Sunday, December 11, 2005

Setting the weathercock free

Reading a book of poems by the German poet Johann P. Tammen, recently published by Coiscéim.(Und Himmelwärts Meere/And Skyward the Seas/Farraigí i dTreo na Spéire . It's an unusual book in that it's trilingual, with translations into English by Hans-Christian Oeser (whose normal direction is English into German) and into Irish by Gabriel Rosenstock, whose own selected poems, Rogha Dánta, was published recently. It's rare enough these days to see poetry published bilingually, so seeing three languages side by side is a treat in itself, even if difficult to accomplish in a relatively small format book. Tammen was born in Hohenkirchen, Friesland and works as an editor and organiser of literary events. Since 1994 he's been editor-in-chief of the literary journal die horen, and has edited it since 1968. Since 1968? How is this possible? A literary journal with a print run of 5500, which celebrated its fiftieth anniversary this year. How many Irish journals get to celebrate their tenth anniversary? He has also ventured into book publication and one of the results is a series of books co-edited with Gregor Laschen devoted to 'Poesie der Nachbarn' (the neighbours' poetry), making available inn German selections from contemporary poets from an impressive range of other cultures.

In their afterword (and again what a civilised creature an afterword is, and how few books like this come freighted with any critical apparatus), the editors situate Tammen as 'clearly a poet from the North of Germany, deeply rooted in the austere landscape of his child- and adulthood, a denizen of the seaboard, that peculiar border zone between terra firma and the wide expanse of the sea, with its mud-flats, tides, channels, streams and groynes.' Not sure what a groyne is but I promise to find out. The editors also discuss the difficulties they had with the translations, not least, they say, because both English and Irish resist the kind of abstraction that German is quite at home with: 'Among readers of Irish there has always been a very strong gut reaction against the nebulous or the obscure....However well-intentioned the translator may be, the work of poets such as Johann P. Tammen will sound stutterish or maimed in Irish.' This is the eternal concern of poetry translators, who in the end have to be realistic about how far they can replicate the effects of the original. They have to respond to the particular genius of their own language. There's always too much talk about what translation misses, rather than about what it actually achieves. As Oeser/Rosenstock put it: ' Some literary and linguistic echoes – those specific to the German language - will, inevitably, be lost in translation. Nevertheless, we as translators affirm the importance of our art and craft because we reject a monochrome view of mankind and of the world.' And here's another bit I like: ' It may sound strange, but it is possible to read a poem without fully understanding it -- just as it is possible for a poet to write a poem that he does not fully understand himself.'

Time to see a translation, I think.

Johann P. Tammen

Kleine Aufforderung zur Freilassung des Wetterhahns

Holt doch endlich
den Hahn
vom Dach
seine Wetterfühligkeit
ist ihm schon lange
eine Last

über uns
thront er
Stunde für Stunde
Tag für Tag
mit beiden Beinen
an die Pflicht
sich drehend
sich windend
hoch über

holt ihn vom Dach
den Hahn
und er wird
noch bevor ers verlernt hat
krähen aus voller

Small request to set the weathercock free
Will you get
that bloody cock
off the roof
his sensitivity to the weather
has long weighed
him down

above us
he perches
hour after hour
day after day
both legs
to duty
and turning
high above

get him off the roof
that cock
and before
he loses the knack
he shall crow
at full throttle.

Dein gar dom agus saor an coileach gaoithe

an diabhal coiligh sin
den díon
tá a thuiscint
don aimsir
ina heire air le fada

os ár gcionn é
de ló is d’oíche
go ríogúil
a dhá chos
ceangailte dá dhualgas
ag lúbadh
is ag casadh
in airde
os ár gcionn

baintear den díon é
an coileach sin
agus sula
gcailleann sé a cheird
ligeadh sé scairt
in airde a chinn
is a ghutha.

Translated into English by Hans Christian Oeser, and into Irish by Gabriel Rosenstock.
From Johann P. Tammen, Und Himmelwärts Meere/And Skyward the Sea/Farraigí i dTreo na Spéire, Ausgewälte Gedichte/Selected Poems/Rogha Dánta, Coiscéim, 2005.


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