Comparing Translations

Added 9 April 2018 = X Kann keine Trauer sein/ No need for sorrow

 

This section of the website (which has been fully revised and updated since its original posting in 2015) compares translations of some of Gottfried Benn’s most important poems. These are:

I Kleine Aster/ Little Aster

II Untergrundbahn/ In the Subway.

III D-Zug/ Express Train.

IV Karyatide/ Caryatid.

V Einsamer nie – /Never more lonely –

VI Statische Gedichte/ Static Poems

VII Orpheus’ Tod/ Death of Orpheus

VIII Chopin/ Chopin

IX Ikarus/ Icarus

X Kann keine Trauer sein / No need for sorrow

 

I Comparing translations of Kleine Aster/ Little Aster

Kleine Aster/ Little Aster was the opening poem in Benn’s first volume of verse, Morgue and Other Poems (Morgue und andere Gedichte), published in 1912. With their disconcertingly impersonal perspectives, grim subject matter and un-poetic style, the poems of the Morgue cycle introduced a radically new idiom into the genre of German poetry:

Ein ersoffener Bierfahrer wurde auf den Tisch

gestemmt.

Irgendeiner hatte ihm eine dunkelhellila Aster

zwischen die Zähne geklemmt.

Als ich von der Brust aus

unter der Haut

mit einem langen Messer

Zunge und Gaumen herausschnitt,

muß ich sie angestoßen haben, denn sie glitt

in das nebenliegende Gehirn.

Ich packte sie ihm in die Brusthöhle

zwischen die Holzwolle,

als man zunähte.

Trinke dich satt in deiner Vase!

Ruhe sanft,

kleine Aster!

 

I will consider the following translations:

Edgar Lohner and Cid Corman, “Tiny Aster” in New Mexico Quarterly (Summer 1952): pp. 178-179.

Babette Deutsch “Tiny Aster”, in Primal Vision: Selected Writings, edited E.B. Ashton (London: Marion Boyars, 1976), p. 213.

J.M. Ritchie, “Little Aster” in Gottfried Benn: The Unreconstructed Expressionist (London: Oswald Wolff, 1972), p. 106.

Michael Hofmann, “Little Aster” in Gottfried Benn: Impromptus: Selected Poems translated by Michel Hofmann (London: Faber & Faber, 2013), p. 5.

 

Ein ersoffener Bierfahrer wurde auf den Tisch gestemmt.

Irgendeiner hatte ihm eine dunkelhellila Aster

zwischen die Zähne geklemmt.

A freshly-drowned beer-driver was hoisted onto the table.

Somehow someone had left him a dark lilac-brightened aster

caught between his teeth.(Lohner and Corman)

A drowned truck-driver was propped on the slab.

Someone had stuck a lavender aster

between his teeth. (Deutsch)

A drowned dray man was humped on to the slab.

Someone or other had jammed a dark light violet

Aster between his teeth. (Ritchie)

A drowned drayman was hoisted on to the slab.

Someone had jammed a lavender aster

between his teeth. (Hofmann).

Kleine Aster/ Little Aster draws upon Benn’s medical experiences in Berlin’s Charlottenburg-Westend hospital, where he had worked as a mortuary assistant in the years immediately prior to the First World War. “Bierfahrer” refers to someone who delivers beer (in 1912 by horse and wagon). It is an antiquated word, which does not appear in most modern German dictionaries. The English word “drayman” is also old-fashioned, but it is the only possible translation of “Bierfahrer” in English. “Beer-driver” (Lohner and Corman) is not idiomatic English, whilst “truck-driver” (Deutsch) is a mistranslation. “Ersoffen” is an unusual term for “drowned” (“ertrunken” would be normal). It is just possible that Benn wishes us to hear to word “besoffen”/ “drunk” here.

All the translators except Lohner/Corman translate “Tisch” as “slab”, but they are thinking  of the slab in a morturary, on which corpses are laid. Benn, however, is referring to a “Seziertisch”, a dissecting table, which is normally found in hospitals, so ”table” may be the better translation. There is a second reason for retaining “Tisch”/“table”  – its shock effect. Reading the title of the poem, the contemporary reader would have expected a poem in the late-Romantic mode about a flower (such as the ones pubished in the Gartenlaube, a weekly illustrated publication that promoted a comfortable family view of life and nature). Instead, the reader is presented with a corpse lying on a table (and for the moment the table appears to be an ordinary kitchen or dining-room table). This is one of a number of anti-“poetic” devices used in the poem. Others include the use of simple grammatical and syntactical forms, which are not lyrical but analytical and impersonal; the general absence of poetic metre and rhyme; the use of medical terminology, the description of an autopsy that is described in a casual way with an indifference to the human subject; and the displacement of focus from the human to the organic. The poem, in fact, is a supreme example of the “Bürgerschreck” (“shocking the bourgeois reader”) strategy that characterised much Expressionist writing.

The drowned drayman has been laid (“gestemmt”) on a table. “Stemmen” in German has two principal meanings: to press firmly against something, and to lift (particularly a heavy object). In this poem, it means the latter.  “Hoisted”  (favoured by Lohner/ Corman, Ritchie and Hofmann), and “humped” (Ritchie) are all possible (although “humped” needs the passive voice, “had been humped”, to describe the action rather than a state). “Propped” (Deutsch), however, means something rather different: to position an object vertically in a place and possibly to support it with something. This would be an unusual position for a corpse.

“Aster” comes from the Greek for “star , and refers to the shape of the head of the flower.  Asters are found in a number of colours, including violet or soft purple, which is the colour here. “Lavender” as a description of its colour (Deutsch and Hofmann) is possible, butbecause lavender is also a type of plant “lavender” and “aster” semantically clash. “Dark lilac-brightened” (Lohner/Corman) is over elaborate and diverts attention from the flower itself.

“Klemmen” means “to jam” or “to stick” in English. “Jam” is the more forceful word, and suggests that the flower cannot be easily removed; “stick” is a more neutral term, and suggests a casual action. “Left him … caught between his teeth” (Lohner/Corman) is not idiomatic English.

Als ich von der Brust aus

unter der Haut

mit einem langen Messer

Zunge und Gaumen herausschnitt,

muß ich sie angestoßen haben, denn sie glitt

in das nebenliegende Gehirn.

When from out of the chest

under the skin

with a nice long blade

I cut his tongue and palate out,

I mush have shaken it loose, for then it slid

into the neighboring brain. (Lohner and Corman)

As I cut out the tongue and the palate,

through the chest

under the skin,

with a long knife,

I must have touched the flower, for it slid

into the brain lying next. (Deutsch)

And as I, working

with a long knife

under the skin from the breast

cut out tongue and gums,

I must have knocked it for it slid

into the adjacent brain. (Ritchie)

As I made the incision up from the chest

with the long blade

under the skin

to cut out tongue and palate,

I must have nudged it because it slipped

into the brain lying adjacent. (Hofmann)

“As” is not a conjunction of time but of manner (closer to “wie”), and as such should be translated as “as” and not as “when”. The distinction is important, because “as” suggests a sense of casualness, almost indifference to a process that is, after all, involving the dissection of a human body. The same effect is achieved by the use of “muß”, which communicates the sense of “I must have”, and “perhaps I did, perhaps I didn’t”.

“Anstoßen” means to “bump” or “nudge”. “Shake it loose” (Lohner and Corman) is too extreme.  “Touch” (Deutsch), “knock” (Ritchie) and “nudge” (Hofmann) are all possible.

“Neighbouring  brain” (Lohner and Corman) for “nebenliegende Gehirn” suggests that the brain belongs to someone else (as in the German “Nachbar”). “Adjacent” is a little too technical, but better. “Brain beside it” is a more natural translation. “Nice” (Lohner and Corman) is used to impart a sense of everyday familiarity to a process that would have been for most readers quite shocking. But it is an addition to the text.

Ich packte sie ihm in die Brusthöhle

zwischen die Holzwolle,

als man zunähte.

I packed it into his chest-cavity

among the wood-shavings,

when they sewed him up. (Lohner and Corman)

I packed it into the cavity of the chest

among the excelsior

as it was sewn up. (Babette Deutsch)

I tucked it into his breast cavity for him

between the cotton wads

as he was being sewn up again.(Ritchie)

I packed it into the thorax

with the excelsior

when he was sewn up. (Hofmann)

“Thorax” and “excelsior” for “Brusthöhle” and “Holzwolle” (Hofmann) are medically accurate, but they are technical terms, derived from Greek and Latin repsectively, and lack the tactile quality of the German “Brusthöhle” (literally “breast cavity”) and “Holzwolle” (literally “wood-wool”). “Wood shavings” (Lohner and Corman) is, however, too tactile, and reminiscent of carpentry rather than a medical procedure.

Ritchie’s “for him” (as a translation of the dative “ihm”) suggests that the dissectionist is doing the dead drayman a favour, and that the latter may, in fact, still be alive. “Zunähen” means “to sew up”, but sewing is a process and hence requires in English the participle form. It is not physically possible to pack a flower into a cavity when that cavity “was sewed up” (Hofmann). Ritchie’s translation, “as he was being sewed up”, is the only correct one.

Trinke dich satt in deiner Vase!

Ruhe sanft,

kleine Aster!

Drink your fill in your own vase!

Rest in peace,

tiny aster! (Lohner and Corman)

Drink yourself full in your vase!

Rest softly,

little aster! (Babette Deutsch)

Drink your fill in your vase!

Rest in peace,

little Aster! (Ritchie)

Drink your fill in your vase!

Rest easy,

little aster (Michael Hofmann).

The flower is exhorted to “Trinke dich satt”, in words that return us to the liquid imagery of the opening lines of the poem and the drowned (“ersoffen”) drayman, as if to establish an affinity between the diseased man and the aster. The phrase is best translated as “drink to your full”. The “own” in “your own vase” (Lohner and Corman) is an addition.

The imperative “Ruhe sanft” is a much more complex statement than it first appears to be. It could be read as the equivalent of “Ruhe im Frieden” (the German equivalent of the Latin “requiescat in pace”, in English “rest in peace”, sometimes shortened to “RIP”) a valedictory phrase used in funerals. This is how both Lohner and Corman, and Ritchie interpret it. But the flower is exhorted to drink to its full, which suggests that in some sense, even as a cut flower, it is still alive. The distinction is important to our understanding of the poem. It is true that the body of the drayman has been dehumanised. He has become a vase for a flower. But flowers for Benn represented life in all its majesty and complexity. They bear, as in the poem “Anemone” (1936), “den Glauben, das Licht” (“the faith, the light”). The reader may not share Benn’s philosophical attitude to floral life, but it is important, if we are to understand the poem, to recognise that this philosophy existed, and that the final celebration of the aster may be meant as positive moment in the poem rather than one of negative irony.

My translation =

A drowned drayman had been hauled onto a table.

Someone or other had stuck a dark-lilac aster

between his teeth.

As I was cutting through his chest

from under his skin with a long blade,

to extract his tongue and palate,

I must have nudged the flower

for it slid into the brain beside it.

As he was being sewn up,

I packed the flower back into his stomach cavity,

between the padding.

Drink to the full in your vase!

Rest peacefully,

little aster!

 

 

II Comparing translation of Untergrundbahn/ In the subway

Untergrundbahn/ In the Subway was published in the Expressionist journal Der Sturm in May of 1913. The context of the poem is Berlin and its newly constructed underground rail system, where trains started to run in 1902 (indeed, Benn’s suburb, Wilmersdorf, boasted one of the first stations in the network). The train motif was a favourite amongst German Expressionist poets. Both Ernst Stadler and Georg Heym had written poems using the train as a symbol for the dynamic but strangely impersonal energies of modern life: Heym in his “Trains” (“Züge”, 1910), and Ernst Stadler in “On Crossing the Rhine Bridge at Cologne by Night” (“Fahrt über die Kölner Rheinbrücke bei Nacht”, 1913). Benn himself had added a poem to the genre with D-Zug/ Express Train, published the year before in August 1912 in the journal Pan.

In Untergrundbahn/In the Subway, the poet (or his poetic persona) is undertaking a journey during which he encounters a woman who arouses erotic feelings.  The poem centres on the complex, indeed problematic response of the man to the woman and these feelings. Friedrich Wilhelm Wodtke sees the poem as “representing the journey both into Hades and into the darkness of the unconscious” (Gottfried Benn: Selected Poems, Oxford, 1970), p. 113. The poem certainly deals with psychological themes (sexual attraction, guilt, repression), but the relationship between these themes is complex, and the conclusion of the poem is by no means negative:

 

Die weichen Schauer. Blütenfrühe.  Wie

aus warmen Fellen kommt es aus den Wäldern.

Ein Rot schwärmt auf.  Das große Blut steigt an.

 

Durch all den Frühling kommt die fremde Frau.

Der Strumpf am Spann ist da. Doch, wo er endet,

ist weit von mir.  Ich schluchze auf der Schwelle:

laues Geblühe, fremde Feuchtigkeiten.

 

Oh, wie ihr Mund die laue Luft verpraßt!

Du Rosenhirn, Meer-Blut, du Götter-Zwielicht,

du Erdenbeet, wie strömen deine Hüften

so kühl den Hauch hervor, in dem du gehst!

 

Dunkel: Nun lebt es unter ihren Kleidern:

nur weißes Tier, gelöst und stummer Duft.

 

Ein armer Hirnhund, schwer mit Gott behangen.

Ich bin der Stirn so satt.  Oh, ein Gerüste

von Blütenkolben löste sanft sie ab

und schwölle mit und schauerte und triefte.

 

So losgelöst.  So müde. Ich will wandern.

Blutlos die Wege. Lieder aus den Gärten.

Schatten und Sintflut. Fernes Glück: ein Sterben

hin in des Meeres erlösend tiefes Blau.

 

I will compare the following translations:

Michael Hamburger, “Subway Train” in Primal Vision: Selected Writings of Gottfried Benn, edited E.B. Ashton (London: Marion Boyars, 1976 [1960]), pp. 225-226.

J.M. Ritchie, “Underground Train” in Gottfried Benn: The Unreconstructed Expressionist (London: Oswald Wolff, 1972), pp. 110-111.

David Paisey, “Underground Train” in Gottfried Benn: Selected Poems and Prose (Manchester: Carcanet, 2013), pp. 24-25.

 

Die weichen Schauer. Blütenfrühe.  Wie

aus warmen Fellen kommt es aus den Wäldern.

Ein Rot schwärmt auf.  Das große Blut steigt an.

Lascivious shivers. Early bloom. As if

from warm furred skins it wafted from the woods.

A red swarms up. The great strong blood ascends. (Hamburger)

The softening shudders. Early flowers. As

from warm pelts it issues from the forests.

A red swarms up. The great blood rises (Ritchie)

The gentle showers. Flowering dawn. As if

from downy furs arriving from the forests.

A red swarms up. Blood’s greatness starts to grow. (Paisey)

The first stanza of Benn’s poem describes the arrival of spring. The season, “Frühling”, is not named until the second stanza but it is anticipated here by a number of key tropes (“Schauer”, “Rot”, “Blut”) that are stated in elliptical style. The tropes are visceral and animalistic, and they already possess erotic overtones. “Fellen” is best translated as “furs”, although technically Ritchie is correct in translating it as “pelts”. Pelts, however, are the skins of dead animals, and to use that term in this context is to lose the vitalistic quality of Benn’s image (which he emphasises through the qualifying adjective “warm”). The furs clothe a mysterious “es”/”it”. This “kommt es aus den Wäldern“, and we should simply translate it as “comes from the forests”. “Wafted” (Hamburger) is only related to smell in English, “issues” (Ritchie) is too technical, and “arriving” lacks the simple impact of the original German. “Kommt” is both more forceful and more anonymous and, because of that, connotes somewhat sinister, threatening even.

The coming of the “es”/ “it” is preceded by two condensed phrases (without verbs – a frequent stylistic ploy in this poem). “Die weichen Schauer” may either mean “soft showers [of rain]” (as in Paisey’s translation), or, if we take its secondary meaning, “Schauder”, Ritchie’s “shudders” is possible and appropriate to the physical sensuality of the poem. There is general agreement that “Blütenfrühe” refers to the early flowering of plant life. Hamburger is alone, with his use of “lascivious” for “weichen”, reading back into the first stanza the sexual imagery of the later stanzas.

Benn concludes with two images that were iconic in his poetry of this period: “rot” and “Blut”, both indicating the presence of the life force. The differences between the translations largely centre on “ansteigt”. Once again the simple “rises” seems the best: “ascends” (Hamburger) possesses religious connotations, whilst “starts to grow” (Paisey) loses the simple force of the German verb.

Durch all den Frühling kommt die fremde Frau.

Der Strumpf am Spann ist da. Doch, wo er endet,

ist weit von mir.  Ich schluchze auf der Schwelle:

laues Geblühe, fremde Feuchtigkeiten.

Through all of Spring the alien woman walks.

The stocking, stretched, is there. But where it ends

is far from me. I sob upon the threshold:

sultry luxuriance, alien moistures teeming. (Hamburger)

Through all this spring there comes a strange woman.

The stockinged instep’s there. But where it ends

is far from me. I sob at the entrance.

Half-hearted flowering, strange dampnesses. (Ritchie)

Through all this springtime comes an unknown woman.

The stocking on her instep. But where it ends

is far from me. I sob there at the threshold:

tepid florescence, unknown dampnesses. (Paisey)

In the second stanza, Benn encounters the “fremde Frau”.  “Alien” (Hamburger) suggests that she has come from an entirely different realm, another planet even, whilst “strange” (Ritchie) suggests that she is “odd”, “peculiar”, “seltsam” in German. What Benn means is that he has never seen her before; she is new to him, as in Paisey’s “unknown”, although that does not communicate the sense of otherness that adheres to the German “fremd”, which is an important theme in the poem. The male notices that her stockings run from her feet up to her groin, and in his erotic speculations he conjures up the odour that this would give off. His “ich schluchze” is a metaphorical sob.

“Laues Geblühe” has given great trouble to translators, who do not seem to quite understand what Benn is referring to here. “Sultry luxuriance” (Hamburger), “half-hearted flowering” (Ritchie) and “tepid florescence” (Ritchie) do not catch the visceral quality of Benn’s lines, which refer to female fertility.  The neologistic “Geblühe” (a concentrated form of “blühen“), in fact, looks back (both phonetically and semantically) to the “Blütenfrühe” of the first stanza, and belongs to a syntagm of (re)productive tropes that Benn will further extend in the poem.

Oh, wie ihr Mund die laue Luft verpraßt!

Du Rosenhirn, Meer-Blut, du Götter-Zwielicht,

du Erdenbeet, wie strömen deine Hüften

so kühl den Hauch hervor, in dem du gehst!

O how her mouth squanders the sultry air!

You brain of roses, sea-blood, goddess-twilight,

you bed of earth, how coolly from your hips

your stride flows out, the glide that is your walking. (Hamburger)

Oh how her mouth squanders the luke-warm air!

You rose-brain, sea-blood, you twilight goddess.

You bed of earth, how coolly your hips stream

forth the passage in which you walk. (Ritchie)

Oh, how her mouth squanders the tepid air!

You rose-brain, sea-blood, twilight of the gods,

you bed of earth, oh how your hips stream forth

the cool precision of the way you walk! (Paisey)

The woman walks through the passageway of the train, in arrogant self sufficiency, her mouth devouring the air. The standard dictionary definition of “verprassen” is indeed “squander” (as all the translators agree). But you can only “squander” something you possess (such as money). I read the “laue Luft’ as being outside the woman, not inside her, and that she is consuming it with abandon.

“Götter-Zwielicht” is best translated literally as Hamburger and Ritchie do. Paisey’s “twilight of the gods” has Wagnerian overtones. We are told that the hips of the woman “strömen … hervor”. It is difficult to imagine, however, how hips can “stream forth” (Ritchie and Paisey), even metaphorically. Hamburger’s “how coolly from your hips/ your stride flows out” adds a verb (“stride”) that is not in the German text, but at least the image makes sense. The woman is walking down the passageway of the train through her own breath (“Hauch”), an image that takes us back to the “Luft”/”air” motif of the opening line of the stanza. The point is that the elemental female embodies all the elements: earth, water, air and (by association with the colour red) fire.

Dunkel: Nun lebt es unter ihren Kleidern:

nur weißes Tier, gelöst und stummer Duft.

Dark: underneath her garments now it lives:

white animal only, loosed, and silent scent. (Hamburger).

Dark: now there is life under her clothes:

All white animal, let loose and voiceless scent. (Ritchie)

Darkness: alive now under what she wears:

animal whiteness, relaxed, dumb fragrances. (Paisey)

In the shortest stanza in the poem, the train enters a tunnel, where all is dark except the life-force that emanates from within the female. The woman’s inmost nature is referred to in animalistic terms (“Tier”); it is the elemental animalism of fecundity, which is (re)productive and attracts the positive epithet of “weiß“/ “white“, associated with flesh and milk. It is a receptive rather than an active potency, and hence “gelöst” is best translated as “relaxed”, as opposed to Ritchie’s more menacing “let loose”.

Ein armer Hirnhund, schwer mit Gott behangen.

Ich bin der Stirn so satt.  Oh, ein Gerüste

von Blütenkolben löste sanft sie ab

und schwölle mit und schauerte und triefte.

A wretched braindog, laden down with God,

My forehead wearies me. Oh that a frame

of clustered blooms would gently take its place,

to swell in unison and stream and shudder. (Hamburger)

A wretched dog-brain, heavy hung with god.

My forehead wearies me. Oh that gently she’d

let loose a battery of blossom thrusts

to join the swelling and shuddering and ooze. (Ritchie)

Pathetic brain-dog, heavy laden with God.

I am so tired of thinking. Oh a lattice

of flower-heads could so softly fill its place,

could swell with me and burst in showers and droplets. (Paisey)

The fifth stanza gives voice to the unhappy consciousness of the male speaking subject, to a vulnerable sensibility that is caught between the will to posses­s and guilt regarding the wish to possess. The stanza contains the most famous line in the poem: the male’s recognition that he is “ein armer Hirnhund, schwer mit Gott behangen”. In its move from description to self-analysis, the line constitutes one of the few semantically unambiguous statements in the poem, and marks a sharp intellectual turning point in its narrative. Desire now elides into introspection, to reveal a mind that is bedevilled by the twin afflictions of consciousness and conscience, for as he tells us: “ich bin der Hirn so satt”. “Hirn” here (as elsewhere in Benn’s poems) stands for the mind. Translating the word as “forehead” (as Hamburger and Ritchie do) turns the affliction into a purely physiological complaint. Paisey’s “I am so tired of thinking” is a paraphrase but it is the more accurate translation.

To escape this affliction, Benn’s poetic persona wishes that a frame (rather than “battery”, Ritchie) of flowers would replace his irksome mind. The image is one of plenitude (hence the syndeton formation “und”). All of the existing translations are possible. Ritchie’s “ooze”, however, suggests a liquid rather than a floral activity.

So losgelöst.  So müde. Ich will wandern.

Blutlos die Wege. Lieder aus den Gärten.

Schatten und Sintflut. Fernes Glück: ein Sterben

hin in des Meeres erlösend tiefes Blau.

So lax, adrift. So tired. I long to wander.

The ways all bloodless. Songs that blow from gardens.

Shadows and Flood. Far joys: a languid dying

down into the ocean’s deep redeeming blue (Hamburger)

Left so loose. So tired, I long to wander.

Bloodless the paths. Melodies from stray gardens.

Shadows and the Flood. Distant joys, a dying

away in the ocean’s freeing deep azure (Ritchie).

So disconnected. So tired. Let me wander.

Bloodless the pathways. Singing from the gardens.

Shadows, the Flood. A distant joy: to die

beneath the sea’s redeeming deep, deep blue. (Paisey).

The final stanza returns to the theme of the journey. The male seeks to undertake a further journey beyond the immediate present, along paths (“Wege’) that will take him into a different reality, which is evoked here in a compound of images that are both pagan (“Schatten”) and Christian (“Sintflut”), and perhaps with “Gärten” both . His desire to wander (although the German “wandern” suggests a more extensive voyage than the English “wander, as in “Wanderjahre”) emerges out of his mental state of being “losgelöst”. “Lösen” is a key trope in the poem: it appears as “gelöst”, “lösend”, “losgelöst”,  and, in the final line of the poem, “erlösend”.  The sense of the verb in English is “solve” or “dissolve”, with the noun “solution” meaning both. Hamburg translates “losgelöst” as “lax”, but this suggests being “careless” or “negligent”; “left so loose” (Ritchie) is not idiomatic; Paisey’s “disconnected” is closer. “Losgelöst” here means freed from or detached from the material world, from the people and things that surround him. It is the precondition for the transcendence that the male is seeking.

The final lines return us to the elliptical style of the first stanza. But here talk is not of spring and the blooming of life but of death, “ein Sterben”. But are these concluding sentiments unambiguously negative? For this is not Hades that we have entered, with its dark caverns, but a brighter world of the “Blau” of the German Romantics (such as Novalis). It is an experience described (once again bringing in the “lösend” motif) as “erlösend”,“redeeming”, a transfiguration, even a “freeing” (Ritchie) of self rather than its loss.

My translation:

In the Subway

The soft shudder. Early bloom. As if

from warm fur, it comes straight from the forest.

Red swarms up. Hard blood rises.

Through full spring the new female comes.

She wears her stockings, stretched.

But there, where they come to an end,

is beyond my reach. I sob at their edge.

Sultry fecundity, alien moistures.

Oh, how her mouth devours the tepid air!

You: rose-mind, sea-blood, twilight-goddess.

You: bed of earth, how your hips flow

so coolly in your breath through which you walk.

Dark. Life is now beneath her dress:

all white animal, relaxed, with mute scent.

I am a wretched dog-brain, heavy hung with God,

sick of the mind. Oh, that a frame

of clustered blooms should gently take its place,

and swell and stream and shudder.

So detached. So tired. I long to wander.

Bloodless those paths. Songs from the gardens.

Shadows and the Flood. A distant joy: a dying away

down into the sea’s redeeming blue.

 

III Comparing translations of D-Zug/ Express Train

 

D-Zug

Braun wie Kognak. Braun wie Laub. Rotbraun.

Malaiengelb.

D-Zug Berlin – Trelleborg und die Ostseebäder. –

 

Fleisch, das nackt ging.

Bis in den Mund gebräunt vom Meer.

Reif gesenkt. Zu griechischem Glück.

In Sichel-Sehnsucht: wie weit der Sommer ist!

Vorletzter Tag des neunten Monats schon! –

 

Stoppel und letzte Mandel lechzt in uns.

Enthaltungen, das Blut, die Müdigkeiten,

Die Georginennähe macht uns wirr. –

 

Männerbraun stürzt sich auf Frauenbraun:

 

Eine Frau ist etwas für eine Nacht.

Und wenn es schön war, noch für die nächste!

O! Und dann wieder dies Bei-sich-selbst-sein!

Diese Stummheiten. Dies Getriebenwerden!

 

Eine Frau ist etwas mit Geruch.

Unsägliches. Stirb hin. Resede.

Darin ist Süden, Hirt und Meer.

An jedem Abhang lehnt ein Glück. –

 

Frauenhellbraun taumelt an Männerdunkelbraun:

 

Halte mich! Du, ich falle!

Ich bin im Nacken so müde.

O dieser fiebernde süße

Letzte Geruch aus den Gärten. –

Benn published D-Zug/Express Train in in the journal Pan in August 1912. It is one of the most important poems that he wrote within the idiom of early Expressionism.  In Express Train Benn moves beyond the moribund world of the poems in the Morgue cycle (which appeared just six months earlier) to embrace a vitalist idiom that celebrates the body and instinctual life (although, as we shall see, the dark daemon Thanatos remains central to Benn’s vision). The poem possesses both great thematic and formal originality. The cynicism of its sexual philosophy is framed within a mythic depiction of womanhood to create a discourse of stark discordance, and this thematic core is formed within syntax and imagery that move the poem forward in a breathless rush of description, exhortation and exultation.

I will look at five translations of Express Train, discussing the poem and the translations stanza by stanza:

Edgar Lohner and Cid Corman, “Express Train” in Wake 12 (January 1954): 145-147.

J.M. Ritchie, “Express Train” in Gottfried Benn: The Unreconstructed Expressionist (London: Oswald Wolff, 1972), pp. 107-108.

Michael Hamburger, “Express Train” in Primal Vision: Selected Writings, edited E.B. Ashton (London: Marion Boyars, 1976), p. 221.

David Paisey, “Express” in Gottfried Benn: Selected Poems and Prose, edited and translated by David Paisey (Manchester: Carcanet Press, 2013), p. 17.

Michael Hofmann, “Express Train” in Gottfried Benn: Impromptus: Selected Poems translated by Michel Hofmann (London: Faber & Faber, 2013), p. 14.

 

Braun wie Kognak. Braun wie Laub. Rotbraun.

Malaiengelb.

D-Zug Berlin – Trelleborg und die Ostseebäder. –

Brown as Cognac. Brown as leaves. Red-brown.

Malayan yellow.

Express train Berlin – Trelleborg and the Baltic sea resorts. (Lohner and Corman)

Brown as brandy. Brown as leaves. Red brown.

Malay yellow.

Berlin-Trelleborg-Express and the east coast strands. (Ritchie)

Brown as Cognac. Brown as leaves. Red-brown.

Malayan yellow.

Express train Berlin – Trelleborg and the Baltic

Sea resorts. (Hamburger)

Brown as Cognac. Brown as leaves. Red-brown. Malayan yellow.

Berlin Express from Trelleborg and the Baltic sea beaches. (Paisey)

Brown. Brandy-brown. Brown as leaves. Leaf-brown. Russet.

Malayan yellow.

Express train Berlin – Trelleborg and the Baltic resorts. (Hofmann)

Express Train is written in vers libre: there is no consistent rhyme or metre, and none of the translators seek to impose these on the poem (although there are differing attempts to translate Benn’s punctuation, particularly his widespread use of the exclamation mark). Where the translators differ is in their various readings of the key terms of the poem, with its often neologistic terminology and startling imagery.

The opening stanza is simple parataxis: there are no verbs. Instead of which, we have a mosaic of colours, which are (presumably) descriptors of the express train that linked Berlin to the Baltic sea resorts in 1912. The key colour is brown, a recurring leit-motif in Benn’s early poetry, connoting the earth, plenitude, but also a certain exotic otherness, and this quality is perhaps what Benn seeks to communicate by his reference to “Malayan yellow“ (a colour found in the coconut palm Dwarfx Tall).

There is general agreement across all four translations. Paisey prefers “sea beaches” to “sea resorts”, but “Bäder“ is the plural of “Bad“, and this clearly means “resort”. Hofmann for some reason changes “cognac” to “brandy” (the latter is less expensive but has the same colour), and prefers “russet” to “red-brown”, but loses thereby two powerful key semes in the poem (blood and earth).

Fleisch, das nackt ging.

Bis in den Mund gebräunt vom Meer.

Reif gesenkt. Zu griechischem Glück.

In Sichel-Sehnsucht: wie weit der Sommer ist!

Vorletzter Tag des neunten Monats schon! –

Flesh, that went naked.

Tanned to the very lips by the sea.

Deeply ripe for Grecian pleasure.

And yearning for the scythe: how long the summer is!

Almost the end of the ninth month already! (Lohner and Corman).

Flesh that went naked.

Tanned even to the mouth by the sea.

Plunged ripe, for Grecian joy.

In sickle-seeking: how far off summer is!

Second last day already of the ninth month. (Ritchie)

Flesh, that went naked.

Tanned to the very lips by the sea.

Deeply ripe for Grecian pleasure.

And yearning for the scythe: how long the summer is!

Almost the end of the ninth month already! (Hamburger)

Flesh that walked naked.

Tanned to the lips by the sea.

Drooping ripely, like Grecian hedonists.

Missing sickles: how long since summer!

And tomorrow the final day of the ninth month! (Paisey)

Flesh that went naked.

Tanned unto the mouth by the sea.

Deeply ripe for Grecian joys.

How far along the summer, in sickle-submissiveness!

Penultimate day of the ninth month! (Hofmann)

The second stanza posits in stark terms the body-culture of the holiday-makers. The reference to Greece points to the Classical sources of this culture, and its promotion of nakedness and its sun worship, which found its most sensual expression in the cult of Eros. Benn however undermines this picture of bucolic plenitude by introducing the image of the sickle (a short single handed cutting instrument used to cut crops), which was a common symbol of death in medieval literature and religious iconography, and associated with the figure of the grim reaper. For as Benn later tells us in the poem  “Palau” (1923), “life  seeks to assert itself/ But life also seeks to go under”.

All translators agree on the terms of the opening lines. Differences emerge in the treatment of “Glück”, which here simply means pleasure, a word that retains the connotations of sensuality as opposed to the broader and perhaps deeper sense of “joys” (Hofmann). Paisey identifies “Glück” with the “hedonists” who are the agents of the experience, but this is perhaps an over-refinement of the text.

“Senken” means “to lower”, hence “deeply” is the appropriate translation of “gesenkt” and not “drooping” (Paisey), which possesses the unfortunate connotations of the failure of the male erection. Benn wishes to communicate that the holiday makers are replete with a life-force that is ready to express itself in sex.

Both Ritchie and Paisey misread the temporal theme of the poem. “Weit” means broad not distant. What the poet is saying is that even though we are now already in September (the ninth month of the year, indeed we can be more exact, it is the 29 September), summer is still with us. It is important to recognise this point because the poem is structured around a tension between plenitude (summer) and the termination of this plenitude in the form of harvesting, which augurs the end  of summer. That tension does not only characterise nature; it also characterises the poetic persona, whose attestations of vital life are throughout formed against signs of exhaustion and even death.

Stoppel und letzte Mandel lechzt in uns.

Enthaltungen, das Blut, die Müdigkeiten,

Die Georginennähe macht uns wirr. –

Stubble and the last sheaves thirst in us.

Unfoldings, the blood, the weariness,

the nearness of Georgian women disturbs us. (Lohner and Corman).

Stubble and the last tonsil thrist within us.

Unfoldings, the blood, the tiredness,

The dahlia’s proximity bemuses us. (Ritchie)

Stubble and the last almond thirst in us.

Unfoldings, the blood, the weariness,

the nearness of dahlias disturbs us. (Hamburger)

Stubble and the last almond thirst in us.

Unfoldings, our blood and tiredness,

the proximity of dahlias confuses us. (Paisey)

Athirst with stubble and last corn-shocks.

Unfurlings, blood, fatigue,

Deranged by dahlia-nearness. (Hofmann)

This stanza introduces a poetic subject, an “uns/us”, who is possibly one of the holiday-makers, who undergo a series of physical sensations, in which expanse (“Entfaltungen”) is combined with weariness.

The translators differ in their reading of two vital images: “Mandel” in the first line, and the flower motif in the third. “Mandel” is surprisingly mistranslated by Hamburger and by Paisey. “Mandel” does not mean in this context “almond”, although that is one of its dictionary meanings; nor does it mean “tonsil” (Ritchie), although this makes more sense. Rather, as Lohner/Corman and Hofmann rightly see it, “Mandel” refers to a gathering of hay in a field, a “stubble” or “shock of corn” (Wodtke, Gottfried Benn: Selected Poems, Oxford University Press, 1970, p. 111).

Lohner and Corman should have known that Benn loved flowers almost as much as he loved women. Botanically the Georgia is called the Rosa laevigata (known in America as the “Cherokee Rose”), but Dahlia is a related species, and this is what Benn would have expected his readers to understand.

The speaking subject in the poem tells us that the nearness of these flowers “macht uns wirr” (presumably through their scent). “Disturbs”, “confuses” and “deranged” are the present translations, all of which are acceptable (although “deranged” suggests mental instability). Ritchie’s “bemuses” suggests an intellectual rather than a mental response. Alternative translations are “clouds our minds” or “befuddles us”.

Männerbraun stürzt sich auf Frauenbraun

Brown-man throws himself on brown-woman (Lohner and Corman)

Male brown hurls itself on female brown (Ritchie)

Man-brown hurls itself upon woman-brown (Hamburger)

Male tan in collision with female tan (Paisey)

Man-brown jumps on woman-brown (Hofmann).

The two one-line stanzas, in which male and female meet in a sexual act, have caused translators many difficulties, both in describing the protagonists in this action and in describing the action itself.

“Männerbraun” clearly refers to a man (although the plural is used) who has been browned, i.e. tanned, by the sun. It is not intended to refer to a man who, because of his ethnic origins, has brown skin (and, of course, this also applies to the woman). This possible confusion can be avoided through the epithet “tanned”.

None of the translators can agree on the nature of the contact. “Stürzt” from “stürzen” means “to plunge” or “plummet”, but “throws”, “hurls” and “jumps” are too forceful and, ultimately, un-erotic, and “collision” (Paisey) sounds like a traffic accident. The sense that Benn wishes to communicate here is of sexual urgency, where the male protagonist is seeking to “rush onto” or to “hurry onto” the object of his desire.

Eine Frau ist etwas für eine Nacht.

Und wenn es schön war, noch für die nächste!

O! Und dann wieder dies Bei-sich-selbst-sein!

Diese Stummheiten. Dies Getriebenwerden!

A woman is something for a night.

And if all goes well, for the next one too!

O! And then again this being by oneself!

These silences! These urgings within! (Lohner and Corman).

A woman’s only for a one night stand,

and if all went well, perhaps for one more!

Ah! and then the being-by-yourself again!

These mutenesses! This being driven on! (Ritchie)

A woman is something for a night.

And if it was good, for the next night too!

Oh, and then again this being by oneself!

These silences! This letting oneself drift! (Hamburger)

A woman is good for one night.

And if went well, for the next one too!

O! and then being alone again!

These silences! This sense of being driven! (Paisey)

A woman is something for a night.

And if you enjoyed it, then for the next one too!

Oh! And then the return to one’s own care.

The not-speaking! The urges! (Hofmann).

“Bei-sich-selbst-sein!” is a neologistic formation (it does not appear in any dictionaries). Benn is wishing to describe an existential state, almost in the fashion of the philosophy of Martin Heidegger (the use of hyphens is a further parallel). The sense of isolation or loneliness is reinforced by the reflexive particle, which is difficult to translate in English. None of the present translations quite communicate the intensity of this state. “Being-by-oneself-alone” is a possible alternative.

“Diese Stummheiten” are more than silences. They form an existential mood that corresponds to “Being-by-oneself-alone”. Benn deepens this dumbness by putting it in the unusual plural form. Ritchie’s “mutenesses” is ungainly but an accurate translation. If “Dummheiten“ are static, “dies Getriebenwerden” is their kinetic equivalent: a propulsion forward, the state of being-driven by anonymous forces.

Eine Frau ist etwas mit Geruch.

Unsägliches. Stirb hin. Resede.

Darin ist Süden, Hirt und Meer.

An jedem Abhang lehnt ein Glück. –

A woman is something with fragrance.

Unspeakable! Be still! Mignionette.

There is the south, the shepheard and the sea.

Upon each slope a pleasure leans. (Lohner and Corman).

A woman is something with a smell.

Ineffable! Die away! Mignonette.

There lies the South, shepherd and seas.

Joy leans on every declivity. (Ritchie)

A woman is something with fragrance.

Unspeakable! Dissolve. Reseda.

In her the south, shepherd and sea.

On every slope a pleasure leans. (Hamburger)

A woman is something with fragrance.

Inexpressible! Pass away! Mignionette.

Enclosing the South, shepherds and sea.

Upon every slope a happiness leans. (Paisey)

A woman is something with a smell.

Ineffable! To die for! Mignionette.

Shepherd, sea, and South.

On every declivity a bliss (Hofmann).

There is no point in prettifying “Geruch” by calling it “fragrance”. “Geruch” is the normal German word for “smell”. Once again, stark physicality serves to qualify the mythic (and hence elevating) framework of the poem. But this physicality is undermined by the return of the death motif in “Stirb hin”, which in its infinitive form (“hinsterben”) means to “pass away”. Benn uses it in the rare imperative form. “Dissolve” and “pass away” are possible, but “be still” and to “die for” do not seem quite right. “Die away” is my preferred an alternative.

Frauenhellbraun taumelt an Männerdunkelbraun:

Light-brown-woman swoons on dark-brown-man: (Lohner and Corman).

Female light brown falls frenzied on male dark brown: (Ritchie)

Woman-light-brown reels towards man-dark-brown: (Hamburger)

Female light brown staggers against male dark brown: (Paisey)

Woman-brown drapes itself on man-brown (Hofmann).

Once again, we have the same problem of translating the active verb of this short stanza. This time, it is the female who takes the initiative, although “taumelt” seems a less decisive action that “stürzt”. “Taumeln” means to be mentally carried away by something, but “frenzied” suggests a total lack of self control, “reels” suggests a boxing contest, “stagger” intoxication, and “drapes” the formal ceremony of dressing a statue. “Swoons” (in spite of its romantic overtones) is possibly the best attempt.

Halte mich! Du, ich falle!

Ich bin im Nacken so müde.

O dieser fiebernde süße

Letzte Geruch aus den Gärten. –

Hold me tight! Dear, I fall!

I am so weary at the neck.

O, this feverish sweet

Last fragrance of the gardens. (Lohner and Corman).

Hold me! Darling, I’m falling!

My neck has grown so weary.

Oh, this sweet feverseething

last small from the gardens. (Ritchie)

Hold me, dear, I‘m falling.

I‘m so weary at the neck.

Oh, this feverish sweet

Last fragrance blown from the gardens. (Hamburger)

Hold me, love! I‘m falling!

My back is so exhausted.

Oh, this feverish final

sweet fragrance from the gardens. (Paisey)

Hold me! I‘m falling!

My neck is so weary.

Oh, the sweet last

scent from the gardens. (Hofmann).

For the first time in the poem, the poetic subject addresses another subject, invoking it grammatically through the familiar form of the second person singular, “du” (“you”). “Du” is an intimate form of address unlike the more impersonal “Sie”, and for that reason a number of translators have expanded the simple pronoun into a noun with an addressee such as “darling”, “dear” or “love”. This is to assume that the poetic voice is addressing a loved-one, but the text gives us no reason to believe that this is the case. The “du” may simply be a friend or even the reader. On the other hand, the pronoun cannot simply be ignored as Hofmann does. I suggest simply translating it as “you”.

Translating “Ich bin im Nacken so müde” is the other major issue of this stanza. The dictionary defines “Nacken” as “neck” or more specifically “nape of the neck”. But it is likely that Benn is using “Nacken” metonymically to refer to another part of the body, the brain. This reading is supported by a similar line in the poem “Untergrundbahn” (“In the Subway”) published the following year, which reads “Ich bin ein armer Hirnhund, schwer mit Gott behangen/ Ich bin der Stirn so satt” (“I am a wretched dog-brain, heavy hung with God, sick of the mind”), where “Stirn” (forehead”) is clearly meant to be read as “mind”, and this is perhaps how it can be best translated in the context of this poem.

 

My translation:

Brown as cognac. Brown as leaves.  Redbrown.

Malayan yellow.

The Express train Berlin – Trelleborg and the Baltic sea resorts.

Flesh that went naked,

and tanned to the lips by the sea.

Fully ripe. For Grecian pleasure.

And yearning for the scythe: a never-ending summer!

And already almost the last day of the ninth month!

Stubble and the last shocks of hay thirst in us.

Unfoldings, the blood, the weariness.

The presence of dahlias clouds the mind.

Sun-browned manhood hurries onto sun-browned womanhood.

A woman is something for a night.

And if it was good, perhaps for a second!

But then, oh, again this being by oneself!

These silences! This incessant propulsion!

A woman is something with a smell.

Ineffable. Die away. Mignonette.

She contains the South, the shepherd and the sea.

On each slope a pleasure lies.

Lightly-tanned woman swoons onto darkly-tanned male.

Hold me, you! I am falling.

In my head, I am so weary.

Oh, this feverish sweet

final smell from the gardens.

 

IV Comparing translations of Karyatide/Caryatid

Benn’s poem “Karyatide/Caryatid” was published in March 1916 in Die weissen Blättern.  The following are the standard translations:

Edgar Lohner and Cid Corman, “Caryatid” in Origin VII (1952?), p. 144.

Michael Hamburger, “Caryatid” in Primal Vision: Selected Writings, edited E.B. Ashton (London: Marion Boyars, 1976), pp. 233-234.

David Paisey, “Caryatid” in Gottfried Benn: Selected Poems and Prose, edited and translated by David Paisey (Manchester: Carcanet Press, 2013), p. 43.

Michael Hofmann, “Caryatid” in Gottfried Benn: Impromptus: Selected Poems translated by Michel Hofmann (London: Faber & Faber, 2013), p. 18.

 

Karyatide

Entrücke dich dem Stein! Zerbirst

Die Höhle, die dich knechtet! Rausche

Doch in die Flur, verhöhne die Gesimse – –:

Sieh: durch den Bart des trunkenen Silen

Aus seinem ewig überrauschten

Lauten einmaligen durchdröhnten Blut

Träuft Wein in seine Scham!

 

Bespei die Säulensucht: toderschlagene

Greisige Hände bebten sie

Verhangnen Himmeln zu. Stürze

Die Tempel vor die Sehnsucht deines Knies,

In dem der Tanz begehrt.

 

Breite dich hin. Zerblühe dich. O, blute

Dein weiches Beet aus großen Wunden hin:

Sieh, Venus mit den Tauben gürtet

Sich Rosen um der Hüften Liebestor –

Sieh’ dieses Sommers letzten blauen Hauch

Auf Astermeeren an die fernen

Baumbraunen Ufer treiben, tagen

Sieh’ diese letzte Glück-Lügenstunde

Unserer Südlichkeit,

Hochgewölbt.

In “Karyatide/Caryatid”, Benn draws upon a series of major themes from his Attic vison to communicate a sense of heightened subjectivity that is fully within the Expressionist idiom of liberation and self-liberation. The aggressive, almost heroic mode of the poem is propelled by its dynamic form: its short, violent imperatives, the frequent enjambments, and the use of caesuras and colons, all of which communicate a restless energy. In Caryatid, Benn, following Nietzsche, celebrates the Dionysian principle over the Apollonian. The latter is represented by the stone, sockets and cornices that support the statues of the Caryatids (so named from the Laconian priestesses of Artemis enslaved by the Athenians, which were represented on the Erechtheum on the Acropolis). The solidity of the structure of the temple is seen as a form of repression, something that holds in bondage the spirit. The poet exhorts the caryatid to break free:

Entrücke dich dem Stein! Zerbirst

Die Höhle, die dich knechtet! Rausche

Doch in die Flur, verhöhne die Gesimse – –:

Sieh: durch den Bart des trunkenen Silen

Aus seinem ewig überrauschten

Lauten einmaligen durchdröhnten Blut

Träuft Wein in seine Scham.

Abduct yourself from stone! Explode

the cavern that subjects you! Rush

upon the fields! Deride the pediments –

peer through the beard of drunken wild Silenus

on his ever overstimulating

loud unique songdrenched blood,

the wine wetting his shame! (Corman and Lohner)

Leave stone behind, rise higher! Burst

the socket that enslaves you! Rush

out to the meadows! Mock the cornices –

look at the drunk Silenus: through his beard

from his loud blood forever drowned in roars,

shivered by alien music and unique,

wine drips into his sex! (Hamburger)

Abstract yourself from stone! Explode

the cavern that enslaves you! Rush

away into fields! Despise the entablature –

look, through the beard of drunken Silenus

from his eternally over-addicted

loud, unmatched and roaring blood

wine drips into his crotch! (Paisey)

Renege on the rock! Smash

The oppressor cave! Sashay

Out on to the floor! Scorn the cornices –

See, from the beard of drunk Silenus,

From the unique uproar of his blood,

The wine dribbles into his genitals! (Hofmann)

The poem begins with an assertive exhortation: the caryatid should dislodge itself from its encasement (as a pillar on the Erechtheum temple). “Entrücken“ means to “move away“ or “carry away“ (depending whether it is used transitively or intransitively). Hamburger’s translation is the most literal (although his insertion of “rise higher“ is not found in the text), but “abduct” (Corman and Lohner)  and “renege” (Hofmann) do not communicate the imperative of movement. “Höhle” presents a further problem. Translating the word requires the reader to understand exactly how the caryatids are being held in captivity. Is it by a structure or a space? Most translators assume the latter, and translate it as “cavern””or “cave”, but neither term can really be applied to the Erechtheum. It is also difficult to see how a space can be smashed or exploded. Although the word may no longer be current in this fashion, “Höhle” has been used to mean a “Hohlraum in Gestein” (Wahrig Deutsches Wörterbuch (1973), p. 1811), in other words, it is a “socket”, as Hamburger rightly has it. “Socket is also in accordance with the overall thematic of the poem, which extols movement against structure, energy against stasis.

The caryatid is exhorted to free itself from its confinement and go into the “meadows“ (but not “floor“, pace Hofmann), deriidng the pediments that form a structural part of its captivity. She should follow the example of Silenus, the legendary tutor of Dionysus, who lived in a state of perpetual drunkeness, although he was also famous for his wisdom. Silenus is descibed in the text through an extended self-embedding clause, which is very difficult to translate into English, where the individual sections would normally be broken up into subordinating clauses. The passage focusses on two aspects of Silenus: the wine that drips from his beard into his (presumably naked) genitals, and the sounds that his highly intoxicated blood makes in this process (or perhaps in general). Corman and Lohner intepret these sounds as a form of music, as does Hamburger, but “lauten“ simply means “loud“. The sound comes from “durchdröhnten“, which refers to the roaring that his over-intoxicated blood makes. It is “einmalig“ because Silenus is unique in his capacity for drinking. Silenus‘ blood is descibed as “überrauschten“. This has caused translating problems for all. “Overstimulating“ (Corman and Lohner) and “over-addicted“ (Paisey) make akward sense, but “shivered“ (Hamburger) does not. Hofmann resolves the issue by compressing “überrauschten“ and “durchdröhnten“ into “uproar“, but this is to lose something of the breathless nature of the text, the restless syntax of which fully correpsonds to the excessiveness of Silenus as a character. The term “überrauschten“ is important, because its stem is “Rausch“ which, in Benn’s personal philosophy, meant not simply intoxication but also elation, inspiration and a capacity to transfigure reality.

The wine that Silenus drinks drips from his beard down into his naked genitlia, “Scham”. This cannot be translated as “shame” ( pace Corner and Lohner), but “crotch” (Paisey) technically refers to the part of the body were the legs meet just under the sexual organs, and is normally used with regard to clothing such as trousers. “Sex” (Hamburger) or simply “genitals” (Hofmann) are preferable.

Bespei die Säulensucht: toderschlagene

Greisige Hände bebten sie

Verhangnen Himmeln zu. Stürze

Die Tempel vor die Sehnsucht deines Knies,

In dem der Tanz begehrt.

Spit on this passion for pillars: the death-dealing

Hoary hands trembled them

to overhanging heaven. Cast down

the temples at the yearning of your knees,

In which the dance appeals! (Corman and Lohner)

Spit on this column mania: done to death

mere senile hands they trembled

towards cloud-covered heavens. Tear down

the temples to the longing of your knee

which prisoned dance desires! (Hamburger)

Spit on the mania for columns: death-slain

old men’s hands quivered them

towards darkling skies. Smash down

temples from the longing in your knees

Where dancing is urgent! (Paisey)

Spit on the obsession with pillars:

Ancient rheumatic hands quake toward

Grey skies. Bring down the temple

By the yearning of your knees

Twitching with dance. (Hofmann)

The theme of the poem (and of this stanza, in particular) is that of gender and generational conflict: old male versus young female. The caryatid is advised to spit on the obsession (“passion” is too positive a word) with columns that characterised the building style of Attic Greece. The columns have been put up by aged hands. “Toderschlagen” is a neologism, and has caused problems to the translators. “Death-dealing” (Corman and Lohner) and “death-slain” (Paisey), which put the emphasis on “tod-”, are both too drastic and too literal. The sense of the word in this context is closer to “moribund”, meaning that the hands are (and represent a culture that is) decrepit and superannuated, and has lost contact with the vital sources of life. (We do not, however, pace Hofmann, know if the hands are “rheumatic”). Hamburger’s “done to death” is perhaps the most appropriate translation. These aged hands trembled as they lifted the pillars into overcast skies (but not “heaven” or “heavens”, which is too positive). The caryatid is exhorted to pull down the temple, expressing the yearning of its limbs (to translate “Knies” literally is to risk a comic effect) for dance. Once again, movement is extolled over structure, and the body over mere (and perhaps even over phallic) form.

The final stanza also begins with an imperative:

Breite dich hin. Zerblühe dich. O, blute

Dein weiches Beet aus großen Wunden hin:

Sieh, Venus mit den Tauben gürtet

Sich Rosen um der Hüften Liebestor –

Sieh’ dieses Sommers letzten blauen Hauch

Auf Astermeeren an die fernen

Baumbraunen Ufer treiben, tagen

Sieh’ diese letzte Glück-Lügenstunde

Unserer Südlichkeit,

Hochgewölbt.

Spread yourself out, flame out in blossom, let

Your tender soil flow from your great wound:

watch Venus of the turtles twine

roses round the love-gate of her thighs –

watch as the summer’s closing blue breath

rides on seas of aster toward

the distant tree-brown shores; and see

this last moment of happy lies light

our own Southern sky

arched above (Corman and Lohner)

Spread out your limbs, oh, bloom to death

and bleed

your gentle bed away through gaping wounds:

Look, Venus with her doves is twining

roses around the love-gate of her hips –

look how the summer’s last and hazy blue

drifts over deas of asters to the far

fall-foliage-cloured shores; and look:

now dawns the last glad lying hour

of our southerness

vaulted sky. (Hamburger)

Spread out your limbs, shed blossoms, oh, bleed

Away your gentle bed from splendid wounds: look, dove-circled Venus is winding

Roses around her hips‘ threshold of love –

Look, this summer’s last blue breath of love

floats across aster seas to distant

tree-brown shores; dawning

see this last lying hour of happiness,

our meridian,

arched on high. (Paisey)

Spill, spread, unpetal, bleed

Your soft flowers through great wounds.

Venus with her doves

Girds her loins with roses –

See the summer’s last puff of blue

Drift on seas of asters to distant

Tree-brown coasts; see

This final hour of our mendacious

Southern happiness

Held aloft (Hofmann).

The imperative “breite dich hin” (although it does not but should have an exclamation mark) represents another use of the “hin” prefix. It literally translates as “spread yourself away”, but Hamburger’s inclusion of “limbs” is an appropriate extension of its meaning (and it looks back to the dance motif of the previous stanza). “Zerblühen”, however, does not mean “bloom to death”. Although the “zer-“ prefix indicates a process of dispersal, this is not intended to be read in a negative fashion but rather as something positive, a dissemination of the life force of the flower. “Spread, unpetal” is Hofmann’s eloquent description. “Beet” is technically a flower or vegetable bed, but Benn uses it here as an image of fecundity, perhaps the womb. It is possible that Benn is describing menstruation, something that would connect with the image of the “Liebestor” (the vulva) in the subsequent lines.

The second part of the stanza moves from the corporeal into the ethereal, a hazy realm that Benn invokes through the iconic colour blue (a symbol for transcendence in German Romanticism), which is linked to “Hauch” (not “puff” but breath, possibly connoting “inspiration”), and the Aster flower, a private symbol in Benn’s iconography, whose origins lie in the Greek word for star. The poem reaches its conclusion on a note of consummation, with a serene Aegean vision (“unserer Südlichkeit”) of a vaulted sky. The orgiastic excesses described earlier in the poem have been cathartically purged. The final words of the poem literally read as “the last blissful-lying hour of our Southerness [a place of completion, of a unity between mind and body] elevated high”. Here, the poet allies himself with Nietzsche, who spoke in The Birth of Tragedy of art as a necessary lie. The Southern vision, too, is a pure fabrication, but it is one that provides a moment of transcendence.

 

My translation:

Free yourself from stone! Burst apart

those sockets that enslave you! Rage

into the meadows! Mock the cornices –

Look at the drunken Silenus: through his beard,

from the singular sounds of his forever intoxicated blood,

wine drips into his manhood!

Spit on this obsession with columns! Senile hands,

done to death, lifted them trembling towards sullen skies.

Pull down the temples before the desire of your limbs,

which crave to dance.

Choose expanse! Bloom to excess! Oh, let

your soft meadow bleed from deep wounds.

Look: Venus with her doves

garlands roses around the love-gate of her hips –

And look too, how this summer’s last blue breath

is drifting on seas of asters

towards the distant tree-brown shore.

And see this final hour of blissful deception:

our southern vision

in the vaulted sky.

 

V Einsamer nie  / Never more lonely

Einsamer nie / Never more lonely – was first published in Benn’s Selected Poems (Ausgewählte Gedichte) in 1936. The poem belongs to a body of poetry that Benn wrote while he was a doctor in a reserve division of the German army after 1934, and living effectively in a state of inner emigration from life in the Third Reich. Never more lonely – gives voice to the restrained pathos of a lyrical subject (the observing self) addressing an anonymous “du”/ “you” (the experiencing self), which is signalled as “deiner,” “dir” or “du”). These are the forms in which loneliness confronts itself:

Einsamer nie als im August:

Erfüllungsstunde – im Gelände

die roten und die goldenen Brände,

doch wo ist deiner Gärten Lust?

 

Die Seen hell, die Himmel weich,

die Äcker rein und glänzen leise,

doch wo sind Sieg und Siegsbeweise

aus dem von dir vertretenen Reich?

 

Wo alles sich durch Glück beweist

und tauscht den Blick und tauscht die Ringe

im Weingeruch, im Rausch der Dinge –:

dienst du dem Gegenglück, dem Geist.

 

I will consider the following translations:

E.B. Ashton, “Never More Lonely –” in Primal Vision: Selected Writings of Gottfried Benn, edited E.B. Ashton (London: Marion Boyars, 1976 [1960]), p. 265.

David Paisey, “The Loneliest Time” in Gottfried Benn: Selected Poems and Prose edited and translated by David Paisey (Manchester: Carcanet, 2013), p. 161.

Michael Hofmann, “Never Lonelier” in Gottfried Benn: Impromptus: Selected Poems translated by Michel Hofmann (London: Faber & Faber, 2013), p. 22.

 

Einsamer nie als im August:

Erfüllungsstunde – im Gelände

die roten und die goldenen Brände,

doch wo ist deiner Gärten Lust?

Never more lonely than in August: ‘tis

a time of plenitude – of lands

ablaze with red and golden brands  –

and yet, where is your garden’s bliss? (Ashton)

August is the loneliest time,

hour of fulfilment – in country havens

red and golden conflagrations,

your gardens, though, are anodyne (Paisey)

Never lonelier than in August:

Hour of plenitude – the countryside

Waving with red and golden tassels,

But where is your pleasure garden? (Hofmann).

It is the very simplicity of Benn’s poem that causes the most problems for its translators, a number of whom feel the need to supplement Benn’s sparse idiom with extra words. But Benn’s stark language needs to be retained, because while the poem is indisputably about loneliness, the text is without any emotional self-indulgence or self-pity.  Its opening words, “Einsamer nie als im August”, are variously translated as “Never more lonely than in August” (Ashton); ”August is the loneliest time” (Paisey), ”Never lonelier than in August” (Hofmann). All are possible, although Paisey’s translation is a transference, which moves the loneliness onto the month. But as it soon becomes clear in the poem it is not August that is lonely (indeed, it is happily resplendent in its nature), but the poet.

It is tempting in such a short poem to retain the rhyme (abba) of the German original, as Ashton and Paisey do. But this is a problematic course of action, because it often compels the translator to change the sense of a word so that it fits in with the required rhyme. “Gelände” are flat lands or terrain. Paisey’s need to ryhme forces him to use “havens” to rhyme with “conflagration” (which is, in fact, a half-rhyme), but “haven” means a place of retreat or safety (“Zufluchtsort” in German) and this is not appropriate here. In the poem “Gelände” rhymes with “Brände”. There is indeed an English word “Brand”, meaning a “charred log” or “stick” (from the Old English “brant”), and it is understandable why Ashton would want to use it. But the English word gives no sense of “fire” or “blaze”, and hence loses the important colour associations. “Conflagrations” (Paisey) is possible, although a “conflagration” is a serious and destructive fire that destroys. Hofmann’s “golden tassels” (a tassel being a “tuft of loosely hanging threads”, OED) is an eloquent image but loses the sense of fire entirely.

The poet (or, at least, his persona) concludes this stanza by asking “wo ist deiner Gärten Lust?”. Nature is resplendent at this time of year (August), but his personal gardens (a metaphor for his feelings and inner life) do not share in this splendour. All the translators agree upon “garden” or “gardens”, but “Lust” causes problems. In German “Lust” means “desire” or “pleasure” (but not sexual “lust”, which is its only meaning in modern English). Paisey, stressing the absence of “Lust”, calls the gardens “anodyne”, so that it may rhyme with “time”. But “anodyne” means “soothing or harmless”, and this is not necessarily the opposite of “Lust”. Paisey also turns a question into a statement, which loses the self-address of the poetic voice and its sense of quizzicality. It is understandable why Hofmann should choose “pleasure garden”, but this is a quite specific type of garden, open to the public and providing recreation and entertainment. Ashton’s simple “where is your garden’s bliss? ” is probably the best translation.

Die Seen hell, die Himmel weich,

die Äcker rein und glänzen leise,

doch wo sind Sieg und Siegsbeweise

aus dem von dir vertretenen Reich?

Lakes shine, soft is the heavens‘ roof,

the fields are clean and gently lambent,

yet in the  realm you represent,

where is the triumph and the proof? (Ashton)

The lakes are bright, the skies are pale,

the fields are pure and softly glitter,

but why do the deeds and proofs of a victor

in the kingdom that you stood for fail? (Paisey)

Soft skies and sparkling lakes,

The healthy sheen of fields,

But where is the pomp and display

Of the empire you represent? (Hoffmann).

The second stanza continues with the opposition introduced in the first stanza between the splendour of external nature and the lack of that splendour in the poet’s life. “Die Seen hell, die Himmel weich” presents few problems to the translators, although “pale” (Paisey), a standard description of skies (and the sort of familiar epithet that Benn would have avoided), is not quite correct, but is presumably chosen to rhyme with “fail”.

Ashton’s “the heavens’ roof” is a charming image but somewhat over poetic, and it too seems to have been chosen because of its rhyme with “proof”. Ashton’s translation of “die Äcker rein” as “fields are clean” is, however, a strange image that conjures up the possibility that fields might, at other times, be thought of as “dirty”, although his description of them as “lambent” (“softly radiant”, OED) is very successful. “Rein” simply means “pure” (as Paisey recognises) in English, although Hofmann’s “healthy sheen” is also very effective.

The concluding lines of the stanza are difficult to translate. “Sieg” means “victory” (and the term is redolent of the victory that the Nazi movement claimed to have achieved in the Weimar Republic). “Beweis” does indeed mean “proof” or “evidence” (Ashton and Paisey) in English, but the word is found normally in a legal or scientific context (as is “Beweis” is in German). What Benn is saying is that, whilst he can see the evidence of the consummation of August in its wonderful displays of nature, he has no evidence (confirmation, perhaps) of anything wonderful in his life. “Pomp and display” (Hofmann) is a paraphrase of Benn’s lines, but they represent a highly successful solution to the problem of translating “Beweis”. Paisey’s “but why do the deeds and proofs of a victor/ in the kingdom that you stood for fail? ” is also an attempt to avoid the abstract nature of “Beweis”, but it is a long and convoluted phrase. “Reich” does translate in English as “empire” (Hofmann), but it is normally found in a geopolitical, military or administrative context (as in, for example, the “Roman Empire”, which comes from the Latin word “imperium”). “Kingdom” (Paisey) is possible but possesses religious connotations (which may or may not be what Benn intends).  “Realm” (Ashton) is more neutral and probably more appropriate.

Wo alles sich durch Glück beweist

und tauscht den Blick und tauscht die Ringe

im Weingeruch, im Rausch der Dinge -:

dienst du dem Gegenglück, dem Geist.

Where luck alone proves all mankind

and glances are exchanged and rings

in wine smell, in the lust of things:

you serve the counter-luck – the Mind. (Ashton)

While joy for achievement is unconfined

in exchange of glances and rings,

in wine’s bouquet, delirious things -:

you serve the counter-joy, the mind. (Paisey).

Everything lays claim to happiness,

Swaps glances, swaps rings

In wine-breath, in the intoxication of things;

You serve the counter-happiness, the intellect. (Hofmann)

The poet has been banished from the community; or, at least, he feels that he no longer belongs to that world, which he typifies through the simple referent, “alles”. This may be the community of the Third Reich, (hence the reference to “Reich“ in the second stanza), but the ambit of the poem is a broader one and the “alles” may well be simply the community of ordinary life, to which the artist – in the ethos of Modernist thinking – does not belong.  Ashton’s “all mankind” is an addition.

“Glück” does not mean “luck” here (Ashton). “Joy” (Paisey) is more intense than “happiness” (Hofmann), but both are effective translations.  Paisey’s “joy for achievement” is possible but it involves a specific reading of the text that may or may not be appropriate. Ashton’s “wine smell” for “Weingeruch” is too negative, implying an unpleasant odour. Paisey’s “bouquet of wine” is more positive, and is a conventional term in the context of wine appreciation. But “wine-breath” (Hofmann), which can only refer to the breath of an individual, is problematic. The simple “smell of wine“ might be better.

The poet says that he can no longer participate in (or is affected by) the “Rausch der Dinge”. “Rausch” is a recurring trope in Benn’s poetry. It a state of elation, brought about by a heightened contact with the world.  “Intoxication” (Hofmann) in English is normally associated with alcohol, but that may well be a convincing translation in association with “Weingeruch”. I think, however, that Benn is referring to something deeper, a mental state, that is greater than “intoxication” in the ordinary sense of the word. “Lust of things” (Ashton) is, however, not what Benn intends, nor is “delirious things” (Paisey). “Things”, however, is correct. Benn is referring to things of the world or worldly things (and there may even be an echo from the Bible, from I John 2: 15, here). They are the activities that constitute the joys and physical rewards of living (the “Rausch”), but which nevertheless distract us from the ultimate goal of life: the cultivation of “Geist”. “Intellect” (Hofmann) is a possible translation, but “intellect” possesses tones of rationality and calculation that Benn would have avoided. “Geist” in German encompasses both the “spirit” and the “mind” (Ashton and Paisey). Both are faculties that can transport us beyond the world, the former perhaps in a more absolute way than the latter.

My translation

Never more lonely

Never more lonely than in August:

hour of fulfilment -, on the land,

it glows red and gold.

But in your gardens where is the pleasure?

The lakes shimmer, the sky is smooth,

the fields are bright and softly glow.

But where is the victory and the tokens of victory

in the realm that you represent?

Where everything brings itself to proof through joy,

exchanging glances, exchanging rings,

in the smell of wine, in the ecstasy of things -:

you serve the counter joy: the spirit.

 

VI Comparing translations of Statische Gedichte/ Static poems

Statische Gedichte/ Static Poems was published by the Arche Verlag, Zurich, in 1948 as the final poem in a volume of verse of the same name. In a letter written to his friend F.W. Oelze in January 1945, Benn indicated that with his “static” poems he had reached a new stage in his poetic development: “what I really wanted to do was bring new themes, new realities into the insipid state of the German lyric, and get away from mood and sentiment to objects, and to fill these with their own image” (Oelze Briefe vol.1, pp. 377–8). The principle of the “static” represented for Benn a new way of grasping the world, which involved removing all subjective sentiment in favour of a style that allowed objects to appear in their own right, without authorial qualification. The poem Static Poems reads almost as a manifesto of this new aesthetic:

Entwicklungsfremdheit

ist die Tiefe des Weisen,

Kinder und Kindeskinder

beunruhigen ihn nicht,

dringen nicht in ihn ein.

 

Richtungen vertreten

Handeln,

Zu- und Abreisen

ist das Zeichen einer Welt,

die nicht klar sieht.

Vor meinem Fenster,

– sagt der Weise, –

liegt ein Tal,

darin sammeln sich die Schatten,

zwei Pappeln säumen einen Weg,

du weißt, – wohin.

 

Perspektivismus

ist ein anderes Wort für seine Statik:

Linien anlegen,

sie weiterführen

nach Rankengesetz, –

Ranken sprühen, –

auch Schwärme, Krähen,

auswerfen in Winterrot von Frühhimmel,

 

dann sinkenlassen –

Du weißt – für wen.

 

I will consider the following translations:

Simona Draghici, “Static Poems”, in Gottfried Benn: Poems, 1937-1947, translated with an Introduction by Simona Draghici (Washington DC: Plutarch Press, 1991), p. 103.

David Paisey, “Static Poems”, in Gottfried Benn: Selected Poems and Prose edited and translated by David Paisey (Manchester: Carcanet, 2013), p. 225.

Michael Hofmann, “Static Poems” in Gottfried Benn: Impromptus: Selected Poems translated by Michel Hofmann (London: Faber & Faber, 2013), p. 45.

 

Entwicklungsfremdheit

ist die Tiefe des Weisen,

Kinder und Kindeskinder

beunruhigen ihn nicht,

dringen nicht in ihn ein.

Indifference to evolution

is the depth of the sage,

children and the children of children

do not trouble him,

do not press on him either. (Draghici)

Development aversion

is a wise man’s depth.

Children and childrens children

do not disturb him,

do not penetrate him. (Paisey)

Aversion to progress

is profundity in the wise man,

children and grandchildren

don’t bother him,

don’t alarm him. (Hofmann)

In the same letter to Peter Schifferli quoted above, Benn explained the philosophy behind the notion of “static”: “it is a concept that not only reflects my inner aesthetic and moral condition; it also corresponds to the formal method of my poems, and more specifically to the construction of the material that has found a still centre within itself. More pointedly it contains the anti-dynamic.” And he went on, “it means naturally a certain skepticism to­wards development, and it means also resignation. It is anti-Faustian” (See Gottfried Benn: Dichter über ihre Dichtungen, ed. Edgar Lohner, pp. 92–93).

This anti-Faustian principle (by which Benn means a rejection of the desire for expansion and power) is stated in the very first word of the poem, “Entwicklungsfremdheit”.  “Entwicklung” in German means “development”, as Paisey rightly translates it.  But both Draghici and Hofmann are also correct in surmising that this is not a neutral term in Benn’s philosophy, that what Benn is thinking of is something both more specific and more negative, as in “Evolution” (Draghici) or “Progress” (Hofmann).  The former is a Darwinian term meaning the evolving improvement of the species; the latter belongs to the liberal-ameliorist philosophy of historical progress, as it found expression in the writings of French and English theorists of the nineteenth century. Benn rejected both concepts, believing that neither registers the tragedy of life, its dark irrational centre of violence and injustice, the primitive visage of what is human.

“Fremdheit” can be translated as “indifference” (Draghici) or “aversion” (Hofmann). Paisey’s “development aversion” (Paisey) is a compound noun, which is a formation best suited to technical discourses.  “Alienation” or “estrangement” are perhaps more accurate. The sense is that (concepts of) progress and evolution are foreign to the wise man: he adopts a philosophical position beyond them. This is his “depth”, his wisdom.

We are told that “Kinder und Kindeskinder/ beruhigen ihn nicht,/ dringen nicht in ihn ein”. “Beunruhigen” means “to alarm” or “disturb” in English. “Trouble” (Draghici), “disturb” (Paisey) and “bother” (Hofmann) are all possible, although “bother” is a little weak, suggesting mere annoyance.  “Eindringen” means “to penetrate” (Paisey) or “penetrate into”.  “Press on” (Draghici) is not forceful enough, whilst Hofmann’s “alarm” seems to be a second attempt to translate “beunruhigen”. Benn (or at least his persona) seems to be saying two things here: firstly, that evolution, even in its most personal form, as generational change, has no meaning for him, does not get to his core, his inner self, the essence of what he believes in; secondly, that wisdom can only be retained by keeping a distance from nature, including, the “children and the children of children”, and (to introduce a biographical note) we might also detect here perhaps an indication of Benn’s own problematic attitude to family life.

Richtungen vertreten

Handeln,

Zu- und Abreisen

ist das Zeichen einer Welt,

die nicht klar sieht.

Vor meinem Fenster,

– sagt der Weise, –

liegt ein Tal,

darin sammeln sich die Schatten,

zwei Pappeln säumen einen Weg,

du weißt, – wohin.

To advocate directions,

to bargain,

to travel to and fro‘

are the signs of a world

which does not see clearly.

Before my window – says the sage –

lies a vale,

in it the shadows gather,

two polars mark a road,

you know – where to. (Draghici)

Directions represented,

action,

arriving, leaving

is the mark of a world

which does not see clearly.

Outside my window –

says the wise man –

lies a valley,

shadows gather in it,

two poplars stand by a path,

you know – where it leads (Paisey)

To represent a particular outlook,

to act,

to travel hither and yon

are all signs of a world

that doesn’t see clearly.

In front of my window

– wise man says –

is a valley

where shadows pool,

two poplars mark a path,

leading you will know where to. (Hofmann)

“Richtungen” means literally “directions” (Draghici and Paisey) in English, as in the sense of “giving directions”, i.e. telling someone how to get from A to B.  But Hofmann is correct in recognising  that the word signifies something much broader than this, an intellectual or cognitive attitude to the world, which he translates as “a particular outlook”. Following Hofmann, we might interpret “Richtungen” as “schools of thought” or “fashions in thinking”, the latter translation reflecting the propensity of ideas to proliferate in the world. To “represent” (Paisey and Hofmann) or “advocate” (the stronger sense of “vertreten” chosen by Draghici) such schools or fashions of thinking is a non-static way of exercising the mind, the intellectual equivalent of the pointless activity of simply travelling here and there, back and forth (“Zu- und Abreisen”), which the poem also rejects.

“Handeln” has more than one meaning. As a noun in the singular it refers to business or trade and, less commonly, an argument. As a verb, “handeln” means to act or use something. I think this is its primary meaning in the poem (to act or take action), but it is likely that Benn wishes us to hear connotations of trade and business. Draghici’s “to bargain” is, however, too narrow, denoting a purely financial exercise. “Action” (Paisey) and “to act” (Hofmann) are preferable.

All the translators agree on how to translate the valley or “vale” (Draghici) that lies in front of the window of the wise man, and in which the shadows gather (although Hofmann’s “pool” is an unusual image for shadows). The path (but not “road”, Draghici) with the poplars, however, presents a problem. “Säumen” means “to border”, from “Saum” (“border” or “edge”). It is a key metaphor in Benn’s writing, appearing in poems such as Reise/ Journey (1916) representing the notion of boundaries and demarcation. Neither “mark” (Draghici and Hofmann) nor “stand by” (Paisey) quite succeed in communicating this sense here. “Line”, which in fact anticipates “Linien anlegen” in the next stanza, is more appropriate.

Perspektivismus

ist ein anderes Wort für seine Statik:

Linien anlegen,

sie weiterführen

nach Rankengesetz, –

Ranken sprühen, –

auch Schwärme, Krähen,

auswerfen in Winterrot von Frühhimmeln,

dann sinkenlassen –,

Du weißt – für wen.

Perspectivism

is another word for your statics:

plotting lines,

they expand

according to the creepers‘ laws –

sending forth tendrils – ,

and also swarms, crows,

casting them from primal skies into the

red of winter,

and then let them sink –

you know – for whom. (Draghici)

Perspectivism

is another word for his statics:

disposing lines,

continuing them

according to the law of tendrils –

tendrils spray out –

swarms too, crows,

cast them about in winter-red of early skies,

then let them sink –

you know – for whom (Paisey)

Perspective

is another word for stasis:

you draw lines,

they ramify

like a creeper –

tendrils explode –

and they disburse crows in swarms

in the winter red of early dawn –

then they settle –

you will know – for whom (Hofmann)

As Benn wrote in his Roman des Phänotyp/ Novel of  a Phenotype (1944), to survive the nihilism of the modern period we must embrace a “static metaphysics,” an epistemological quietude that in­volves “much Asiatic – pointilliste perspectives – with gestures transcribing the essence of the existential. Conclusions, tendentious events lie outside of its nature. Its nature is decidedly cyclical, everything uttered is taken back. Everything comes around again; it does not begin at a certain point nor ends at one.” (Gesammelte Werke in der Fassung der Erstdrucke, ed. Bruno Hillebrand (Fischer Taschenbuch). Vol. 2, p. 154)

More specifically, in terms of Benn’s poetry, “perspectivism” represents the supreme value of seeing clearly, by which the poet meant two ultimately related things: demarcating the lines of physical objects and the structure of the phenomenal world, which will regain the integrity of the latter by removing it from the vagaries of the subjective gaze. But perspectivism also involves seeing into the deeper meaning of existence, where true knowledge, paradoxically perhaps, becomes a matter of surface rather than depth, being, in the modern period, existential rather than metaphysical.

It is true that “Perspektivismus” is a rather ungainly word and I understand why Hofmann might want to translate it as “perspetive”. In German, however, the word “die Perspektive” exists, but Benn chooses not to use that word but “Perspektivismus” instead, thereby making it clear that he is talking about a philosophy rather than simply a way of looking. In this poem, Benn aligns“Perspektivismus” with “Statik”. In English, as in German, the word has a number of meanings. In acustic terms, it is a technical word for a certain type of noise, often called “white noise”, and this is what the direct translation “statics” (Draghici and Paisey) means. “Statik” can also been translated as “stasis”. This word too has a number of meanings. In a medical context, for example, it refers to the interruption of the flow of blood in the body. Benn, however, is thinking of the original sense of the word in ancient Greek, where “στάσις” is a third declension noun meaning “standing still” (some Latin readers will recognise this use in the verb ”stare”, which gives the common word ”station”). It is a concept that is associated with equilibrium and balance, and hence “stasis” (Hofmann) is the more accurate translation.

What follows in the stanza are a series of actions that define the static view of the world. They begin with “Linien anlegen”.  Draghici  translates this as “plotting lines”, and Paisey,  “disposing lines”, but here he is using the Latin origins of the term (“deponere”) too literally. “Disposing in modern English has the sense of “disposing of”, i.e. “getting rid of” something, which involves a meaning that is opposite to what Benn intends. “Draw lines” (Hofmann) is more appropriate, but does not require a “you” (indeed, who is this “you”?).

“Anlegen”, in fact, is one of four verbs in this stanza that are used in their infinitive form as noun phrases to indicate activity and definition, and in translating them it is important to retain their infinitve form. Providing them with an active voice, as in “continuing them” (Paisey),  and “they ramify” (Hofmann) for “weiterführen”, is to lose their sense of impersonality.  (And Draghici’s “they expand” is a mistranslation. Draghici is confusing the object “sie”, meaning “them”, with “sie” as a subject, “they”).

The same comments are applicable to the other key verbs, “sprühen”, “auswerfen” and “sinkenlassen”. If we leave them in their infinitive form, we get the following translations. For “weiterführen”: “expand” (Draghici); “continue” (Paisey); “ramify” (Hofmann). All are possible, although Hofmann seems to be anticipating the next line of the poem, which includes “sprühen”, where “ramify” would be more appropriate. “Sprühen” is variously translated as “sending forth” (Draghici), “spray out” (Paisey); “explode” (Hofmann). All are possible, except “explode”, which surely is too dramatic. “Auswerfen” is translated as “casting … into” (Draghici); “cast … about” (Paisey); “disburse” (Hofmann). Hofmann is probably thinking of “disperse” here (or perhaps it is a type-setter’s mistake). “Disburse” means to pay or outlay money, coming from the Latin for purse, “bursa” (whence “Bourse de Paris” and “die Börse“). With “sinkenlassen” Benn turns a separable verb into an inseparable one. This is translated literally as “let … sink” (Dragichi and Paisey) and the more subtle “they settle” (Hofmann).

These verbs are intended to define the “Rankengesetz”, which is an image of poetic activity or perhaps simply activity of the mind. “Ranken” means “creepers” or “tendrils” in English, but once the translator has decided which is the best translation there is no need to use both creeper and tendril, as Draghici and Hofmann do, who presumably want to avoid the repetition of the same word in two short lines. But repetition belongs to the static style; it is a way of containing semantic excess, to emphasise the (Nietzschean?) philosophy of the forever-same that underscores it.

The demarcation of the tendrils is followed by a further image, “in Winterrot von Frühhimmeln”. It is a wonderful pointillist image. It too is “static”, its stasis achieved here through the use of the simple prepositions “in” and “von”. Into this scene of winter twilight, crows descend, and we are told: “Du weißt – für wen”. But who is this “Du”? Who is the “wen”? Are they separate entities or the same? The reader, perhaps, or the poet? Humanity, in general? The conclusion of the poem is highly enigmatic, cryptic, obscure even. But this too belongs to the static conception of the world, which resists resolution and closure, holds open perspectives, and is prepared to live with mystery, even if that mystery possesses (at least for this reader) tones that are distinctly ominous.

 

VII Comparing translation of Orpheus’ Tod/ Death of Orpheus

Orpheus’ Tod/ Death of Orpheus was written in 1946, and published in the volume Statische Gedichte/ Static Poems in 1948. There are two contexts in which we must place the poem if we are to understand it: (1) a literary-mythological and (2) a biographical-historical context.

(1) The poem draws upon a Greek myth that tells of the mourning of Orpheus for his wife, Eurydice, who, while attempting to flee from Aristaeus, son of Apollo, ran into a nest of snakes that bit her fatally on her legs, sending her to the Underworld. On the advice of the gods, Orpheus travelled to the Underworld and by his music won over Hades and Persephone, who allowed Eurydice to return with Orpheus to the living world, but on one condition: that Orpheus should walk in front of her and not look back until they had both left Hades. In his anxiety, Orpheus forgot  this warning and turned back to look at Eurydice. She now disappeared into Hades for a second time, this time forever. Orpheus returned to the world, where his lyre continued to enchant not only flora and fauna but also the river nymphs who unsuccessfully attempted to seduce the god before finally killing him.

(2) Benn began the poem in February 1946 and completed it in August, when he sent a final copy to his friend, F.W. Oelze. Although Benn drew on Ovid’s Metamorphoses, the poem can also be read as a personal allegory centred on the death of his wife, Herta, who fled Berlin to Neuhaus (Lower Saxony) in April 1945, attempting to evade the invading Russian army. Her attempts failed, and she committed suicide soon after. Benn himself drew attention to the clear biographical parallels (the equation of Benn/Orpheus and Herta/Eurydice) in a letter written to Oelze after his second visit to his wife’s grave in August: “I went this week to Neuhaus an der Elbe to have a look at the grave of my wife, and stayed for two days. Truly a journey over the Styx!” (See Briefe an Oelze, Vol. II, pp. 46–47).

 

The poem reads:

 

Wie du mich zurückläßt, Liebste –,

von Erebos gestoßen,

dem unwirtlichen Rhodope

Wald herziehend,

zweifarbige Beeren,

rotglühendes Obst –

Belaubung schaffend,

die Leier schlagend

den Daumen an der Saite!

 

Drei Jahre schon im Nordsturm!

An Totes zu denken, ist süß,

so Entfernte,

man hörte die Stimme reiner,

fühlt die Küsse,

die flüchtigen und die tiefen –,

doch du irrend bei den Schatten!

 

Wie du mich zurückläßt –,

anstürmen die Flußnymphen,

anwinken die Felsenschönen,

gurren: “im öden Wald

nur Faune und Schratte, doch du,

Sänger, Aufwölber

von Bronzelicht, Schwalbenhimmeln –,

fort die Töne –

Vergessen –!”

 

drohen –!

 

Und Eine starrt so seltsam.

Und eine Große, Gefleckte,

bunthäutig (“gelber Mohn”)

lockt unter Demut, Keuschheitsandeutungen

bei hemmungloser Lust – (Purpur

im Kelch der Liebe –!) vergeblich!

 

drohen – !

 

Nein, du sollst nicht verrinnen,

du sollst nicht übergehn in

Jole, Dryope, Prokne,

die Züge nicht vermischen mit Atalanta,

daß ich womöglich Eurydike

stammle bei Lais –,

 

doch: drohen – !

 

und nun die Steine

nicht mehr der Stimme folgend,

dem Sänger,

mit Moos sich hüllend,

die Äste laubbeschwichtigt,

die Hacken ährenbesänftigt –:

nackte Haune –!

 

nun wehrlos dem Wurf der Hündinnen,

der wüsten –

nun schon die Wimper naß,

der Gaumen blutet –,

und nun die Leier

hinab den Fluß –

 

die Ufer tönen –.

 

I will consider the following translations:

Jürgen Freund and Klaus Theweleit, “Orpheus’ Death” in “The Politics of Orpheus between Women, Hades, Political Power and the Media: Some Thoughts on the Configuration of the European Artist, Starting with the Figure of Gottfried Benn or: What Happens to Eurydice? ”, New German Critique 36 (Autumn 1985):133-156 (pp. 143-144).

Simona Draghici, “The Death of Orpheus” in Gottfried Benn: Poems, 1937-1947, translated with an Introduction by Simona Draghici (Washington DC: Plutarch Press, 1991), pp. 22-25.

David Paisey, “The Death of Orpheus” in Gottfried Benn: Selected Poems and Prose edited and translated by David Paisey (Manchester: Carcanet, 2013), pp. 227 and 229.

Michael Hofmann, “Death of Orpheus” in Gottfried Benn: Impromptus: Selected Poems translated by Michel Hofmann (London: Faber & Faber, 2013), pp. 32-34.

 

Wie du mich zurückläßt, Liebste –,

von Erebos gestoßen,

dem unwirtlichen Rhodope

Wald herziehend,

zweifarbige Beeren,

rotglühendes Obst –

Belaubung schaffend,

die Leier schlagend

den Daumen an der Saite!

How you leave me behind, my Lovely –,

driven by Erebus,

making the woods grow

in Rhodope, the barren land.

Bicolored berries,

red glowing fruit –

creating leaves galore,

beating the lyre

the thumb on the string. (Freund/Theweleit)

How have you left me behind, Beloved –

chased out of Erebos

groping in the forest of

the unhospitable Rhodope,

two-coloured berries,

red-ripened fruit –

a bed of leaves,

touching the lyre

the fist on the strings! (Draghici)

How you leave me behind, dearest –

pushed out of Erebos,

dragging forest around me

from inhospitable Rhodope,

bicoloured berries,

fruit glowing red –

foliating,

striking the lyre,

my thumb on the string! (Paisey)

How can you leave me, darling –

sent packing by the nether slopes of Erebus

to drift around the inhospitable forests

of Rhodope,

parti-coloured berries,

red-glowing fruit –

gathering foliage,

striking the lyre,

my thumb on the strings! (Hofmann)

The very first line of the poem poses a translating problem. The initial word in “Wie du mich zurückläßt, Liebste –,” has been uniformly translated as “How”. But is “Wie“ here an adverb (“how”), expressing manner, or the conjunction “as”, expressing time (the equivalent of “when”)? Surely, it is the latter. Indeed, the use of “how”  at the beginning of a statement normally requires an answer, as Hofmann’s translation “how can you leave me” does (“because I …”). This is surely not what Benn intends, because it sounds as if Orpheus is blaming Eurydice for leaving him, and this does not accord with the sense of the poem.

We are told that Orpheus is “von Erebos gestoßen,/ dem unwirtlichen Rhodope”. “Gestoßen” is variously translated as “driven (Freund/Theweleit), “chased out” (Draghici), “pushed out” (Paisey) or “sent packing” (Hofmann). All are possible, although “sent packing” is a little colloquial, jocular even, in contemporary English (“abblitzen lassen” would be its equivalent in German). Erebos was a Greek deity, the god of the dead. Because Erebos gave his name to the underworld,  Dragichi’s “chased out of Erebos” is, therefore, also possible.  It all depends on whether Erebos is seen as a person or a place. Rhodope is a chain of mountains found in south-west Bulgaria and in Thrace in Greece.  Hofmann embroiders the legend by suggesting that it was from the “nether slopes” that Orpheus was banished, but this is not supported by Ovid or Benn’s poem.

Orpheus was a legendary poet and a prophet (and celebrated in the Orphic cult), who was able to enchant nature. In the poem, “Wald herziehend” and “Belaubung schaffend” are all signs of his supernatural potency. The existing translations do not seem to recognise this. Perhaps continuing with the theme of his destitution, they present him as a pitiful character, wandering aimlessly around the forests as if he is lost. But this not the case. This stanza is a celebration of Orpheus, whose power is reflected in the plenitude of nature (the coloured berries and the red-glowing fruit) that surrounds him “Wald herziehend” is variously translated as “groping in the forest” (Draghici), “dragging forest around me” (Paisey), “drift around … forest” (Hofmann). But “herziehen” means “to attract”, “to pull to oneself”, literally “to pull close”, and is, therefore, a positive action . “Belaubung schaffend” is translated as “a bed of leaves” (Draghici), “foliating’ (Paisey), “gathering foliage” (Hofmann). But all of these translations fail to recognise what is happening. Orpheus is enchanting the vegetation, bringing nature to life with the music of his lyre.

He plays on his lyres, with “den Daumen an der Saite!  Orpheus has his thumb (but not his “fist”, Draghici) on the strings of his lyre. Both Paisey and Hofmann translate the line as “my thumb on the strings!”. There is justification for the possessive adjective here (and the same applies to Hofmann’s “Obedient to my voice” in stanza 6), because in the German language personal parts of the body simply attract the definite article, e.g. “der Fuss”, whereas in English they must receive a possessive adjective, “my foot”. The consequence of this translation, however, is to provide a firm first-person voice to the actions described in the poem. Whether this is desirable is a matter of interpretation.

A couple of minor points: “my Lovely” (Freund/Theweleit) is too colloquial and a little trivial for “Liebste”, and Draghici’s “unhospitable” should be “inhospitable”.

Drei Jahre schon im Nordsturm!

An Totes zu denken, ist süß,

so Entfernte,

man hörte die Stimme reiner,

fühlt die Küsse,

die flüchtigen und die tiefen –,

doch du irrend bei den Schatten!

Three years already in the Northern winds!

Thinking of the dead is sweet,

woman so far away,

one hears the voice more clearly,

feels the kisses,

the passing and the deep

yet you wandering around among the shadows. (Freund/Theweleit)

Three years already in the northern storm!

To think of the dead is sweet,

outcast as such

one hears the voice more clearly,

feels the kisses,

the stolen and the deeper –

though you stray amid the shadows! (Dragichi)

Three years gone in the North storm!

Thinking of dead things is sweet,

my thus separated one,

the voice is heard more purely,

the kisses felt,

the fleeting kisses and the deep –

but you wandering amongst the shades! (Paisey)

Three years in the biting north wind!

To think of the dead is sweet,

my so-removed one,

I hear your voice more clearly,

feel your kisses,

both the fleeting and the thorough –

but the thought of you among the shades! (Hofmann)

“Drei Jahre schon im Nordsturm!”. Orpheus has been forced to return to Thrace (Ovid, Metamorphoses, Book XI: line 1), and he has lived there for three years (Book X: lines 78-80). The poem now acquires a more reflective hue as Orpheus thinks back to his time with Euridyce. He makes the following generalisation: “An Totes zu denken, ist süß”. This has been translated as “to think of the dead is sweet” (Draghici), “Thinking of dead things is sweet” (Paisey), and “To think of the dead is sweet” (Hofmann). All are possible, although Paisey’s “thinking of dead things is sweet” has a touch of necrophilia about it. What Benn is saying is it is that it is sweet to think of the dear departed, because you hear their voices more clearly in retrospect.

(Freund/Theweleit) interpret “Entfernte” as referring to a female subject, and hence translated it as “woman”. Other translations retain the anonymous sense of the word, and translate “Entfernte” as “outcast ” (Draghici), “my thus separated one” (Paisey), “my so removed one” (Hofmann). “Oucast” more appropriately describes the plight of Orpheus rather than that of Eurydice, and the other translations are ungainly, because the translators wish to retain the use of “Entfernte” as a personal noun. It would be better however, to just to use the word as a qualifier, and translate “so Entfernte” as “so distant”.

Wie du mich zurückläßt –,

anstürmen die Flußnymphen,

anwinken die Felsenschönen,

gurren: “im öden Wald

nur Faune und Schratte, doch du,

Sänger, Aufwölber

von Bronzelicht, Schwalbenhimmeln –,

fort die Töne –

Vergessen –!”

drohen –!

How you leave me behind –,

the river nymphs rushing near

the waving of the beauties on the boulders,

cooing: “in the naked woods

only fawns and ugly goblins, yet you,

singer, bugler

of bronzen light, swallow skies –,

away with sounds –

Forgetting – !”

– threaten – ! (Freund/Theweleit)

How have you left me behind –

assailed by the nymphs of the river,

beckoned to by the rock-fairies,

cooing: ‘in the boring woods

only goblins and fauns, save you,

singer, maker of bows

out of the light of bronze,

the skies of the swallows –

drop the tunes –

forget – !’

– threaten –  (Dragichi)

How you leave me behind –

besieged by river-nymphs,

beckoned by the beauties of the cliff,

cooing: ‘in the barren wood

nothing but fauns and satyrs, but you,

singer, raising domes

of bronze light, swallow skies –

the sounds are gone –

forgetting –!’

– threaten –  (Paisey)

How can you leave me

to the naiads’ onslaught,

the blandishments of the cliff-face beauties,

their cooing: ‘in the bleak woods

only fauns and wood-sprites, but you,

singer of bronze light,

constellator of swallow-teeming skies –

put away your song –

forget!’

threaten –!  (Hofmann)

With “Wie du mich zurückläßt –, ” we have the same issue as in the first line of the poem. Hofmann turns this into something that looks like a question (although there is no question mark), “How can you leave me”. But this implies that Orpheus is blaming Eurydice for her actions, which does not correspond to the sense of the poem.

The second line of the stanza describes the arrival of the “Flußnymphen”, the “nymphs of the river” (Draghici) or “river-nymphs” (Paisey). They are joined by the “Felsenschönen” (or is this simply a different name of the nymphs?)  Hofmann calls them “naiads” (Hofmann). “Naiads” is the actual name for the “water nymphs” of legend, but in their murderous behaviour they owe more to the image of the maenads, the female followers of Dionysius. Ovid calls them initially “nurus Ciconum”, “Ciconian women” (Book XI: line 3) (although “nurus literally means “daughters-in-law”). The women belong to a tribe that lived in the south western coast of Thrace.  In line 22, they are called. “maenads”. They run up to Orpheus, “anstürmen”. Both Draghici and Paisey put these words into a perfect passive participle, “assailed” and “besieged”, but that would make the lines that contain these words dependent clauses requiring a main verb in the ensuing main clause of the construction. And “besiege” (Paisey) means “to lay siege to” and cannot be right.

The “Felsenschönen”, the sirens from the mountain, beckon to Orpheus, addressing him with flattery. (There is no such quotation in Ovid. What the maenads say is “en hic est nostri contemptor!” (line 7), “see the man who scorns us!”.) They tell him that that he stands out amongst the common minor denizens of the forest, the “Faune und Schratte”. Freund/Theweleit and Draghici translate “Schratte” as “goblins”, but these small creatures really belong to the mythologies of northern Europe. Both Paisey and Hofmann are more accurate with “satyrs” and “wood-sprites”.

The would-be seducers of Orpheus address him as “Sänger, Aufwölber von Bronzelicht, Schwalbenhimmeln”. These were qualities of his legendary prowess as a poet. “Aufwölber” causes problems for the translators. “Aufwölben” means “to flare out”, “arch up”, “bulge up”, and is here used as a word for poetic creativity, fabrication and the making of things. Neither “Bugler” (Freund/Theweleit) nor “maker of bows” (Draghici) is right.  “Raising domes” (Paisey) is more accurate. Hofmann’s “constellator” is an interesting term. It is a substantive formation (and a neologistic one) out of the verb “constellate”, which means “to adorn with stars” (from “stella”, the Latin word for “star”). It is a highly original and appropriate designation of Orpheus’ ability to create magical configurations.

Und Eine starrt so seltsam.

Und eine Große, Gefleckte,

bunthäutig (“gelber Mohn”)

lockt unter Demut, Keuschheitsandeutungen

bei hemmungloser Lust – (Purpur

im Kelch der Liebe –!) vergeblich!

drohen – !

And one of them stares so strangely.

And a big one, spots all over

on speckled skin (“yellow poppy”)

luring humbly, hints of chastity

while spilling boundless lust – (purple

in the goblet of love – !) in vain!

threaten – ! (Freund/Theweleit)

And one stares so odd,

And a big one, befreckled,

mottled skin (‘yellow poppy’)

all meekness, tempts, maidenly hint,

to boundless lust – (purple

in the chalice of love –! in vain!

threaten – (Draghici)

And one stares so strangely.

And a tall one, dappled,

bright-skinned (“yellow poppy”)

tempts demurely, hinting at chastity,

boundless pleasure – (purple

in love’s chalice –!) in vain!

threaten –! (Paisey)

One sends me such meaning looks.

And another, well-built, freckled,

probably mixed-race (“it’s called yellow poppy”),

beckons demurely, suggests chaste games

and means rampant desire – (“inspect my love

chalice’s

purple!” – forget it, baby!).

they threaten – ! (Hofmann)

We are told, “Und Eine starrt so seltsam”.  “Starren” in German means “to stare” in English. Hofmann’s translation,“one sends me such meaning looks” (this should be “meaningful looks”), captures the sexual interest that (as we discover) is latent in these looks, and although the idiom is modern the translation is appropriate in this context. The skin of the woman is described as“gefleckt”. “Spots all over” (Freund/Theweleit) sounds like a skin disease (acme, perhaps).  “Dappled” (Paisey) is normally only applied to the colour of horses. What the woman has is freckles. She is also described as “bunthäutig”. (Freund/Theweleit) continue with their spot motif and translate this as “speckled skin”; whilst Draghici sees it as “mottled skin”. Paisey’s simple “bright-skinned” is the best neutral translation.

However, Hofmann’s “probably mixed-race”, whilst seeming a little eccentric, throws open a fascinating interpretation of these lines. For he is quite correct in detecting an ethnic hue to Benn’s description of the maenads. The freckles and the bright-skin (“fair skin” might be one translation) indicate that the maenads are Thracian, and hence belong to an ethnic group that that comes from further north, which is possibly not of Mediterranean or Aegean origins.  (“Gelber Mohn”) is a quotation not from Ovid but from the German translation by Johann Heinrich Voss (Berlin, 1798). It is possible that Voss and Benn (following him) are attempting to give physical characteristics to the Ciconian women.

She “lockt unter Demut”. “Luring humbly” (Freund/Theweleit) is a good translation, as is the use of “demurely” by Paisey and Hofmann, the latter because it is often used with reference to female comportment. “Hinting at chastity” (Paisey) is not quite right. “Purpur/ im Kelch der Liebe” is a reference to her genetalia.

Nein, du sollst nicht verrinnen,

du sollst nicht übergehen in

Jole, Dryope, Prokne,

die Züge nicht vermischen mit Atalanta,

daß ich womöglich Eurydike

stammle bei Lais –,

doch: drohen – !

No, you shall not elapse,

you shall not blend

into Jole, Dryope, Prokne,

not mix your traits with those of Atalanta,

that I may stammer Eurydice

when I’m with Lais –,

yet: Threaten – ! (Freund/Theweleit)

No, you must not waste away,

you must not turn into

Yole, Dryope, Prokne,

nor blend your traits with Atalanta’s,

is it possible, Euridike,

that I falter by Lais –

still: threaten – ! (Draghici)

No, you must not flow away,

you must not pass over into

Iole, Dryope, Procne,

not mix up your features with Atalanta,

so that I maybe stammer Eurydike

with Lais –

yet – threaten – ! (Paisey)

No, you’re not to be diluted,

you’re not to blur,

into Iole, Dryope, Procne,

nor mix your features with Atalanta’s,

I don’t want to blurt out your name inappropriately

when I’m with some Lais –

but: they threaten me – ! (Hofmann)

“Du sollst nicht verrinnen”, Orpheus says, addressing his departed Eurydice, which Freund/Theweleit translate as “you shall not elapse”. “Elapse”, however, refers to time not persons; “waste away” in “You must not waste away” (Draghici) is certainly used with regard to persons but only to their bodes; “You must not flow away” (Paisey), and “you’re not to be diluted” (Hofmann) are both possible translations.  The standard meaning of “verrinnen” is “dissolve”. Its use here means that Eurydice should not lose her presence in Orpheus’ memory.

Orpheus is determined “die Züge nicht vermischen mit Atalanta,/daß ich womöglich Eurydike/stammle bei Lais” Neither Draghici nor Paisey seem to recognise the intimate nature of the scenario being described. Benn is referring to the possibility that Orpheus may confuse the names of the women (females from mythology, Jole, Dryope, Prokne) that he calls to while he is in the act of love making with them. Hofmann gets it right, although what he offers is really a paraphrase rather than a translation. Freund/Theweleit comes closest to the meaning with their “not mix your traits with those of Atalanta,/ that I may stammer Eurydice/ when I’m with Lais”.

und nun die Steine

nicht mehr der Stimme folgend,

dem Sänger,

mit Moos sich hüllend,

die Äste laubbeschwichtigt,

die Hacken ährenbesänftigt –:

nackte Haune –!

and now the stones

no longer following the voice,

the singer,

no longer mantling themselves with  moss,

the branches without foliage now,

the hoes no longer calmed down by corn –

naked hoes – ! (Freund/Theweleit)

and now the stones

clad in the moss

no longer echo the voice

of the singer,

the branches grow heavy with leaves,

the hatchets soothingly gleaning –:

naked blows – ! (Grachici)

and now the stones

no longer following the voice,

the singer,

enveloped in moss,

the boughs appeased in foliage,

heels soothed in ears of corn –:

naked axes –! (Paisey)

and now the stones,

no more obedient to my voice,

the singer’s,

no more swaddling themselves in moss,

cudgels not smoothed with leafage,

no scythes muffled with ears of corn –

naked flails – ! (Hofmann)

The lines have proved difficult to translate, because what these objects stand for is far from obvious. To understand them, it is important to go back to the original story in Ovid, where it becomes clear that the natural objects described here are all weapons used by the meaneds to kill Orpheus. The stones are devoid of moss so that they will be more effective as missiles, and branches have been turned into arrows or spears. The line “die Äste laubbeschwichtigt“ seems to point to the use of arrows. “Beschwichtigen” means to appease or silence, but here it could be referring to the feathers of the arrows. It is also possible that what is being referred to is a “thyrsus“, a form of spear or club covered with leaves that was used by the followers of Dionysius. In his Metamorphoses, Ovid calls it a “hastam” (Book XI: line 7). “Haune” is a rare word describing a farming instrument. As Friedrich Wodtke points out, Benn took the term from the translation of Ovid’s book by Johann Heinrich Voss (see Wodtke, Gottfried Benn: Selected Poems (Oxford, 1970) pp. 218-219). The Latin is “graves longique ligones” (Book XI, line 36).

nun wehrlos dem Wurf der Hündinnen,

der wüsten –

nun schon die Wimper naß,

der Gaumen blutet –,

und nun die Leier

hinab den Fluß –

die Ufer tönen –.

now defenceless before the throwing of the bitches,

the wild ones –

now the eyelashes wet,

the gums are bleeding –,

and now the lyre

down the river –

the banks are sounding – (Freund/Theweleit)

now abandoned to the brood of the bitches,

of the dissolute –

now lashes already moist,

the roof of the mouth bleeds –

and now the lyre –

down the stream –

the banks resound – (Draghici)

now defenceless under the bitches’ missiles,

the wild ones –

eyelashes already wet,

the palate bleeds –

and now the lyre –

down the river –

the shores resound. (Paisey)

helpless now against the whelps of bitches,

the merciless –

lashes wet,

gums bloodied –

and now the lyre –

downstream –

the echoing banks – (Hofmann).

“Wurf” causes all the translators problems. In German, “Wurf” can either mean a litter of animals that have just been born or the act of throwing. Draghici and Hofmann choose the former interpretation; Freund/Theweleit and Paisey, the latter. The throwing version is more in keeping with the logic of the preceding paragraph, although Freud/Theweleit’s “the throwing of the bitches” is not the best translation, because it suggests that it is the bitches who are thrown. The bitches are the “wüsten”. This has been translated as “the wild ones” by Freud/Theweleit and by Paisey, which seems the most neutral but also most accurate translation.  “Dissolute” (Draghici) and “merciless” (Hofmann) are interpretations of their actions and their moral character.

There is general agreement about how the subsequent lines of the stanza should be translated. It is, however, important to retain the typography of the original German, which Hofmann and Freund/Theweleit do (in fact, the latter insert a further space between the lines), but not Draghici or Paisey. The final lines of the poem register the discrete stages of Orpheus’ demise: the murderous actions of the maenads, as they destroy his body (“gums” and “eyelashes” suggest his head); the survival of his lyre; and the continuation of his music, as the lyre makes its way down the river. The lines possess a clear symbolism: Orpheus is dead, but his art survives, continuing to enchant nature (the river banks), as it has always done.

My translation:

As you leave me behind, my beloved:

forced by Erebus

into the inhospitable Rhodopes,

trailing forest,

two-coloured berries,

red-glowing fruits,

creating leaf,

strumming the lyre,

my thumbs on its strings.

Three years now in the northern storm.

It is sweet to think of the dead:

they are so distant.

One hears their voices more clearly,

feels the kisses,

the fleeting and the lasting ones.

But you wandering amongst the shades!

As you leave me behind,

the river nymphs rush in,

the sirens from the mountains beckon,

cooing “in the bleak forest,

only fawns and wood sprites; but you,

singer, builder of arches

of the bronze light, of swallow skies:

away with the music.

Forget !”

they threaten – !

And one of them stares so queerly,

a majestic one, freckled

with glowing skin (“yellow poppy”)

enticing through meekness and gestures of modesty

to unbridled lust (purple

in the cup of love). In vain!

No, you shall not simply dissolve

You shall not turn into Iole, Dryope, Procine,

nor your features mingle with Atalanta’s,

so that I might be stammering Eurydice

when I am with Lais –

but:  they threaten –!

and now the stones

no longer follow the voice

of the singer,

shrouding themselves with moss,

the branches hushed with leaf,

hoes softened to cut,

the weapon bared.

Now defenseless to the brood of bitches,

the wild ones,

now the eyelids are already moist,

the mouth bleeds –

and now the lyre

down into the river –

The riverbanks resound.

 

VIII Comparing translations of  Chopin/ Chopin

Gottfried Benn wrote “Chopin” in October 1944, publishing it in 1948 in his Static Poems. With his “static” poems, Benn felt that he had reached a new stage in his poetic development, and had created a type of poetry that would “get away from mood and sentiment to objects, and to fill these with their own image” (Oelze Briefe 1: 377–378). Consequently, “Chopin” follows a narrative trajectory that eschews the subjective element entirely (both in terms of the perceiver and the perceived), in favour of a factual (and sometimes banal objectivity) in  a text is  without rhyme and meter. Benn does not engage in eulogy, nor do we gain access to the inner world of Chopin: the details of the latter’s life exist for themselves. The poem begins by paring away the inessentials from the composer’s personality, constructing his character through a series of negatives:

 

Nicht sehr ergiebig im Gespräch,

Ansichten waren nicht seine Stärke,

Ansichten reden drum herum,

wenn Delacroix Theorieen entwickelte,

wurde er unruhig, er seinerseits konnte

die Notturnos nicht begründen.

 

Schwacher Liebhaber;

Schatten in Nohant,

wo George Sands Kinder

keine erzieherische Ratschläge

von ihm annahmen.

 

Brustkrank in jener Form

mit Blutungen und Narbenbildung,

die sich lange hinzieht;

stiller Tod

im Gegensatz zu einem

mit Schmerzparoxysmen

oder durch Gewehrsalven:

man rückte den Flügel (Erard) an die Tür

und Delphine Potocka

sang ihm in der lezten Stunde

ein Veilchenlied.

 

Nach England reiste er mit drei Flügeln:

Pleyel, Erard, Broadwood,

spielte für 20 Guineen abends

eine Viertelstunde

bei Rothschilds, Wellingtons, im Strafford House

und vor zahllosen Hosenbändern;

verdunkelt von Müdigkeit und Todesnähe

kehrte er heim

auf den Square d’Orléans.

 

Dann verbrennt er seine Skizzen

und Manuskripte,

nur keine Restbestände, Fragmente, Notizen,

diese verräterischen Einblicke –,

sagte zum Schluß:

“meine Versuche sind nach Maßgabe dessen vollendet,

was mir zu erreichen möglich war.”

 

Spielen sollte jeder Finger

mit der seinem Bau entsprechenden Kraft,

der vierte ist der schwächste

(nur siamesisch zum Mittelfinger).

Wenn er begann, lagen sie

auf e, fis, gis, h, c.

 

Wer je bestimmte Präludien

von ihm hörte,

sei es in Landhäusern oder

in einem Höhengelände

oder aus offenen Terrassentüren

beispielweise aus einem Sanatorium,

wird es schwer vergessen.

 

Nie eine Oper komponiert,

keine Symphonie,

nur diese tragischen Progressionen

aus artistischer Überzeugung

und mit einer kleinen Hand.

 

I will consider the following translations:

Michael Hofmann “Chopin”, in Impromptus: Selected Poems, translated by Michael Hofmann (London: Faber & Faber, 2013), pp. 29-31.

Michael Hamburger, “Chopin”, in Primal Vision: Selected Writings of Gottfried Benn, edited E.B. Ashton (London: Marion Boyars, 1976 [1960]), pp. 265-269.

David Paisey, “Chopin”, in Gottfried Benn: Selected Poems and Prose (Manchester: Carcanet, 2013), pp. 216-219.

 

Nicht sehr ergiebig im Gespräch,

Ansichten waren nicht seine Stärke,

Ansichten reden drum herum,

wenn Delacroix Theorieen entwickelte,

wurde er unruhig, er seinerseits konnte

die Notturnos nicht begründen.

 

Not much of a conversationalist,

ideas weren’t his strong suit,

ideas miss the point,

when Delacroix expounded his theories

it made him nervous, he for his part

could offer no explanation of the Nocturnes. (Hofmann)

 

Not very forthcoming in conversation,

opinions were not his forte,

opinions don’t get to the center;

when Delacroix expounded a theory

he became restive, he for his part was unable

to explicate his Nocturnes. (Hamburger)

 

Not very forthcoming in conversation,

opinions were not his strong point,

opinions only circle around,

when Delacroix developed his theories

he became restless, he could never explain

his own Nocturnes. (Paisey)

 

The poem opens with the line “Nicht sehr ergiebig im Gespräch”, the first of a number of elliptical statements where the grammatical subject is omitted because it has already been posited in the title. This technique is repeated in stanzas 1, 2, 3 and 8, with an almost journalist matter-of-factness that communicates a wish to see Chopin described without any emotive bias: demise (even tragic demise) must be described without sentiment.

This opening stanza establishes the contrast of an inner life versus a public life, which is one of the main themes of the poem. Chopin was not a great conversationalist, and unable to put his artistic feelings into words. “Ansichten” are “points of view” or “opinions”. They are indeed “ideas” (Hofmann), or at least have their origin in ideas, but the latter need not be voiced, as opinions typically are. “Expounded” is more accurate than “developed” (Paisey), because it is possible to develop theories in private without seeking to communicate them. “Circle around” (Paisey) is better than “miss the point” (Hofmann) and “don’t get to the centre” (Hamburger), because it catches something of the ponderous circumlocution of the German adverbial phrase “drum herum”.

We are told: “er seinerseits konnte/ die Notturnos nicht begründen”. Once again, both the intensely private nature of Chopin (his difficulty in coping with the public sphere) and the essential pre-theoretical nature of his art (indeed, of art in general) is being stressed here. “Begründen” means to find reasons (“Gründe”) for (doing) something, being able to put into words, to explain, what you are doing. “Explicate” (Hamburger) is too technical, meaning to analyse something in detail, as in the French form of literary criticism “explication de texte, whilst “could never explain” (Paisey) suggests that Chopin had no idea where his Nocturnes came from. What Benn is saying is that Chopin did not compose his Nocturnes according to a conscious aesthetic or theory, but simply followed his musical instinct. “Theoretical explanation for” “or rationale for” might be a better translation

 

Schwacher Liebhaber;

Schatten in Nohant,

wo George Sands Kinder

keine erzieherische Ratschläge

von ihm annahmen.

 

A poor lover;

mere shadow in Nohant

where George Sand’s children

rejected his attempts

at discipline. (Hofmann)

 

Weak as a lover;

shadows at Nohant,

where George Sand’s children

would not accept

his pedagogic advice. (Hamburger)

 

A poor lover;

shadows in Nohant

where George Sand’s children

would not accept

his educational advice. (Paisey)

 

Nohant is a village in the Indre Department of central France where George Sand, Chopin’s lover, lived with her children in a chateau. “Schatten” is a singular noun in German, but it can be translated in English as “shadow”, “shadows” and “shade”. Both Paisey and Hamburger prefer the rather mysterious “shadows”, as if they are thinking of the darker places within the house, but Hofmann (possibly hearing here the idiom “nur noch eine Schatten seiner selbst”/ “only a shadow of himself”) is surely correct in assuming that “Schatten” refers to Chopin, in which case “shadow” is the correct translation. “A mere shade” is also possible. We are told that George Sand’s children “keine erzieherische Ratschläge/ von ihm annahmen”. There is no reason to change this to “discipline” (Hofmann). The lines mean that the children would take no guidance from him about what they were studying. He was just as ineffectual with them as he was with George Sand as a lover.

 

Brustkrank in jener Form

mit Blutungen und Narbenbildung,

die sich lange hinzieht;

stiller Tod

im Gegensatz zu einem

mit Schmerzparoxysmen

oder durch Gewehrsalven:

man rückte den Flügel (Erard) an die Tür

und Delphine Potocka

sang ihm in der lezten Stunde

ein Veilchenlied.

 

His tuberculosis took the chronic form,

with repeated bleeding and scarring;

a creeping death, as opposed to one

in convulsions of agony

or by firing squad:

the piano

(Erard) was pushed against the door

and Delphine Potocka

sang him

a violet song in his last hour. (Hofmann)

 

Consumptive, of the kind

With hemorrhages and cicatrization,

the kind that drags on  for years;

quiet death

as opposed to one

with paraoxysms of pain

or one by a firing-squad;

they moved his grand piano (Erard) up to the door

and Delphine Potocka

sang for him at his dying hour

a violet song (Hamburger).

 

Lung-disease of the kind

with haemorrhages and scarring

that takes its time;

a quiet death,

the opposite of one

with paroxysms of pain

or from a hail of bullets:

they moved the paino (Erard) up to his door

and Delphine Potocka

in his last hour

sang him the song about a violet (Paisey).

 

Chopin suffers from tuberculosis. The symptoms are defined by Hamburger as “haemorrhages and cicatrisation”, which is medically accurate but overly technical. Hofmann’s alternative translation “with repeated bleeding and scarring” is more appropriate for the layman. Tuberculosis involves a slow wasting away of the lungs. Hamburger’s “drags on” makes it sound that it was simply boring, whilst Paisey’s “takes its time” suggests that Chopin may have been impatient for it to take its course. Hofmann’s vivid “creeping death” is the best. As Chopin lay dying, the Polish countess, Delphine (Delfina in English) Potocka, sang him a song. Benn calls the song “ein Veilchenlied”, and the translators have followed him. But there is no such thing as “a violet song” (as if there might be a genre of such songs), and “a song about a violet” (Paisey) is both mysterious and trivial. What the countess was singing was almost certainly “das Veilchenlied” (K 476) by Mozart, after a poem by Goethe, which tells of a lonely violet being picked by a shepherdess. The violet hopes that it will be taken to the bosom of the young woman, but she merely picks it and casts it away. It is a poem that speaks of personal vulnerability and the search for (but failure to find) love.

How are we to understand a poem in which, subverting temporal logic, the human subject of the poem dies midway through the narrative, only to reappear in the subequent sections? The irrelevance of death? Art conquering mortality?  Or perhaps we should not thematise it at all. Benn gives us a kaleidoscope of the man, a bricollage of aspects of a self, which moves in no particular direction. These aspects are static, and centre on a series of actions that reveal a personality and an artistic vocation. The human, as a shaped meaningful whole, is irrelevant.

 

Nach England reiste er mit drei Flügeln:

Pleyel, Erard, Broadwood,

spielte für 20 Guineen abends

eine Viertelstunde

bei Rothschilds, Wellingtons, im Strafford House

und vor zahllosen Hosenbändern;

verdunkelt von Müdigkeit und Todesnähe

kehrte er heim

auf den Square d’Orléans.

He took three pianos with him to England:

Pleyel, Erard, Broadwood,

for twenty guineas he would give fifteen-minute recitals in the evenings

at the Rothschilds’ and the Wellingtons’, in Strafford House

to the assembled cummerbunds;

then, dark with fatigue and imminent death,

he went home

to the Square d’Orleans. (Hofmann)

 

To England he went with three pianos:

Pleyel, Erard, Broadwood,

played for twenty minutes

at Rothschild’s, the Wellington’s, at Stratford House,

and to countless garters;

darkened by weariness and approaching death,

he went home

to the Square d’Orleans. (Hamburger)

 

He travelled to England with three pianos:

Pleyel, Erard, Broadwood,

at 20 guineas an evening

played a quarter of an hour

for the Rothschilds, Wellingtons, in Stafford House,

and for any number of Garter knights;

darkened by tiredness and the approach of death

he went home

to the Square d’Orleans. (Paisey)

 

In writing “Chopin”, Benn drew upon the German translation of the biography of Chopin by the French author Guy de Pourtalès, Der blaue Klang:Friedrich Chopins Leben (Freiburg, 1928) ,which provided Benn with many details of Chopin’s life, including his visit to England in 1848. This was Chopin’s most famous entry into the public sphere: his visit to aristocratic English society, an episode that anticipates his death. There may be no causal connection between the two events, but there is surely a symbolic one.

There is general agreement on how to translate the stanza. Just a few minor points: “Flügeln” are technically grand pianos, as opposed to the more common stand-up “Klavier”, and are normally referred to as “a Pleyel”, “an Erward” etc. Family names take the definite article, so Chopin played for “the Rothschilds” etc (and at Stafford not Strafford House). The “Hosenbändern” are “members of the Garter”. The only point where alternative readings might be possible is in the interpretation of “verdunkelt”. Is this to be read literally or metaphorically? Does this darkness describe his physical appearance or his mind? Are we to assume that his skin had darkened, or does his sickness haunt him like a shadow? Either are possible.

 

Dann verbrennt er seine Skizzen

und Manuskripte,

nur keine Restbestände, Fragmente, Notizen,

diese verräterischen Einblicke –,

sagte zum Schluß:

“meine Versuche sind nach Maßgabe dessen vollendet,

was mir zu erreichen möglich war.

Then he burned his sketchesand manuscripts,didn’t want any leftover scraps

betraying him –

at the end he said:

“I have taken my experiment

as far as it was possible for me to go.” (Hofmann)

 

Then he burnt his sketches

and manuscripts;

no residues please, no fragments or notes,

they grant such revealing insights –

and said at the end:

“My endeavours are as complete

As it was in my power to make them”. (Hamburger)

 

Then he burns his sketches

and manuscripts,

leave no remains, fragments, notes,

those tell-tale insights –

said finally:

“my essays are fulfilled to the extent

of what it was possible for me to achieve”. (Paisey)

 

Chopin burns his manuscripts so that future musicologists will not be able to reconstruct his method of composition and hence destroy the aura of his music. Benn uses “verbrennt” in the present tense, but only Paisey retains this; Hofmann and Hamburger prefer the past tense, which is in keeping with the general narrative of the poem. Chopin destroyed the drafts and preliminary sketches for his work, because these would offer “verräterische Einblicke” (“revealing insights”) into his method of composition. Benn calls these sketches “Restbestände”. Hofmann translates this as “leftover scraps”, which makes them sound like unappetising morsels of food, whilst Paisey prefers “remains”, as if they are dead people, and Hamburger “residues”, although residues are normally what we get after a process has taken place rather than before. It is best not to try and find a noun in English to match the German (a language that gravitates to nominalisation where verbs would be used in English) but simply translate it as “nothing should remain, no fragments, no notes”. Benn concludes this stanza by citing Chopin who felt that he had achieved in his music only what lay in his ability to achieve. These achievements he calls “Versuche”, which Paisey mistranslates as “essays”. This is one dictionary definition of the word, but not the correct one in this context. Chopin wrote no essays, and indeed we have already been told in the first stanza that he could not justify his music theoretically. Hofmann’s “experiment” is also too literal, and possesses scientific overtones. Hamburger gets it right with “endeavours”. Chopin is simply being modest. “Efforts” would be another possible translation.

 

Spielen sollte jeder Finger

mit der seinem Bau entsprechenden Kraft,

der vierte ist der schwächste

(nur siamesisch zum Mittelfinger).

Wenn er begann, lagen sie

auf e, fis, gis, h, c.

 

Each finger was to play

to no more than its natural strength,

the fourth being the weakest (twinned with the middle finger).

At the start, they occupied the keys

of E, F sharp, G sharp, B and C. (Hofmann)

 

Every finger was to play

with the focus appropriate to its structure;

the fourth is the weakest

(mere Siamese twin to the middle finger).

When he began they rested

on E, F sharp, G sharp, B, C. (Hamburger).

 

Each finger had to play

with the strength appropriate to its structure,

the fourth is the weakest

(like a Siamese twin of the middle finger).

When he began, they lay

on e, f sharp, g sharp, b, c. (Paisey).

 

There is general agreement on how to translate this final stanza. The phrase “mit der seinem Bau entsprechenden Kraft” is paraphrased by Hofmann, but successfully. “Kraft” is variously translated as “strength” or “structure”. “Shape” might be an alternative.

 

Wer je bestimmte Präludien

von ihm hörte,

sei es in Landhäusern oder

in einem Höhengelände

oder aus offenen Terrassentüren

beispielweise aus einem Sanatorium,

wird es schwer vergessen.

 

Anyone hearing

certain of his Preludes

in country seats or

at altitude,

through open French windows

on the terrace, say, of a sanitorium,

will not easily forget it. (Hofmann)

 

The man who has ever heard

certain Preludes by him,

whether in country houses or

in a mountain landscape

or on a terrace, through open doors,

a sanatorium’s for instance,

will hardly forget it. (Hamburger)

 

Anyone who has listened to

certain of his Preludes

in country houses or

in a highland landscape

or through open doors on a terrace,

for example from a sanatorium,

will find it hard to forget. (Paisey)

 

“Wer je bestimmte Präludien/ von ihm hörte” has proved surprisingly difficult to translate.  “The man who has ever heard …” (Hamburger) seems to exclude women. “Certain” (Hofmann) is a pronoun that takes the plural, so “it” must be “them”. With “listened to” Paisey effectively turns “hören” into “zuhören”. The simplest translation is: “Whoever heard any of his Preludes… will never forget them”.

“Höhengelände” also presents problems. Hofmann’s “at altitude” suggests a location that is very high indeed (perhaps even an airplane flight), whilst Paisey’s “highland Landscape” seems to place the experience in Scotland. Hamburg is more accurate with his “mountain landscape”. “In the mountains” is an alternative.

 

Nie eine Oper komponiert,

keine Symphonie,

nur diese tragischen Progressionen

aus artistischer Überzeugung

und mit einer kleinen Hand.

 

He composed no operas,

no symphonies,

only those tragic progressions

from artistic conviction

and with a small hand. (Hofmann)

 

Never composed an opera,

no symphony,

only these tragic progressions

out of artistic conviction

and with a slender hand. (Hamburger)

 

Never composed an opera

or a symphony,

only these tragic progressions

from artistic conviction

and with a small hand. (Paisey)

The poem ends, as it had begun, by telling us what Chopin could not do: he was not (and here the autobiographical parallels with Benn himself are striking) a producer of monumental works for the concert hall (and once again the public/ private equation is maintained).  Chopin looked inwards, to create art out of personal pain and artistic conviction.

The translators are in general agreement here. Differences only appear with the translation of “klein” for the size/shape of Chopin’s hand. Hofmann and Paisey choose the obvious “small”; Hamburger prefers “slender”, which is in keeping with the other references to Chopin’s body in the poem and lends the hand an elegance that it possibly possessed but which is not communicated in the very factual epithet “klein”.

With Chopin’s hand, we move from what he could not say with his mouth, the public organ of communication, in the first stanza, to what he can “say” with his debilitated hand, in the final stanza. The lines represent a clear act of sympathy, which takes place in spite of the vaunted impersonality of the poem. For the composer’s hand is also the poet’s hand, and shared by all who write, such as Gottfried Benn.

My translation (which differs slightly from the version in The Poems) =

Not particularly forthcoming in conversation,

opinions were not his strength;

opinions talk around the subject.

Whenever Delacroix formulated his theories,

he became ill at ease. For his part,

he could not provide a justification for his nocturnes.

 

A poor lover,

a mere shadow in Nohant,

where George Sand’s children

refused to accept his advice on their education.

 

Consumptive of the kind

with bleeding and scar formations,

a protracted ailment.

A quiet death

in contrast to one with paroxysms of pain

or one by a rifle salvo.

They brought his grand piano (an Erard) to his door,

and Delfina Potocka

sang the song of violets

in his final hour.

 

He travelled to England with three grand pianos:

a Pleyel, an Erard, a Broadwood,

played a quarter of an hour

every evening for twenty guineas

for the Rothschilds, the Wellingtons, in Strafford House

and to numerous Orders of the Garter.

Downcast through fatigue and the approach of death

he returned home

to the Square d’ Orléans.

 

Then he burnt all his sketches and manuscripts,

no drafts, no fragments, no notes should remain:

those insights that betray.

At the end he said:

“my efforts were simply in proportion to that which was in my power to achieve”.

 

Every finger was to play

to its strength.

The fourth was the weakest

(mere Siamese twin to the middle-finger).

When he started playing, they came to rest

on E, F sharp, G sharp, B, C.

 

Whoever heard him play

any of his preludes,

whether it was in a country house or in mountain retreat

or from the open terrace doors of a sanatorium, for example,

will never forget them.

 

Never composed an opera,

a symphony neither.

Only those tragic progressions

out of artistic conviction,

and with a slender hand.

 

 

IX Comparing translations of Ikarus/ Icarus

The three-part poem Ikarus/ Icarus was published in the Expressionist journal, Die weissen Blätter, in May 1915, and then in Benn’s volume Fleisch (Flesh) in 1917.  In Greek mythology, Icarus donned wings of wax made by his father, the legendary artificer, Daedalus, who warned his son not to fly too close to the sun. Icarus, in an act of hubris, ignored this advice and, his wings melted, fell into the sea. In Benn’s poem, Icarus is depicted as an overreaching figure who, seeking that wholeness of instinctual life achieved by animal life, attempts to escape his earth-bound mind and the restrictions on it imposed by reason and (self)consciousness. The poem is formally inventive. There is no consistent rhyme. The metre is largely iambic, the line lengths vary from pentameter to monometer and are frequently broken up through caesuras and abrasive syntax to force reversals into dactylic and spondee forms, which create at times an effect that borders upon sprung rhythm. The stanzas are of dramatically varying lengths, which mirror the urgent steps of Icarus’ transformative journey, and there is pointed use of rhetorical constructions, such as the anaphor. The first stanza vividly states the major theme of the poem: the longed-for dissolution of the rational mind through Dionysian excess and its (re)absorption into nature. Icarus is here possessed by enthousiasmos, a feeling of god-like intoxication, as he contemplates his journey to the skies, preparing himself by drawing, in the heat of the midday sun, the potent poppy to his forehead:

 

I

O Mittag, der mit heißem Heu mein Hirn

zu Wiese, flachem Land und Hirten schwächt,

daß ich hinrinne und, den Arm im Bach,

den Mohn an meine Schläfe ziehe —

o du Weithingewölbter, enthirne doch

stillflügelnd über Fluch und Gram

des Werdens und Geschehns

mein Auge.

Noch durch Geröll der Halde, noch durch Land-aas,

verstaubendes, durch bettelhaft Gezack

der Felsen – überall das tiefe Mutterblut, die strömende

entstirnte

matte

Getragenheit.

 

Das Tier lebt Tag um Tag

und hat an seinem Euter kein Erinnern,

der Hang schweigt seine Blume in das Licht

und wird zerstört.

 

Nur ich, mit Wächter zwischen Blut und Pranke,

ein hirnzerfressenes Aas, mit Flüchen

im Nichts zergellend, bespien mit Worten,

veräfft vom Licht —
o du Weithingewölbter,

träuf meinen Augen eine Stunde

des guten frühen Voraugenlichts –-

schmilz hin den Trug der Farben, schwinge

die kotbedrängten Höhlen in das Rauschen

gebäumter Sonnen, Sturz der Sonnen-sonnen,

o aller Sonnen ewiges Gefälle —

 

II

Das Hirn frißt Staub. Die Füße fressen Staub.

Wäre das Auge rund und abgeschlossen,

dann bräche durch die Lider süße Nacht,

Gebüsch und Liebe.

Aus Dir, du süßes Tierisches,

aus euern Schatten, Schlaf und Haar,

muß ich mein Hirn besteigen, Alle Windungen,

das letzte Zwiegespräch –

 

III

So sehr am Strand, so sehr schon in der Barke

im krokosfarbnen Kleide der Geweihten

und um die Glieder schon den leichten Flaum –

Ausrauschst Du aus den Falten, Sonne,

allnächtlich Welten in den Raum –

o eine der vergeßlich hingesprühten

mit junger Glut die Schläfe mir zerschmelzend,

auftrinkend das entstirnte Blut –

 

I will consider the following translations =

Michael Hamburger, “Icarus”. In Primal Vision: Selected Writings of Gottfried Benn, edited E.B. Ashton (London: Marion Boyars, 1976 [1960]), pp. 228-232.

J.M. Ritchie, “Icarus”. In J.M. Ritchie, Gottfried Benn: The Unreconstructed Expressionist (London: Oswald Wolff, 1972), pp. 111–112.

I

O Mittag, der mit heißem Heu mein Hirn

zu Wiese, flachem Land und Hirten schwächt,

daß ich hinrinne und, den Arm im Bach,

den Mohn an meine Schläfe ziehe —

o du Weithingewölbter, enthirne doch

stillflügelnd über Fluch und Gram

des Werdens und Geschehns

mein Auge.

Noch durch Geröll der Halde, noch durch Land-aas,

verstaubendes, durch bettelhaft Gezack

der Felsen – überall

das tiefe Mutterblut, die strömende

entstirnte

matte

Getragenheit.

 

I

O noon that with hot hay reduce

my brain to meadow, shepherds and flat land,

so that I flow away, my arm immersed

in the stream’s water, and to my brow

draw close the poppies – noon that’s vaulted wide,

now mutely winging above the curse and grief

of all that is and will be,

unbrain my eye.

Still through the hillside boulders, still through

land-carrion,

turning to dust, through beggarly sharp shapes

of rocks – still everywhere

deep mother-blood, this streaming

deforeheaded

weary

drifting away. (Hamburger)

 

I

Oh, noontide, that with hot hay reduces

my brain to meadow, flat land and shepherd,

so that I flow away, and, with my arm

in the stream, draw poppies to my temples –

O high wide-vaulted one, silently

borne on wings above the curse and woes

of creation and events

unbrain my eye.

Still through the debris of the hillside,

still through the land-carrion,

turning to dust, through the cringeing zigzag

of rock face – everywhere

the deep motherblood, the cascading

deforeheaded

sluggard

cradling. (Ritchie)

 

Icarus invokes the preceding deity of noon with the interjection “O Mittag”. Should this interjection be translated as “O” or “Oh”? Both are possible in English. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, “O” is prefixed to a name in the vocative, as a wish or entreaty (“O my Lord”, for example); whereas “Oh” is used to express pain or surprise. The dictionary also notes that “O” has become archaic, and that “Oh” can be used for both of the above purposes. Once we have made the choice between “O” and “Oh” we should, however, be consistent and not use both, as Ritchie does. Both translators agree on how to translate the key terms in the opening lines, including “schwächt”, which they translate as “reduce” (although for some reason Hamburger puts the verb in the imperative form, perhaps in a continuation of the apostrophe, although that is not grammatically possible after “that”). A more literal translation would be “weaken”, “dampen” or “sap”, the sense being that the heat of the day is supressing Icarus’ rational faculties, making possible a greater instinctual encounter with the world. In this sense, “schwächt” should be seen, not as a loss but as gain.

A second apostrophising quickly follows in the shape of “O du Weithingewölbter”. The “Weithingewölbter” is translated as “noon that’s vaulted wide” by Hamburger (who omits the “O” and does not indent to a new line) and “O high wide-vaulted one” (Ritchie). What is being referred to is the sky at noon, when it is at its most expansive, as it curves around the apex of the day. “Weithingewölbter” is a wonderfully generous neologism, an adjective formed from the verb “wölben” (meaning to arch or curve, like a cupola in a church) that has then been turned into a noun. Ritchie’s “high wide-vaulted one” is a literal translation, but Hamburg is surely correct in preferring to retain it as an adjective and in attaching it to the noun “noon”, which is its most logical association. The “Weithingewölbter” is a symbol of potency, and Icarus invokes it as a transformative power (almost in celestial terms, as if the sky at noon is not just a higher but a Higher power) that will allow him to reach an elemental state of being through his flight.

Icarus exhorts the “Weithingewölbter” to “enthirne[n] … mein Auge”, which receives the shared translation “unbrain my eye” (Hamburger and Ritchie). This, and the later epithet, “entstirnte” (line 13), need to be discussed together. When it is used as self-standing noun, “Hirn” simply translates as “brain”. But when it forms part of a compound noun, matters are more complex. Both “enthirnen” and “entstirnen” are challenging neologisms, and part of the distinctive idiom of Gottfried Benn’s early poetry. The stem “Stirn” means “forehead” or “brow” in German, and the “ent” prefix suggests a movement away from or an undoing of the latter, in this case the brow or brain. It is important to recognise that “Stirn” and “Hirn” are metonyms that in this poem and elsewhere in Benn’s poetry stand for the mind in its rational/logical form.  Both Hamburger and Ritchie choose literal translations, “unbrain” and “deforeheaded” respectively, but these terms are overly visceral, and have connotations of a medical operation.  The alternative is a paraphrase such as “divest my eye of reason” (for “enthirne[n] … mein Auge”), and “mind-less” or “mind-shorn” (for “entstirnte”).

Icarus entreats the great expanse of the noonday sky to free him from the concerns “des Werdens und Geschehns” and allow him a deeper encounter with the world beyond its routine movement of “becoming and happening” (the literal translation). Hamburger’s “of all that is and will be” is an elegant paraphrase, as is Ritchie’s “of creation”, but his “and events” for “Geschehens” is perhaps a little too prosaic. The sentiments are existential-metaphysical, and their universal quality needs to be retained. “Being and becoming” would be another possibility

Icarus continues his journey through the surrounding wasteland: “noch durch Geröll der Halde, noch durch Land-aas, / verstaubendes, durch bettelhaft Gezack”. The brittle aridity of the landscape is reconstructed onomatopoeically through a combination of extended and pinched vowel sounds and through the anaphoric “durch” and “noch”, which emphasise its monotony. These effects are almost impossible to reproduce in English, although Ritchie tries with his “cringing zig-zag”. Under this landscape runs “tiefe Mutterblut” (“deep motherblood seems the only possible translation). Is this instinctual life as opposed to barren (male?) rationality, and “deep” because it lies beneath the arid landscape, as it does beneath the arid mind, waiting to be sourced? The invocation of motherblood precedes a concatenation of monometric epithets: “strömende”, “entstirnte” and “matte”, all of which define “Getragenheit”. “Strömend” is translated as “streaming” (Hamburger) and “cascading” (Ritchie), who may be seeking to communicate the plenitude of the flowing, but the text does not support this. “Matte” is translated as “weary” (Hamburger) and “Sluggard” (Ritchie). The latter, however, means a lazy person and can only be used as a noun. “Dull”, “feeble”, “weak” are alternatives. What “Getragenheit” (a neologism formed from the past tense of “tragen”, to carry or to bear) means or even refers to is not at all clear. It might apply to the countryside that surrounds Icarus, or simply be a descriptor of his general physical situation, the product of the warm day and the hot sun? But the fact that it is “entstirnte” (“mind-less”) suggests that it refers to Icarus and his mental state, as he prepares for flight. Hamburger translates it as “drifting away”, whilst Ritchie chooses “cradling” (Ritchie). “Cradling” when used as a noun is an architectural term, meaning a framework for supporting a curved ceiling, and as a verb it means to hold gently. Neither possibility really works. “Getragenheit” communicates a sense of being borne away, of completion, a final state, as if Icarus has reached a final point where he can contemplate flight. Is “Getragenheit” in apposition to “Mutterblut”? The vitalism of the latter would seem to contradict the passivity of the latter. Or perhaps it forces us to review “Getragenheit” as something more positive: a motherblood that bears us along simply because it is. This opening section continues:

Das Tier lebt Tag um Tag

und hat an seinem Euter kein Erinnern,

der Hang schweigt seine Blume in das Licht

und wird zerstört.

 

Nur ich, mit Wächter zwischen Blut und Pranke,

ein hirnzerfressenes Aas, mit Flüchen

im Nichts zergellend, bespien mit Worten,

veräfft vom Licht —

 

o du Weithingewölbter, träuf meinen Augen eine Stunde

des guten frühen Voraugenlichts –-

schmilz hin den Trug der Farben, schwinge

die kotbedrängten Höhlen in das Rauschen

gebäumter Sonnen, Sturz der Sonnen-sonnen,

o aller Sonnen ewiges Gefälle —

 

The animal lives only for the day

and in its udder has no memory,

the slope in silence brings its flowers to light

and is destroyed.

 

I only, with a sentry between blood and claw.

mere brain-devoured carrion, shrieking and cursing

plunged

into annihilation, bespat with words,

aped by the light –-

 

O noon that’s vaulted wide,

but for one hour infuse my eyes

with that good light which was before eyes were –-

melt down the life of colors, hurl

these cavities pressed by filth into the roar

of rearing suns, whirl of the suns of suns,

o everlasting fall of the suns –- Hamburger).

 

The animal lives for the day

and has no memory in its dugs,

the slope pushes its flower in silence to the light

and is destroyed.

Only I, with sentry between blood and claw,

brain gnawed carrion with screaming

curses dying in the void, bespat with words,

made monkey of by the light –-

O high wide-vaulted one,

balm my eyes for an hour

with the healing early pre-eye light –-

melt away the life of colours, hurl

the mud-caked caves into the ecstasy

of high rearing suns, crash of suns of suns

O eternal casting down of all suns – (Ritchie).

 

Both Hamburger and Ritchie largely agree on how to translate the initial quatrain. In comparison with the restless syntax of the opening line, the syntax of these lines, with their flowing enjambments and iambic metre, is calm, balanced, which befits the image of a nature at ease with itself, complete in its ephemeral innocence. Unlike humankind, nature has no notion of the future or the past. This equipoise is radically undone in the lines that follow, which reintroduce Icarus and his tormented sensibility. In a single sentence without main verbs, the metre now becomes dactylic, and the lines fractured with frequent caesuras, appropriate to a portrait of self-loathing. The theme, once again, is of Icarus and his mind, which is divided by a “Wächter” (“sentry”) that acts as an inhibiting conscience preventing wishes or desires (literally “Blut”/ “blood”) turning into deeds (the “claw of “Pranke’). Icarus’ consciousness is “hirnzerfressenes”. “Zerfressen” means to corrode, but a more literal sense of something “eaten away” can clearly be discerned. Neither “brain-devoured” (Hamburger) nor “brain gnawed” (Paisey) is quite right. The other enemies of instinctual life, words and light, are now invoked. Icarus is “bespien mit Worten”, spat upon with or by words (but not “bespat”, which is archaic), and “veräfft vom Licht”, made a monkey of by light (but not “aped” Hamburger, which means to imitate someone).

To free himself from this bondage, Icarus turns once again in the next stanza to the celestial power of the great expanse of the sun and sky, pleading that it should purge his sight of the deception and the filth of the rational mind. It is important to recognise that the key terms of the passage are ocular and relate back to “Augen” (“eyes’). If we retain these as our point of reference, it is obvious that “Höhlen” should not be translated as “cavities” (Hamburger) or “caves” (Ritchie) but refer to eye sockets. Icarus seeks to replace these debased forms of perception with a more primeval way of seeing, which he calls “guten frühen Voraugenlichts”. Hamburger translates this as the “good light which was before eyes were” and Ritchie as “the healing early pre-eye light”. Both communicate the meaning of Benn’s words but do not work as (spoken) poetry. An alternative might be “good early light of primal vision”. Attaining this form of revitalised sight is a precondition for Icarus’ flight, which he now undertakes in a flurry of solar energy, conjured up by Benn in two remarkable lines of heavily alliterated apposition formed around a series of “Sonnen” (“suns”) substantives, whose vitalistic energy is now invoked by Icarus as he prepares for flight.

 

II

Das Hirn frißt Staub. Die Füße fressen Staub.

Wäre das Auge rund und abgeschlossen,

dann bräche durch die Lider süße Nacht,

Gebüsch und Liebe.

Aus Dir, du süßes Tierisches,

aus euern Schatten, Schlaf und Haar,

muß ich mein Hirn besteigen, Alle Windungen,

das letzte Zwiegespräch –

 

II

The brain eats dust. Our feet devour the dust.

If but the eye were round and self-contained

then through the lids sweet night would enter in,

brushwood and love.

From you, the sweetly bestial,

from out your shadows, sleep and hair,

I must bestride my brain,

all loops and turns,

the ultimate duologue – (Hamburger).

 

The brain eats dust. The feet eat dust.

Were only the eye rounded and complete,

then sweet night would break in through the lids,

bracken and love.

Away from you, sweet bestial,

from your shadows, sleep and hair,

must I bestraddle my brain,

all the contortions,

the final tête-à-tête – (Ritchie).

 

“Das Hirn frißt Staub. Die Füße fressen Staub”. Icarus returns to earth, alive or dead, or perhaps both. The parallel construction emphasises the abrupt finality of his descent and should be retained in translation, which Paisey does. Hamburger’s “The brain eats dust. Our feet devour the dust” unnecessarily introduces a mysterious third-person subject, perhaps precisely to avoid the repetition.  We are then told (but by whom?): “Wäre das Auge rund und abgeschlossen,/ dann bräche durch die Lider süße Nacht,/ Gebüsch und Liebe”. The discursive thrust of Benn’s poem draws its energy from the obliteration of distinctions between affirmation and negation, self-assertion and vulnerability, allowing Icarus’ narrative of dissolution to be stated in the imperative form. Benn’s cryptic lines in this second section of his poem emerge from a clear enunciating self, one who not only seems to be alive to the world but capable of intellectually speculating (the initial two verbs are in the subjunctive) on the preconditions for the renewal of selfhood. The terms are both ocular and visceral: we return to the need to renew our vision of the world, to achieve a wholeness that would include the secrets of the night, perhaps the fantasy of dreams, vegetative life and love. It is out of this realm of the “sweet animal”, out of its dark secrets and gross physicality, the rag and bone detritus of personhood that (and the sentiments are generalisable) we must draw, to move beyond the sterile artifice of the civilised mind.

Both translators agree on the animalistic terms of this renewal, but the pivotal phrase, “mein Hirn besteigen” (Icarus’ ultimate goal), however, poses difficulties. For “besteigen”, Hamburger chooses “bestride” and Ritchie “bestraddle”. Both mean to remain on the chosen object and move with it. But this is not Icarus’ goal. He seeks to overcome the mind, moving not with it but beyond it. “Besteigen” in Benn’s use is closer to “climb” or “ascend”, as a mountain is climbed, as he traverses the “Windungen” that are the obstacles in his quest for a final dialogue with the self.  “Windungen” are translated as “loops and turns” (Hamburger) and “contortions” (Ritchie). “Convolutions” (since we have here returned to the theme of the debilitating complexity of the mind) is also possible.

 

III

So sehr am Strand, so sehr schon in der Barke

im krokosfarbnen Kleide der Geweihten

und um die Glieder schon den leichten Flaum –

Ausrauschst Du aus den Falten, Sonne,

allnächtlich Welten in den Raum –

o eine der vergeßlich hingesprühten

mit junger Glut die Schläfe mir zerschmelzend,

auftrinkend das entstirnte Blut –

 

So near the beach, so much embarked already

dressed in the victim’s crocus-coloured garment,

and round your limbs the light and delicate down –

O sun, you rustle forth from out your folds

each night new universes into space –

Oh, one of these, obliviously scattered here

with its young glow is melting down my temples,

drinks my deforeheaded blood. (Hamburger)

 

So much so on the strand, so much so in the skiff,

in the crocus coloured gown of the victim,

and already round the limbs the delicate down –

you burst forth, sun, from the folds

each night new worlds into space –

O, one of these, absent-mindedly puffed this way

with it primeval furnace glow melts down my

temples,

drinking up my deforeheaded blood – (Ritchie).

 

The dead/reborn Icarus is carried across the Lethe, as a supplicant in a Greek cult or religion, perhaps one consecrated to Apollo, the god of music and poetry, but also of sun and light. The initial line of the stanza, “so sehr am Strand, so sehr schon in der Barke”, has proved difficult to translate. Hamburger’s “so much embarked already”, and Paisey’s “so much so on the strand”, are not idiomatic English. Matters are confounded by the fact that the second phrase in the line should logically (if logic is what we want) precede the former. The anaphoric “so sehr” phrase is an adverbial phrase and is used, as with temporal signifiers in the poem such as “noch” and “schon”, to create a sense of urgency to Icarus’ plight. Icarus is already near the shore (but probably not “beach”, Paisey), and in a boat or ferry (but not a “skiff”, which is a sporting vessel). He is described as a “Geweihten”. This is a “supplicant” not a “victim” (Hamburger and Ritchie), someone who has willingly joined, indeed consecrated themselves to a cult or religious movement, and who has, as perhaps here, offered himself as a sacrifice to the gods.

There are no main verbs in this concluding stanza other than “ausrauschst” (you “rustle forth”, Hamburger; Paisey prefers the more dynamic you “burst forth”).  “Ausrauschst” acts both as description and invocation. The sun is exhorted to allow one of its solar off-spring “Welten” (“worlds”, according to Paisey; but Hamburger’s “universes” is insufficiently material) to consume Icarus and finally rid his blood (his inner, instinctual life) of the last vestige of (self)consciousness. The poem returns in these final lines to the key tropes of the opening stanza: sun, mind/brain and blood (now perhaps offered up in act of symbolic union with the preceding motherblood), restating these tropes in present participles “zerschmelzend” (“melting”) and “auftrinkend” (consuming but literally “drinking up”), as if to describe an Icarus who has gone nowhere, not even into a wished-for death, but remains open to a process that cannot come to rest.  Neither Hamburger nor Ritchie are happy without a main verb and choose the present tense, although with two different verbs: “drinks”, in the case of Hamburger, “melts down”, in the case of Ritchie, both seeking a closure to Icarus’ plight and to the poem. But Benn’s text has resisted this throughout, because whilst the subject of the poem is the flight of Icarus, the poem, eschewing the narrative trajectory of the Greek legend, turns the Icarus myth inwards, in favour of an articulation of a sensibility in extremis, whose state of being is the ever-present.

 

My translation:

I

Oh midday, that with scorched hay dims my brain

to field, flat land and shepherd,

so that I flow away and, arm in the stream,

draw poppies to my brow –

Oh you, expanse of sky,

drifting over curse and sorrow,

being and becoming,

divest my eye of vision.

On through the rubble of the hillside,

on through the carrion of the land,

turning to dust,

on through the miserly jagged shapes

of rocks – everywhere

deep motherblood: streaming,

mind-less

drained

borne away.

 

The animal lives only for the day

and in suckling has no memory.

The slope in silence brings its flower to light,

and is destroyed.

 

Only I, with sentry between blood and paw,

a carrion eaten away by mind, with curses

screaming into the void, spat upon by words,

mocked by the light –

 

Oh, you expanse of sky

balm my eyes for an hour

with that good early light of primal vision –

melt away the lie of colours,

hurl these sockets pressed by filth into the roar

of rearing suns, the whirl of the suns of suns,

oh, the eternal fall of all suns –

 

II

My brain eats dust. My feet eat dust.

If only my eye were round and complete,

then through their lids would break

sweet night, brush-wood and love.

Out of you, my sweet animal,

out of your shadows, sleep and hair,

I must ascend my brain,

all its convolutions,

the final dialogue.

 

III

So near to the shore, already in the ferry,

in the crocus-coloured garments of the supplicant.

and around my limbs the delicate down –

Oh sun! Every night from out of your folds

you roar new worlds into space –

Oh, that one of these, sprayed forth in oblivion,

freshly ablaze, would melt my temples,

and consume my mind-less blood!

 

X Comparing translations of Kann Keine Trauer sein/ No need for sorrow

Gottfried Benn wrote Kann keine Trauer sein / No need for sorrow in 1956. He added the exact date of its composition, the 6.1.1956, after the final lines of the poem because, dying of cancer, Benn wanted the poem to be seen as his final poetic gesture. The poem is marked throughout by negatives: signifiers of loss, bereavement, the end. And yet it begins with a disclaimer of a negative: an exhortation to the reader, loved ones and family alike, that the death of the poet should not be an occasion for regret: this is a valediction forbidding mourning. We recognize the end for what it is, and accept it.

The clear tripartite structure of the poem reflects both the clarity of the argument being made and the composed mentality of the lyrical subject who is making the argument. Indeed, the rhetoric­al power of the poem arises from a juxtaposition of the existential gravity of the subject matter and the nonchalant stoicism exhibited by the poem’s persona, whose presence is established through language that eschews any sentimentality or self-pity. The poem employs a quasi-parlando reportage style up until the final stanza, where it moves into a heightened mode of ellipsis, with a series of key substantives that carry its central themes. Until that point the language is understated, willfully descriptive, and the tone throughout conversational, almost casual. The conventionally poetic has been banned from this world, as has the classical forms of the elegy and lament, a practice in keeping with the philosophy of heroic nihilism that Benn had put at the centre of his life and work:

The poem begins by considering the deaths of some of Germany’s greatest poets and (with Nietzsche) greatest thinkers. Once so expansive in word and deed, these exemplary figures of the creative mind are now restricted to the wooden beds that they lie upon, confined (metonymically) to their coffins. They leave this life and its materiality behind; they, along with their death beds, have become rubble, junk. These protagonists of the mind now dwell within the realm of pure immateriality, entering a mode of existence that is un­fathomable, indescribable, without content, but is eternal. This is a world that Benn now joins.

In jenem kleinen Bett, fast Kinderbett, starb die Droste
(zu sehn in ihrem Museum in Meersburg),
auf diesem Sofa Hölderlin im Turm bei einem Schreiner,
Rilke, George wohl in Schweizer Hospitalbetten,
in Weimar lagen die großen schwarzen Augen
Nietzsches auf einem weißen Kissen
bis zum letzten Blick −
alles Gerümpel jetzt oder garnicht mehr vorhanden,
unbestimmbar, wesenlos
im schmerzlos-ewigen Zerfall.

Wir tragen in uns Keime aller Götter,
das Gen des Todes und das Gen der Lust −
wer trennte sie: die Worte und die Dinge,
wer mischte sie: die Qualen und die Statt,
auf der sie enden, Holz mit Tränenbächen,
für kurze Stunden ein erbärmlich Heim.

Kann keine Trauer sein. Zu fern, zu weit,
zu unberührbar Bett und Tränen,
kein Nein, kein Ja,
Geburt und Körperschmerz und Glauben
ein Wallen, namenlos, ein Huschen,
ein Überirdisches, im Schlaf sich regend,
bewegte Bett und Tränen −
schlafe ein!

I shall compare the following translations:

Teresa Iverson, “No Mourning”. In www.bu.edu/agni/poetry/print/2002/56-benn.html. Last consulted 15 March 2018.

Michael Hofmann “Can be no sorrow”.  In Impromptus: Selected Poems, translated by Michael Hofmann (London: Faber & Faber, 2013), p. 1.

David Paisey, “Can be no mourning”. In Gottfried Benn: Selected Poems and Prose (Manchester: Carcanet, 2013), p. 321.

Michael Hamburger, “No Mourning’s Possible”. In Gottfried Benn: Prose, Essays, Poems, edited by Volkmar Sandar (New York: Continuum, 1987), p. 289.

Differences (indeed, problems) in translating appear as early as the chosen titles, which are: “No Mourning” (Iverson,) “Can be no sorrow” (Hofmann),“Can be no mourning” (Paisey), and “No Mourning’s Possible” (Hamburger). “Trauer” in German means both “mourning’ and “sorrow”, and either is a possible translation here. The problems come with how to embed it in a meaningful statement. Iverson’s abrupt “No Mourning” hovers awkwardly between description and imperative, whilst Hamburger’s No Mourning’s Possible” contradicts the sense of the poem. Mourning is indeed possible (indeed, some might expect it), but the poet is asking us to dispense with it, and stoically accept the inescapable fact of death. Paisey’s “Can be no mourning” and Hofmann’s “Can be no sorrow” are more accurate. The first stanza reads:

In jenem kleinen Bett, fast Kinderbett, starb die Droste
(zu sehn in ihrem Museum in Meersburg),
auf diesem Sofa Hölderlin im Turm bei einem Schreiner,
Rilke, George wohl in Schweizer Hospitalbetten,
in Weimar lagen die großen schwarzen Augen
Nietzsches auf einem weißen Kissen
bis zum letzten Blick −
alles Gerümpel jetzt oder garnicht mehr vorhanden,
unbestimmbar, wesenlos
im schmerzlos-ewigen Zerfall.

 

In that small bed, almost a child’s bed, Droste died
(you can see it in her museum in Meersburg),
on this sofa, Hölderlin in a carpenter’s tower
Rilke, George, probably in Swiss hospital beds
in Weimar, Nietzsche’s great black eyes
lay on a white pillow
until their last look—
all junk now or no longer at hand
indefinite, without essence
in painless immortal decay.(Iverson)

 

That narrow cot, hardly any bigger than a child’s, is where Droste died

(it’s there in her museum in Meersburg),

on that sofa Hölderlin in his tower room at the carpenter’s,

Rilke and George in hospital beds presumably, in Switzerland,

in Weimar, Nietzsche’s great black eyes

rested on white pillows

till they looked their last—

all of it junk now, or no longer extant,

unattributable, anonymous

in its insentient and continual disintegration. (Hofmann)

 

In that little bed, almost a child’s bed, Droste died

(on show in her museum in Meersburg),

on this sofa Hölderlin in the tower, in a joiner’s care,

Rilke, George probably in Swiss hospital beds,

in Weimar the great dark eyes of Nietzsche

lay on a white pillow –

all lumber now or no more extant,

unidentifiable, unreal

in painless-eternal decay. (Paisey)

 

In that small bed, a child’s cot almost, Droste died

(to be seen in her Meersburg museum),

on this sofa Hölderlin at a carpenter’s, in his tower,

in Swiss hospital beds, probably, Rilke and Stefan George,

in Weimar the staring black eyes of Nietzsche

lay on a white pillow

up to the last look –

all lumber now or not extant at all,

indefinable, without quiddity,

in its painlessly timeless decay. (Hamburger)

 

The first stanza describes the modest circumstances in which Annette von Droste-Hülshoff, Friedrich Hölderlin, Rainer Maria Rilke, Stefan George, and Friedrich Nietzsche spent their final hours. Their possessions are now rubble or have gone entirely. These great figures of the German mind have left nothing behind, other than their work and the presence of lives lived. There is general agreement on how to translate the opening lines. Droste died in her little bed, which is now in her museum in Meersburg (although Paisey’s “on show” makes it sound like it is an exhibition); Hölderlin died on a sofa in his room in a tower that was owned by a carpenter, who looked after the poet; Rilke and George almost certainly (“wohl”) in their respective hospices (but not “hospitals”) in Switzerland; and Nietzsche died in Weimar, where he lay with his big dark eyes (but not “black eyes” – his philosophy may have been pugilistic, but he wasn’t), on a pillow, awaiting his end.

Major differences between the translators only emerge in the two final lines of the stanza describing the “Gerümpel” (“junk”), which is “unbestimmbar, wesenlos/ im schmerzlos-ewigen Zerfall”. Their material world is no more, and Benn attempts to capture that process of dissolution in a series of short succinct epithets. “Unbestimmbar” means “indefinable” or “indeterminate” (the opposite of something that can be determined, from “bestimmen”, “to determine”), whilst “wesenlos” is also a negation, this time of “Wesen” (‘being”, “existing”). Hofmann stresses the impersonal nature of the process, but bends the sense a little with his “unattributable, anonymous”. Iverson prefers the more literal “indefinite, without essence”; Paisey chooses “unidentifiable, unreal”, which suggests that the process taking place is somehow not “real’. But it is “real”, although the reality it possesses cannot be determined in any simple way. Hamburger’s “indefinable, without quiddity” introduces a term drawn from medieval philosophy (from the Latin “quidditas”, meaning the tangibility or “whatness” of something), and is stylistically at odds with the overall linguistic register of the poem, which is precise, but conversational (“parlando”) and relaxed in tone.  There is general agreement about how to translate the final line: everything takes place without pain, in the gentle process of eternal dissolution.

As if to act as a counterpoise to stanza 1, which is discon­cert­ing­ly factual in its alignment of the dying poets with their incongruously simple environments, the second stanza moves into a meta­­physical ambit, providing Benn’s final views on selfhood and personal identity. The atavistic traces of earlier, deeper forms of exist­ence still dwell within us, but they have been prevented from forming a unity because of “die Worte” (the language of rational discourse) and “die Dinge” (the gross facticity of the object world):

Wir tragen in uns Keime aller Götter,
das Gen des Todes und das Gen der Lust −
wer trennte sie: die Worte und die Dinge,
wer mischte sie: die Qualen und die Statt,
auf der sie enden, Holz mit Tränenbächen,
für kurze Stunden ein erbärmlich Heim.

 

We carry in us seeds of all the gods
the germ of death and germ of happiness,
whoever divides them: the words and things,
whoever mixes them: agony and the place
where they end, wood and flowing tears,
for a few hours, a pitiful home. (Iverson)

 

We bear within us the seeds of all the gods,

the gene of death and the gene of love—

who separated them, the words and things,

who blended them, the torments and the place where they come to an end,

the few boards and the floods of tears,

home for a few wretched hours. (Hofmann)

 

We carry in us seeds of all the gods,

the gene of death and the gene of bliss –

who could separate them: words and things,

who mingle them: torment and the place

they end in, wood and streaming tears,

for brief hours a pitiful home. (Paisey)

 

We bear inside us germs of all the gods,

the gene of death and the gene of lust –

who could divide them: the words and things,

who fuse them: the agonies and the frame

on which they end, boards with tear-runnels,

a pitiable home for a few hours. (Hamburger)

 

There is general agreement on how to translate these lines, although differences emerge over certain key words. We are told: “Wir tragen in uns Keime aller Götter”, meaning we bear or carry within us the seeds of all the gods. Hamburger translates “Keime” as “germs” which indeed is one dictionary definition of the word. In contemporary English, however, “germs” possesses largely negative connotations, being associated with bacteria detrimental to health. “Seeds”, although this is normally defined as “Samen” in German, is perhaps the best translation.  “Lust” also presents problems for the translators. It is a faux ami, because it looks exactly like the English word “lust” (and Hamburger translates it as such), but it is not. “Desire” is the standard dictionary definition. Nor does “Lust” mean “happiness” (Iverson) or “bliss” (Paisey) (we have known since Catullus that these two cannot be equated). Nor does “Lust” mean “love” (Hofmann). Desire has to do with the body; love has to do with emotions (and it is disappointing that such an accomplished poet should confuse the two).

The poet then asks (although there is no question mark): “wer trennte sie”. “Trennte” is simply the past tense of “trennen” (“to separate” or “to divide”), and should be translated as “separated” (Hofmann). “Who could divide them” (Hamburger) or “who could separate them” (Paisey) does not accord with the sense of the poem. The answer is: “die Worte und die Dinge”. In German, nouns, particularly when they are abstractions or generalisations, take a definite article, but it is not always necessary to retain it when translating them. “The words” in English suggests specific words. What Benn is referring to, however, is words in general, language. The simple “words and things” (Paisey) is more accurate here. There is general agreement on how to translate the remaining lines of the poem. “Holz mit Tränenbächen” is a metonym for a tear-drenched coffin. “Boards with tear-runnels” (Paisey) sound like a rather mysterious contraption. Whatever it is, this piece of wood is “für kurze Stunden ein erbärmlich Heim”. The meaning of “erbärmlich” in English moves across the denotations of “pitiful” and “pitiable”. It is a word that reflects the stoical philosophy of the poem,  which is formed around the tension between the negative and positive, between the recognition of death and the annihilation that it brings, on the one hand, and its necessary acceptance as part of the course of life, on the other. “Pitiful” (Iverson and Paisey) and “pitiable” (Hamburger) are both possible. “Wretched” (Hofmann) carries, however, the greater emotional weight.

As the final stanza makes clear, the non-material side of death is a mystery that admits to no easy yes or no.  Death stands entwined with life, and the poet outlines its course with three brusque substantives, “Geburt und Körperschmerz und Glauben”: birth, followed by entrapment within the body and, finally, the act of religious faith that attempts to transcend this physical process. The final lines suggest the ultimate attempts of the mind to come to terms with the experience of death: the mental stirrings on the edge of uncon­sciousness (“Schlaf”). Religion (in any formal sense), it is true, is absent; but as so often in Benn’s poetry, the sources of religion, registered as personal experience, are unmistakably (if, in semantic terms, ambiguously) articulated. The nameless wave, “Wallen”, is an abstract noun that suggests the process of flowing and the unfathomable motion of time, change and mutability. In the poem, such processes, in the midst of the act of dying, are associated with infinity and the scurrying of an external movement dimly registered. Our little life is rounded by a sleep. All that remains is for the body to be put in order (the moved bed), and the laconic valediction made: “schlafe ein!”, “sleep well!” (Hofmann).

Kann keine Trauer sein. Zu fern, zu weit,
zu unberührbar Bett und Tränen,
kein Nein, kein Ja,
Geburt und Körperschmerz und Glauben
ein Wallen, namenlos, ein Huschen,
ein Überirdisches, im Schlaf sich regend,
bewegte Bett und Tränen −
schlafe ein!

 

There can’t be any mourning. Too far, too wide,
too unfeeling bed and tears,
no yes, or no
birth and bodily pain and belief
a nameless wave, a flicker
a supernatural thing, stirring in sleep,
agitated bed and tears—
go to sleep! (Iverson)

 

Can be no sorrow. Too distant, too remote,

bed and tears too impalpable,

no No, no Yes,

birth and bodily pain and faith

an undefinable surge, a lurch,

a power stirring in its sleep

moved bed and tears—

sleep well! (Hofmann)

 

Can be no mourning. Too far, too distant,

too untouchable bed and tears,

no No, no Yes,

birth and bodily pain and belief

a pilgrimage, nameless, a slipping away,

more than earthly, that stirs in sleep,

and moved both bed and tears –

sleep now! (Paisey)

6.1.1956

 

No mourning’s possible. Too far away

and too impalpable the bed, the tears,

neither No or Yes,

our birth, the body’s pangs and faith,

a surging, nameless, a scurrying,

superterrestial stirring in our sleep,

it was that moved both bed and tears –

now go to sleep! (Hamburger)

 

The stanza opens with “kann keine Trauer sein”, a phrase that we have already discussed. Here “no mourning’s possible” (Hamburger) is an acceptable translation, because the poet goes on to specify the reasons why it is not possible: because the bed and tears are “too distant, too remote” (Hofmann). They are also “unberührbar”. This has been translated as “unfeeling” (Iverson), which turns them into a human subject, “impalpable” (Hamburger and Hofmann) and “untouchable” (Paisey), which is the literal translation. There is no simple response to the bed and tears, and what they represent: “kein Nein, kein Ja”. “Nein” and “Ja” are substantives and, therefore, have in German to be in the upper case. But there is no need to retain this in English. If we do, we monumentalise them (which is one possible interpretation), but putting them in the lower case is more in keeping with the understated tone of Benn’s language in this poem. There is general agreement on how to translate the final lines, except for a small number of key words. We are told that the bed and tears are moved by a “Wallen”. This is a noun that has been formed from a verb, meaning “to float” or “to flow”. It can also refer to a “pilgrimage” (Paisey), but that does not accord with the sense of the text. “Surge” (Hofmann) and “a surging” (Hamburger) are both possible, but they are a little energetic. “Wave” (Iverson) captures the more gentle process being described, of something ethereal that exists as a “nameless” (Hamburger, Iverson and Paisey) but also “undefinable” (Hofmann) presence behind the course of life.   Benn calls this presence “Überirdisches”, which indeed does normally translate as “supernatural” (Iverson) and perhaps even “superterrestrial” (Hamburger) (although both have connotations of arcane religions and science fiction respectively), but Paisey, with his paraphrase, “more than earthly”, is right in thinking that something else is meant here. What is being referred to is indeed “a power” (Hofmann), but it is a power that belongs to “something beyond this world”, and that might be an alternative translation. This power does not just “exist” (as I lamely put it above); it is a “Huschen”; it moves, the way small animals or even insects move. For this reason, “lurch” (Hofmann) is not appropriate: it is too abrupt and suggests inebriation. “Flicker” (Iverson) has more to do with light than movement and “a slipping away” (Paisey) suggests that whatever is being described here is going somewhere. “Scurrying” (Hamburger) captures best the busy and perhaps furtive movement of this something that resides in the shadow of our minds and being.

The poem ends with the exhortation: “schlaf ein!”. “Einschlafen” means “to go to sleep” or “fall asleep” and “schlaf ein” is the imperative form of the verb. It is a simple phrase but getting it exactly right is difficult. “Go to sleep” (Iverson) is probably the literal translation; “Sleep now!” (Paisey) does not sound idiomatic English; “now go to sleep!” (Hamburger) suggests impatience, the frustration of a parent with a child. “Sleep well!” (Hofmann) is probably the only appropriate translation. As we have just noted, the sentiments are cast in the imperative form, and all the translators have followed Benn in using an exclamation mark. This is almost certainly right. And yet, in a poem that has so subtly and skilfully avoided self-assertion and the strident, has kept its engagement with the world down to a sotto voce, the exclamation mark seems out of place; indeed, it seems to undo the entire logic of the poem, which argues, as we cross the fatal line, for acceptance and  abandonment of will. Perhaps we do not need it.

 

 

 

My translation:

 

In that small bed, almost a child’s bed, Droste died

(you can see it in her museum in Meersburg).

On this sofa Hölderlin, in the tower of a cabinet maker.

Rilke, George, probably in the beds of their Swiss hospices.

In Weimar, the head of Nietzsche, with his big dark eyes

on white pillows –

until the final stare.

It’s all junk now, or has already been thrown away.

Indeterminable, without substance,

and without pain, in eternal dissolution.

 

We bear within us the seeds from all the gods,

the genes of death and desire.

Who separated them? Words and things.

Who brought them together? Sorrow and the place

on which they will end: a piece of wood with wells of tears:

for a few short hours our wretched home.

 

No need for sorrow: too far, too distant,

untouchable, the bed and the tears.

Neither no, nor yes.

Birth, the pain of the body, and faith:

a wave, nameless, a scurrying

beyond this earth, stirring in our sleep,

moved both bed and tears –

Sleep well.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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