What matters is the drape, the hang, the fall . . .

After John Ashbery’s first book came out, he was so depressed at being found incomprehensible (and that was fifty years ago, imagine!) that he reportedly wanted to take up weaving. I know how he feels. After getting Alfred Lutz’s not even ill-intentioned letter, I first groaned solidly for forty-eight hours. During one of my sleepless nights, I heard an interview with the recently deceased management guru Russell Ackoff, who spoke of the “management of interactions” within corporations, and of “inter-operability.” “You simply cannot treat the parts as independent entities,” he said. If management people get this, why can’t the reader of a poem? Isn’t a poem at least as alive as an enterprise, or a factory? “Machine translation never happened,” Les Murray writes in a poem that remembers his time when he was “a translator at the Institute.” Maybe not, but machine reading is alive and well, and standing there with its Taylorean stopwatch in its hand—the “translation police,” as exasperated acquaintances have called it.

There is no more dismal—or, frankly, stupid—way of reading a translation than to pick on single words (as though the first duty of a translation were that it should be reversible—it’s not—and as though words were tokens of unchanging value, the way money used to be, in its dreams—they’re not either). Alfred Lutz writes as though I were a siffleur, there to help a drying German actor with English prompts: good—gut, new—neu, wrap up—einwickeln. This is then equated with accuracy, with being “precise.” I think I have been remarkably precise. I don’t see how I could have served Benn any better in English, both in large and in little. My “choices” (detestable word) are absolutely “the best available” (certainly to me), and if they can be improved, then at least it won’t be by any obvious so-called “literal” so-called “dictionary equivalents.” (I’m curious: does Lutz think I don’t know these words; or that I’m just avoiding them for fun?)

If I didn’t want to say “good thriller,” it’s because that sounds prissy in English (where thrillers come from, after all), and the word has to go through on the nod; it was my judgment that the “good” and “bad” in the title was not an important axis in the poem (this sounds odd and improbable, but I think it’s obviously true); hence “new.” That meant I couldn’t have “new” later, with the “thought” or “idea”(it inheres in “idea” anyway, as in “to have an idea”), though I wouldn’t have used it anyway, on account of its boastfulness, just as I would never have used “rooms” either: who has “rooms”—only the Queen, and Oxford students talking to their bedders. I have been thinking about the valency of Latin words in English for at least thirty-five of my fifty-two years. Sometimes, as with “encapsulate,” they actually have greater “immediacy” and are more “tactile” than their Anglo-Saxon correspondents; here, it’s probably something to do with the very widely used word “capsule.” Anyway, “wrap up” would have been completely baffling. “Reise” I made a “holiday” because there was no point in making it anything else; it cuts off questions. You don’t want the reader to say, “where was this trip / journey / tour / voyage you were making, then, Gottfried, and was it business or pleasure? I don’t think it “adds layers of meaning” so much as cuts off unnecessary speculation. (I wish.) I straightforwardly didn’t fancy “everything is bright” for “alles hell ist” (and “light,” of course, in its other sense, is reserved for the earth at the end). “When the days are long” is at least as yearning and evocative—yes, but there aren’t many of them—as lightness or brightness, which would tend to be subsumed in it anyway. “A few days are all we have,” says James Schuyler in his great poem of summer. Not one of the things I have done is a liberty, or even close. I would have said they weren’t worth mentioning, gar nicht der Rede wert. I have merely said things the way they get said in English, precisely, and with tact.

In a sense, every poem is of course a matter of details, but with these late poems of Benn’s it’s not true, or true in a different way. They are poems of speech, and tone. They have to feel lived in, or they are nothing. The least strangeness or awkwardness is fatal. What matters is the drape, the hang, the fall. You mustn’t see the coat hanger through the shoulders, or the borrowed ill-fit across the chest. The most important single criterion of all is naturalness. The pity of it is that Alfred Lutz would have got that, and was responding aesthetically and generally and in detail to the translations, when he heard the whistle in his ear that said hier stimmt was nicht—something’s up! Of course, I would have preferred it if he had trusted his instinct, and trusted me. Even if he’d said to himself, well, he probably knows what he’s doing, and left me alone.

Originally Published: December 30th, 2009

Poet, translator, and essayist Michael Hofmann was born in Freiburg, Germany, and moved to the UK at age four. When his family returned to Germany, Hofmann stayed behind, first at boarding schools and later Magdalene College, Cambridge University, where he earned his BA and MA. His first book of poetry,...

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