I’m so enamored with Sebald that I got a book of his poetry, Across the Land and the Water (from the library, just in case it turns out I’m not a poetry kind of guy.) I’ve not read much of any poetry, by anyone, but Sebald’s writing is just so damn poetic anyway, I figured if I was going to like poetry by anyone it would probably be him.
Before I started reading the poems, though, there was an introduction by the translator about the origins of the poems and the process of translating them, and I thought, oh yeah… Sebald wrote in German. This isn’t something I thought much about while reading his books, but when I think about reading poems that were originally written in another language, it seems to me somehow… impossible that they could be faithfully preserved, even if he had still been alive when they were translated.
A novel (or whatever you want to call Sebald’s books) has so much text in it, that it seems far more likely that a translation will preserve the tone, intent, and message of the author. But some of the poems in this collection are only a couple dozen words long. Here is one example, the first poem in the book:
For how hard it is to understand the landscape as you pass in a train from here to there and mutely it watches you vanish.
I love this. It had a memorable effect on me when I first read it (just a couple days ago in the library.) I imagined myself on a train looking out at the passing landscape, then suddenly, with the final line of the poem, things have reversed and it is the landscape that is watching me. The train vanishes into the distance, with me still aboard, and only the landscape is left, mute and timeless. I had visualized, for some reason, snow-dusted pine trees and a frozen lake, and I felt a moment of isolation and quiet stillness.
But what was this poem like in the original German? Did the original have the same number of syllables per line? The same spare writing style? The same pace and number of words? Do any of these things matter? How did the translator decide to use ‘understand’ instead of ‘know’ or ‘comprehend’? Why ‘hard’ instead of ‘difficult,’ why ‘mutely’ instead of ‘silently’ or ‘quietly’? How many different ways could one write the above six lines, and at what point is it no longer the same poem, and only an ‘inspired by the original’?
Of course, one could ask these same questions of any translated work. But it seems much more impactful when the piece you are translating is so very short.
Regardless, I am enjoying the collection. Knowing it’s translated has only added an overlay of curiosity, rather than ruin anything for me. Sebald is fast becoming one of my favorite writers, and may even climb up past Nabokov on whatever internal literature ladder I keep in my head. Highly recommend reading anything by him!