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Translator's Note: "Inventory" by ​Günter Eich

I translated "Inventory" ("Inventur") because I wanted to use it for a class on political poetry and couldn't find a version I liked. I know very little German, but the poem is straightforward, and it seemed possible to produce an analogous English-language version by simply taking care. To vet the result, I consulted my friend Christophe Fricker, a German poet and translator.

The specific problem I'd had with the translations I read was that they were finally such flat poems in English. Word for word they might be perfect, but none consistently imitated Eich's technical choices, which are crucial to the poem's meaning. "Inventory" mainly uses a two-beat line. Occasional ambiguities vary it, but they aren't especially disruptive. Eich keeps his diction plain and his phrasing simple. A number of the phrases are one line long, and nearly all finish at a line-end. Their stunted quality is emphasized by the metrically-short line and a frequent lack of explicit grammatical linkage. The phrasing is of a piece but discontinuous, and so with the life it describes. Together these features approximate the voice of a speaker stunned into a reduced capacity of speech.

This approach was one of the things that drew me to the poem in the first place. In postwar German literature, it constituted a new tendency: plain language, parataxis, concrete images. The term Kahlschlag, which refers to the act of clearing forest, was applied to writers who wrote this way. Kahlschlagliteratur responded to the catastrophic destruction of the war, and to the general debasement of meaningful language under Goebbels, et al. These writers meant to address their shattered reality with dependable bluntness and, in doing so, to move on.

Some have argued that the impulse to move on was premature. But it is understandable, especially for Eich. Though never as committed a fascist as Pound, for example, he wrote many "acceptable" radio plays in the Hitler years. Some of this seems to have been careerism, and some seem to have been a sympathetic feeling for the Nazis' economic and nationalist policies. In 1939 Eich was conscripted. He fought for the Third Reich until the war's end, when he found himself incarcerated for a year in an American prison camp. "Inventory" depicts part of this experience. After the war, Eich helped found the pro-democracy literary collective Gruppe 47, whose other members included Ingeborg Bachmann, Gunter Grass, Paul Celan, and Eich's second wife, Ilse Aichinger. He became a vocal critic of fascism and the abuse of language, pressing artists to "be troublesome" to authority, and requested that his ashes rest near Mikhail Bakunin's. Whoever Eich really was, he had much in common with millions of other soldiers, whose demoralized astonishment and reduced state the poem conveys very well.

Originally Published: April 1st, 2009

Poet Joshua Mehigan grew up in upstate New York and earned a BA from Purchase College and an MFA from Sarah Lawrence College. He is the author of the poetry collections The Optimist (2004), winner of the Hollis Summers Poetry Prize and finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize,...

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