Untranslated Fragments and Cultural Translation
Sheffield Hallam University
In recent years Michael Hofmann’s role as translator seems to have eclipsed that of poet entirely: his last full collection, Approximately Nowhere, came out in 1999; the Faber Selected published in March 2008 contained only seven new poems. Meanwhile most years see several translations published, making a range of modern German writers available to English readers—mainly prose (Bertolt Brecht, Ernst Junger, Franz Kafka, Wolfgang Koeppen, Joseph Roth, and Wim Wenders, among others) but also poetry (Durs Grünbein; ‘about one third’ (quoted in Thwaite 2005) of the poems in The Faber Book of 20th Century German Poems). The drying up of the poetry should be a source of regret, yet there are grounds for seeing the two activities as complementary rather than contending. The poetry, with its ‘mid-European preoccupation with movement back and forth across frontiers[,]... ranges globally for its imagery and ideas’ (Morrison 1987: 204); it too engages in ‘making available’ European and especially German culture, both at the microscopic level of words and phrases and at the macroscopic level of techniques and traditions.
European cultures make their most obtrusive entrances into Hofmann’s poems not in translation but in transplantation: Hofmann updates Eliot’s Modernist trope of incorporating untranslated fragments into poems in English. One poem’s title (‘l’an trentiesme de son eage’ (1983: 38)) makes direct reference to Pound. Taking only titles to begin with, the source language of untranslated fragments is usually German (1983: 22, 26; 1999: 14), but also French (1983: 9; 1993: 43; 1999: 18, 64), Spanish (1993: 41, 44, 47) and Latin (‘et prope et procul’ (1999: 73)—a recasting of Donne’s ‘A Valediction Forbidding Mourning’ in which the lovers’ separation is negated by their swapped clothing: ‘I keep my balls/coddled in your second-best lace panties/for the duration’). Hofmann’s European interests should be apparent from this list (though his American interests may be obscured; the Spanish fragments mainly relate to Mexico). But whereas Eliot transplants fragments from canonical literary (Petronius, Dante, Wagner, Baudelaire, Shakespeare, Verlaine) and religious (the Bible, the Book of Common Prayer, St Augustine, the Upanishads, and the Buddha’s Fire Sermon) texts (i.e. quotes those texts), Hofmann is less concerned to trade in high-cultural capital. He transplants individual words and phrases rather than quotations, and, as we’ll see below, his mixing of register has a flattening, deprecating effect. But like Eliot’s, Hofmann’s ironic, allusive, sophisticated style can be read as a futile but necessary response to circumstances.
The most obvious part played by untranslated fragments is to specify a geographical location. This may be at the level of local detail for poems set in European locations, as in ‘Day in the Netherlands’ (1983: 10), where the text of the street sign ‘Linnaeuslaan’ is reproduced, and in ‘Schönlaternengasse’ (1993: 24), where the title give us a location (the name of a well-known street in Vienna), and a fragment of Italian simultaneously supplies a visual image and alludes to Italian influence on the cultural milieu depicted:
Better never than late like the modern concrete
The notion of cultural allusion is important here, because geographical and cultural evocation are not easily separable. References to ‘Germany’s Wirtschaftswunder’ (1983: 22; lit. ‘economic miracle’, but referring specifically to the reconstruction of postwar West Germany), ‘Grenzflucht’ (1983: 40; ‘cross-border escape’) and ‘the old upright carriages/of the Deutsche Reichsbahn, of old Imperial Germany’ (1986: 23; the railway company of imperial Germany and then of the old East Germany) depend on remaining in their original language to generate their cultural and historical connotations; translated, they risk banality.
The ‘old couple next door’ in ‘Zirbelstrasse’ (Approximately Nowhere 14–15) are ‘Duzfreunde of Franz Josef Strauss’, not simply ‘old friends’: the wording is ostensibly theirs. Quoting them simultaneously stakes a claim for the portrait’s authenticity and insists on their distance from the speaker, whose cool irony is also signalled through the use of untranslated art-critical idiom: the furniture is ‘once austerely challenging, now out-of-date moderne’, and the kitchen gadgets are ‘démodé’. (I shall discuss the role of untranslated fragments in establishing voice in more detail below.)
The geographical specification I have been discussing also occurs in the Mexican poems in Part 3 of Corona, Corona (37–55) and most obviously in the portraits of Hofmann’s father, the novelist Gert Hofmann, in Acrimony (47–79) and Approximately Nowhere (3–20). In this case the use of German fragments also relates to the fact that Gert Hofmann was a German-speaker; the fragments of German and other languages serve to conjure not only place but also the voices of those whom Hofmann is addressing. In ‘Endstation, Erding’ (1999: 9) Hofmann describes his father as shopping ‘in the Kaiser’s general store in the lange Zeile [German, ‘long line’]/(calle, ulice) [‘street’ in Spanish and Croatian, emphasising as state of exile]’; he drops in fragments (‘tadellos’ (Ger., ‘faultless’; ‘weißt du noch, Krimsekt’ (Ger., ‘you know, Krimsekt [a Ukrainian sparkling wine]’) as if quoting his father’s habitual idiom and/or talking in the idiom they would use to talk. The sense of a conversation rekindled is then undercut by the final fragment of German, ‘In Gedenken an Gert Hofmann’ (‘in memory of Gert Hofmann’), reminding the reader that this is an elegy and that its subject is literally beyond speech.
The poem which follows ‘Endstation, Erding’ is also concerned with the possibility of communication with the poet’s father. Starting from a position of silence (‘some months before, a choleric note dashed off to me/cutting me off, it would once have been said’), ‘Epithanaton’ (1999: 10–12) considers last words—what the dead man’s might have been, and what the poet’s last words to his father should be. This poem is also larded with fragments of possible conversations (‘part of your Krankheitsbild [‘syndrome’], I suppose’; ‘A tantrum, I thought, tenderly, pityingly, kleiner Papa [little Papa]’). But the poet-son’s conversation with the novelist-father (whose work he has translated) is both facilitated and obstructed by the language of art: the poem tries on various ways of communicating, none of them satisfactory. The speaker speculates that his father’s last words were probably
nothing articulate, grandiose, bogus and spoken,
(The last words quoted are actually of Victor Hugo and William James, Henry James’s philosopher brother; the literary critic George Steiner’s first book was Tolstoy or Dostoevsky: An Essay in Contrast.)
The mixture of register here suggests a sustained and difficult relationship between the two writers, made difficult not so much by crude differences of language, but by the difficulty of translating between idioms and the gap between idioms and reality. The pleasure which the speaker takes in ‘not ungrateful yourself’ is in part a pleasure in fictionalising his father in the manner of James; and the poem’s wider perplexity is that of a pasticheur faced with the necessity of sincerity. Imagining himself in a novel, the speaker cannot translate his novelistic relationship with his father into an idiom suitable for the non-fiction he is faced with. The account, which closes the poem, of how ‘we said our Lebwohl [“goodbye”] to you’ is funny but also poignant, showing the speaker unable even at such a moment to quell his self-consciousness, the sophisticate’s compulsion to view himself in historico-cultural terms:
Like a cavalier swain, I speared my flowers at my feet,
The failure of this attempt at communication, resolution, peace-making, is then wryly insisted on—and transcended (Hofmann has commented, ‘It’s a homage and a tease to my “apoplectic father”, it makes a kind of genie out of him. That’s almost a prayer, if you like’ (in Brearton 1999))—in a pun which depends on remaining in the original German:
Then, while my back was turned, you went up in smoke,
Untranslated fragments fulfil a range of purposes other than geographical and cultural reference and allusion. At times the sound of an original may work better in context, as in the ‘risi pisi’ line above, and in ‘Berlin Zoologischer Garten—tristes tropiques [1983: 25; lit. ‘sad tropics’; but also an allusion to Lévi-Strauss’s book of that title on the Brazilian interior]!’. And the coinage of a compound in ‘Hausfrauenchor’ (1983: 22; ‘Housewifechoir’) clearly draws on German usage and would be absurd translated. A number of other fragments, like ‘dicke Luft’ and ‘Hausfrauenchor’, also rely on remaining in the original. ‘Withdrawn from Circulation’ (1986: 62–3) makes a pun on ‘Berliner Luft’ (1986: 62; lit. ‘Berlin air’, fig. referring to Berlin’s social and cultural climate):
My window gave on to a street-corner where the air currents
And when ‘Der Neue/Tag dawns only twice a week nowadays’ (1983: 40) its dual role as day and newspaper relies on non-translation. In ‘Pastorale’ (1993: 32) both the sound and the range of connotations require a fragment of French:
Where the cars razored past on the blue highway,
Contre-sens literally means ‘against direction’, fig. ‘the wrong way’, ‘unreasonably’, ‘nonsensically’—this last meaning is relevant because the poem as a whole involves a comic balance of the competing demands of sense and sound. (Compare ‘the pool, flowering shrubs, frou-frou, rhubarb’ (1993: 45), where ‘rhubarb’ hints at a similar conflict.) Similarly note the contribution of both sound and cultural reference made by Bienenstich in the following line: ‘The idyllic lilac tree has scorched/to beehive, to beeswax, to Bienenstich, a spongy cack’ (1986: 40). Bienenstich (lit. ‘bee sting cake’) is a traditional German cake; it’s possible to read ‘a spongy cack’ as simply the next term in a series of degenerating images, or as a sly in-text translation of Bienenstich. Such facetious on-the-hoof translations occur also in ‘A Feminist Ballet’ (1983: 14) and ‘Still Life’ (1999: 16–7), where Hofmann tries out translations for an airily tentative species-identification:
a dried yard
Considerations of sound, particularly dissonance (conceived both literally and figuratively), are not incidental to Hofmann’s use of untranslated (and other) fragments. The density and strangeness of his verse are important effects; note how rawlplugs and polyfilla (‘exhibits from a neoteric verbal museum’ (in Brearton 1999)) are made to seem linguistic aliens by their prominence in ‘Open House’ (1986: 36). He aims for virtues he identifies in Randall Jarrell:
to look at, the poems can be surprisingly full of dots and dashes, proper nouns, italics and quotations, question marks, raggedy lines and frayed paragraphs. Occasionally, a poem will begin with so much data and lingo, it could equip a veriste short story. (2001: 15)
The last phrase is apposite because Hofmann’s commitment to verisimilitude involves rendering the world in all its strangeness, both linguistic and ontological. David Wheatley (2002) has described him as a ‘magpie, down to his stippled, piebald vocabulary, twitching with German tags’. He has spoken of his interest in ‘[a]ssemblage or collage or bric-a-brac’ and ‘trying to get things to sing and dance’ (in Brearton 1999):
I‘ve felt able to chuck the kitchen sink at the poems [in Approximately Nowhere], as it were. Dip into German, dip into American, use asides—‘ask Steiner’!—bits of French, lots of London landmarks, lots of abroad, one poem from Ovid that has Kafka in it, another that condenses one of the most famous speeches in Latin—Lowell has an essay about it—into a single filthy line of English. The American ‘whatever’. (in Brearton 1999)
Such a programme was some paradoxical ramifications. On the one hand, retaining fragments of other languages preserves their sound and cultural connotations, insisting on their specificity to a milieu and socio-historical context. On the other, one noticeable effect of Hofmann’s mixing of registers, idioms, milieus and indeed whole languages is a kind of cultural flattening, where the ‘ironic permanence’ (Hofmann in Brearton 1999) into which items are rescued pays no regard to cultural values; all is grist to the ironic mill. The irony with which Hofmann handles his materials is part of the weary cosmopolitan voice which he affects, perhaps as a means of freeing himself from the values associated with those materials. One way of pitching that voice is through the use of foreign-language fragments, not only cultural allusions and untranslated phrases proper, but also words which have been naturalised into standard English or its metropolitan idiolects. There is nothing particularly unusual about petits fours (1983: 24), flambée (1983: 35), esprit de corps (1983: 39; 1993: 7), machismo (1983: 45), vin de pays (1993: 8), al fresco (1986: 50), gringo (A51) à trois (1986: 79), bonmots (1999: 50) but the frequency of such expressions is significant. Add to this a casual classicism (‘per diem’ (1993: 7); ‘in saecula saeculorum’ (1999: 16)), occasional Germanic compounding (1983: 22; 1999: 42) and a readiness to indulge in socio-cultural commentary (‘a folie de grandeur of late capitalism’ (1986: 31); see also 1986: 9, 19) and an urbane voice emerges. But that urbanity is deliberately undermined by collisions with obscenity, banality and low registers which push the poems’ moods constantly towards bathos, bleakness or both. ‘In the Realm of the Senses’ (1999: 28) combines English like ‘fuck’ and ‘mushy’ with ‘consommations’ and ‘café au lait’, a reference to ‘Ariane, the unmanned European rocket’ with ‘Gruppensex’; it closes with what could be a description of the persona’s own voice:
Our cat has sprayed the house to greet us.
The danger of assemblage is that either its appropriation of items, or the items themselves, may be fraudulent. Hofmann’s depictions of late modernity are simultaneously desperate and gleeful, as in ‘Postcard from Cuernavaca’ (1993: 39–40), with its absurd catalogue of ersatz and appropriated cultural ingredients. Note how identity is assumed or spuriously conferred by clothing and objects, and again the collision of registers (e.g. ‘rondure’ vs ‘humpity’):
A Mariachi trumpeter, wearing just his old pesos,
Yet Hofmann’s engagement with (especially European) culture is far from superficial: the work of cultural allusion performed by untranslated fragments and other devices serves to provide the reader with context which may sometimes be badly needed. Hofmann’s enthusiasms have been defined as ‘the mid-century American poets, the German and Europeans from a little before that, fauve and expressionist painters, with England somewhere “at the edge of my circle”’, and Hofmann’s poetry, many of the techniques of which are drawn from a similar pool, may be concerned as a making available of European culture almost as much as his actual translations. Young Werther’s ‘Liebestod all over Europe, a messy business’ (1983: 32) transfers the terms and attitudes of Romanticism to contemporary Europe (versions of the mock-epic are a favourite Hofmann device; see below), while ‘Fates of the Expressionists’ (1983: 42; the parody of biographical notes foreshadows Corona, Corona’s ‘Marvin Gaye’ (1993: 15)) demands a comparison between the English and German traditions (‘The Expressionists were Rupert Brooke’s generation’) surely intended to shame the parochial English reader.
Such allusions are not mere browbeating (‘you really should read ’), but also provide a context for the work itself. Taking German Expressionism as an example, it is easy to find debts which Hofmann’s work owes to the earlier generation: the use of assemblage, for example, and the subjective depiction of landscape as the expression of a socio-historical view of the wider culture. A quick survey of Michael Hamburger’s discussion of the Expressionists yields some remarks which are surprisingly applicable to Hofmann:
What was new about them [the first Expressionist poems by Jakob van Hoddis and Alfred Lichtenstein] was that they consisted of nothing more than an arbitrary concatenation of images derived from contemporary life (Hamburger 1970: 272–3)
[they] are distinguished by an irony that has the dual purpose of satirizing contemporary civilisation and of expressing a malaise, a premonition of doom, which was one of the common premises of all the early Expressionists (Hamburger 1970: 275);
The last comparison is especially apt; Benn and Hofmann show real similarities even at the level of specific images (compare the dragonflies in Hofmann’s ‘On Fanø’ (1983: 41) and Benn’s ‘Gesänge’ (192-3)); Hofmann has translated Benn (e.g. ‘Nachtcafé’ (‘Night Café’; Benn 188–9; Hofmann Faber Book of German Poems 20–1), whose theme and structure shows similarities with Hofmann’s own ‘Nighthawks’ (1986: 30–1)); and Hofmann has himself insisted on Benn’s influence on his work (in Brearton 1999). It is also significant for my argument here. Critics (Robinson 1988: 49–50; O’Brien 2001: 237) have typically seen Hofmann’s unremitting irony as a sign of nihilism, and construed this as a limiting factor on his work. While a comparison with Benn can hardly help refute the first half of this interpretation, it should help contextualise Hofmann’s work as belonging at least in part to the German tradition, and correspondingly less to the English lyric tradition. Robinson’s complaint that Hofmann’s work operates without ‘a fully realised persona’ (1988: 49) seems to me to stem partly from Anglocentric assumptions about the poetic ‘voice’, its uses and attitudes. It is true Corona, Corona and Approximately Nowhere display a ‘lightening up’ (O’Brien 2001: 239) which indicates that Hofmann’s early nihilistic style reached its limits and matured into something more complex; and moreover that comparison with a controversial figure like Benn ought not to shield Hofmann’s work from criticism. But in making use of Expressionist and nihilist themes and techniques, Hofmann’s poetry made available these aspects of the German tradition which many English-speaking readers may not have been familiar with. It should be read with half an eye on that tradition, not only in order to contextualise Hofmann’s technique, but also to tease out the connections which the work claims between European social situations at either end of the twentieth century (‘Bayswater suddenly informed by Weimar’ (Stannard 2002: 54). See, for example, Hofmann’s discussion of Otto Dix (2001: 172–3); also relevant is his comment that ‘[t]he poems about East Germany and Czechoslovakia—Mexico too, actually! [see 1993: 39–55, particularly the western/noir treatment]—are partly metaphors for England’ (Hofmann in Brearton 1999).
I have touched already on Hofmann’s awareness of art’s interfering mediation of reality, with regard to his novelised relationship with this father in ‘Epithanaton’ (see also 1983: 7, 39). The collision between an artistic milieu and a reality which may not submit to the terms of that milieu has been a productive one in his work. It is a variant of the mock-epic, with non-contemporary themes and texts rendered in contemporary Britain, usually for comic or bathetic effect. A straightforward example is ‘Seele im Raum’ (1999: 56–7) appropriates Rilke’s title for a poem about the interior of a bedsit: ‘I could probably/just about have swung a cat/in that glory-hole’. Bathos attends the contemporary scene, but Rilke too is being gently mocked by the application of his high-minded style to a concrete situation. Similarly, references to Werther’s ‘inordinate self-pity’ (1983: 32) and to Goethe’s ‘future as an abominable father’ (1983: 33), and the bathetic reduction of Romantic Weltschmerz (‘Whenever he felt sad, he headed for the Rhine/and made a conquest of one of the maidens’ (1983: 33) reduce the source period of Romanticism to the terms of the speaker’s nihilistic present. The satire is double-edged, not only deflating its Romantic subject but also rebuking the glib poise of its own contemporary voice.
The same device is at work in many of Hofmann’s classical references. The effect may vary from gleeful recognition of banality:
The employees kneel all week,
to something more nuanced, such as the illuminating contemporised vision of Rome in ‘Lament for Crassus’ (1993: 3):
Crassus, the pioneer of insuranburn,
There is no shortage of examples (1983: 26, 40; 1986: 29; 1993: 21, 22, 51; 1999: 33), but the most lucid and sustained occurs in Scylla and Minos (1999: 37–39), where classical material is delivered in the language of the tabloids:
Then one day I saw him. That changed everything.
Again, the mock-heroid mixture of style and subject is not only comic, reminding the reader that the classics too can be lurid and obscene, but also delivers a satirical point about an admittedly easy target, the militaristic tabloid idiom and attitude (‘our boys’; ‘blow jobs’; ‘Fuck you, Minos, your wife does it with bulls!’).
The double-edged effect of this device dispels any suspicion that Hofmann’s cynical, sophisticated persona is simply a conservative aesthete disgusted by contemporary life. Whilst he is ostentatiously erudite, the mixing of languages, registers and sources which I discussed above is an essential element of his style, which is therefore also ostentatiously low; ostentatiously literary, but also ostentatiously prosaic. And, while Hofmann’s style is distinctive, one of the things that distinguishes it is that none of the idioms, modes and phrases it tries on seem comfortably his own. A real problem for such a technique is that it never finally settles questions of cultural value: is the trying on of cultures, languages and styles futile, or not? To put it another way, does the divorce of linguistic, literary and cultural fragments from their source cultures invalidate (or devaluate) them, as Hofmann sometimes seems to imply (e.g. 1993: 39–40)? If so, why bother appropriating them; and if not—if cultural fragments retain their culture-specific associations and values—what need is there to treat them from an ironic distance?
Such questions will always affect a writer with even a partial commitment to nihilism. One way of addressing them that is relevant to the terms of this essay is to point towards Hofmann’s unclear national and cultural identity. Of German parents but writing in English, his possession of both German and English, though formidable, seems provisional rather than permanent. ‘The Machine That Cried’ (1986: 52–53) relates Hofmann’s ‘sudden lurch into infancy and Englishness’ when his parents returned to Germany, but that lurch was not wholehearted. His poems explore various states of exile and temporary residence (e.g. (1986: 14–15, 17–18, 21, 26, 36, 40, 41–2; 1993: 20–1, 30; 1999: 56–7, 60–1, 63), and the poems’ assemblage of registers and fragments seems like a series of assumed identities, none of them finally echt or permanent. David Malcolm’s reading (2006) of ‘de passage’ (Hofmann 1999: 18, French, ‘of passage’ as in ‘bird of passage’; ‘only temporarily present’) shows the speaker learning to try on identities, paradoxically to try on the identity of exile:
to talk to the stallholders
This poem, which stands amongst the elegies for Gert Hofmann in part one of Approximately Nowhere, sees Hofmann coming to terms with his parents’ (and his own) status as ‘bourgeois gypsies’ (1999: 14). It’s from this standpoint, the cautious outsider who thinks of himself as passing through, that his ambivalent usage of his cultural materials should be viewed.
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