Sunday, 14 April 2013

Spring Awakening

I saw the sun today. But for those who are still trapped by fog, rain or permafrost, here's an uplifting thought: great literary treasures lurk beneath the freezing point. Dickens, Tolstoy, Proust, H.C. Andersen, Mary Shelley, Byron and many others wrote their most famous novels/poems/stories under trying meteorological conditions. So: is bad weather great for fiction? (Piece for the Huffington Post).

Speaking of seasons: Jonathan Franzen translated Spring Awakening (Fruehlingserwachen, a play by Frank Wedekind about sexual awakening) into English a few years ago. I knew Franzen spoke German but didn't know he spoke it well enough to translate from it. Does anyone know if he's translated other plays or stories?

A friend once told me about a writer who translated a page of prose a day as a form of literary gymnastics. It makes sense: translation forces you to obsess over the precise meaning of each word as well as entire phrases and passages, and find the right balance between accuracy and beauty. It's such a hard exercise and I don't do it nearly often enough, certainly not in a literary context. Poetry is, of course, even more difficult to translate. Earlier this year I tackled Das Blaue Klavier ("The Blue Piano") by Else Lasker-Schueler. I could feel my brain stretching and reaching towards the right words just as I stretch my fingers towards my toes in yoga class. The results were about as elegant as a downward dog.

Consider the first line:

Ich hab zu Hause ein blaues Klavier
Und kenne doch keine Note

The literal translation would be "I have a blue piano at home /  and don't know a single note". Not very satisfying. The music is lost, and in a poem about a piano, music is everything. I tried out lots of different versions and looked up some existing translations, but in the end, I gave up. I basically decided that it was better not to translate it at all than to come up with something unsatisfying. What do you think? Should we even bother to translate poetry or simply tell readers to go and learn more languages?

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