaning better (but who knows- I’m not a poet, and I’m always going to vote meaning/content over rhyme structure).

    As for the “sphinx-blue” and the “ocean-snow track”…I want to posit that maybe Benn is referring to the whitecaps on waves. They do produce a particular turquoise color (and there is a pigment called Egyptian blue that is a bright turquoise). So perhaps the image Benn is trying to create here is waves crashing, which might represent themes of the ephemeral (“what has gone now?”) and the enduring (especially when combined with the imagery of a city, as Benn does in that set of lines). Admittely I could be totally off in my own wrong direction there. Thoughts?

    • jwrosenzweig says:

      Alexis, thanks so much for this! Your experience with German is both more recent and more extensive than mine, which means your validation of my efforts with those two lines is a comfort, for sure. 🙂 I like your take on the “sphinx-blue”, which is exactly the phrase Benn used (this wasn’t a translator’s innovation), and which had been baffling me. The image of the wave placed in a sort of opposition to the city is a great idea, and I feel like it strikes a nice chord with the rest of the poem. I’m only a little hesitant because Benn’s original line in German doesn’t fuse the ocean and snow quite as closely as the translator does, but I found them odd in either case, and I feel like your approach helps maintain some of the momentum my reading picks up in the first stanza. Thanks!

  2. Alexandra Chciuk-Celt says:

    The translator responds:
    This poem represents the Germans’ elliptical attempt to negotiate redemption for their tough-guy brutalities of yore, which explains the plaintive final question, along the lines of “would that make us even?” The same expression is also used for trying to reach a compromise or settle accounts.
    “Once” is too ambiguous a title because it also means “less than twice” and is not limited to the past (as in “I’m only going to say this once”). “Einst” means in times of yore, once upon a time, yesteryear.
    Dropping the ball is too harsh for a reshuffling of information to preserve the poetry. Many non-translators believe that literal means accurate, which my years of training and decades of experience would contradict (try the Spanish “He falls me fat when he takes me by the hair and says that he throws me of less”). That is why my 1984 dissertation, “Linguistic Innovation in Boleslaw Lesmian: Mythematics and Extropy,” contains two translations for each poem: once a verse version which is hopefully poetic, the second a heavily annotated literal version which is neither poetry nor English, but constitutes a scholarly gloss upon the original. On the internet at Boleslaw Lesmian and Alexandra Chciuk-Celt.
    Lastly, during all my years training translators and editing translator publications, I always insisted that there is rarely just one single way of translating anything any more than there is a single correct way to cook carrots. (“Thought for Food: Toward a Theory of Translation,” my 1979 master’s thesis.) Hope this helps. Best regards, Alexandra

    • jwrosenzweig says:

      Alexandra, thank you so much for commenting! I’m really pleased (and honored) that you’d take the time to respond to me, given my blog’s humble little place in the online world (and my obviously amateur talents in translation of any kind). Certainly you have the advantage on me in experience and education, and I’ll certainly agree with you that some of my phrases were chosen too hastily—“dropped the ball” is, in particular, really uncharitable and unfair. I do think that there’s more than one way to take some of these phrases, and I appreciate your being generous enough to say so. Personally this was a departure for me—since I last took a class in German, I’ve rarely read any poetry in a language other than English, and it was a good exercise for me to read both your translation (which frankly I found very beautiful) and the original and ask myself what I gained from looking at both. To the extent that my observations came across as a jab at you, I hope you’ll forgive them: I was pretty inwardly focused, considering how I would deal with phrases and thinking more broadly about how translation changes a work, and I wasn’t thinking of you and the work you’d invested in the poem as much as I ought to have. Thanks very much for stopping by—hopefully our paths will cross again (if so, I promise to be more courteous if I take any issue with your translations!).

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