More Thoughts on Translating Poetry

Berlin memorial plaque, Nelly Sachs, Lessingst...

Berlin memorial plaque, Nelly Sachs, Lessingstraße 5, Berlin-Hansaviertel, Germany

Nelly Sachs has been occupying my thoughts again lately, and I’ve added a few new translations to my collection (scroll down to the bottom of the page for them). Eric over at Red Yucca provided the spur, as he posted his translations of a couple of poems that sounded familiar to me so I checked my list and, yes – there they were. Interesting to see how someone else interprets these poems, and to guess at the thought processes behind his choice of words where it differs from mine.

We all act as filters – I would contend that none of us is capable of rendering exactly the original German into English. We succeed with certain aspects but cannot reproduce all, like a two-dimensional mirror reflecting a three-dimensional world.  We persevere in our endeavours, though, as we relish the challenge: if it isn’t difficult, it isn’t worth translating, as Eric has already said.

Part of the challenge where Nelly Sachs is concerned is in her relatively limited and superficially simple vocabulary. Certain words and symbols appear over and over again, and the dilemma arises for the translator whether to use the same English word each time or not. In different poems, I mean. Where she speaks of Stein, Stern, Meer there is no problem – stone, star and sea are perfectly adequate in English – but there are other innocent-looking words that can be a real stumbling block for the translator.

Take the evocative word Sehnsucht, one of her most frequently used terms. It means longing, yearning, a wistful, unfulfilled desire. The very sound of the sibilants and the long vowels makes this a powerful word when spoken aloud, but the second syllable also has the sense of addiction or craving, thus doubling the potency of the longing into something far greater than mere wistfulness. Find me a good English word that matches up to Sehnsucht, and I’ll be eternally grateful!

I would like to have been able to make a double column with German and English side by side but I don’t know how to do that kind of formatting on my blog page, and am also daunted by the thought of copying out 100 poems, some of which are quite long. So here you have it: the German is there, but below the English and sometimes with a link to an audio version of the original.


3 thoughts on “More Thoughts on Translating Poetry

  1. Hi, Cat!
    This blog is of special interest to me and my husband.. Quite soon Peter and I are going to travel to Berlin. We booked a small apartment, a bed-sitter actually, in the Hansaviertel. We are going to stay there for two months. I must admit I never heard of Nelly Sachs so far, The same goes for Peter. And she being the recipient of a Nobel Prize! But both of us are very interested now. to read up more about her.
    I am sure in our posts from Berlin we’ll write something about Nelly Sachs. Thanks for making us aware of her.
    Sincerely, Uta

  2. Hi Uta
    I wish you a happy and interesting stay in Berlin – 2 months sounds like a long time, but I know it will go very quickly. Nelly Sachs isn’t easy reading, but her poems are very powerful and she is an interesting character. If you get to the Lessingsstrasse say hello from me!

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