So I was booked as an "interpreter" at the VERSSchmuggel workshop. I thought I was supposed to explain things they didn't understand and just shut up the rest of the time. Only I was working with two delightful poets, Anna Crowe from Scotland and Odile Kennel from Berlin, both of whom also translate poetry from French into their respective languages. So in the end we all muddled in together and translated as a trio.
This is what happened: I had previously done what we call interlinear translations of Odile's poems into English, for Anna to use because she doesn't understand German. And someone else had done the same the other way around to give Odile a basic understanding of Anna's words. These interlinear versions are very stark, just plain translations of the words with footnotes to explain nuances. The creative work comes later, because as you know translation is about more than rendering the words.
And then the three of us sat down and read each poem out loud and talked about it – how it came about, what it sounds like, some of the stories it contains, which words are special, that kind of thing. And then we'd work our way through line by line, starting out with the bare interlinear versions as a prompt. It was my job to type, which left the poets' hands free to gesticulate, and seeing as I had the computer I was also looking things up in dictionaries, looking for pictures of things as seemingly random as knots and underwater creatures, finding recordings of sounds and songs, and generally being the internet in person. So when we were translating one of Odile's poems, Anna would dictate the English lines and Odile and I would throw in suggestions for words, and we'd look back over them at the end, read them out, laugh and sing and clap and generally rejoice.
Some of the translations stayed close to the originals, and some were weird and wacky and free. One of Odile's poems, "Fragen zu Tieren", works around animal names, which are often very different between German and English, and often comical even to German ears (handy flow chart in case you're the remaining person on the planet who hasn't seen it yet). So we had oodles of laughs finding amusing animals that fit together well in English too. Some of them aren't actual animals. The English is called "Bestial Questions". It's the kind of poem that can take a silly title.
If you translate, imagine sharing what's usually a very private process with two people who are really talented wordsmiths, people with amazing vocabularies on demand who know how to build a mean sentence. So you get to have all those conversations you usually have in your head, only out loud. I wonder if this word would work here? Does that sound too silly? Oh, that phrase reminds me of that rhyme my grandad used to say, can I build that in somewhere? I'll just look up that song/film/picture to make sure, oh wow, this is so good, it has to go in there, how can I manage that? That was what it was like. At some point we all wished life was like that all the time – we got things done really quickly because we had the combined power of three very different brains at our disposal. It was paradise, really, air-conditioned at the British Council.
We all got on swimmingly and I hope we'll be friends forever. There'll be a podcast at some point with Anna and Odile by Ryan Van Winkle for the Scottish Poetry Library, about that bestial translation, and a film about one of Odile's poems at some point by Juliane Henrich for the Literaturwerkstatt. And there'll be a book containing all the Scottish and German poems that got translated by various people at the workshop. Nobody will mention Robert Frost.