EXTENDING THE POSSIBILITIES

Posted 2 months ago by John

EXTENDING THE POSSIBILITIES
Translation as Conversation
 
by Ken Cockburn
 
Like many teenagers, 'home' wasn't something I greatly valued. One of the reasons I liked languages at school was that they offered a vision of elsewhere. I went on to study French and German at university, where we read a lot of literature, and did a lot of translation (working both ways, into and from English), but we didn't, as I recall, translate the literature we were reading. I didn't use my languages much after graduating, but when I started writing poetry more seriously, I tried translating some poems from German, by authors I knew from a university anthology, which made me realise how out of touch I was with contemporary German-language literature. A first introduction came via Tom Hubbard, who asked me to translate poems for a special issue of the magazine Fife Lines featuring Swiss writers. Then Alec Finlay, who I'd just started working with, had an exhibition in Lübeck, and returned with booklets by Arne Rautenberg, a writer who had come to the opening. Not knowing German, Alec asked me to translate some of the work. I had some questions and wrote to Arne. Shortly afterwards he published a novel, which I liked, and began translating that too. It was a fictionalised version of his neighbourhood in Kiel, and soon I arranged to visit him. That was in 2002, and it was the start of a friendship, which continues to this day.
 
I translated his novel, The Refuse King, but frustratingly couldn't find a publisher for it. I'd more joy with the poems; those from Alec's booklet, 'Kiel after Rain', were taken by the St Andrews magazine The Red Wheelbarrow. Further translations appeared elsewhere, and were collected in Snapdragon, published by The Caseroom Press in 2012. Arne has visited Scotland, reading at Shore Poets, the Goethe Institut Glasgow and, most recently, StAnza; I've visited him in Kiel many times, seeing how his work and career have developed.
 
I like the elements of 'serious play' in Arne's work. 'gingko leaf fairy tale' links the Brothers Grimm and Hiroshima to suggest, touchingly, both a loss of innocence and a reconciliation with the past; 'Kiel After Rain' is a sequence of double haikus, in which he presents snatches of stories about the war and post-war period he heard as a child from his parents and grandparents; and 'the forgotten dream' makes succinct comedy from inarticulacy:
 
I woke up in wheredjimicallit
and I was fighting with whodjimicallim
against the huge whatdjimicallit
and it chased me all the way to wheredjimicallit
so I said to whodjimicallim
I think you’re thingummyjig
 
I have enjoyed seeing how Scottish poetry influenced him. He met Edwin Morgan and translated some of his poems (including 'A View of Things', which has plenty 'serious play' of its own), while from Ian Hamilton Finlay he has borrowed and adapted the form of the one-word poem.
 
In 2005 I was introduced, through Arne, to the work of Christine Marendon. She lived in Bavaria, far from Kiel, but both were members of an online writing group. Christine had been invited to a poetry festival in Slovenia, and needed English translations of her work. She asked the writing group for help, and via Arne she contacted me. Her work intrigued me, and I translated the six poems she sent. I always planned to translate more of her work, but it wasn't till early 2011 that I did so, having sourced more of her work online. I slowly translated poems over the following years, and was gratified by their being published in magazines including Shearsman, New Books in German and Modern Poetry in Translation (MPT).
 
In March 2014, Arne organised a mini-festival in and around Kiel for International Poetry Day, and asked me to read at it. Christine had by that time moved from Bavaria to Hamburg, not far from Kiel, and we met for the first time. A few days later I had an e-mail from Sasha Dugdale, then editor of MPT, inviting Christine and myself to read at Poetry International in London in July. It was the first time I'd heard her read, and I was struck by her measured, undramatic yet highly focussed style of reading.
 
It was unusually propitious, and that good fortune has continued, leading to Carcanet publishing in summer 2018 Heroines from Abroad, a bilingual edition of Christine's work. It's her first collection – there is no German edition of her work – and we read together at the launch in Edinburgh. Recently in Manchester Christine read from it in English, which I found a strange experience – hearing her voice speak my words derived from hers, as if the translation itself were being translated… 
 
The conversation with Christine has been, like her readings, measured and occasional. Her work deals in nuance, glimpse, intuition, and part of its appeal for me is that I don't always understand it entirely. ‘Breath’ was one of the first of Christine’s poems I translated:
 
Grass grows by the fences. My dearest
is crossing the hills, in the tree my light grows
so bright each bird is a comet. The breeze
paints the houses blue. My dearest is a
missing feather, a snapped-off star, is
the next station and of all trains the very
slowest. From stop to stop I pull
the signalling-discs from the gate-keepers’ hands
as if my path were a street of burning rails.
 
Christine told me that the ‘snapped-off star’ was a metal one a friend took from an old Mercedes. While that clarified the source of the image, it didn't change the way I translated the phrase, nor does it close off the meaning of the image within the poem, which resonates beyond its source.
 
Translation challenges and deepens the process of reading. I'm grateful to both poets for their work, their support and their friendship over the years, as we have met through our work, through correspondence and face-to-face. I'm grateful too that they have translated my work, which has enabled some memorable reading experiences for me, notably when I read Christine's version of The Road North (a Scottish journey inspired by the 17th century Japanese poet Basho, which I wrote with Alec Finlay) in the Japanese teahouse in Hamburg's botanic gardens, as heavy rain drummed on the thatch.
 
As for how translation generally, and translating these two poets in particular, has affected my own work, it's hard to say. Certainly it's extended the possibilities of poetry for me, by way of their example as poets, and by my having to use English in ways new to me to communicate what I encounter in their work, especially those elements which are new or strange – literary elsewheres.
 
Ken Cockburn is one of the most wide ranging of Scottish poets. He has worked as a translator, editor, creative writing tutor and curator.  He has frequently collaborated with other art forms and artists, especially with Alec Finlay.  A collection of his translations of contemporary German poets, Feathers and Lime, was published in 2007, as was a new collection of poems, On the flyleaf. His poems have been published in translation in French, German, Hungarian and Slovakian.
 
kencockburn@yahoo.co.uk
 

***Image of Ken Cockburn and Arne Rautenberg***

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