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A conversation with translator Kurt Beals

Transom:
Who are G13 and how did you first encounter them?

Beals:
I first met some of the members of G13 after a reading at Lettrétage in Berlin – it’s a small venue for literary readings in the basement of a pretty but somewhat ramshackle old house. One of the G13 poets was reading along with Ulf Stolterfoht, whose work I’d first come across in the English translations published by Burning Deck. As often happens, once I’d met them there, I kept seeing them around Berlin at other readings. There’s a good series at a bar called Damensalon where a lot of younger poets read, and there are several larger poetry festivals throughout the year. After I’d seen them read a few times in various combinations, I decided to try my hand at translating some of their work. Most of them hadn’t had any of their poems translated before (into English or any other language), so it was a good opportunity to experiment with new voices.

Transom:
What particular challenges and/or pleasures did translating these poems offer?

Beals:
Several of these poets (Natt, Scheffler, & Westheuser in particular, but others as well) use abrupt semantic shifts that can make it difficult to establish exactly how the elements fit together – e.g. in the Westheuser poem, “a cowboy ground down at the top / or these two cows- they carry milk / in their teeth, badly / transplanted wings on their backs // (and the data towers, in the shops, etc.)” As a reader it’s easy to let passages like this slide, to read them as suggestive or allusive without pinning them down to a specific meaning. But as a translator you inevitably have to come to a conclusion of some sort that you can put down on paper. So one of the pleasures of translating these poems was working through these ambiguous passages, getting to know the structures of these poems and the stylistic differences between the poets, and also corresponding with the poets to ask them questions and get their feedback on my drafts. I appreciate a translation process that involves dialog, give and take.

Transom:
In Westheuser’s poem, the word “cowboy” appears in the original German, and you leave it as “cowboy” in English. We’re fascinated by the choices translators make when translating a text that partakes of the target language (in this case, bringing into English a poem with English in it); can you walk us through your thought process when translating this passage? (Or [oops!] is the word for “cowboy” in German actually “cowboy”?)

Beals:
The word “Cowboy” is pretty firmly entrenched in German – German does have “Kuhhirt” (like “cowherd”), but that doesn't really bring the same image to mind. But that does raise a broader issue, namely the fact that English is so prevalent in contemporary German, both in literature and in everyday usage. Most of the young German poets I know make some use of English in their writing, at least slipping in a word or phrase here and there, and several of them write poems in both languages. Of course this can present translators with a dilemma, since an English word doesn’t stand out in an English translation the way it does in the German original. One classic option is to put the word in italics in the translation, but I think that’s a decision that has to be made case by case. In practice, I’m often inclined not to mark it, for the simple reason that English is so widespread in German popular culture that it doesn’t really have the feel of a “foreign” language; it’s become integrated into the contemporary German idiom. Of course you could take the opposing position and say that if the prevalence of English is such a characteristic feature of modern German writing, then it should be expressed in the translation, too. But my feeling is that highlighting it in the translation would place disproportionate emphasis on something that’s almost unremarkable in the original. With a word like “Cowboy,” of course, the job is somewhat easier, because the American context comes through even without any specific linguistic markers.

Transom:
In Glamann’s poem in particular, the compound words that German allows reappear as neologisms in your translation: “mouthstand,” “thunderflies.” Do you feel any obligation as a translator (following Schleiermacher in “On the Different Methods of Translating”) to expand English with the richness of German?

Beals:
I don’t like to take the Schleiermacher approach too far – if the German text generally stays within the bounds of standard usage, then I think that the English translation should do the same. But certainly German does sometimes suggest interesting coinages. In this case, “thunderflies” actually is an English word (though not one I’ve come across often), and it’s an almost perfectly literal translation of the German “Gewitterfliegen” (lit. “storm flies”), so that one was easy. “Mundstand” isn’t common in German, but it does turn up here and there (on websites about acrobats, for instance), whereas “mouthstand” only seems to occur in English as a typo. Still, it’s easy enough to make the connection from “handstand” or “headstand” to “mouthstand.” So I thought it was appropriate to introduce an unfamiliar term here in the English, since the German is fairly unusual, too. In general, I do think that one reason to translate poetry is to discover new possibilities in the target language (or to rediscover possibilities that are rarely used, like “thunderflies”). My reservations concern the suggestion that the innovations in the translation would necessarily come from imitating the original language. In some cases this may be true, but in other cases I think the original text can be seen as an impetus for experimentation or invention in the target language without necessarily restricting the form that that innovation would take.