John Greening himself is a considerable poet and writer about poetry. His poetry, from what I have gleaned online, can be recondite, at least for this American reader. (A collection of his poetry for “American readers” has been published by Baylor U Press.) Take a poem entitled “Heath XXIX,” from a collection “about an airport and its surrounding area.” The collection, a joint project with the poet Penelope Shuttle, “merges voices on the impact of Heathrow Airport on Hounslow Heath, and the things we’ve lost as a result of it.” It turns out the heath on which the airport is located has a long history in the west and southwest of Britain. The venerable Bede is among the ghosts of this history, along with the Church of St. Mary the Virgin. Herewith the opening lines:
|Richard Wilson, Hounslow Heath (ca. 1770)|
Twenty-four thousand times in any year, lightning strikes
and kills. On the Heath, the timber shells, like bony Flemish spires,
point heavenwards in warning. The stags take note and bow their heads
at the sky’s first challenge, or hurl a bellowing peal back in defiance.
Besides his many books of poetry, Greening has published essays on poetry. One subject of interest is the poets of World War I. He is not a scholar of German literature, but he did spent time as a student in Mannheim, and even spent a summer in residence month living in the Heinrich Böll cottage in Dugort, Achill Island. In one of his essays, Greening addresses the issue of being a “European,” in which he takes on an “indigestible” essay by T.S. Eliot and considers his own bona fides on the issue. In this connection, he has translated Georg Heym, Georg Trakl, Ernst Stadler and August Stramm, “poets who wrote about (or anticipated, in Heym’s case) the First World War.”
German is an intransigent language to translate, even in prose. For those who do know German, I suspect their interest in translations of Goethe’s poetry will be attuned to issues of structure, rhythm, rhymes and meter, vocabulary, and the like, all of which render an inimitable musicality. That said, there is simply no way that English can match Goethe’s German, especially his musicality. For those who don’t know German, there remain some who might be interested in what the poetry has “to say.” For those potential readers, I suspect it is the content of his poetry, the “spirit,” that would be of interest. This has been called a “culture to culture” translation.
While aware of the semantic differences between German words and their English equivalents, Greening has sought to reproduce Goethe’s original meters. From my recent experience working on a translation of a German novella, rendering the different emotional expression that words convey is exceptionally frustrating. And German has these strange word formations, especially Goethe’s German.
Of course, a translator must render that content in a readable idiom. Here are a few lines from a stanza of “Willkommen und Abschied,” followed by Greening’s translation. The lines present a simple picture, easy to understand. We’re not talking Klopstock here. Someone with a couple years of German could recognize the different semantic values of the German vocabulary as well as the rhyme.
Der Mond von einem Wolkenhügel
Sah kläglich aus dem Duft hervor,
Die Winde schwangen leise Flügel,
Umsausten schauerlich mein Ohr.
Die Nacht schuf tausend Ungeheur,
Doch frisch und fröhlich war mein Mut:
In meinen Adern welches Feuer!
In meinem Herzen welche Glut!
The moon looked sadly through a veil
of cloud, the winds began to beat
soft whirring wings about me, till
my ears could no more bear, the night
revealed its thousand horror masks.
And yet my fiery spirits cheered,
hotly defying such grotesques,
from heart and veins the lava poured.
Greening has abandoned Goethe’s rhyme, and also the definitiveness of Goethe's couplets. In the process, however, the enjambment of the first five lines of his version intimates the flow of loving feeling between the speaker and his beloved. But, then, in the final three lines of the stanza, Greening abandons enjambment and follows Goethe: three stand-alone lines echo Goethe’s defiant response to the effect of the dark night and its accompanying grotesques.
|Ernst Barlach, Harzreise im Winter (1924)|
Images: The Tate; Art Net