Schreibheft: Zeitschrift für Literatur, the #82 February 2014 issue is devoted to translation.


The issue includes a poem by Vladislav Petković Dis, a Serbian symbolist poet who died near the end of WWI, translated from the Serbo-Croatian by Zarko Radakovic and Peter Handke, followed by their conversation about the poem with the editor of Schreibheft, Norbert Wehr.

Vielleicht schläft sie (“Perhaps she is sleeping”)

. . . the first stanza:

Vergessen habe ich heutfrüh ein Lied,

Ein Lied im Traum, dem ich nachtlang lauschte:

Daß ich es wiederhöre! Vergeblich habe ich’s versucht,

Als sei das Lied mein ganzes Glück gewesen.

Vergessen habe ich heutfrüh ein Lied.

. . . here my translation from the German:

I forgot, early this morning, a song,

A song in a dream, heard through the night:

To hear it again! In vain I tried

As if the song had been my fortune.

I forgot, early this morning, a song.

It’s a beautiful poem, translated by two gifted translators. It evokes Novalis’ Heinrich von Ofterdingen, who wakes from a dream about a wonderful blue flower that reveals the face of his beloved. When he recounts his dream to his parents, they declare that Träume sind Schäume / dreams are froth or foam. “Was my dreaming nothing but foam?” Dis’ persona asks.

He gathers scraps of the lost dream, including images of a lost lover and her lost grave, and with this he resembles the grieving persona of Novalis’ Hymns to the Night, whose Sophie has appeared in a dream as he stands by her grave.

With its repeating first and fifth lines enhanced by repetitions throughout (a song, / A song . . . / As if the song . . . / . . . a song), with its conjectures that attempt to cross the boundary between waking and sleep, the poem is itself a dream created from the foam of the real dream. Dis has translated the unremembered dream into a dream poem.

As I mentioned, this issue of Schreibheft focuses on translation, and specifically on translation of texts that are impossible to translate. Nearly impossible. The impossibility a function of their utterly foreign nature. Of the predominance of sound. Of meaningless and thus meaningful sound.

The work of American Jerome Rothenberg makes up one section of the journal. A poet himself, Rothenberg has translated the untranslatable poems of Paul Celan, Eugen Gomringer, and Kurt Schwitters, and, as featured in this number, has done what he calls a “total translation” of Frank Mitchell’s “Horse Songs” from the Navajo. Norbert Lange translates the American English, itself a translation from the Navajo, into German. The first line of the “Dreizehnter Horse Song”:

Sind ‘ne Pracht N wnohu nnnn doch sind ‘ne & sind in mein Wnahus wnohu nnda gaheegkomnen

Concealed in the sound of this line is this: “They, the splendor, came into my house.”

Or (in my quick back-translation):

“A splendid N hnus nnnn a & caemen into my Hnos hnohu nnda into”

Rothenberg describes, again translated into English by Norbert Lange, his work with sound and repetition and the meaning beyond meaning.

It reminds me of what Walter Benjamin called “pure language” in his “The Task of the Translator”:

While that ultimate essence, pure language, in the various tongues is tied only to linguistic elements and their changes, in linguistic creations it is weighted with a heavy, alien meaning. To relieve it of this, to turn the symbolizing into the symbolized, to regain pure language fully formed in the linguistic flux, is the tremendous and only capacity of translation. In this pure language — which no longer means or expresses anything but is, as expressionless and creative Word, that which is meant in all languages — all information, all sense, and all intention finally encounter a stratum in which they are destined to be extinguished. This very stratum furnishes a new and higher justification for free translation; this justification does not derive from the sense of what is to be conveyed, for the emancipation from this sense is the task of fidelity. Rather, for the sake of pure language, a free translation bases the test on its own language.. It is the task of the translator to release in his own language that pure language which is under the spell of another, to liberate the language imprisoned in a work in his re-creation of that work. For the sake of pure language he breaks through decayed barriers of his own language. (trans. by Harry Zohn)

And, of course, it reminds me of the sounds of the Navajo language I grew up with in Farmington, New Mexico, check-to-jowl with the Navajo Reservation, of what seemed to me alien chants on the radio broken now and then, abruptly for me since I could hear only the sound, by scraps of advertisements like JACK’S BOOTS AND SADDLES!


This issue of Schreibheft also brings “total translations” of the untranslatable Brazilian Haroldo de Campos and the equally untranslatable American William Bronk.

The arrival this week of Schreibheft #82 was well timed, as I’ve been thinking a lot about translation. I’m currently translating Mendel’s paper in which he first reports on his hybrid pea plants (together with a friend who is a Mendel specialist in the field of genetics). And I recently finished the first English translation of Peter Handke’s book-length poem Gedicht an die Dauer / To Duration for Last Books, Amsterdam. April is the projected release.

Phil Baber, Last Books editor and book designer, sent me this image from the German Literary Archive in Marbach, a page from the notebook Peter Handke wrote in while he was thinking about duration:

dauer-notes 6

The 2 March 1986 entry begins with “The poem about duration: What has duration and what has no duration? (I would like to begin writing right away).”

Reading Peter Handke always makes me want to begin writing right away. I’m not sure just why. There is something inviting about his texts, something that raises questions about writing, something that provokes a response—not just a readerly response but a writerly response. I read his Die Wiederholung and want to follow the narrator across the border into what is now Slovenia, want to write about the experience, want to write, with Zarko Radakovic, what became our Repetitions. I read his Gedicht an die Dauer and set my pen to a translation.

. . .  for more about Radakovic and Handke and their translation of Dis, see THIS blog post.

. . . and finally, HERE a short film of the reading.

About Scott Abbott

I received my Ph.D. in German Literature from Princeton University in 1979. Then I taught at Vanderbilt University, BYU, and Utah Valley State College. At Utah Valley University, I directed the Program in Integrated Studies for its initial 13 years and was also Chair of the Department of Humanities and Philosophy for three years. My publications include a book on Freemasonry and the German Novel, two co-authored books with Zarko Radakovic (REPETITIONS and VAMPIRES & A REASONABLE DICTIONARY, published in Serbo-Croatian in Belgrade and in English with Punctum Books), a book with Sam Rushforth (WILD RIDES AND WILDFLOWERS, Torrey House Press), a "fraternal meditation" called IMMORTAL FOR QUITE SOME TIME (University of Utah Press), and translations of three books by Austrian author Peter Handke, of an exhibition catalogue called "The German Army and Genocide," and, with Dan Fairbanks, of Gregor Mendel's important paper on hybridity in peas. More famously, my children are in the process of creating good lives for themselves: as a model and dance/yoga studio manager, as a teacher of Chinese language, as an ecologist and science writer, as a jazz musician, as a parole officer, as a contractor, as a seasonal worker (Alaska and Park City, Utah), and as parents. I share my life with UVU historian Lyn Bennett, with whom I have written a cultural history of barbed wire -- THE PERFECT FENCE (Texas A&M University Press). Some publications at
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1 Response to Translation

  1. Scott Abbott says:

    This from Alex Caldiero:

    scott, good blog entry on translation…the three poets that are part of total
    translation rank in my estimation among the finest poets (especially Bronk),
    two americans and one brazilian….look into these guys, if not already….by
    a strange go-in-side-ince, ive literally just completed a “final ” revision of
    a book of italian poems i wrote in a long stint from 2000 to 04….see
    attached…(i have a love/hate relationship to italian more severe than that
    of english, shich ive of late reconciled, and indeed these italian poems are
    an attempt to use the language of ones conquerers to make peace with history).
    translating ones own poems brings to the fore how much of so called “original
    writing” is really translation, hence translating translating….in which
    language becomes even more ironic and illusive and the anamolous becomes
    normal….wait….i stop knowing what i’m saying….read the poems, and lemme
    know what you thinkfeel….i finished putting in final changes this very
    day…am working to finish up books in various states of editing….am
    exhausted….til later….alex


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