Friday, November 21, 2008

Reader's Diary #417- Hermann Hesse: Poems (translated by James Wright)

If you'd asked me last month where Steppenwolf (Born To Be Wild, Magic Carpet Ride) got their name, I'd have smugly said from a German novel. Yet when I found the book on the left at a a used book sale recently, I admit this was the first man I thought of: Luckily, when I realized I'd been thinking of Howard Hesseman, not Hermann Hesse, I saw that it was safe to go back in the water, so to speak, and picked myself up a copy.

The first thing that struck me was the simplicity of the poems. Of course it probably helps (or hinders, depending) that translator James Wright has chosen poems that seem to represent "homesickness" and so a single theme runs through each. However, things got a little more complex when I was forced to reconsider what home meant: both to myself, and from poem to poem. Longing for something one cannot even describe seems to have been a common theme running through a few of the books I've read lately, but it's probably one we can all relate to; akin to feeling that something isn't right but having no idea how to fix it.

The second thing that struck me was the difference, or lack of, rhymes in the English version. Wright has the German originals followed by their English translations. Compare:

Wohl lieb ich die finstre Nacht;
Oft aber, wenn sie also bleich
Und duster wie aus Schmerzen lacht,
Graut mir vor ihrem argen reich

I like the darkness well enough;
But sometimes, when it turns bleak
And peaked, as my suffering laughs at me,
Its dreadful kingdom horrifies me.

Without understanding a lick of German, I can clearly see the rhymes at the end of the original (Nacht-lacht, bleich-reich). In the English counterpart, there is the doubling of "me" at the end and there's a near internal rhyme with bleak-peaked. This is about the closest Wright was able to manage.

A poem must be one of the most difficult pieces of language to translate. To find equivalent words in another language for all those subtleties and still convey the intent, possible connotations, and mood must require an amazing sort of skill to do well. And then to add in rhythm and rhyme? Is it even possible to do an adequate job? I'm not bilingual, so I can't answer.

Did I enjoy the poems in this collection? Absolutely. Did I understand them the way Hesse intended? I'm not sure. Then, I'm never sure of that, even with originally English poems. I usually consider it a moot point, but this time I got a little sidetracked. I started thinking of nectarines.

Last winter in Iqaluit, I couldn't get a decent nectarine. The ones at the local Northmart were half-rotten and overpriced, the ones I shipped up from Montreal were just rotten. Was it too much to ask for fresh tropical fruit in the Arctic?

Probably. It's the Arctic for God sakes! I'm not sure how it happened, but somehow I've come to expect the world to be completely accessible to me. (Blame globalization.) But judging by the outcry last year when food prices started to climb due to rising fuel costs, I don't think I'm alone.
And maybe it's not just commodities. Maybe it's also ideas. (Blame the Internet.) Surely that's not a bad thing... or is it?

Should a book of German poetry be accessible to me? If I have to rely on a translation, maybe not. How would I know if it was half rotten?

On second thought, what if I was to learn German? Maybe accessibility isn't the issue, maybe a sense of entitlement is. If I want to have a greater appreciation of Hesse's poetry-- in its German original-- I should have to work for it.

Nah. Who has the time for that?

I'll take Wright's nectarines. This one doesn't taste bad at all...

Without You

My Pillow gazes upon me at night
Empty as a gravestone;
I never thought it would be so bitter
To be alone,
Not to lie down asleep in your hair.

(Read the rest here.)


david elzey said...

I, too, have often wondered about that entitlement of translation. With larger works like novels there is the intent of the author within a story, but with poetry and the choice of wording being so deliberate I do wonder if translation really aren't more of a disservice.

I do appreciate a good translation, but I always feel like I'm missing some nuance, or the punchline to the joke.

holly cupala said...

Hi, John - sorry about that - Mr. Linky crashed my blog post! Come on over and post your link.

Barbara Bruederlin said...

While I know some German, a lot of that poem uses words that I don't know, so I will refrain from commenting on the translation.

Sometimes though it's enough to love the words without the meaning. I would love to know the meaning to some of Sigur Ros' lyric, but not enough to actually learn Icelandic. And I would be terribly disappointed if I found out they were actually talking about the price of nectarines in Reykjavik.

Remi said...

While I did read Siddhartha, I much prefer Howard Hesseman. How can you not love Dr. Johnny Fever?

John Mutford said...

David: I once read a translation of some Neruda poems and enjoyed them so much that I didn't question how true to the originals they were. But I suspect in a lot of these cases, it comes down wanted to give credit where credit is due. And, especially with poetry, could the translator deserve more than the poet?

Barbara: It's true that some sounds are pleasant enough without understanding the words.

Remi: Oh, I'm okay with Johnny Fever. Not so sure what a book of his poetry would look like though.