Michael Hofman on Translating German Poetry

I recently bought Ashes for Breakfast, English translations of selected poems by prominent German poet Durs Gruenbein. The English poet Michael Hofmann took up the challenge of translating Gruenbein’s dense, idiosyncratic poems, which many people might have thought was impossible. In his introduction, Hofmann declares his aim to provide something "harmonious and possible," not "exotic, wooden, pointless and dead."

The result is is smashing. Hofmann takes plenty of liberties with Gruenbein’s originals, thereby adding his own tart, colloqiual touch. Apparently it was all done more or less with Gruenbein’s approval. It’s like getting two poets for the low, low price of one. Here’s Hofmann’s explanation of his approach to translating a poem:

In fact, the question of "finish" in poetry translation is what macht mir zu schaffen — does my head in, I would say in English. In fiction it’s easy. I put the original away, and fiddle with the English to the point where I start to undo my corrections and put back things I had before. Then it’s done. But what to do with a poem? If I "take it away," and work at it the same way, until every line has just enough material and just enough music and just enough interest, then surely it would become one of my own poems. And it might be a long way from the original. Is the secret, then, merely to reduce its exposure to me, "undercooking" it, as it were? Possibly — but that’s precisely my objection to a lot of poetry translations, that they are undercooked. They might be glimmerings and beginnings of poems, but full of clumsiness and dulness, no English poet would dream of offering something so half-baked, so halbgar, so intermittent. But it has to be in some more verifiable relation to the original. It doesn’t merely face the reader; Janus-faced, it has to be looking back over its shoulder at the German, too. It’s a real problem, and I don’t know what the answer is.

Michael Hoffman, Introduction to Ashes for Breakfast, pp. xxiii-xiv.

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