a Perimeter 4

Peter Waterhouse

Translation Unlimited
Remarks on Graham Foust's & Samuel Frederick's versions of Ernst Meister's Poems

Ernst Meister, In Time's Rift, trans. Graham Foust & Samuel Frederick, Seattle, WA: Wave, 2012. 104pp.
Ernst Meister, Wallless Space, trans. Graham Foust & Samuel Frederick, Seattle, WA: Wave, 2014. 144pp.
Ernst Meister, Of Entirety Say the Sentence, trans. Graham Foust & Samuel Frederick, Seattle, WA: Wave, 2015. 192pp.

Robert Walser could have said: What is small is enormous. Maybe he did say it or write it somewhere. Reading Ernst Meister's poems he would have found reassurance or a smaller word: yes. Meister's poetry, very often, seems to be composed of small words, short ones, shaped by only a few letters – but the short words are not necessarily suitable to be spoken quickly, in passing, rather they obstruct fast reading, they seem to become long words, they expand. The Wave Books Meister trilogy sets out with two of the smallest possible words, in the German text even a little smaller than in the English. Und was. Is there ever an end to this line? Do the three letters of the pronoun was address everything and all other words and all the letters of the alphabet? Does the line have a beginning – or does it stretch out into something that was there long before the Und, the And? Does this And include almost everything that the word and can link up with? Is there a great admission going on, measurable only by short words? Time is a short word and it measures nothing because time apparently cannot be measured (it can be split into seconds, hours, days, and years, but it resists measurement). Und was – And what: it cannot be measured. Small words seem to warrant or prove something that is immeasurable or immense. Large words or more words would set limits. Sun is a small word, the sun is a large planet, the size of which presumably can, the largeness and fire of which, probably, cannot be calculated. The sun, like the soul, has no size.

Small word leads to small word, what leads to sun (the English sun being even smaller than the German Sonne):

And what
does this sun want
with us, what
      Und was
will diese Sonne
uns, was                              In Time's Rift, 2, 3

The immeasurable, Meister seems to say, can be found by changing one letter, exchanging d and s, in the first and last line in this stanza, and by adding a tiny mark, something less than a letter: a , . Und was becomes uns, was. Barely a change, yet a great change, difficult to measure. The Und turns into a pronoun, uns. And the comma marks an enormous jump across the gap between the meanings of the two words. uns, was is almost an identical repetition of Und was while changing everything. I am sure Graham Foust and Samuel Frederick, the translators, were fascinated, puzzled, overwhelmed or at least whelmed (if that is possible) by these small great changes and leaps.

Because the poem, with its small elements, can make great leaps, it therefore can say the word: leaps / springt. The poem itself can leap, it can make that great jump from stanza one to stanza two:

And what
does this sun want
with us, what

leaps from the strait gate
of that huge glow?

strait gate, is that a rhyme or is it an immeasurable leap? what, want, at the beginning of the poem – is it almost like saying: what does this sun what? Can the sun produce and emit a substance which is able to what, to ask questions? Does the sun consist not of water, but of whater?

I don't agree with: with. What does this sun want with us? I don't agree. But I do agree. Two words in the English poem: with us. One word in the German poem: uns. The two words, the slight increase, draws my attention to both sides of the book, to the differences: in us the letter n is missing – but the complete German uns can be recovered or discovered in the sun. Sun becomes an anagram (or a translation) of uns. Is there a second translation going on, a more or less unintentional, even immeasurable translation: uns transformed into sun? Do translations make unforeseeable leaps and joinings possible, which the writer never thought of – from uns to sun? Do the German words of the poem, the German poems, the originals, require leaps? Leaps into the new or unknown, the not-intended, leaps instead of standing, leaps instead of understanding? Because it is better to leap and fly than to understand? Does not the sun too prefer leaping, flying and revolving to understanding? Isn't the sun leaping from something glowing into not-knowing?

And what
does this sun want
with us, what


(Does the sun want us – uns – to leap?)

And what
does this sun want
with us, what

from the strait gate
of that huge glow?

I know
no greater darkness
than the light.

no greater darkness – than the light. Great leap. But also: I know no; glow. I can see or sense the two translators, Foust and Frederick, not translating but leaping. Not lating but jumping. And thereby what? And thereby becoming slower? Is sunlight, on its way to earth, traveling fast or is it moving infinitely slowly? Is it translating? Is it expanding something? Is it spreading slowness across the world? Is it spreading a sentence that sounds like: slow down, ponder, and reflect?
Looking from left to right and from right to left, reading both languages in this trilogy, new translations appear, misleading translations, that lead into a new territory, transgress, enter a non-divided space. In the poem Wir hatten Spielwerk line 4 speaks of Tod, death. But the English version opens up the opportunity for a misleading translation, it translates Tod into death, but only two lines earlier it translates Spielwerk into toy clockwork. Something almost unthinkable, almost unexperienceable, in the German original emerges through the English translation, a misleading coupling, a new union. Tod; toy.

The poem speaks of death in the English version, yet says deutete in the original. Is there a third space in which the two link: death and deutete? Do translations bring together what before was not interactive? And is this task one of the simple tasks of the translator, is it something she or he cannot produce on purpose, intentionally? Does the simple happen by accident? In their introduction to the first Meister volume, the translators write: "In introductions to books like the one you're holding, translators often make a point of discussing at length the particular difficulties presented to them by their attempts to wrangle a poem from one language into another. While such discussions can prove both compelling and helpful, it's also very likely that anyone who has ever tried to translate a poem would admit that a list of the simplicities associated with such a task is virtually nonexistent." toy – Tod, death – deutete, would they be words on such a list? Are these words examples of simplicity? Does simplicity mean that something else than meaning is being transferred? That the space and play of the poem is being widened?

We had
toy clockwork,
we had, of name,
death, the
unexperienceable point, we
had language – but
was there We?
      Wir hatten
wir hatten, von Namen,
Tod, den
unerlebbaren Punkt, wir
hatten Sprache – aber
gab es Wir?                              In Time's Rift, 4, 5

I think I can sense two things when I read the translation of DER, the sixth poem in IN TIME'S RIFT. I can sense the slow speed of the translation work, the hesitating. And I can sense or find that words are being translated, not meanings – there being a difference between the two, between a word and a meaning.

THIS ONE sketches gnats
in air. This one writes
the swallow, gnat catcher,
in my eyes. This one
has you written. This one,
rather bright, crosses out.
He crosses the writer out,
when the day comes.                              In Time's Rift, 12, 13

If you read the German poem quickly as you may do when you speak German fluently, then you may not decide to translate the middle of the poem as Foust and Frederick have translated it: This one has you written. The German poem has the following line: Der läßt dich schreiben. Reading fluently or too fluently and translating fluently, I would translate this differently: This one lets you write. That is probably what comes to mind first and second and third. But the translation of Foust and Frederick proves that you / dich in this line is a word. It is the word you / dich, as opposed to the meaning. you is not someone whom the poem addresses or talks about. you is the word that is being written: This one has you written. The word you is being written here. The translators are translating the word you, not some referent to which the word applies. The you is being written, is being translated. And since they are more attracted by words than by meaning, trust words more than meanings, they translate Fängerin not into catcher, but into gnat catcher:

THIS ONE sketches gnats
in air. This one writes
the swallow, gnat catcher,

A semantically orientated translation would have only catcher, like German Fängerin. gnat catcher not merely because the swallows catch gnats, but because the translators are responding to the sounds of the words, gnat and cat. Almost a cat emerges, through the looking glass of the translation, not the animal, but the word. Yes, the swallows may be gnat catchers while they are flying through my garden right now and later on in the evening, circling and diving between the trees in search of gnats. But the translation points to the writing of the words. It writes the word gnat, adding it where the German poem does not have it. It catches the word; it catches the gnat, not the insect but the sound.

The crossing out therefore leaves no destruction, but something bright, as bright maybe as the brightness of the page and paper. The day that comes in the last line of the poem is not a final or future day or a termination but the brightness of the word Tag / day. Wenn es der Tag ist does not mean day but the emergence of the word light. When it is the day. Day here is a word, not a day. The translators have translated: when the day comes. I think they are not thinking about some future day but the coming of the word day.

Words. Do the smallest among the words open the widest space, which Meister called wallless space? One of the poems which Meister concludes with a long word, Katzensprung (which actually describes a small distance), the translators conclude with the word no. But that word contains in its small self a leap – it opens up and permits the opposite meaning: yes. It is a wide no, containing the yes (instead of constraining it).

In the same way that you're made,
by nature nature,
wherein the stranger
seems to live
as contradictor of constraint,
so in heaven
it's void, you'll disappear,
free of thinking, the most trifling thing.
Back there, passing by, the
high-bucking beast,
rearing up in the face of the brink.
Crossing over would be
a mere stone's throw, no?                                   In Time's Rift, 52, 53

This no could be asking for a yes – the little word is asking for no limitations. The translation places the limitless in the littleness. Little, the opposite of limit? No as an acknowledgement?

How can one translate: Im Notwendigen welche Wendungen? By listening to the English words, by listening to the word turns and those elements in that word that don't limit the meaning and that are not explained in dictionaries. Turn, what do I hear if I pay less attention to the meaning intended by the four letters of the word and try to rely on the sound? Will I begin to hear rhymes? Burn, learn? Similarities, complications, simplicities? Türen, hören? Earn? Tern? Eternal? Therefore, is In need eternal the translation of Im Notwendigen, because eternal is a representation of wendig? Instead of a translation proper, a translation unlimited?

And then I read a new poem and realize again that the unlimited has its place in small words, almost in nothing, in something next to nothing. Wie sehr wir – this line describes or creates a large degree or intensity of something, using the smallest words possible. The line itself is short, seems unfinished – but goes on hesitatingly, includes non-words. So few elements, yet enough to provide for repetition and a wave-like structure:

Wie sehr wir
Gemischte sind!
Du siehst es                              Wallless Space, 72, 73

Du siehst es / You see it: the line extends, goes on extending, seems to grow and produce, you begin to see it, almost nothing, almost everything. The short line commingles with what is long. The duration of the line cannot be measured.

How very
commingled we are!
You see it

at markets,
along with
a dead animal face.

Why along with, when the German poem only has dabei? In the German two little words attached to one another, da and bei, enough to fill a long line which does not rush towards results and conclusions. Did the translators write along, because the line is longer than long? Because it is long and it can wait, because it can wait instead of busying itself with meaning? It can wait for a long time? It is able to long? La langue? La langue durée?

How very
commingled we are!
You see it

at markets,
along with
a dead animal face.

You are
no one but you
and yet everyone.

I find traces / evidence of unlimitation in a poem which Meister may have seen as dedicated to Paul Celan's death. The first lines of the poem are set in parentheses – are they present, but less present than the second part of the poem? Are they almost absent, but still present?

(Die Flüsse allerdings
von niemand,                              Of Entirety Say the Sentence, 26, 27

The poem begins with a word that contains everything – allerdings literally of all things – and a word that renounces everyone – von niemand, by nobody. It seems to me that allerdings is not limited and contains niemand and vice versa nobody contains all things. A different kind of continuity shows up in the English poem:

(The rivers, however,
not ever to be drunk up –
the oceans even less –
by anyone)

Has the second syllable in the word rivers been unlocked and activated and allowed to attach itself to other words? rivers, however, not ever? And how big or small is the difference between however, which seems to include all possibilities, and the not ever in the next line? Is this an opposition or an opening? And in the line that follows we can see a variation of ever: even.

(Die Flüsse allerdings
von niemand,
das Meer noch minder
je auszutrinken)

das Meer noch minder: the words Meer (sea) and minder (less) can be understood or heard as an opposition, in the phrase: mehr oder minder. It is as common as the English more or less. But the poem is not saying: either – or, it is not dividing into more or less. It says: das Meer noch minder. It seems to be adding the small quantity, minder, to the large quantity, Meer. It is attaching the even less to the oceans. In the English line: the oceans even less, I seem to be able to hear: the oceans nothingness. less, does it not solely indicate a lesser quantity, but also the complete lack or want (as in hopeless). the oceans even less, vast quantity and nothing in one line.

(The rivers, however,
not ever to be drunk up –
the oceans even less –
by anyone)

Salvaged. No
fat man, savoring
a meal in France, rather
his flesh
sated with water, carcass,
blooming white, algae
into the one rose, into
"truth itself".
      (Die Flüsse allerdings
von niemand,
das Meer noch minder
je auszutrinken)

Geborgen. Kein
fetter Mann, gern
essend in Frankreich, sondern
sein Fleisch
gesättigt mit Wasser, Aas,
weiß blühend, Algen
zur einen Rose, der
„Wahrheit selbst".

What is "truth itself"? I feel sure that it differs from truth. It is truth to which something has been added – the itself, which speaks of the self or maybe the selfsame but adds something to the truth, something not contained in the truth, a space larger than truth. Or maybe it adds something smaller to what is large – something like the less that is added to the oceans.

What is this large or small space? It is, I think, represented by the article der close to the end of the poem. der suggests a range of meanings. The first, not quite as probable maybe as the others: der is in the nominative case and „Wahrheit selbst" (although a feminine form) is a name; the name of the man is "truth itself" (it could even be himself). But der can also be seen as a genitive case and the whole expression serve as a description of the rose, the rose of "truth itself". der could also be in the dative case and belong to the preposition zur. In this case truth is a parallel of rose; rose a comparison. Truth itself seems to be something that is not limitable to one version. A small word like der is not limited.

There are other words in this poem that seem not to be limited to themselves. Algen, for example, is it in some way connected to the word allerdings in the first line? Aas, does it produce an echo of essend? sondern, gern – an undisclosed rhyme? essend in Frankreich, so usual the words, yet so unusual that I begin to wonder whether essend is a genuine German word. Is the poem saying that the man who is not fat did not enjoy eating (essend) in France, or is it saying that he did not enjoy being in France – Lat. esse, Ital. essendo? Is truth the loss of identification? In the place of identity a flow, a movement towards: Algen zur einen Rose, algae into the one rose, into "truth itself"? A repetition in the English version: into, into. In two? not ever to be drunk up?

In truth there is more truth. In Geborgen there is salvage and loss. Bergen, it can mean to rescue, to protect, but it also connected to the English word bury. In Geborgen someone could be safe and lost, not limited to one of the two. Barrow, a grave-mound, related to Sanskrit brhánt, a mount. A flow of all things not to be stopped by anyone? Wasser, Aas – are the words actually flowing from a to a? A quantity of a's? Are the small words constantly growing?

Who was it that saved Celan from drowning? He was saved by something not identifiable, something flowing and alive, ever changing names and giving new names: Du; ich; du und; du und ich; ich mit vier; nackten Händen; ICH; DU; die Unbekannten; einer; einer am Kai; Keiner. Kai, one of the shortest and longest words in OF ENTIRETY SAY THE SENTENCE, extending into Keiner, the last word of the poem. Keiner, he is not just nobody, but also someone standing on the Kai, the quay. Here, there is more than only no one: Einer – einer – Kai – Karten – Keiner.

Wer denn hat diesen
von brüchigen Stegen
gesprungenen Menschen
gefischt, den dieser

Du, ich, ohne
Netz, Sichel, Haken,
du und
ich mit vier
nackten Händen,

ICH, DU, die

Einer wars, einer
am Kai, Spieler
mit bilderlosen Karten.

      Who then fished this
person who jumped
from moldering walkways
– him of this

You, I, without
net, sickle, hook,
you and
I with four
naked hands,

I, YOU, the
unknown ones?

It was someone, someone
on the quay, a player
with faceless cards.

No one.                                        Of Entirety Say the Sentence, 28, 29

quay, a player – the words seem to be asking whether we can hear a rhyme, whether we can see a repetition. quay the pronunciation is so different from that of the word player. But could they rhyme – is there a continuity?

The continuity emerging from shortest words, the timelessness of what lasts less, we can find it in one of the shortest poems of the book – so short each line –, in one of the longest poems, a poem in which the shortest line may be the longest: es ist – there is:

Slow time,
time slowness,
word slowness,
slowly, I say
a verb, time's word,
I say it to you
for trust,
there is
dying in it,
moon and sun,
the blaze
that ignites houses,
bells too,
so that they shimmer.

A year
is no bliss,
the dead
won't lend you a hand.
let me hear from your side
somehow, how
it may go on
and so on
in the end.                                        Of Entirety Say the Sentence, 56, 57

While the poem appears to be slow, it can move rapidly by slight changes: somehow, how. The shift from confirmation somehow to how it may go on seems to be one from present to future. Glut, Glocken, Glück, blaze, bells, bliss – slight changes, immeasurable.

A book full of wonderful lines: und hättest; When we're; Wenn wir; clay, then; Lehm, dann; bewegte; would not; poem and thought; I and is; child of no; you, I, without; you and.

what's null and void
is completely obviously
always there.                              Of Entirety Say the Sentence, 142, 143

Sent Vid v Podjuni / St. Veit im Jauntal
August 2016
Peter Waterhouse

A long time resident of Vienna, Peter Waterhouse was born in Berlin in 1956 and is the author of numerous works of poetry, prose, essays and translations. His recent publications include: (Krieg und Welt) (prose, 2006), Der Honigverkäufer im Palastgarten und das Auditorium Maximum (prose, 2010), Der Fink: Einführung in das Federlesen (essays, 2016), Die Auswandernden (prose, 2016) and Language Death Night Outside (English, Trans. Rosmarie Waldrop, 2009). He is the co-founder of VERSATORIUM: Verein für Gedichte und Übersetzung as well as Neuberg College: Verein für Übersetzung der Gesellschaft.