German Poetry for an English Speaker

For those of us more scientifically and analytically inclined, poetry can difficult. Poems are a tricky art; rather than painting canvases or modeling clay, poets craft their masterpieces from the selfsame words used to email a co-worker or write a shopping list. As a mathematics major, I like my ideas to be clean and clear. I like exact answers and definitions. In my experience, that does not mesh well with poetry. I cannot clearly define poetry, I cannot list the criteria for a text to be considered a poem. Poetry is a form of artistic expression and therefore fights such restraints. Despite this, I am fairly decent at recognizing the poetry I do encounter. Sometimes it is the rhyming scheme, sometimes the ebb and flow of emphasized syllables, but generally, one thing or another will tip me off, so to speak, that I am reading or listening to a piece of art. That is, provided the poem is in English.

A few weeks ago I attended a German poetry night at the urging of my German instructor. Having never studied German before college, I could only understand bits and pieces of the recitations. In Jabberwocky, Lewis Carroll wrote nonsensical verses, stuffing them with made-up words. To my ears, German poetry sounds much like Jabberwocky, a few basic words are clear, but the others are undefined. One thing that surprised me about the event was that I frequently had trouble recognizing the rhythm of the poems. I could pick out instances of basic alternate rhyming schemes, but the other forms of poetry, especially those relying on the meaning of certain words, sounded merely to be choppy nonsense sentences. It made me begin to consider how a different culture would draft epics and convey sweeping grandeur with a different language.

Those who have studied a language know that literal translations only work for basic sentences. Before very long the literal translation becomes jagged and crude. It becomes necessary to paraphrase if you will, the meaning being conveyed. In German, I can say I am doing well with the phrase “Mir geht es gut.” Translated word for word, it would be along the lines of “To me goes it good.” German, like all languages, has its own quirks, idioms, and “strange” structures. It only makes sense that German poetry would reflect these. In fact, this particular phenomenon came into play when translating the Harry Potter series. Translators ran into great difficulty replicating the rhymes and puns J.K. Rowling had worked into the text. A German translator, Klaus Fritz, was forced to call Diagon Alley” simply by the name of Winklegasse, or “Corner Alley,” thereby losing the play on words. Interestingly enough, he manipulated the text slightly to achieve the same humorous feel, as he could not directly replicate the jokes.

I attended the poetry reading out of curiosity, not expecting to get much out of it. In one sense I did not; I listened for over an hour to words I did not understand, spoken with passion but with masked meaning. In a different sense, however, it was time well spent. I walked away with a question that asked me to take a closer look at the assumptions I held with certainty. As students, limited in our current knowledge, is that not what we should expect from the international events on campus? Are they not only for our entertainment but also another opportunity for us to learn?

(In looking up the name of the German Harry Potter translator, I stumbled across this article about translating the series. It touches briefly on the issues and approaches of translating the books into various different languages. It is not an in-depth analysis, but if you are a fan of Harry Potter, you may find it an interesting read: