“To Duration” by Peter Handke: translation by Scott Abbott, book design by Philip Baber. Sundry observations by Alex Caldiero
Mr. Handke somewhere said that language is the first casualty of war. Language is also the first causality of writing. Therefore, I have no other means of taking it in than by and thru what is given me. And what is given are words on the page: first by Mr. Handke and second by Mr. Abbott. And because I don’t know German, the translation is for me in a real sense the “original”.
What can a translator bring across the river Styx, that is, from that unknown country of another language? What contexts and images and words and sounds and meanings can reach the familiar shores of one’s own tongue?
Ultimately, translation is a matter of trust. Do I trust Mr. Abbott as a translator? I can only say that his “critiques” of my own work make me understand that very work all the more. (Note: for me, critique writing is a genre of translation). Also, there’s a litmus test for translation (this from ol’ Ez Pound): Don’t make a bad poem out of a good poem. No matter what, this translation of “To Duration” is a fine poem. Now, if Mr. Abbott has made a good poem out of a bad poem, all the better for Mr. Handke. But my assumption (yet to be substantiated) is that a fine German poem has been transmuted into a fine English one. If this is the case, then the better for poet, translator, and reader: everybody wins.
And what of the physical book? Everything about it bespeaks the hand: its size, the proximity of the text to the edges of pages, the font…you hold the book, it fits the hand; you read the book, your hands are full of words. You look up close at text, just you, the reader, and the words. This kind of intimacy is rare in the digital-information age, where you can do as you please with the materials you encounter. Here, you are put in a certain position where you have to pay attention to what you read and to what is given. So the design (by Mr. Philip Baber) is yet another translation of “To Duration”.
What a serendipitous and wonder-filled collaboration of transmitters: writer/transmuter/designer! They work together in this book, which is both the subject and object of their labors. And so, with book in hand, read. The poem will not be ignored. Go on reading. It is important to the form that you follow where the writer takes you, for he’s got something specific to say and it is vital that you bear with him on his track thru the terrain of the book. And as you walk along, the translation (from Handke’s German) acts as Virgil to his Dante, interpreting what we see and hear at every step of the way. As I said, I don’t know German. But this English text speaks my language in ways that are both plain and complex. This offers a clue to the difficulties of saying what the poet says without getting in the way, and at the same time staying in the way. The Italian pun: tradutore/traditore (translator/traitor) loses its sting. And Scott Abbott is now the guide thru Peter Handke’s “divine comedy”, thru Philip Barber’s dark wood.
Thank you Alex Caldiero. I love your own translations from Sicilian, especially those scandalous “Bawdy Riddles.”