I read with great interest and enjoyment Michael Hofmann’s translations of poems by Gottfried Benn (November 2009). I very much appreciate Hofmann’s successful efforts to recreate Benn’s rhythms, careful manipulation of line length, and precisely calibrated diction. In some cases, though, Hofmann’s word choices strike me as not quite the best available. I’ll focus on “What’s Bad,” Hofmann’s translation of Benn’s “Was schlimm ist.”
Hofmann translates Benn’s phrase “guten englischen Krimina-lroman” as “new English thriller.” Benn’s word gut means “good.” As opposed to Hofmann’s “new” (neu), it speaks directly to schlimm (bad) in the poem’s title. Since Benn uses neu later in the poem—not included in Hofmann’s translation, which renders Benn’s “neuen Gedanken” (new idea/thought) simply as “idea”—Hofmann’s using it where Benn doesn’t strikes me as odd.
Hofmann’s decision to translate Benn’s “nicht in einen Hölderlinvers einwickeln kann” as “can’t encapsulate in a line of Hölderlin” strikes me as a misleading choice of register. The Latinate “encapsulate” does not suggest the tactile immediacy, even colloquialism (not unimportant, perhaps, in a poem that praises beer), of einwickeln, captured better perhaps by “wrap up.”
In several cases, Hofmann’s word choices subtly change a line’s range of meanings. For example, Hofmann translates Benn’s Reisen as “holiday,” adding a layer of meaning that may well be there along with the more mundane meanings (trip, journey, tour), but I don’t think that layer deserves to be foregrounded. Similarly, Benn’s “zu Hause die Räume” becomes “your own room at home.” Benn’s plural “Räume” turns into singular “room” in Hofmann’s version. Benn’s point may be that any room at home, not just your room, i.e., a room with specific meaning to you, is still better than having to spend time in somebody else’s home. One more example: Benn’s description of summer as a time “wenn alles hell ist” (when everything is bright/light) turns into “when the days are long,” substituting the length of summer days for a particular quality of their light, of their atmosphere. It seems to me that Sommer, leicht, and hell are crucial words in establishing the oddly comforting atmosphere of a verse paragraph that, after all, deals with death.
I am not an expert on Benn or twentieth-century German poetry, so I may well be unaware of arguments justifying every single one of Hofmann’s choices. I only mean to draw attention to the possibility that in a few places Hofmann’s fine translations may not be quite as precise as they perhaps could be.