My YouTube Debut

Back in April, I took part in a virtual conference and wrote about it here. This made an interesting change to my normal routine, and I have been looking forward to sharing the video of the presentation / interview with all of you. Now at last Montgomery College, who hosted the Confluence Translation Conference in Maryland, have uploaded all the video-recordings from the conference onto their website at https://www.montgomerycollege.edu/events/confluence/past-conferences.html.

If this also piques your interest, and you want to see me discussing my translations of Nelly Sachs’ poems, scroll down to Videos and click on Session 1 (where you can see an image of my Nelly Sachs blog). It’s quite a long session, so feel free to fast forward if you find it boring. Anyway, I just thought that after reading my waffling here in print and seeing my uploaded photos, it might make a change to actually see and hear me “live” too. You might also find some fascinating insights and information in the other videos.

My thanks are due to my interviewer, dear Elly Sullivan, and Montgomery College Confluence organisers – or should I spell that organizers – for this opportunity to share with a lot more people than I would otherwise have reached. This seems to be bearing fruit: since the conference, my site has received over 3,000 hits so somebody must have been motivated! I’d love to know who – not a single one of those visitors has left a comment. I really do appreciate feedback and can take constructive criticism (I ignore any other kind).

So follow the link above, and let me know what you think – at least I might get some comments on this site!

More for Ukraine

Like many others, I read the news (because I can’t bear to watch) about the war raging in Ukraine, and feel helpless, powerless. I grew up in the industrial Midlands of England during WW2, and my lullabies were sirens and bombs exploding. But I never experienced the horror of an armed invasion. How long can we sit back and refrain from action?

These are my translations of two more of Nelly Sachs’ poems that are as topical and relevant today as when she wrote them. The poem about the sunflower, in particular, as a symbol of Ukraine, is chilling in this context.

1.

You lookers-on
Who saw murder done before your eyes.
Just as you feel someone looking at you from behind,
so you feel on your back
the gaze of the dead.
How many dying eyes will look at you
when from the hiding places you pluck a violet?
How many hands raised in supplication
in the twisted martyred branches
of the old oak trees?
How much memory grows in the blood
of the evening sun?
Oh the unsung lullabies
in the nocturnes of the turtle dove –
many’s the one might have captured a star.
But now the old well has to do it for him!
You lookers-on
who didn’t raise a hand to kill,
but who did not shake off the dust from your
longing,
who stopped stock still at the point where it turns
to light.

2.

But the sunflower
inflaming the walls
raises from the ground
those who speak to the soul
in the dark

Torches lit for another world 
with hair growing beyond death –

And outside the song of finches
and time strolling in glory
vibrant
and the flower growing dear
to the human heart

evil ripens into the winepress
black grapes – of ill repute –
already pressed to wine –

Impostor Syndrome?

I’m no shrinking violet by any means, but nor am I one to blow my own trumpet loudly. I am, before all else, English! From an early age, I was taught not to push myself forward but to “wait to be asked”. So that’s what I do. Sometimes it pays off. A couple of events this last week have served to boost my self-esteem more than usual and I’d like to share these with you while the glow still lasts

As you can see from the headings at the top of this blog, I also run a blog devoted to my English translations of poems by the German Jewish writer Nelly Sachs. My main purpose in posting these is to help make Nelly Sachs’ work known and accessible among English-speaking audiences who would otherwise be unable to appreciate the original German poems. 

Several people have asked permission to use this or that poem for specific events and I’m constantly coming across others on the Internet who have reproduced them without my explicit permission in all kinds of contexts. I see that as positive, because my chief aim in publishing them has always been to make the voice of Nelly Sachs heard among English speakers, so provided I’m given credit, I’m OK with that.  

I was approached a few weeks ago by Elly Sullivan, an American student, who requested permission to read aloud one of my translations at a Holocaust Memorial Event taking place at her college in Maryland, followed by an invitation to participate via Zoom in a virtual conference on literary translation that was being hosted by her college on Saturday, 9 April. This intrigued me, so I accepted.

After the initial contact with Elly, I knew that here was someone sensitive, sensible and reliable that I could trust and work with. We devised a format for the presentation based on an interview with me about these poems, the poet Nelly Sachs and all the whys and wherefores of my labour of love as represented by the blog. Because of the time difference between Maryland and Switzerland, we were allotted a slot in the morning immediately after the introduction to the conference, which was convenient for me as it was 4 pm here, a time when my brain is usually firing on all four cylinders. 

On the Saturday morning a week before the conference Elly and I took our presentation through a trial run with her erudite poetry group who very kindly gave us their feedback. This was encouraging and constructive, enabling us to make some adjustments and decide which poems to include in Elly’s PowerPoint presentation, to be discussed in the interview.  

Then just a few days later I found a request on my Nelly Sachs blog for permission to use my translation  “Chorus of the Consolers” in a talk being given in another conference on the Literature of Trauma at the university of Marburg, Germany – this conference had already started and was being streamed live! They were very relieved to have my consent, as the talk was in English and it had only occurred to them at the last moment that they didn’t have an English version of the poem (a crucial part of the talk), so I was also invited to watch and listen to that informative and interesting speech. 

Thanks are due to Covid for the rise of Zoom in these last two years, which makes connecting with people so much easier. From my couch here in Switzerland I am able to join others all over the world, so simply and comfortably.

To my relief and delight, back in Maryland yesterday the live-streamed Confluence interview / presentation entitled “Antidote and Access:  Literary Translation in the Blogosphere”  went smoothly, and  feedback on the live chat was very encouraging, full of praise, encouragement and superlatives that made my head grow several sizes too big for my bonnet. This interview was also recorded, so will be available at some point on the website of Montgomery College if any of my readers and followers are interested. (I’ll add the link when it’s all set up.) I hope Elly gets the A+ she deserves for all her work.

You may be asking: What’s all that about “Antidote and Access”? For decades before I retired I was earning my bread and butter – and sometimes a good dollop of jam – from technical and commercial translations, so the creative process of translating poetry really was an antidote at that time to the materialistic prose of the business world. And as for access, the Internet and blogosphere has the edge over a printed book by making blog content available and accessible free of charge to anyone capable of googling; my Nelly Sachs blog has received getting on for 121,000 hits – not bad for a poet whom only the elite few have even heard of. There’s also the extra bonus for me, that I can revise my English versions and add to my selection at any time with no difficulty. 

Still, could this lead to publication in book form? That, I must admit, would be gratifying and fun: I started my labour of love almost 30 years ago and though the work has been intermittent with long gaps – sometimes years – between poems, I don’t see an end to it! Nelly Sachs wrote several hundred poems, so there’s a long way to go yet. My currently inflated ego thinks it would be nice to see them in print. Who knows? I must confess to feeling like something of an impostor, and am still waiting to be asked. But – remember Grandma Moses! She was actually even younger than me when she was discovered.

Blood on your Hands

The images have started pouring in on us again in news reports of the carnage being inflicted by Turkey on North Syrian Kurds and anyone else caught in the crossfire. In particular, the sight of the Syrian woman refugee in Akçakale whose baby son was killed by a mortar this week reminded me of this poem by Nelly Sachs, which I translated several years ago.

Those in power with blood on your hands, will you never stop?

Already wrapped in the arms of heavenly solace
stands the demented mother
with the rags
of her tattered mind,
with the cinders of her burnt brain,
laying her dead child in his coffin,
laying her lost light in his coffin,
bending her hands to bowls,
filling them from the air with the body of her child,
filling them from the air with his eyes, his hair,
and his fluttering heart –

then kisses the air-birthed babe
and dies!

German Original:

Schon vom Arm des himmlischen Trostes umfangen
Steht die wahnsinnige Mutter
Mit den Fetzten
ihres zerrissenen Verstandes,
Mit den Zundern ihres verbrannten Verstandes
Ihr totes Kind einsargend,
Ihr verlorenes Licht einsargend,
Ihre Hände zu Krügen biegend,
Aus der Luft füllend mit dem Leib ihres Kindes,
Aus der Luft füllend mit seinen Augen, seinen Haaren
Und seinem flatternden Herzen –

Dann küßt sie das Luftgeborene
Und stirbt!

Birthday Tribute

I don’t have a huge following on my blogs – you are basically the same trusty few who comment regularly and one or two people who say shyly to me, “I read your blog sometimes.” And I say once more that I’m very grateful to you for your feedback and support, expressed or silent. At least I know I’m not talking to myself.

How surprised I was yesterday when WordPress suddenly notified me that my Nelly Sachs website was getting more traffic than usual. I looked at my stats and my jaw dropped. Almost 10,000 views, just under 5,000 visitors! Was it Holocaust Memorial Day? I checked – no, that’s in January. Then a message popped into my mailbox and all was explained. It gave me a link to http://isupdate.com/google-doodle-celebrates-nazi-germany-survivor-nelly-sachs-cnet/ and I realized that 10 December was Nelly Sachs’ 127th birthday.

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I was very touched that this was being commemorated and a bit overwhelmed to see that so many people had followed the link to my translation of O die Schornsteine (O the Chimneys). This is probably the most accessible of Sachs’ poems, but I was very pleased to find that several people had moved on to other pages, and left comments there (mostly complimentary). By the end of the day my site had been visited by over 12,000 people and there were more than 20,000 views.

Considering the millions of people still classed as refugees (which is fast beoming a dirty word) I feel it fitting to link here to two of Nelly Sachs’ many poems on the subject of displaced persons.

https://nellysachsenglish.wordpress.com/2013/04/29/chorus-of-the-wanderers/
and
https://nellysachsenglish.wordpress.com/2013/04/29/203/

 

 

Stats Again …

WordPress stats are probably no exception to the general progression of “lies, damn lies and statistics”, but I keep an eye on them for my own personal entertainment. It’s interesting to see where my readers are located, and I’m still hoping one day to see a red dot in the middle of Siberia, the Sahara or Gobi Desert on the little map (which differs from WordPress by recording the number of visitors rather than hits).

There are already isolated pimples out in the Pacific and Indian Ocean corresponding, I think, to Hawaii, the Maldives and the Seychelles. Judging by reports from friends who have holidayed in the last two places, the general level of intense boredom there probably accounts for those hits on my blog.

Mainly, though, I check the stats to reassure myself that I’m not talking to the wall like Shirley Valentine. I am grateful to my readers for providing an audience, but I do sometimes wonder what brings my faithful followers back to my blogs time after time, panning for gold in the dishwater of my thoughts here on “Catterel” and wading through the impenetrably dense poetry of Nelly Sachs on my “B-side”.

Much to my amazement, in the past few months I have noticed that Nelly Sachs has attracted more than a hundred more hits than my vapid burblings here. (Obviously, the literary quality of Nelly Sachs’ work is infinitely higher than mine, but she is more arcane.) Apart from comments by some high school students whose teacher had obviously directed them to the site, there are few indications of who is actually perusing these translations. I even have a couple of followers there, though after having now posted over a hundred poems, my output has slowed to less than a trickle. I hate to disappoint, so I am now on the lookout for more poems, so far untreated, to reward these kind souls for their loyalty. Noblesse oblige, after all! It looks as if I might have to fork out and buy the complete works … maybe this will turn out to be a doctoral thesis!

Holocaust Memorial Day

I didn’t want to let Holocaust Memorial Day pass without a comment, but what could I add to the millions of words already spoken and written, expressing the grief and tears and hopes of the ever-dwindling numbers of survivors?

Television brings Auschwitz into our homes, and as that footage is shown again and again we risk becoming inured to the sight of those living skeletons filmed as the camp was liberated. That must never happen. We need to continue to feel, just as strongly, the horrified outrage and revulsion that hit us in the solar plexus the first time we ever became aware of these atrocities. This is a wound that must never be allowed to fade into a mere scar.

I have wandered through the heart-wrenching Berlin Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, and felt nauseous on the tilted floor of the Garden of Exile in the Jewish Museum there. I think of the Jews I know and have known, people of my own generation or slightly older who were saved by the Kindertransport, or whose parents and grandparents were victims of Auschwitz and other concentration camps; each story a unique mixture of horror and miracles. I think of my friends in Israel, born in the Diaspora but who have returned there, made Aliyah, drawn by their centuries old homing instinct, still facing the attacks of their enemies, day in and day out.

What can I say about the Holocaust, and what it stands for on a global scale, where genocide continues in many parts of the world even now, and man’s inhumanity to man seems to be escalating out of control? It isn’t only about anti-Semitism, though that remains a focal point.

What can I add? I can point to my other blog, with 100 translated poems of Nelly Sachs. Nothing else I can say can be more poignant than that.

Students And Nelly Sachs

All of a sudden yesterday there were over 500 hits on my Nelly Sachs site, and more than a dozen comments. Intrigued, I checked to see what was happening and discovered that the comments were clearly by students in the USA who must have been given an assignment by their teacher to choose a poem and comment on it.

Whilst I am pleased to see that my versions of Nelly Sachs’ poems are being read and the students are trying to figure out what they are about, it is also rather disappointing to see how facile and wide of the mark most of these comments are. My knee-jerk reaction was to trash them, but then I decided to click the “approve” button after all: not that I approve of the comments themselves, but of the intentions behind them. Thank you to the teacher who found my blog and pointed the class to it, and thank you to the students who actually sat down and struggled through these poems until they found one that appealed to them.

Mine are translations, not interpretations. I am no wiser than the next person about what was going on in Nelly Sachs’ head when she wrote her original works. Naturally I have my ideas, and since I also wrestled with her words, symbolism and ambiguity as I sought to render the German into English, I have perhaps delved more deeply into them than these teenage students are able to. Plus I am so much older than they are, and have so much more experience of life, as well as having been alive – though a small child – at the time of the Holocaust. I have met survivors of those horrors, and am thus much closer to them than sixteen or seventeen-year-old American High School students. So I apologise to my young readers for my hasty judgement and initial dismissal of their comments.

I don’t know why they have posted these on my blog: it would have made more sense – assuming this was a homework assignment – to present them in class so everyone can express their views, and the teacher could guide them into a better understanding of the aspects they have missed. Perhaps they are doing that, too, and it is simply a courtesy on their part to have shared their reactions with me? Is the generation gap simply too wide between us? I am, after all, old enough to be their grandmother.

I would like to be able to enter into a real discussion with them and their teacher (who has all my sympathy in her desire to acquaint her class with Nelly Sachs and the Holocaust: it can’t be an easy task) and point out a few things that to me are as plain as a pikestaff but which they have missed. Alas, any exchange of comments on my website is going to remain very superficial, and would I fear be even more frustrating for all concerned. I want to encourage my young readers, not deter them from making the effort to get to grips with difficult poetry or to understand what went on in the Third Reich. So perhaps I should, after all, respond individually to each one and offer a little food for thought, more easily digestible than the morsels they have chosen. I just hope I don’t end up making Nelly Sachs even more unpalatable.

A Ton of Nelly Sachs

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A piece of art that looks as if you know what it’s about – till you look really closely …

I’ve done it! Reached my target of 100 translations of poems on my Nelly Sachs website. Feeling quite pleased with myself, and wondering why on earth I have bothered. Who is going to read them? Who is going to pat me on the head and say: Thank you for making this obscure poet accessible to me? Who is going to say: That’s a lousy version, you have totally betrayed her genius? Who is going to say: Wonderful, let’s get these into a book and sell millions worldwide?

Really, though, the main question is, whether in German or English, is anyone going to understand them?

Sure, some of them are clear enough. There are metaphors and images that strike chillingly into our consciousness and shake our conscience like a dog with a bone. Others are so abstruse that I defy anyone to explain precisely what the poet meant. If it were possible to explain, she wouldn’t have needed the poetic form to express it. We’re left with a feeling, an inkling, an idea – the sense that a great truth has been glimpsed but the shutter closed too quickly for the brain to seize it. Artists are all kin and like the music and painting of the mid twentieth century, contemporary with Sachs, these works of art mean different things to different people. Some appear to be nonsense – until you immerse yourself in these works.

Why have I done this? I really don’t know. I came across some of her poems twenty-odd years ago and they struck a chord with me, as I realised that what she had written about refugees from the Holocaust also applied to the asylum-seekers I was meeting pouring in as Yugoslavia fell apart. This was reinforced as I had more and more contact with refugees from all over Europe, Africa and the Near East.

One of the very first I put into English was “Wenn einer kommt”. Watching the news on TV yesterday, as French police bulldoze a Syrian refugee camp near Calais, I recognise once again just how topical this plea for understanding is.

Once I had met the challenge of the refugee poems, I was hooked. Starting was one thing – continuing, another. It became like an addiction, an obsession, a need that had to be satisfied.  Perhaps now I can stop?

If someone comes

from far away

with a language that

maybe stifles sounds

with a mare’s whinnying

or

the cheeping
of blackbird nestlings


or

even a screeching saw

cutting proximity to pieces –

If someone comes

from far away

cringing like a dog

or

maybe like a rat

in the wintertime –

wrap him up warm

he might well have

fire under the soles of his feet

(he may have been riding
on a meteor)


don’t scold him

if your carpet screams through its holes –


A stranger always carries

his home in his arms

like an orphan

and maybe

all he is looking for

is a grave

to bury it.

 

Why No Comment?

It’s been about 8 months (counting on my fingers) since I moved my Nelly Sachs page onto a dedicated blog site, and then gradually added a few more pages. I haven’t been there for a while, as I have had nothing to add, but a notification from WordPress drew my attention to the fact that it was drawing a lot of traffic so I checked out the stats. Surprise, surprise, this obscure poet has attracted over 5,000 hits, although scarcely anyone has bothered to comment.

Why?

I am intrigued.

I’d appreciate some feedback.