Doppelgänger Doppelganger: a translating essay
Within our own language, the fun we have with homonyms, double entendres, puns, and echoes springs from the uncanny joy of experiencing two things at once. We love to double down.
Translation, especially between languages that share an alphabet, lets us expand this fun across linguistic borders. German poet Uljana Wolf’s Falsche Freunde, or False Friends in Susan Bernofsky’s wonderful translation, is a marvelous chapbook-length romp through this linguistic bouncy house. Words like bad, bald, and brief are exploited for their duality, and made to work as part of poems in both English and German. False Friends itself exists as an echo. It is a focused extension (or reflection) of the inaugural issue of the splendid experimental translation journal telephone, which was dedicated to multiple translations, versions, and re-translations of Wolf’s werk. It seems Wolf and Bernofsky made the bett that readers would enjoy another springy blooming of this German-English hybrid blume.
The uncanny can be got at in many ways, often involving play, and Dagmara Kraus dug up a gut one while writing kummerang, her debut poetry collection. In translating the book, I had the good fortune to discuss with her one of her methods for goosing the German tongue: the Fünffacher Denckring der Teutschen Sprache (Five-fold Thought-ring of the German Language), a pre-digital language computing device invented by 17th century German literary man Georg Philipp Harsdörffer.
Fünffacher Denckring der Teutschen Sprache
Using a rotating concentric-circle layout similar to a color wheel, it breaks German words down into constituent parts (prefixes, suffixes, mid-fixes, etc…) and allows the user (player) to re-combine these parts into new words with a spin of the wheel. These new words often resemble standard German words, or funhouse-mirror versions thereof. In Kraus’ hands, the new words are arranged so that a German reader can’t quite avoid seeing and hearing distorted versions of standard language hiding in the invented words. At the same time, the familiar sounds and meanings of German are not quite available. A ghostly version of a poem floats just off the page, impossible to grasp and impossible to ignore; we get two words for the preis of one.
herz taub für hupe
herz taub für hupe,
ob hinot enternig geif
nachoss umaper klucklich zereill
verorler verutter geist
pluftig verhielt fortoten zupling ?
cuhllich-puthlich schlihnen pfigen
rannem indarg ertrimter
translate: erase, replace, encase the poem
on another (en face) facing page
Mashup/Echo translation is my attempt to bring Kraus’ Fünffacher Denckring words and poems into English by combining homophonic, traditional, and suggestive translation strategies. When translating one of these words, I translate the sound of it as it stands, and/or translate the sense of the word it resembles, and/or translate the sound of the word it resembles, and/or spin myself dizzy. I often alter the standard English wort I arrive at, to reflect the fact that few (sometimes no) standard German words appear in the originals. I give the process over to the power of suggestion. As in Kraus’ German, double-seeing and/or double-hearing several English words at once, and the accompanying frisson of synesthesia, is both the goal and the preis (def 2). How many ways can the poem be read? How many ways can it be heard? How many spins does it give?
heart deaf to horn
heart deaf to horn,
com maior fervor do
if under eternal ryething gryphons
nachos and paper push their kluck
for order for utters in spyryt coffing
in puffs in deapth despite their pluck?
full horns to himns
one sits throu snores
kools it, pulls its slieves, believes it
anyhow with pages
in larger vows
creeking frowned in
beet-red in dark-dream-trim
Could spell doppel trouble.
Could spell spells.
So I am left ryething, which makes me think of bread, a cutting remark, and the movement of a trapped snake, and coffing, which is also what happens when a be-casketed corpse chokes on his morning joe (in Kraus’ world, we never know what anyone might be up to). And I’m excited to think what things, beyond the usual two arms, would slip through a slieve—perhaps I should say I’m excited to have the chance to thingk about it.
What’s the project of translation?
To say newly in English? To say again? To double-say? To say double?
What’s the project of this project? What’s the pleasure? What poem am I reading, re-reading, or mis-reading, and what words constitute its heft? What’s been doubled, in the end? What’s been made neu? What’s been seen? heard? said?
When a translation peals its echo from—
and back into—the language forest, is it
new? is it double? is it again? Does it
make new? make double? make again?
The pleasure is reading, for the first time in English—
The pleasure is reading, for the second time—
reading, re-reading, double reading
the poem and its double,
its echo, its shadow, or its reflection in another set of words.
Translation is a mirror, a reflection, a double that makes visible what formerly was not: poem, image, project, pleasure, fragment of a culture.
A fogged mirror, wiped with the left hand, then the right hand, offers imperfection, offers its off-double, offers hypnotisms. Another mirror, an other muse, a mise en abyme.
Should I say, Dank you, Dagmara, for hilfing me see doppel?
Soll ich sag, ich thank dir Dagmara, für helping mich double zusehen?
The project and the pleasure are double, doubled, doubling.
This essay is a brief and playful investigation of my attempt to translate near a kind of limit. In this case, I worked near two limits: the limit of meaning (translating invented words with no recognized meaning, only shades or echoes of meaning), and the limit of comprehension, in the space where seeing two of everything threatens to collapse into seeing nothing. Limits are great for thinking about the nature of the thing being limited, so this work encouraged me to think about the act of translating itself.
The essay includes some translations of Dagmara Kraus’ poems and is itself a work of translation: I swap English and German words in order to translate my experience of working between these two languages and in order to translate the inter-lingual world that Kraus’ poetry creates and inhabits. We might say the essay is an original poem in the form of an essay, written in the medium of translation. It approaches and then withdraws from limits. It takes two forms.