Cross-overs in Poetry
On approaching the poetry of other linguistic cultures
by Roon Lewald
Cultural and linguistic communication gaps between people all over the world are being rapidly narrowed today by the information-technology advances of our shared, swiftly inter-communicable global culture. Technology-driven CAT (Computer-Assisted Translating) software can now pre-translate any largely factual texts with amazing speed and accuracy, leaving the human translator to do the skivvy-work of monitoring the computer’s word choices and completing any passages it has left out or only guessed at by offering “fuzzy matches”. In the building industry, a western-trained Saudi construction engineer can now explain power, housing or sanitation projects to his clients in a professional Arabic which is fully translatable into the similarly specialised vocabulary of his sub-contractors in the USA or Europe. The international business language of the huge global-player corporations is equally translatable. As for the European parliament in Strasbourg, the speeches of French, English, German, Estonian, Danish or Greek MPs are so interchangeably based on standardized Eurojargon that India could join the European Union tomorrow without unduly alarming the simultaneous translation department, as long as the EU’s farming policy revenues remain vast enough to finance yet another new set of interpreters for Hindu, Gujerati, Urdu and all the other languages of the Indian sub-continent.
In this brave new world, poetry and other literary texts which rely heavily on non-factual information and atmospherics are in danger of becoming the Cinderellas of linguistic inter-communication, leaving their uglier sisters of the scientific, technological, business or political world to steal the waltzes at palace balls around the globe. Translating computers flounder whenever more than the brass tacks of prosaic factual information must be passed on to other linguistic communities. The highest barriers to such cross-overs are those which obstruct our access to the vast wealth of poetic literature in languages other than our own. What a pity, since the God who destroyed the tower of Babylon has every reason to be pleased with the babel of human voices he created. He must surely find the richly varied choir of human voices ascending to heaven every day more entertaining than the monotonous drone of that same old language he was exposed to day after day by the tower-builders of Babylon. Thus, one of the greatest wonders of the world is the vast diversity of its literally thousands of human languages and subsidiary dialects, each one of them uniquely evolved by a particular group of people in particular surroundings and circumstances to add yet more distinctive voices and fresh perspectives to the ways in which man experiences and responds to the one earth we all share.
Yet poetry, the art which celebrates the human imagination par excellence, is usually too fragile to survive translation. There are exceptions. Shakespeare is so uniquely well known and loved outside his native-language community that everybody in the world knows about him, or feels he ought to. In a proud German university centre like my smallish hometown Bonn, for instance, as many as two amateur theatrical groups compete to stage Shakespeare in English because he is held in almost equally high regard by English expatriates and the “Bildungsbürgertum” (culture-loving middle class) so typical of well-educated Germany. But how many English native speakers have more than an inkling of the poetry of a Shakespearean contemporary like Camoёs, who is a national hero of Shakespearean stature in Portugal? Who can appreciate the wit, grace and profundity in a sonnet by a master poet of the Golden Age of the Netherlands, just a decade or two after Shakespeare’s own Elizabethan era? And if we hardly know a single, often poorly translated verse by those few foreign poets we happen to have heard about, how about the millions of dactyls and spondees strung together down the centuries by great foreign poets whose names we don’t even know? These are writers who have developed and shaped universal thoughts and emotions in culturally unique ways which, could we but understand them and hear their voice music in the original, would surely enrich us and strengthen understanding between the nations of the world.
The trouble with poetry is the very thing that’s so great about it, namely that its dense, complex layers of sound and meaning cannot possibly be transported lock, stock and barrel into other languages. Poets work with locally accepted stylistic conventions, subtle plays on words or verbal conceits peculiar to their native realms of experience, manners, mores or humour. They may have been conditioned by historic processes and personal circumstances of which we outsiders know too little. Or they may orchestrate the sounds and speech rhythms of their native language into a glorious symphony of words which, however, sends translators up the wall because they can’t find any of those notes on their foreign keyboards. As a translator myself, I salute those brave colleagues who have transposed Dylan Thomas’s “Under Milkwood” or James Joyce’s “Ulysses” into German, but I also shake my head and wonder how much of the authentic meaning survives their approximations of Welsh or Irish dialect.
Of course, there ARE fortunate exceptions. Where the two languages are closely enough related, the vocabulary is not too colloquial and the text expresses shared or analogous cultural traditions, a kind Providence may supply a translator of sufficient genius to recreate the original work in another language so effectively that listeners soon forget they are not hearing the original, but a magical mirror image of it in a totally different tongue. August Wilhelm von Schlegel (1767-1845) was such a genius.
So well did he transpose Shakespeare’s entire dramatic oeuvre into German in the early 19th century that many generations of German grammar-school pupils grew up knowing the poet they called “Unser (our) Shakespeare” as well as, and sometimes better than, Schiller or Goethe. Curtain up for Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, Act 3, Scene 1:
…nur daß die Furcht vor etwas nach dem Tod,
Das unentdeckte Land, von des Bezirk
Kein Wandrer wiederkehrt, den Willen irrt…
So macht Bewusstsein Feige aus uns allen;
Der angebornen Farbe der Entschließung
Wird des Gedankens Blässe angekränkelt;
Und Unternehmen, hochgezielt und wertvoll,
Durch diese Rücksicht aus der Bahn gelenkt,
Verlieren so der Handlung Namen.
…but that the dread of something after death,
The undiscover’d country from whose bourn
No traveller returns, puzzles the will…
Thus conscience does make cowards of us all;
And thus the native hue of resolution
Is sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought,
And enterprises of great pith and moment
With this regard their currents turn awry,
And lose the name of action.
Crashing the poetic comprehension barrier between languages is necessarily a somewhat complicated process. You need a native speaker to recite the original aloud in order to hear the rhythm and music of the source language. While following his spoken words in the foreign text, you then add meaning to the experience by simultaneously comparing it with a good translation. But if it is not always easy to appreciate the poetry of foreign cultures, let us remember that their poetic treasure-houses are so richly stocked that it’s worth trying; and that it’s a richly rewarding experience, even if there are obstacles and pitfalls all along the way. Any poetic translation must be as faithful as possible to transport the meaning and at least some of the cadences and sounds of the original. For instance, a romantic Victorian translation of the Rubai’yat of Omar Khayyam can be so saccharine that it bowdlerises the subtle Persian. Or a foreign language can sound intrinsically harsh, menacing, primitive or plain ridiculous to an insensitive non-speaker. The result: new grist is fed to the mill of his prejudices, another opportunity to overcome communication barriers is lost.
Conversely, you may find that poetry in some languages sounds absolutely heavenly even without knowing what it means. These are the singing languages. Try saying Dante’s “pazienza, pazienza, che tanto sostien1” (patience, patience, which bears so much) and you’ll surely agree that spoken Italian often sounds like one long opera aria. And the rich emotional range of Russian dramatic or poetic speech can make you feel spontaneously embraced and invited to hunker down with a balalaika to celebrate the mingled sadness and joy of life.
Of course, as trite and obvious as this may sound, the very first step towards poetic cross-overs must be to throw overboard all prejudices about alien cultures and languages. Our shrinking world simply can no longer afford the nationalistic prejudices and delusions of western cultural superiority which our chauvinistic forefathers clung to, especially not in the humanistic disciplines. Are we going to let big-business, science, technology and politics get away with the lion’s share of the fruits of globalisation? Let’s pitch in to make sure that the written and spoken arts have a say in the process. For in these fields too, cultural cross-over miracles are now becoming possible that could hardly have been attempted only a decade or two ago. Only one or two generations have passed since geneticists conclusively confirmed the earlier assumptions of ethnologists that the genetic codes of the various tribes of man are virtually identical in every respect, meaning that there are no appreciable differences in their genetically programmed core capabilities to evolve equally sophisticated cultural and linguistic traditions in response to their very own, unique environments and historical and social development patterns. These responses will vary only inasmuch as the causal framework conditions vary. The resulting divergences from society to society certainly complicate mutual understanding, but that only makes inter-communication a doubly interesting challenge. We can surmount these barriers and learn to treasure man’s universal capacity to respond in distinctive, creative ways to varying circumstances, as long as we never fail to remember who and what we are: the same animal, all brothers and sisters of the family of man.
Obviously, the more extreme the divergences between human linguistic communities become, the more they will tend to block vital poetic layers of the meaning we wish to transmit between, say, the oral traditions evolved by a so-called “primitive” community according to the dictates of its pristine natural habitat, and the written or electronically transmitted languages of our own urbanised, hi-tech global culture. A particularly striking example is the culture of the so-called “Bushmen” of southern Africa, properly referred to as the Khoi-San, or San branch of the Khoi ethnic family. You cannot even begin to appreciate the poetry of a people so remote from your experience without first collecting a considerable amount of explanatory information about them: information which looms large behind their oral literature without being explicitly stated, and is lost when the narrator’s or singer’s recorded words are simply translated literally (if that is at all possible) . I must therefore digress considerably from the theme of poetry.
Both the Khoi-San and their so-called “Hottentot” cousins, the Khoi-Khoi, had light, apricot-tinged brown skins as opposed to the black-skinned, negroid Bantu (“Africans”) and were more short-statured and finely boned than they. The San led the life of stone-age nomads in the south-western quarter of southern Africa for countless centuries before the great Völkerwanderung of negroid or hamitic peoples from the Horn of Africa confronted them with an entirely different, more aggressive culture – that of the taller, stronger Bantu tribesmen, the ancestors of the black tribes who now form the vast majority of the South African population. These settled cattle owners had a highly sophisticated social organisation and the iron-age technology to wage war against rival tribes with sharp metal blades.
The very first white settlers who arrived in Table Bay from the Netherlands in 1652 encountered small family groups of the San as far south as Cape Agulhas, the southernmost tip of Africa, near Cape Town. Though these roaming, short-statured hunter-gatherers could fire poisoned arrows from their tiny bows with deadly accuracy, they were anything but aggressive. But their lack of any clear notion of individual property proved their undoing. When the white pastoral settlers and the powerful, well-organized tribes of cattle-raising Bantu decimated the teeming herds of game the San hunters depended on, the San hunted their cattle and sheep instead. After all, they argued, every animal is free game for the hunter. The response from the stockholders of both races was ferocious. They persecuted the San like human vermin and either enslaved or simply massacred them.
The last surviving San family groups melted away into the forbidding thirstlands of one of the world’s harshest environments, the Kgalagadi (Kalahari) semi-desert that straddles north-western South Africa, southern Namibia and eastern Botswana. In all the south-western Cape regions where they once roamed freely, only their vividly life-like rock-paintings and engravings of the animals they knew and hunted remind us today that the very first human beings to settle the green lands at the Cape were the ancestors of the Khoi-San. In the Kgalagadi, much like the aboriginal communities of Australia’s desert interior, they skilfully adapted to their unforgiving new habitat and preserved their unique culture in unimaginably challenging circumstances until very recently. When their isolated culture was still relatively intact (until the mid-1950s), the San knew and cared little about our world. Their twittering click languages could not have begun to express the unimaginable complexities of urban civilisation. Virtually naked and almost entirely bereft of personal possessions, they did not miss amenities they had never learned to depend on. Did that make them linguistically “primitive”?
No way, say the ethnologists who have studied them closely. Take !Xhung, one of the five San dialects. Before the white Apartheid regime’s military operations against Namibian freedom fighters and the march of so-called urban civilisation massively disrupted the life of the San from the 1960s onwards, !Xhung was spoken by a scattering of roaming clanlets who endearingly called themselves the “zhu tswa si” — the gentle people, the people who harm nobody else. Their intimate knowledge of their habitat and their skilful exploitation of every scrap of sustenance grudgingly tossed to them by nature was intricately intertwined with their belief in the relatedness and inter-dependence of all forms of life. The American anthropologist Elizabeth Marshall reports that !Xhung so effectively expresses its speakers’ unique mastery of specialised survival techniques that it will offer a whole gamut of terms for one and the same insignificant-looking desert shrub, of which (if indeed our botanists have identified it) only the Latin name might exist in western scientific publications. Using just one or two of these terms as a kind of shorthand, a !Xhung speaker can mean either one specific part of the plant, one of its several uses, one of its seasonally changing states or appearances, or its exact location in an apparently featureless landscape. A male hunter who casually spots one isolated shrub will mention no more than one or two of these shorthand terms to his clanlet’s gatherers (the women) on returning to the stick-and-grass shelters they sleep in. They in turn will use their phenomenally trained memory to extend one of their daily food-gathering expeditions to that remote shrub in the appropriate season, just in time to collect, say, the medicinal leaves it is just then producing, or harvest its water-storing and edible tubers at a suitable time.
Ethnologists have jotted down scores of these sophisticated shorthand terms but cannot explain their meaning to outsiders without extremely elaborate circumlocution. Much the same applies to the poetically metaphysical dimensions of San thinking. They see humans not as the lords of creation but as co-equal “brothers” and “sisters” of the creatures and plants they hunt, take eggs from, follow as honey guides, observe as weather-change indicators or glean their potent arrow poisons from. A hunter who has spent days stalking a large kudu antelope or an elephant before shooting his little poisoned arrows into at very close range, and has then tracked his prey for another 3 or 4 days as it gradually weakens, feels such an intimate bond with his animal brother that he must beg it to understand his people’s existential need for its flesh. Only then will he end its life.
Let me get back to the point again. At the turn of the 19th to the 20th century, one of the first white South Africans to shed the racial prejudice of his Afrikaner countrymen and live with the San to study their language and way of life was a brilliant oddity who was uniquely well equipped for that kind of journey to knowledge. Eugéne Nielen Marais was a man who loved the road of life more than its goal, and yet he persevered until he reached most of his unusual destinations.
He was a man of many parts – a skilful lawyer; a passionate bibliophile; a courtly, tragic figure whose morphine addiction shortened his life; and a brilliant natural researcher who is credited with pioneering the science of ethology, the study of animal group behaviour under field conditions. Above all, Marais was an extremely civilised, broadly educated man with strong humanist convictions, a marvellously gifted prose and verse writer in both English and Afrikaans who is revered by his own people as one of their first and finest true poets. By publishing the first serious poetry ever written in Afrikaans, Marais became a dynamic force in the early 20th century campaign by patriotic Boer intellectuals to convert the homely creole patois known as Cape Dutch into the expressive, fully-fledged written language now known as Afrikaans.
He captured some of the richness of San story-telling and song-making traditions in an Afrikaans poem cycle he closely based on the copious notes he took of their fireside anecdotes, songs and dances. In Marais’s recreated song of a San violin-player engagingly known by the Afrikaans name of Jan Konterdans (Johnny Counter-Dance), the desert fiddler compares the coming of the desperately needed rain in the bone-dry Kalahari with “the dance of our sister”. He invents beguilingly poetic metaphors for the accompanying natural phenomena — the first tiny imprints her nimble feet leave on the sand, the distant sheet lightning of her glinting copper bangles and shimmering beads, the lightning bolts she flashes at close range from the fiery flower on her forehead, and finally, the grey kaross or skin-cloak of sousing rain which she drapes over the grateful earth to cover its nakedness.
If we’re talking about cultural cross-overs, we have to call this one a THREE-WAY cross-over. Eugene Marais’ “Die Dans van die Rёen” is an Afrikaans poem in its own right, but it is closely based on the San story of Jan Konterdans. It’s therefore fair to ask, for instance, how well the word-music and cultural traditions of the basically Germanic Afrikaans language communicates what Jan Konterdans may actually have sung. I wish I had a tape of a San narration to acquaint you with the bird-like twittering of the rapid strings of various click-sounds which dominate the fiddle-player’s language. As it is, I can only present Marais’ Afrikaans poem and flank it with my own English translation. Afrikaans is probably a better cross-over vehicle than English because, although European-based, it is nearly as much a child of southern Africa as the !Xhung of Jan Konterdans. The subversively African sounds, words, rhythms, speech patterns and mental attitudes which started to creolise the High Dutch of the first white settlers as soon as they arrived in 1652 are now bedrock components of the home-grown language of Africa’s only white tribe. And as with the San, the Afrikaner’s cultural identity is deeply anchored in an intimacy with African nature that until quite recently was almost as profound as that of the San.
Die Dans van die Reёn
O die dans van ons Suster!
Eers oor die bergtop loer sy skelm,
en haar oё is skaam;
en sy lag saggies.
En van ver af wink sy met die een hand;
haar armbande blink en haar krale skitter;
saggies roep sy.
Sy vertel die winde van die dans
en sy nooi hulle uit, want die werf is wyd
en die bruilof groot.
Die grootwild jaag uit die vlakte,
hulle dam op die bulttop,
wyd rek hulle die neusgate
en hulle sluk die wind;
en hulle buk, om haar fyn spore op die sand te sien.
Die kleinvolk onder die grond hoor die sleep van haar voete,
en hulle kruip nader en sing saggies:
“Ons Suster! Ons Suster!
Jy het gekom! Jy het gekom!”
En haar krale skud,
en haar koperringe blink in die wegraak van die son.
Op haar voorkop is die vuurpluim
van die berggier;
sy trap af van die hoogte;
sy sprei die vaal karos met altwee arms uit;
Die asem van die wind raak weg.
O, die dans van ons suster!
The dance of the rain
O the dance of our sister!
First she peeps slyly over the hilltop,
and her eyes are shy,
and softly she laughs.
And from afar she waves one hand;
her bracelets flash and her beads glitter;
softly she calls.
She tells the winds about the dance,
and she invites them to join, for the homesite is large and the wedding great.
The big game charge out of the valley,
they throng on the ridgetop,
they stretch their nostrils wide
and they gulp the wind;
and they stoop, to see her tiny prints on the sand.
The little folk underground hear the swishing
of her feet,
and they creep up and sing softly:
“Our Sister! Our Sister!
You have come! You have come!”
And her beads shake,
and her copper rings flash in the waning of the sun.
On her forehead is the fiery plume
of the mountain eagle;
she steps down from on high;
she spreads out her grey skincloak with both
The breath of the wind dies away.
O, the dance of our sister!
Another “triple cross-over” from the same Marais cycle of San-derived Afrikaans poems is the song of a lonely little girl called Nampti, who says she has nobody in the world to love except her old granny and her dear friend Gampta, the little grey desert lark who sings to her from high above. Not even the lion that roars at night, not even the food-gathering women can hurt Gampta, because she is stronger than them all:
(Lied van die klein Boesmanmeidjie Nampti)
Gampta my vaal sussie,
al wat ek in die wêreld het
buiten my ou ouma!
As jy bo in die lug sing,
kan jy al die wonderlike dinge onder sien
waar die hasie wegkruip
en die steenbokkie sy lêplek maak.
En die meide kan jou nie raak nie,
want jy is sterker as álmal
al is jy swakker as ek.
Selfs die bergleeu wat ons bangmaak
as hy snags brul,
kan jou nie raak nie.
Ek sal jou oppas, my sussie,
tot al jou kleintjies groot is.
My vaal sussie, Gampta,
ek sien jou
The desert lark
(Song of the little Bushman girl Nampti)
Gampta my little grey sister,
all I have in the world
but for my old granny!
When you sing up in the sky,
you can see all the wonders down below
where the baby rabbit hides
and the little steenbuck lies to rest.
And the women cannot touch you,
for you are stronger than them all,
even if you’re weaker than me.
Even the mountain lion who scares us
when he roars at night
cannot hurt you.
I’ll guard you, my little sister,
until all your little ones have grown.
My little grey sister, Gampta,
I see you!
The best known Marais poem is Winternag (winter night), an epitome of the Afrikaner’s traditional attachment to and identification with a natural environment that toughened his body, fed his soul and shaped his rural society. This poem cannot be fully appreciated in translation, since Afrikaans has its own shorthand codes for and associations with the landscape in which it evolved. A straightforward literal translation would blur these atmospherics, and the substitution of effects more familiar to foreign readers would inevitably falsify or banalise the quiet intimacy of this deceptively simple poem.
Let me try to explain. Especially in winter, the dry grass of the high and middle veld (savannah) is bleached almost white by a dry cold that chills you to the bone as soon as you move from the clear but weak sunlight into the shade. Then, one of those vast, lonely South African panoramas overlooked by the brooding, stony gaze of rock-summitted koppies (hills) exudes a unique sense of vulnerability and an ancient, prehistoric melancholia. At night, when sub-zero temperatures will frequently cover the dead grass and the dry branches of stunted trees with white frost, scores of fires crawl untended through the denuded veld like glowing centipedes. The sparks they throw up into the surrounding patches of gloom when they flare up in higher grass can make them seem almost human – like waving hands, as Marais puts it. Such scenes will inspire a Calvinist Afrikaner like Marais to reflect that the vast landscapes which harbour puny man, like man himself, are always subject to the will and compassion of God. This is expressed by the key line “So wyd soos die Heer se genade” (as wide as the grace of the Lord), followed by the rhyming line “lê die velde in sterlig en skade” (lies the veld in starlight and shadow). In Afrikaans, the meanings, sounds and cadences of these two lines alone conjure up a reverent picture of the veld as a kind of enormous, darkened cathedral, in which silent, dimly seen rites of worship add a special ambience to a lonely winter’s night.
This poem caused a furore among Dutch-speaking literati in Holland and Belgium when it appeared in 1905. Abandoning their earlier scepticism about the patriotic Boer campaign to elevate Cape Dutch creole to a modern literary language, they hailed “Winternag” as the first serious literary product of Afrikaans. For the language campaigners, Winternag thus marked a point of no return, so that when it came in 1925, the recognition of Afrikaans as an official language of business, law, politics and literature in 1925 seemed no more than an inevitable culmination.
O koud is die windjie
en blink in die doflig
so wyd as die Heer se genade,
lê die velde in sterlig en skade.
En hoog in die rande,
versprei in die brande,
is die grassaad aan roere
soos winkende hande.
O treurig die wysie
op die ooswind se maat,
Soos die lied van ‘n meisie
In haar liefde verlaat.
In elk’ grashalm se vou
blink ‘n druppel van dou,
en spoedig verbleek dit
tot ryp in die kou!
O cold is the wind
and bright in the grey light
as wide as the grace of the Lord,
lies the veld in starlight and shade.
And high on the hillsides,
dispersed in the firebrands,
the grass-seeds are stirring
like signalling hands.
O mournful the tune
of the east wind’s song
like the plaint of a maid
by her lover wronged.
In each folded grass blade
a dewdrop shines
and swiftly it pales
to a frosty rime!
Another favourite Afrikaans poet of mine is the passionate, highly strung Ingrid Jonker, who tragically committed suicide in the 1960s. Listen to the tender intimacy of her love-talk in the following four samples from a cycle called “Intieme Gesprek” – intimate conversation. They are like a string of haikus, these tiny, three- or four-line snippets of love, yet each one is a perfect cameo:
TOE JY ‘N BABA WAS
Toe jy ‘n baba was
het jy sekerlik geruik
na ‘n bokrammetjie
AS JY LAG
Jou lag is ‘n oopgebreekte granaat
dat ek kan hoor hoe lag die granate
EK WEET TOG
Ek weet tog
jou mond is ‘n nessie
ELKE MAN HET ‘N KOP
Elke man het ‘n kop
en twee bene
hulle probeer jou namaak
WHEN YOU WERE A BABY
When you were a baby
you must have smelled
like a billygoat
WHEN YOU LAUGH
Your laugh is a pomegranate broken open
so I can hear the granates laugh
But I know
your mouth is a little nest
of baby birds
EVERY MAN HAS A HEAD
Every man has a head
and two legs
they try to reproduce you
The contemporary poet Anita Krog marks the literary transition of Afrikanerdom into a new awareness in a co-equal society ruled by the African majority it previously suppressed. Soon after white and black South African voters jointly accepted Nelson Mandela’s non-racist vision of reconciliation, she attracted attention as the first white-Afrikaner mbongo (an African chieftain’s institutional praise-singer) by honouring him with an Afrikaans praise-song in the traditional tribal style. Krog’s talent is far greater than this politically effective gesture would suggest. Drawing much of her strength from powerful evocations of the dialects and landscapes of the remote North-Western Cape, her phrasing in this poem about boating along a river ”) is compact yet flowing:
Uit: Litteken tot rivier: 1. boot
…in hierdie skittering van water en lig
maling en loom
kom al die rowe in my los
iets – nie van wees nie
maar van word
my tong stoot teen geen taal nie
lê los en lig in speeksel
my ore veer van vrede en hitte
nie van wees nie
baie baie worde
From: Cicatrice to river: 1. boat
…in this shimmering of water and light
milling and languor
all the scabs in me are loosened
something – not of being
but of becoming
my pushing tongue meets no language
lies loose and light in spittle
my ears float in peace and heat
not of being
many many becomings
Let’s look now at some very different barriers between the more familiar traditions of two closely related, European-based languages – German and English. The complex, fugal German personality tends to produce longer, more complicated syntactical forms than the relatively short, linear sentences that gets more matter-of-fact English writers to the point quickly and clearly. The classic Bandwurmsatz or tapeworm sentence, a monster of obfuscation which cunningly buries its head and tail in a writhing, Gorgon-like mess of dependant clauses, is fortunately less prevalent than it used to be. But it still crops up often enough to dismay even German readers, let alone foreigners. Mark Twain had a field day with the late 19th century German he encountered in his Bummel through Europe. He has bequeathed to us a German compound noun which he claimed to be the longest word in any language in the world (although any German child can come up with even longer ones):
Twain was a genius of humour with a truffle-hog’s instinct for the ridiculous and the pretentious. But what he did NOT tell us, because that is not a humorist’s job, was that you cannot simply impose the more convenient or familiar structures of your own language on those of an alien tongue without sacrificing vital layers of meaning; you cannot simply ignore that community’s historically conditioned, ingrained linguistic compulsions; and you will deny yourself unsuspected riches if you cast aside the unique, inventive responses of that community to its own particular needs and conditions. For instance, the only way you can translate Twain’s German mind-boggler into grammatical English is by hacking it into bits and drastically rearranging the word order, as follows:
“Constantinopolitanian keepers of hostels for apprentices to snuffbox manufacturers.”
That is an accurate translation, but it kills an old children’s joke which requires kids to ask each other: “What is the longest word in the world?” The answer, of course, is Mark Twain’s jaw-breaker. So, having ignored the crucial social intention of the word, namely to amuse and entertain, you’re left with a forlorn, crestfallen gaggle of unconnected, anglicised phrases which have been ignominiously stripped of their noun character – which is actually the rock of group identity that represents their only hope of survival in the Jacuzzi bath of German syntax.
In actual fact, you only have to remember the high seriousness and the interminable, convoluted sentences of Victorian writers like Ruskin and especially Carlyle to realize that the kind of writing Twain poked fun at in Germany wasn’t all that far removed from what some English literary lions were producing at that very same time. Since then, modern German stylists have rightly come to frown on the old-fashioned “tapeworm” sentences and overlong compound nouns. That may well make modern German literature more accessible and attractive to English-speakers, who were so often tempted in the past to dismiss much of German writing as long-winded and pretentiously convoluted to the point of deliberate obfuscation. But this creates new pitfalls, as I shall try to show below.
German literary and linguistic peculiarities can mess up Anglo-Saxon minds in other ways too. In literal translations out of context, the historic German penchant for hammer-blow effects may seem needlessly violent or grossly crude to the gentle ears of English-speakers. This goes all the way back to “der grobe Michel”, or “plain-speaking Michael”, the national archetype in whom Germans have seen themselves embodied in the past. Michel is a rough, honest peasant fellow who will have no truck with the high-faluting, insincere posturings of those deceitful foreigners, consequently has nothing but contempt for “die feine englische Art” (the la-di-dah English manner) and will zestfully use farmyard language, especially anal analogies, to bludgeon home his point. To some extent, the great Baroque poets of the 17th century were plain-speaking Michels in a civil war era of profound national crisis and terrible suffering, and their deliberate, brutal directness can be rather disturbing. They made great use of oxymoronic piling-up effects. Their long strings of reiterated words or phrases overstate the poet’s point with a remorseless, brutal insistency that simply would not work in English, but is absolutely right for the language, the people and the events of those fearful times. Not only poets but some of the greatest German prose writers too have used such devices to great effect. Thomas Mann can fill two thirds of a page with a single sentence whose repetitively echoing phrases swell gradually into a great symphonic poem. What translator would wish to adulterate his mastery of the German language? Who would dare to break up his fugally complex word music into the short, linear, easily understandable sentences that modern stylebooks demand?
The very first sentence of his novella “Der Auserwählte” (The Holy Sinner) left me stunned when I read it at 14. Compared with Death in Venice, say, Der Auserwählte is nowhere near his best novella. But there are very many other books I would gladly see burned for the sake of saving that single opening sentence. It puts you on a hilltop above mediaeval Rome. Spread out below you like a panoptical display under the eternal city’s azure sky are the bone-white ruins of antiquity, the red-tiled roofs of noble villas and sprawling hovels, the church spires and cypresses pricking up betwixt and between them and the glinting curve of the Tiber. The hub of the Christian world is abuzz with the making of a historic event. Suddenly, the clear air is rent by an ear-splitting, melodious cacophony of hundreds of bells of every imaginable size, shape and tone. Their sweet, raucous, joyous, earnest, high, low, soprano, tenor or bass voices mingle clamorously as they chime, tinkle, carillon, clang, bong, bay, boom, thunder out to the faithful all over Europe that the incarcerated cardinals have sent up white smoke: fearfully waiting Christianity has a new Holy Father! With words alone, with one excessively long, repetitive sentence, Mann has kept your eyes riveted to the page until you actually hear and feel those bells.
Now why would the Germans have evolved communal personality traits, linguistic structures and literary traditions whose textual expression can so easily fall down stylistically or evoke all the wrong associations in translation? Back to the schoolroom: The closely related Indo-Germanic tribes of Scandinavia, Germany and England started off with very similar languages, cultures and oral literatures. The Anglo-Saxon culture established by the immigrant Angles, Jutes and Saxons in England owed relatively little to the subsumed traditions of the aboriginal Britons. So there was hardly any difference in form and spirit between the Beowulf verse epic in Anglo-Saxon and contemporary Norse and German counterparts, e.g. the sagas from which the medieval Nibelungenlied was derived much later. I was so enthralled by the sound of Anglo-Saxon at university that I cannot resist quoting part of a short parable from the Anglo-Saxon Gospel of St. Mathew. What’s the poetry angle, you may ask. Well, this is all about linguistic cross-over, and who knows, this might just encourage someone to gallop off and study the Beowulf verse epic in the original. For another, the Bible remains the most widely translated book of all, and you only have to swipe a Gideon bible from a hotel room anywhere between Reykjavik and Papua-Niugini if you want to get an idea of how those wonderfully poetic psalms sound in, say, the Dani headhunter dialect of Irian Jaya.
Now back to a monastery around 800 AD, where the monk who translated St. Matthew’s Chapter 8, Verses 24 -27 into God’s own Anglo-Saxon is about to tell us (in my rough-and-ready phonetic spelling of his language) about the wise man who built his house on stone:
Aeltsh thara thay thas min word ye-hierth, and tha wyrcth, bith ye-litsh thaem visan vaira, se his hus ofer stan ye-timbrode. Tha com thaer reyen and mitchel flod, and thaer bleowon vindas, and a-hryron on thaet hus, and hit na ne feoll; sothlitshe hit waes ofer stan ye-timbrod….
Each of you who hears these my words, and applies them, is like that wise man who built his house upon stone. There came rain and a great flood, and there blew winds, and fell upon that house, and it did not fall, because it was built upon stone…
While as for the foolish fellow who built upon sand …
….tha rinde hit, and thaer comon flod, and bleowon vindas, and a-hryron on thaet hus, and thaet hus feoll, and his hryre waes mitshel.
…then it rained, and there came floods, and there blew winds, and fell upon that house, and that house fell, and its fall was great.
…Europe’s universal medieval culture had by then transformed the Germanic tales about Siegfried, the dragon Fafnir, the sleeping Valkyrie Brunnhilde and the downfall of the gods into a sophisticated Middle High German verse epic about the courtly loves, intrigues and jealousies of noble knights and fair ladies. The medieval Nibelungenlied was as much part of pan-European mediaeval culture as the French epic about the heroic death of Roland with his ivory horn, the Arthurian tales of both England and Britanny and the stock repertoire of ribald and saintly anecdotes that mingled spice with sanctitude in worldly works like the Decamerone and The Canterbury Tales.
But by the early Middle Ages, history was already changing European cultures into more widely divergent forms and the gap between German and English traditions became a lot wider.
In England …
…centuries of constant Norse assaults on a weakly defended, easily accessible island population burned the desire for domestic peace and security into its group memory and turned the need to keep foreign invaders at bay into an abiding compulsion. King Alfred’s Black Ships laid the foundations of the strong navy which – apart from the Norman invasion in 1066 – was to serve as England’s impregnable “wooden walls” for centuries to come.
William the Conqueror added a large, civilizing dollop of Norman French to the homely English stew. The increasing strength, wealth and relative domestic stability of the impregnably guarded island propelled it to global-power status by dint of foreign enterprise, its early industrial revolution and its spread of a global empire. The sanguine temperament and calm self-assurance bestowed by such good fortune hallmarks English culture to this day.
From the relatively homogeneous mould of early mediaeval culture in Europe, Walther von der Vogelweide emerges as the first, recognizably German poet. His individuality and more serious interests set him apart from run-of-the-mill courtly minstrels. Apart from their main job of flattering noble and therefore socially inaccessible ladies with conventional ballads of adoring but disembodied love, minnesänger like Walther were a cross between spy, gossip-monger and prototypal journalist. Their wanderings on foot from court to court kept them in close touch with the beauties of nature and the thinking of the common people, while simultaneously giving them a valuable inside track on aristocratic gossip and the lofty politics of contemporary cultural and power elites. These commoners were therefore far better informed and certainly a lot more civilized than many a provincial knight. Walther especially used his jester’s freedom to leave us with some revealingly authentic glimpses of his times. Apart from his wonderfully fresh odes to nature, Walther’s best-known poem is a meditation on the human condition that puts him poles apart from the conventional “oh wondrous lady, thou art so remote” stuff of most of his colleagues. The opening lines are famous for a snatch of graphic self-description which reminds one a bit of a modern TV commentator polishing his spectacles before launching into his nightly news analysis. Thus, Walther describes himself carefully assuming a posture reminiscent of Rodin’s “The Thinker” before discussing the ills of a Christianity that in his day was rent in two between the mutually hostile supporters of two schismatic popes. Picture Walther delivering the following fragments in the same self-described posture in which a mediaeval manuscript illustrator painted him:
Ich saz uf eime steine
dô daht ich bein mit beine;
dar uf satzt ich den ellenbogen;
ich hete in mine hant gesmogen
dat kinne und ein min wange:
dô dahte ich mir vil ange,
wie man zer werlte sollte leben.
I sat upon a stone
and covered leg with leg;
on them I placed my elbow;
in my hand I couched
my chin and one cheek:
and thus I deeply I pondered
how one should live on earth…
The trick would be to combine “driu ding” (three things), he says: the first two are possessions and honour, or worldly renown, and the third item that would unite all three in a golden triad would be the grace of God. But he is forced to conclude that…
Ja leider desn mac nicht gesin
daz guot und weltlich ere
und gotes hulde mere
zesamene in ein herze komen.
Stig’ unde wege sint in benomen:
Untriuwe ist in der saze,
Gewalt vert uf der straze,
Fried unde reht sint sere wunt.
Diu driu enthabent geleites niht,
Diu zwei entwerden e gesunt.
But sadly, I can see no way
for goods and worldly reputation
and the grace of God
to join together in one heart.
They’re robbed of the ways and means:
corruption is ubiquitous;
violence rules the roads;
peace and justice sorely ail.
While these three lack guardian escorts,
the latter two will ne’er regain their health.
Life in German-inhabited Central Europe was less isolated from invasive foreign influences than in post-Norman England. At the crossroads of the western, eastern and trans-alpine southern Europe, vital trade routes exposed Germans to new influences with an often enriching but just as frequently unsettling immediacy. A stock but true historian’s reflection on what was officially known as the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation is that it was neither holy, nor Roman, nor a genuine empire, nor even a politically united nation. Instead, it was peopled by speakers of greatly varying low-German dialects in a high unstable multitude of local principalities, whose petty sovereigns were careful to discourage any inconveniently excessive sense of even cultural group identity, let alone of politically united statehood. Your very life was only as safe and prosperous as local conditions permitted, e.g. you might prosper under the patrician city fathers of rich Hanseatic centres like Hamburg, Bremen, Lübeck and Danzig, but you were equally liable to be misruled by a luxury-loving prince-bishop with absolute temporal AND religious power over his subjects, who was as keen to gouge them for state taxes as to encourage and take his cut from the Church’s local sale of indulgences. So Germany seldom offered too many of those good historical reasons why the English developed their legendarily cool self-assurance.
Into this setting burst the cataclysmic religious and class-war strife unleashed by Luther’s defiance of Catholic religious paramountcy. You have to read Luther himself to recapture the virulence of the passions that divided Germany and the sense of existential and spiritual peril that overshadowed the entire land. Today, his best-known hymn, “A mighty fortress is our God”, is so familiar to us that we unthinkingly accept it as just another pious hymn. But if you treat it like a poem and read and hear the words (spoken rather than sung) in Luther’s own German, the turmoil in which it was written resurfaces around you and you can actually feel the rage and obstinacy of that bull-necked peasant monk who dared to defy the might of Rome alone. And remember, Luther firmly BELIEVED in the existence of Satan and his devil host. Again, it’s the language itself that transports the immediacy of experience which is such a crucial layer of meaning :
Und wenn die Welt voll Teufel wär
Und wollt uns gar verschlingen
So fürchten wir uns nicht so sehr
Es soll uns DOCH gelingen!
And if the world were full of devils,
All seeking to devour us,
We would not fear so very much
Because we SHALL succeed!
In a foretaste of greater horrors to come, peasant levelers misunderstood Luther’s calls to topple the Abominable Sow of Rome, rose against their aristocratic masters and were brutally slaughtered by the vengeful junkers. After Luther’s death, the Apocalypse itself rode the length and breadth of the land as both local and foreign princes drew on mercenary troops to support or simply exploit whatever religious faction they momentarily favored. When the Treaty of Westphalia finally ended that Thirty-Year War, there was hardly anything left in all of ruined Germany for the dogs of war to battle, massacre, torture, rape, burn down, loot or otherwise despoil. The horror of it still reverberates through German cultural and literary awareness. The arterial blood of those religiously sublimated wounds still pumps from the poetry of the Baroque era. Like most people at the time, these poets clung for their mental as well as their religious salvation to heaven-bent, world-renouncing Pietist beliefs of which you can still find traces today in the other-wordliness of the German Protestant sects which emigrated to America around that time, like the Amish folk from Rhineland-Palatinate. Popular religiosity at the local parish level is recorded in the sometimes extremely morbid lyrics of Bach cantatas. The indifferent parish rhymesters who wrote these texts flinched in disgust from “the world, this house of sin, striking even at the innocent with adder’s poison”, or jubilantly proclaimed: “I rejoice, I rejoice, I rejoice over my (approaching) death”.
The best Baroque poetry is in that vein too, only far better. It relies heavily on stylistic devices like those hammer-blow oxymorons, which matched contemporary German needs and sensibilities but would make a modern English translation sound clumsily, off-puttingly excessive. Andreas Gryphius typically crams every instrument of torture he can think of into the first three lines of his first verse:
To an innocent sufferer
A fiery stake, a martyr’s wheel, burning pitch, torture, lead and pincers
Noose, knife, billhook, axe, a pile of brands, likewise a sword
And seething oil, and lead; a spear, a red-hot ‘horse’
Hold no fear for those who never terror sowed…
And if it’s recited aloud, this is how it sounds in 17th century German; this is how Gryphius MEANT his short, exploding vowels and sharp-edged consonants to spit out his gruesome list of torture tools:
An einen unschuldigen Leidenden
Ein Brandpfahl und ein Rad, Pech, Folter, Blei und Zangen,
Strick, Messer, Hacken, Beil, ein Holzstoß und ein Schwert
Und siedend Öl und Blei, ein Spieß, ein glühend Pferd
Sind den’n nicht schrecklich, die, was schrecklich, nicht begangen…
A few decades later, Netherlanders were reaping the rewards of unity and independence after booting the Spanish super-power of their day out of their tiny country with incredible courage and persistence. One of the great masters of the Golden Age of Dutch art and letters was Jan Luyken, a poet of enormous technical facility, wit and grace who was equally famous as an artist. His etchings, notably his graphic portrayals of the gruesome witch-burnings of his day, fetch very high prices at international auctions.
The 17th century saw his countrymen growing extremely wealthy from the spices and other precious commodities their powerful merchant fleet hauled home from their spreading colonial empire in the Indies. Dutch shipyards had become global technology leaders, taking naval architecture a big step forward from the clumsy galleons and caravelhos of the Portuguese and Spanish discoverers to the magnificent East Indiamen that fetched home priceless cargoes of pepper, cloves, cinnamon or nutmeg from the spice islands of South East Asia. New wealth was creating a class of patrician burghers with more than enough money, time and interest to invest in both profitable science and manufacturing and the leisure-oriented pursuit of the arts and letters. Dutch authors and poets had departed from the stern Calvinist piety of their fathers to soak up the humanist ideals of the Renaissance and start responding to the dawning Age of Reason. In short, the Dutch upper class was learning to play the same light-hearted games as their French and English contemporaries. You can sense their relief at being able to laugh at last, but it’s equally clear that they are still wrestling with the Calvinist conscience of their narrow-minded forebears. Luyken indulges these civilised new tastes more openly than most Golden Age colleagues and succeeds as well as most English contemporaries with often very similar themes. The following whimsical poem about love is based on the kind of conventional conceit that was common coin among European poets including Shakespeare and many English colleagues:
Tevergeefs preekt men den dooven
O dat de min zich zelf bespiegelen wou;
Aan’s anders schade, aan’s anders naberou,
Aan’s anders schande, en los gewenschte trou,
En groote elenden,
Men hoorden niet van zo veel bitter leer,
Van zo veel ramps, door losse min gesmeet,
Van zo veel spijts, die’t harte knaagt en eet,
En’t al kan schenden.
Maar’t is tevergeefs, wat voorbeeld dat men stelt:
Hoe ver het na de grootste jam’ren helt,
Noch doet het op de liefde geen gewelt,
Het is verlooren.
Hy drayt het oog ten klaren spiegel af,
En schelt de schroom en vrees, voor blôen laf,
Wat goude les men oyt dien dwazen gaf,
Hy wou niet hooren.
Men spreek, men preek, men leer vry jaren lang,
De dart’le min gaat zijnen ouden gang,
Hy lacht, en acht het al voor kind’re zang.
Dies is’t onnut, dat ik mijn uuren spil,
Met leering die ik lang voor ydel hiel:
Ik laat de min zijn gangen gaan, en wil
Van zoetheyd zingen.
’Tis vain to preach to the deaf…
O that love could see its mirror image
In another’s loss, and retrospective rue,
In another’s shame, and wish to break
And greatest misery;
You would not hear of so much bitter woe,
So much disaster wrought by feckless love,
So much regret, which gnaws and eats the heart,
And can devour it whole!
Vain are the good examples it is taught:
It recks them not, nor is it moved by
All is for naught.
From limpid mirror love averts its eye,
Mocks fears or scruples dullards and buffoons.
Whatever golden homily this fool is taught, falls
On deaf ears.
You prate, you preach, you teach as like as not for years:
Quicksilver love darts off to play its ancient games.
It laughs, and casts aside your warnings like a childish ditty,
Or foolish triviality.
‘Tis pointless thus for me to waste my hours
With teachings I have honoured for too long:
I’ll let love have its way, and fill
With sweetness now my song.
A more modern poet in the same language whom one should take very seriously indeed is Guido Gezelle, actually a Flemish Belgian whose verses made him a leading luminary among the very fine Dutch poets of the late 19th century.
“Tijdkrans”, or “Time’s Wreath”, is a very personal poem which Gezelle wrote in 1893. It contains some of the most effective word music and rhythm effects I have encountered in verse. Those who believe that Dutch is an stolid, guttural, unpoetical language should hear this poem recited:
Mijn hert is als een blomgewas
dat, opengaande of toegeloken
de stralen van de zonne vangt,
of kwijnt en pijnt en hangt gebroken!
Mijn hert gelijkt het jeugdig groen,
dat asemt in den dauw des morgens;
maar zwakt, des avonds, moe geleefd,
vol stof, vol weemoed en vol zorgens!
Mijn hert is als een vrucht, die wast
En rijp word, in de schauw verholen,
Aleer de hand des najaars heeft,
Te vroeg, eilaas, den boom bestolen!
Mijn hert gelijkt de sterre, die
verschiet, en aan der hoge wanden
des hemels eene sparke strijkt,
die eer ‘k herâem, houdt op van branden!
Mijn herte slacht den regenboog,
Die, hoog gebouwd dóór al de hemelen,
Welhaast gedaan heeft rood en blaauw
En groen en geluwe en peersch te schemelen!
Mijn hert…mijn herte is krank, en broos
En onstandvastig in ‘t verblijden;
Maar, als ‘t hem wel gaat éénen stond,
‘t kan dagen lang weêr honger lijden!
My heart is as a flow’ring plant
that, opening or tightly shuttered,
snares the radiance of the sun,
or wanes and ails and droops its head!
My heart is as the youthful green
that breathes the dewy air of morn;
but flags at eventide, wearied by life,
full of dust, of melancholia, of cares!
My heart is as a fruit, that swells
and ripens, guarded in the shade,
till alas, too soon, a latter season’s hand
steals it from the tree!
My heart is like those shooting stars
which strike a spark from heavn’s high walls,
which have, before I draw another breath,
My heart flings out the rainbow which,
arching high through all the heavens,
well-nigh coruscates in red and blue
and green and yellow and magenta!
My heart … my heart is sick, and frail
and unsteadfast in rejoicing;
but, if it can enjoy just one good hour,
can go hungry once again for days!