In much the same way as Wassily Kandinsky broke with the confines of expressionist- style representational art to portray more abstract realities in his paintings, and Arnold Schönberg fled the limitations of existing musical notation to create sounds that hang in the air with the weight of the piano they’re being played upon,
August Stramm, too, shook off the confines of the grammar of his native German—a strongly regulated language—to make way for purer forms of expression.
For this year, the 100th Anniversary of the outbreak of the First World War, I decided about two years ago, as many obviously also decided, to translate German First World War poets. At school we had WW1 poetry rammed down our throats. They were all English (and not more generally “British”) poets, but I was one of those nerdy pupils who loved it. Of course the “losing side” (whatever that means) also wrote poetry which was largely ignored, despite the fact German WW1 poetry is every bit as good as its English counterpart.
About two years ago, I made the decision, to translate German First World War poets for the 100th Anniversary of the outbreak of the First World War. I know WW1 poetry quite well for the simple reason that we had it rammed down our throats at school. They were all English (and not more generally “British”) poets, but I was one of those nerdy pupils who loved it. Of course the “losing side” (whatever that means) had also written poetry which was largely ignored. In fact it never occurred to me that there might be poets in Germany too until I got here and realised that German WW1 poetry is every bit as good as its English counterpart.
So over the next years I’ve decided to make a set of little bilingual chap books of translations which I will duly hand-print in a low edition. The first in the series is August Stramm. In an attempt to emulate proximity to the spirit of Stramm’s time, I did a woodcut portrait of the poet based on a photo from 1915: the year in which Stramm died.
Stramm was a civil servant. He worked in the higher ranks of the German Post. One of his university theses was written on the subject of international postage. He is known to have visited other countries, including the USA. In my darker hours I sometimes do thought experiments on what would have become of these people during the Hitler era had they survived. Would they have been oppressed or belonged to the oppressors?
Having worked in such civil service offices myself for a short space of time, I am in no way surprised that someone from such a background could write such violence-filled poetry. The conniving, subtle elbow stabs and hierarchically guided beatings that take place in such conservative houses are ideal breeding ground for frustration. What does surprise me is that someone of those ranks could write so well (though of course, there is also Kafka).
I find it hard to believe that Stramm was really one of them. His poetry is so human, without being humane. Regardless of topic, whether war or living room, his poetry is a series of loud, short-breathed, violent stabs of non-existent words and confusing syntax. After a few less meaningful publications, his poetry was finally accepted in 1912 by the magazine “Der Sturm”, a pioneering magazine for expressionist literature and graphical work. Three years after these first important publications, Stramm was dead at the age of 38 (1915), killed by a shot to the head during an attack at the Dnieper–Bug Canal, today Belarus territory.
Some interpret the strong imagery of the expressionist era as a kind of lyrical premonition of the war. And the fact that the violent language of Stramm’s poetry did not change much between peacetime and wartime could possibly support this thesis. I personally think the rise of such imagery was a natural social reaction to existing power structures. Education was better and more universal. As a result people had greater possibilities to voice their frustrations with the systems in which they were embedded. The war, which many may well have seen coming, simply provided “flesh” for this particular artistic inclination; it was no longer just imagery, but scars on the skin of a new reality that no one without war experience could have imagined.
There are of course several possible approaches to translating any poet. I would therefore like to draw attention to another translation of Stramm by Alistair Noon (see this article). Talking to Alistair one morning over coffee we got onto a hard discussion on our very different approaches to translating Stramm. The main question seemed to be whether to transpose the meaning of the poetry to a modern context, as Alistair had done, or whether to attempt to recapture the context of the poet’s time, as I claimed to be doing.
As translators we are as free of moral obligations as poets are and each method has its justifications. The chief justifications of the first approach are as follows:
- We cannot achieve adequate knowledge of any other time than the one we live in?
- A contemporary approach is more relevant and understandable to the contemporary reader.
Whilst this may be true for some poetry which is more embedded in social phenomena, I think there are things that people have in common across time. Emotion and acute fear of death is one such thing. There seems little difference to me between crawling through mud in 1914 and crawling through mud in 2014. A shot in the head or a gas attack also mean pretty much the same. As living beings we are no more or less capable of feeling fear, dread, sorrow or pity, than our forefathers were. The dust we will become or the mud we are crawling through don’t care what year it is or whether we have I-Phones in our pockets. On the other hand, most of us (including myself) were never in a war zone, but that is a more a situational matter than it is a temporal one.
It is neither possible to transpose completely nor to recapture effectively. The former is possibly more honest since it accounts openly for the contemporary voice of the translator. However, despite this, I chose the latter: recapturing. I think this is valid in the case of Stramm, since feeling, which all eras have in common, is the main component of his poetry. Of course there is a political message too, but this is mainly contained within the motivation (why he writes) which is only an implicit component of the poetry itself.
I made a conscious choice to work with my own feelings, on the grounds that feelings (at least existential feelings) have a degree of universality. I questioned my perception of the ambiguity of the lexis of his work. Ambiguity plays a great role in the work of Stramm. He uses fragments of words—e.g. by removing prefixes or by adding non-existent prefixes or inflections—to create non-words. For example:
Bären spannt die Glieder
The word Bären only exists as (1) the plural of Bär (bear) or (2) the accusative/genitive/dative inflections of Bär, none of which make immediate sense in this context, because the word is being used as a nominal singular; however, the implications of bear are clear: strong, animal, Russia (Stramm fought on the eastern front), carnivore etc., besides other subjective/objective implications. The word gebären, however, meaning give birth to, is also implied and makes more sense in the purely linguistic context of kreißen (be in labour) which again is not directly semantically related to the title: Krieg / War.
Since it is impossible to know the true source of the word, such “non-words” or “half-words” may be cognitively associated with two or three possible meanings. This has the effect of bringing conflicting semantic associations into the same context. Lexical examination and gut feeling seemed for this reason more viable to me than contemporary interpretation as a method of translation .
I believe not only that much of Stramm’s emotional content is contained within the lexical, but that this emotional content is universal, i.e. not confined to a particular time.