The Poetry Round

Afterbabbel: All Ears

Article published on Jan. 14, 2014
Article published on Jan. 14, 2014

Translation gives you two poems instead of one. What could be better? Twice as many opportunities for possible 'ah's and 'oooh's as well as scrunching of the nose. Welcome to 'Afterbabbel', christened after the final chapter’s title in David Bello's splendid book on translation Is that a Fish in Your Ear. 

Be­cause we love what po­etry does, as well as what hap­pens in trans­la­tion, Af­terbabbel takes the form of re­views in di­a­logue. First we read the book, a col­lec­tion of po­etry from any­where in the world, trans­lated into Eng­lish, then we meet over a cup of cof­fee, some­times over Skype, al­ways in dif­fer­ent lo­ca­tions. Then we babbel.

Book: All Ears by Lud­wig Stein­herr

Trans­la­tor: Paul-Henry Camp­bell

The gist of it: play­ful philo­soph­i­cal poems with sur­pris­ing ex­tended metaphors. Lots of ex­cla­ma­tion marks.

A favourite quote: ‘Stars are sober crea­tures, but the paper nap­kins are dream­ers.’

Dis­cussed at: Look­ing Glass Books, Ed­in­burgh

Jes­sica: Are there re­li­gious poems in All Ears, do you think?

Annie: I think there are philo­soph­i­cal poems. It de­pends how you deal with things like ‘the body of Jesus’. Take Philip Pull­man’s The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ. I would say that’s not re­li­gious, al­though it’s a re­li­gious theme.

J: That’s true. Pull­man’s novel is part of the Canon­gate myth se­ries, so he ba­si­cally treats the Chris­t­ian story as one of many, many myths. I feel that this is the case with Stein­herr’s po­etry as well. After I’d read the whole col­lec­tion I found my­self writ­ing a list of all the char­ac­ters that were in there. There are loads of them – his­tor­i­cal fig­ures like Nero, as well as gods and god­desses from Greek mythol­ogy. And then there’s Jesus. Stein­herr uses all of these com­mu­nal sto­ries as ves­sels for what hap­pens in the poems.

A: He doesn’t treat Chris­t­ian con­cepts much dif­fer­ently to ideas from clas­si­cal mythol­ogy. And al­though clas­si­cal mythol­ogy was a re­li­gion, you’d no longer de­scribe it as “re­li­gious”.

J: Yes, you talk about Greek mythol­ogy as sto­ries – that’s myth. What Philip Pull­man does, and what Lud­wig Stein­herr does, is to put Chris­t­ian sym­bols and nar­ra­tives on the same level as those sto­ries and treat them as myth.

J: What do you think about ex­cla­ma­tion marks?

A: I got so an­noyed with the ex­cla­ma­tion marks! That was one of the rea­sons I wanted to see a Ger­man copy, to see whether they’re matched by ex­cla­ma­tion marks in the Ger­man orig­i­nal, or whether they sim­ply work in the orig­i­nal. There’s an overuse of ex­cla­ma­tion marks – they made points which were good points seem trite.

J: I agree. When I started see­ing them, I just thought, Oh God, please stop. There are a few poems in which I think it works. ‘The Sud­den Jolt of Au­tumn’ is made up of four sen­tences all end­ing in ex­cla­ma­tion marks. That makes sense be­cause it’s at the heart of the whole poem. It’s very short and it’s about shout­ing. Yet in some poems, say ‘The Senusu­ous the Ut­most Ab­stract­ness’, I thought, ‘Why are you shout­ing at me?’ I think the best poems in the book are the qui­etest ones.

A: My favourite part of the book is the one line poems in the for­tune cook­ies chap­ter at the end. I loved ‘Every tri­an­gle is lone­some and kisses its own elbow.’

J: Yes, I’m def­i­nitely going to read those again. I wanted to write those down and put them around the house. ‘Lis­ten to your um­brella, it is versed in the lan­guage of shad­ows.’

A: I loved ‘The short­est dis­tance be­tween two points is God,’ which I sup­pose is re­li­gious; it ab­solutely cap­tures the way faith bridges gaps.

J: The for­tune cook­ies say a lot about the rest of the po­etry.

A: Yes, they feel like con­densed ver­sions of the other poems.

J: They work so well when they’re just sin­gle lines. That was some­thing I found dif­fi­cult with parts of the book. You find your­self ask­ing, why is this a poem? There are so many im­ages which are al­most in­de­pen­dent, if that makes sense.

A: It does. ‘The Sud­den Jolt of Au­tumnwas one of my favourite of the longer poems, and it shows what Stein­herr does won­der­fully: this jux­ta­po­si­tion, the ex­tended metaphors of two im­ages which are ab­solutely stay to­gether.

J: Are welded to­gether, even.

A: Yes, and that gets lost when the poems bring too many im­ages in.

J: I like this poem, ‘Maybe Gold’. It’s just lovely. And it doesn’t have any ex­cla­ma­tion marks! Was there any­thing that an­noyed you about the poems, other than the ex­cla­ma­tion marks?

A: I some­times felt they didn’t need to be so ex­plic­itly philo­soph­i­cal. I like the philo­soph­i­cal in them – but you don’t need to put the word ‘meta­phys­i­cal’ in there for us to un­der­stand that it’s meta­phys­i­cal. That can have a bit of a dis­tanc­ing ef­fect.

J: Whereas poems like ‘Maybe Gold’ work so much bet­ter. You see the im­ages, in­stead of read­ing ‘the meta­phys­i­cal shone through the bark’.

A: I do re­ally like the first poem, which imag­ines fur­ni­ture com­ing to life. It’s a very play­ful, philo­soph­i­cal poem and that works.

J: Maybe it’s to do with hu­mour.

A: I think quite often the philo­soph­i­cal in the poems is hu­mor­ous but some­times the hu­mor­ous isn’t quite strong enough. Maybe that’s a trans­la­tion thing, per­haps it comes across bet­ter in Ger­man.

J: Yes, it might be.

A: There were a cou­ple of things where I would have liked to see the orig­i­nal: ‘in’ and ‘into’ seemed to be mud­dled up for ex­am­ple, and in Ger­man the dif­fer­ence is shown through dif­fer­ent cases, not dif­fer­ent words. There was also one point where some­thing was in the con­tin­u­ous past tense and it felt odd. Ger­man doesn’t have the con­tin­u­ous past tense, so I won­der if there was a par­tic­u­lar word that prompted that trans­la­tion?

J: Yes, that’s in­ter­est­ing – the way you can feel that kind of thing in trans­la­tion. Do you know, there’s this one chap­ter title, ‘Schneewen­del­treppe’. [Al­though the book is en­tirely in Eng­lish, the chap­ter ti­tles are also given in Ger­man - ed.] That’s much, much bet­ter than ‘Spi­ral Stair­case of Snow’. Why don’t we have com­posed words in Eng­lish?

A: What do you think Stein­herr would look at, what would he no­tice in Look­ing Glass Books?

J: I think he’d men­tion the writ­ing on the win­dow.

A: The fact that it’s not writ­ing on the wall, per­haps?

J: It’s like writ­ing on the wall. But trans­par­ent – or some­thing.

A: What’s trans­par­ent? Knowl­edge? Com­mu­ni­ca­tion?

J: Lan­guage.

A: Which is ac­tu­ally a won­der­ful metaphor for trans­la­tion.