Sunday, December 6, 2015

Georg Trakl's Poems - the degrees of madness in black rooms

A German Literature Month post at roughghosts reminded me that I had wanted to revisit the poems of Georg Trakl.  James Reidel has been translating Trakl’s books as books, meaning that the recent Poems (2015, Seagull) is a version of Poems (1913), Trakl’s only book during his short life.  A translation of Trakl’s posthumous poems will be published next year.

The Robert Firmage translation, Songs of the Departed (2012, Copper Canyon) included more poems, more variety of poems, a long essay on Trakl, and best of all the German texts.  Firmage selects and mixes up the poems, for understandable reasons, which makes it a pleasure to be able to squint hard and read Trakl in an approximation of the way his contemporaries read him.

One of those pleasures, paradoxically, is to watch Trakl at work.  He repeats himself more than I had known.  Black, yellow, brown, blue; angels, silence, shadows; the autumn woods and empty fields; the same elements arranged and rearranged  until they do whatever it is Trakl thinks they should.  Sometimes, in English, they do not look like much more than the usual Trakl-stuff.  Other times, even in English, they show why a poet with one short book is still read:

from Outskirts in the Föhn

The place lies dead and brown with evening,
The air permeated with a ghastly stench…
Sometimes a howl rises out of some vague urge,
In a crowd of children a frock flies red

A rat choir squeaks love-struck in the garbage,
Women carry bushel baskets of offal…
A canal suddenly spews congealed blood
From the slaughterhouse in the still river.
The föhn gives the few sparse wildflowers more colour
And slowly the redness creeps through the flood.

And then the poet spends the last two stanzas looking at the clouds!

One sees too a ship foundered upon the cliffs
And every now and then rose-coloured mosques.

Another of Trakl’s favorite words in Poems is “föhn,” the warm Mediterranean wind that blows across the alps and drives Austrians mad.  I think of Trakl as a visionary poet – anyone who includes so many angels in his poems risks the label – but this poem is nothing if not specific, just what a boy sees on a walk at the edge of Salzburg, you know, near the slaughterhouse, enjoying the sky and wind even if it gives him a bit of a headache.

Poems has several short sequences of poems, all of which Firmage omits, all of which seem vaguely related to each other, full of pregnant farm girls and death, full of great, horrifying lines:

One bright green fluorishes, another rots
And toads are sleeping throughout the young leeks.  (“Bright Spring,” 1)

Föhn-blown leafless limbs beat the windowpanes,
A wild labour swells a farmwife’s belly.
Black snow is trickling down into her arms;
Golden-eyed owls flutter about her head…
Red evening wind rattles through the windows;
Out of this a black angel emerges.  (“In the Village,” 3)

Whatever I lose in rhythm and rhyme – I have looked at the German; a lot – I can say that Reidel gives a strong sense of Trakl. 

The degrees of madness in black rooms,
The shadows of the old ones under open doors,
There Helian’s soul reveals itself in the pink mirror
And snow and leprosy drop from his forehead.  (from “Helian”)


  1. I am glad to hear that you feel Reidel gives a strong sense of Trakl. I am looking forward to the rest of the series.
    Reidel has also translated Bernhard's poetry (In Hora Mortis/Under the Iron of the Moon) and has a translation of his prose coming out from Seagull in Feb (Goethe Dies). I am intrigued to read his translations of another writer simply because I appreciate the sensibility he demonstrates in his discussions of translation as an art. Poetry especially seems to me both a challenging and a fascinating medium for translation.

  2. Trakl seems to have been translated a lot - I have a collection called "The Last Gold of Expired Stars: Complete Poems 1908-1914" translated by Jim Doss and Werner Schmitt from Lock Raven Press, which I presume contains everything (I've only dipped so far). Hopefully the word Complete means nothing is missing! :)


  3. Hey, wait a minute, that Complete Poems does have everything, and in the right order. It is almost as if what Reidel is selling is the lack of German and the lack of other Trakl poems. The translator says he wants Trakl to be "absorbed in the right dosages."

    I will admit that I did not really understand how Reidel's idea of translation was different than anyone else's. "I have tried to emulate his delivery with a certain prosody and diction in English that bears as much resemblance to the original as possible" (x). What does he think the other Trakl translators were trying to do?

    The Bernhard books ought to be fun, in the narrow Bernhardian sense of "fun."

    1. I do not think that Reidel is different or, for that matter "better" or "worse" than other translators of Trakl. Rather, he explicitly indicates that any translation is akin to pinning down Trakl at a moment in time, thus every translation is valid in its own right. He talks about Trakl as a poet who reveals himself differently every time he, as a reader, turns to him. This quality may be reflected in the appeal of Trakl for so many translators.

      As a reader, myself, I appreciated Reidel's conviction that a poet "should" translate poetry - not because they are better suited to the task, or in favour of other translators - but as a necessary aspect of a poet's own continued growth as an artist. Again, not necessarily radical, just well articulated.

      Reading in translation is mediated by the translator for better or worth. As you read more within a language, you become aware of the sensitivities (and interests) of certain translators. Some will "speak" to you more than others and may even guide a reader's interest - i.e. if x is translating/championing artist y, I am curious.

  4. Reidel is claiming that something is different. See the line beginning "Unlike previous translations..." (ix).

    Setting some poems side by side, I did think he was worse than Firmage. More attracted to odd-sounding phrases. Maybe that's what he means by having "the same concentrated manie" as Trakl.

    But I see different aspects of a poet in different translations, so I did not want to write about that. Read 'em all, or all the good ones, that's more my ideal, and this is a good one. I don't think every translation is valid - nor every poem - some of them stink!

    Did you read an interview with Reidel? The translator's note in the book is tiny.

    As for your last paragraph, yes, absolutely. Plenty of evidence for that at Wuthering Expectations. Plenty of favorites here.

    1. For the record I cited this essay by Reidel in my review: I also found this interview interesting:

      I read this material not to defend Reidel over other translators, I may well find a Trakl I prefer. I am interested in translation as philosophy in this respect as I am not qualified to critique poetry or translations of poetry at all - I read what I like and will seek more than one translation of a favourite.

      I am currently reading the next Cahier release for review #26 in which the translator describes an opportunity to meet a poet who wishes to improve his Italian. The translator translates his poems so as to read him properly, but also to have this rare opportunity to have the poet's feedback on his translations. When he decides to publish his translations with the poet's eager support it turns out that the translator who has previously translated and interpreted this (fictional) poet's work is outraged. Backing down the translator wonders if, had he been successful in publishing his versions would there be "two" of this poet? Reading this passage made me think of our discussion. It is an excellent book, or rather short fictional essay on translation. It's called Translator's Blues by Franco Nasi.

  5. I saw the link to the Mudlark piece in your post and then - instantly forgot it existed? How irritating. Thanks for linking again, and to the interview, too. Reidel's conceptual purity is impressive. That piece would have fit well in the book, but it would be more of him and proportionally less Trakl.

    Multiple translations is a great strategy with poetry. Well, aside from knowing the original language. Aside from that. Many - possibly all - of my best posts about translated poetry involved multiple translations. So helpful.

    The Cahier sounds sharp. It's a fundamental issue. As a reader, of course, I want two versions of the poet, or three or ten.