By Hannah Varadi
Often it’s when I’m reminded of how imperfect and limited language is that I see, at the same time, a great example of what it can accomplish. I don’t speak German at all. Nor had I ever heard until last week of the poet Paul Celan or the writer Brigitte Kronauer. Yet this Sunday, February 24 at the Baron Gallery, I was part of a small audience of Oberlin faculty, students, and Oberlin residents that gained access to the wonderfully expressive works of both authors.
Oberlin residents David Young and Jutta Ittner kicked off this year’s Main Street Reading series by reading their published German to English translations of Celan’s poetry collection Sprachgitter (Language Behind Bars) and Kronauer’s Die Kleider der Frauen (Women and Clothes), respectively. Both translators gave a spectacular performance which conveyed a solid sense of their lyrical, natural-sounding English texts.
The rough literal equivalent of sprachgitter is something like “language mesh” or “speech screen,” but Young explained that he rendered a nonliteral title to better approximate the word’s intended depiction: the difficulty of expressing certain emotions and experiences through language. A prolific poet and translator, Young read selections from his English rendering of Celan straight from the book — it was more of an oral transcription of the text than a performance. In the final poem, however, Young gained greater inflection and emotion, echoing the urgent repeated lines and passionate frustration of the poem’s speaker. This made the presentation significantly more engaging, lifting Celan’s filtered voice prominently off the page.
Kronauer’s Die Kleider der Frauen is a collection of stories following the life of an unreliable but perceptive woman; it explores the roles played by clothing and fashion in the formation of female identity. Ittner opened by explaining the profound effects Kronauer’s works have had on her since girlhood, then went on to read two of the translated stories in the collection.
She gave a more engaging performance than Young, using vocal inflection, small physical gestures, and occasional wry glances toward the audience to bring the protagonist’s voice off the page. Towards the end she began projecting less, making it hard to distinguish every word she said, even from the front row.
I was also struck by the fact that Ittner translates literary works from her native German into her highly fluent but non-native English. Translating into a non-native tongue is a bit like trying to dash backwards with the same level of grace as running backward and forward – not that a very skilled runner can’t come close.
The English text flowed with a natural, modern sound imbued with the narrator’s wry personality. While I suspect there were some liberties taken to convey meaning over precise wording, Kronauer’s originality of language shone through when describing the image of a huge, rotund woman squeezing her wads of flesh into a corset or in the dialogue as the narrator discovers her friend’s shift into a condescending fashion snob. Ittner usually translates in consultation with her husband, a native English speaker who doesn’t know a word of German, and it shows. That is, while I can’t say how precisely Ittner replicated Kronauer’s original German wording, her translation nevertheless carries natural, original wit and precision of description.
But of course her work, like Young’s, was still a filtering of the author’s voice. As I’ve been learning pretty quickly in my translation class this semester, there is always a slight disparity between the original language and new language, an unavoidable difference in the effect that they convey. Sometimes it can be helpful to hear both versions side by side, even if you can’t understand both.
Young’s translation of Celan’s book is a bilingual publication, with each original German poem printed opposite its English rendering. In presenting the first of these poems, he asked Ittner to briefly join him onstage. Young read each stanza in his English translation, followed by Ittner speaking the original German phrases. Their voices echoed around the gallery walls, one uttering the poem’s original syllables, the other producing a close approximation of their meaning—and both in melodious resonance.