Sharmila Lisa Cohen with Joshua Daniel Edwin

Joshua Edwin & Sharmila Cohen
Joshua Daniel Edwin & Sharmila Lisa Cohen

On the publisher’s website, the poems in Dagmara Kraus’s collection kummerang  (kookbooks, 2012) are described to: “sparkle and dash, oscillate between modes of speech, stagger and scatter meaning; they are existential, playful, polyglot, and full of matter-of-fact obstinacy. Kummerang will entice the adventurous poetry reader with anagrams, lists, incantations, the more “classical” beside the experimental, and visual poetic forms.” With such texture and dexterity of language, it’s plain to see that translating such texts would be a challenge for even the most experienced of translators. Being friends and both translators of German, Joshua Daniel Edwin and I are essentially in constant conversation about the ins and outs of the translation process.  Recently, we took up his experience translating Dagmara’s work and its namesake poem, Gloomerang, which has been published as a chapbook by Argos Books. – Sharmila Lisa Cohen

From Gloomerang:

all this gloomerang-caprice
(gloomerang, capiche?),
—oh gloomerang-gazer, book-nosed schnook—
the cancan-ing gloomerang-beats,
all the gloomcrookedstoop:
gloomerang’s hunchback, hooked as a scythe,
will outhunch
my nosebump (plumb out of line).

Sharmila Cohen: It’s pretty clear that translating a work like Kummerang would be no easy feat—can you discuss your process a bit? How did you tread the line between sound and content? Did you put more emphasis on one or the other? What were the particular difficulties you faced with it being such a sound-heavy poem? How much input did Dagmara have? Do you think anything was gained or lost in the process?   How was this experience different from other translations you’ve done?

Joshua Daniel Edwin: Translating gloomerang was certainly a challenge. The poem is ripe to bursting with sound-play and references and allusive connections and strange direct-address dialogue. Finding a balance between all these elements, or rather, figuring out a balance in English that worked as well as the balance Dagmara struck in German, was a long process. The first breakthrough I had was with the title. The original, “kummerang,” is a neologism that mushes together kummer (which means grief, troubles, sorrows, worries) with boomerang. My first solution was “boomeranguish,” which is pretty close in terms of sense-meaning, but all wrong in terms of sound. I kept thinking about it, and when I hit upon gloomerang, I knew I had found something good. It sounded right and it felt right. The sense-meaning wasn’t quite as close, but it was close enough and it captured the aura of the original. That set the tone for everything that followed.

At first, I treated each page like a stand-alone poem. I did several drafts of each page and once the whole thing was finished, I went back through and worked on integrating them, in order to try to maintain the balance between the different elements. I was lucky enough to work closely with Dagmara throughout. I would do a rough translation of a page, get it into decent shape, and then discuss it with her. I’d also include a list of alternative solutions to thorny words or passages. We’d sit and discuss the choices I’d made—and the alternatives—and talk about why one or the other worked better. Dagmara was (is) an absolute delight to work with. She’s a translator herself (an excellent one) and she always respected my judgment when it came to the fine points of English. She acted as a wonderful guide to her original text and, perhaps most importantly, she pointed to places where she thought sound-play was the most important element and encouraged me to reflect that in the translation. When we discussed sound, it was like a pianist/composer working with a guitarist on a guitar arrangement of a piece she had written for piano. She offered insight and gave me lots of license to run as far and as fast as I felt was warranted. Having Dagmara reassure me that the more experimental aspects of the translation were exciting and appealing to her made it easier for me to do potentially risky things. For example, right at the beginning, Dagmara uses the word pisang, which refers to a banana. I chose to use barong (a knife with a bent handle) instead. The two objects are not at all the same (although they are, crucially, both crooked) but I felt that barong sounded better in that spot and so I made the switch. If Dagmara hadn’t been there to assure me that it was ok to swap one crooked object for another in the service of the poem’s music, I would have been reluctant to do it. I’ve had similar ideas when translating other poets, but I’ve usually refrained from such drastic substitutions (knife for banana), because it just seemed like too much.

I’m sure some things were lost in the midst of these sound-motivated swaps, but I hope that I was able to make compensations that allow a reader to have an equally rich experience with the poem. I sometimes think of Dagmara’s poem as a beautiful and intricately woven blanket made of German, and I hope that my translation can be equally lovely and intricate, even though its English construction means that its pattern will necessarily be different.

SC: Were there things that you and Dagmara disagreed about or disputed? What is your sense of the role of the translator here—do you have that power? Is it even allowed?

JDE: We’ve been very lucky—either because of temperament or shared taste or divine intervention, we really don’t disagree too much. And, crucially, we share some basic ideas about what aspects of the poem are important, which means that Dagmara can usually trust me to make decisions that she’ll be on board with. There are, of course, moments of ambiguity (poems are always ambiguous), and these moments are most open to interpretation and disagreement.

Poetry is writing that retains some mystery, keeps some things hidden. Having done so, it can reveal things, as well. Part of a poet’s decision-making is when to reveal what. Where translation is a work of revelation (across language), it finds contradiction and complication in poetry—a translator of poetry seeks to reveal not what is hidden, but the poem’s means of hiding and revelation.

There is tremendous power in hiding and revealing. Some would say that a translator should always tune her hiding/revealing instrument to the pitch of the original. Others give the translator license to stray into a different key. I think that, at the very least, it’s a translator’s responsibility to think through the question and to understand the ways in which he’s matching or straying from the original’s instrumentation.

SC: As you know, my first experience with your translation and the original was hearing it read aloud at the Frankfurt Book Fair and then I got to take a closer look at the text on my own later. This seems like the ideal means of ingress to such a work. What can you tell us about how sound is meant to guide one’s understanding of the text? I enjoyed hearing the differences in your and Dagmara’s reading styles, as it somehow spoke to the act of translation itself—have you given any thought to how performance could reflect/affect this poem?

JDE:  Listening to this poem would be a great way in, because the music of the poem is at least half of what it’s all about. Dagmara establishes a rhythm on the first page and carries it, with variations, throughout the poem. When you hear her read it, it’s like flying on a magic carpet. Sometimes you zoom forward at breakneck speed, sometimes you stop and hover, or spin around in mid-air. It’s thrilling. There are also rhymes and repetitions that work like snippets of melody or musical themes. Sometimes these lift you up and sometimes they enthrall you, lower you into a kind of brief trance. Dagmara has a very flexible and expressive reading style and she uses her voice to pull the listener along through the changes I’m describing. The liveliness of the poem on the page is matched by the sound of it being read.

Dagmara and I have performed our versions of the poem together a few times, which is a lot of fun, and I have noticed some differences. Dagmara’s performances tend to be like a solo vocalist, making very focused and virtuosic use of volume and tonal effects, whereas mine tend to be a bit more shtick-y, almost like a comedian. I even do voices. Maybe my performances reflect something American or something Jewish-American or something male, or maybe they reflect the fact that a translator is always channeling a voice that isn’t his. Of course, poets channel other voices too, but they can choose when to do that. A translator always has the voice of the original in his ear.

One thing I love about this poem is the way it manages to be deeply weird and, simultaneously, universal. It’s about sadness, love, music, imagining yourself in different places around the world, and the inescapable loneliness of doing any creative work. Those themes are universal, which means that Dagmara and I can perform different versions of the poem, emphasizing different ways of expressing those themes, without losing what the poem has to offer to its readers.

SC: What is a Gloomerang?

A lost love that you can’t forget.
A shitty, untrustworthy boyfriend.
A poem that you can’t quite manage to write.
A lonely feeling that you can’t quite manage to shake.
Or that you shake for a little while, only to have it come sneaking back into your head.
The knowledge that those depressing feelings will always come sneaking back into your head.
Those depressing feelings, which are by now way too familiar, and which come strolling right in through your brain’s front door, since they’re around so often they’re practically live-in companions.
The feeling of seeing the depressing feelings coming, and not being able to do anything about it, and maybe putting on some music to distract yourself from your mounting dread.
A piece of music that sings all of this, with a catchy refrain that seems to mimic the repetitive nature of the phenomenon it describes.
Your oldest, closest, most important friend, with whom you fight frequently and foreseeably.
A boomerang, but made of sadness.

SC: You mention that “a translator always has the voice of the original in his ear,” which makes me wonder: Where does the poet’s voice end and the translator’s begin? Could this be one element involved in the varying modes of translation—experimental or otherwise—does the amount of the translator’s voice that inevitably enters the work function as a unique mode of translating a poem?

JDE:  I love this question! Like most interesting questions, it’s ultimately unanswerable and it demands to be re-posed every time we start translating a new poem or book.

I like to imagine mixing different versions of a radler (a German drink comprised of beer and lemon soda): we’re used to a 50-50 ratio, but 30-70 and 70-30 ratios might have a lot to show us. These are all the same drink, so the question is about proportion, not genre. Using more of your own voice in the translation can be like using more rhyme or alliteration or idiom—it can absolutely serve as a mode to work in. Lots of exciting, valuable, door-opening work (such as your own Telephone journal, Christian Hawkey’s Ventrakl, Burning Deck’s collaborative translation of Ernst Jandl’s Reft and Light, etc.) functions by sliding the fader toward allowing more of the translator’s voice into the work. I know I’m metaphor-hopping shamelessly here, but to return to music, hearing a different mix of a song can be a completely new and enlivening experience. Turning my voice down (or making the translator “invisible” as we used to say) will inevitably leave room to turn up the volume on another aspect of the work—but that could turn out to be an improvement, a distortion, or simply a different version. Turning up the voice of the translator works the same way, I think, and it’s exciting to see our colleagues trying it out.

SC: Lastly, I thought it might be useful for other translators out there to hear a bit about the program that brought you and Dagmara together.

JDE:  Dagmara and I were brought together by a cooperative exchange between Columbia University’s Creative Writing MFA program and the DLL (Deutsches Literaturinstitut Leipzig), called “Word for Word / Wort für Wort.” Graduate students from the two programs are paired up and tasked with translating one another’s work. Dagmara and I were participants in the program’s pilot year. We had fun translating each other’s poems and we also hit it off personally and became friends. It was a really incredible stroke of luck. The program has been going for a few years now and has involved lots of talented emerging writer-translators.

Joshua Daniel Edwin’s poetry and translations appear in a variety of publications in print and online. His translations of Dagmara Kraus’s poetry were awarded a 2012 PEN/Heim Translation Fund Grant and were published in a chapbook by Argos Books. He lives in Brooklyn and is a member of the editorial board for the magazine Circumference: Poetry in Translation.

Sharmila Cohen lives in Berlin, where she initially moved on a Fulbright Scholarship to complete project involving poetry in translation and now works as a freelance writer, translator, and editor. Along with Paul Legault, she founded and still co-runs the translation press Telephone Books. Her poetry and translations can be found in Harper’s Magazine, Circumference: Poetry in Translation, and Epiphany, among other places.

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