Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Michael Hofmann's translation of Gottfried Benn - unlike Brecht, he’s not even unpopular

It was The Blue Lantern, I believe, who alerted me to the 2013 publication of Michael Hofmann’s translations of Gottfried Benn, Impromptus: Selected Poems and Some Prose.  Nearly half prose, in effect.  Benn is a strange case.

And yet we’re talking of someone of the eminence of, say, Wallace Stevens, someone most Germans (and most German poets too) would concede as the greatest German poet since Rilke.  (xiv)

The horrible thing about that sentence is that it might even be true.  “Most Americans would concede that Wallace Stevens is someone they have never heard of” – also true.

The word “concede” and the dig at the German poets gives hints of the difficulty.

Benn’s first book, the 1912 Morgue and Other Poems, is a pamphlet of five autopsy poems, some of which are as grisly as that sounds.  A punk gesture.

Little Aster

A drowned drayman was hoisted onto the slab.
Someone had jammed a lavender aster
between his teeth.
[skipping the dissection]
Drink your fill in your vase!
Rest easy,
little aster!  (9)

That aster recurs frequently over the next forty years.  Some people find it useful to call this Expressionism, but Benn, a young doctor, was just writing what he knew.  And what he knew was dissection, skin problems, and venereal diseases.  These subjects suited his dark temperament.

A normal life and a normal death –
I don’t know what they’re good for.  Even a normal life
ends in an unhealthy death.  Altogether death
doesn’t have a lot to do with health and sickness,
it merely uses them for its own purposes.  (from “Restaurant,” a much later poem, 127)

I have picked a couple of examples that sound especially prosy in English, but Benn – a slightly older, less shocking Benn – worked with form and rhyme and the usual business.  He reminds me of Verlaine sometimes, creating musical beauty whatever the subject.

Ich kann mir keine Bücher kaufen,
ich sitze in den Librairien:
Notizen – dann nach Aufschnitt laufen: –
das sind die Tage von Turin.

I can’t afford to buy books;
I sit around in public libraries,
Scribble notes, then go for cold cuts,
These are the days of Turin.

The tragic speaker here, by the way, is an ill Friedrich Nietzsche; soon, in the next stanza, he will hug the horse.  The more conventionally formed Benn poems are from the 1920s and 1930s, but Hofmann warns me that any sense of movement is an illusion of the translator based on his failure with most of the poems from this period.

I’m afraid they were too difficult and idiosyncratic for me to carry them into English in any important way.  (xxii)

He gives an example, just two lines:

Banane, yes, Banane
vie méditerranée?

Banana, yes, banana
Mediterranean life?

Says Hofmann:  “I don’t think so.”

But Hofmann gives me better than Benn has gotten before:

Thus unsuccessfully transmitted, Benn has no English admirers; unlike Brecht, he’s not even unpopular.  (xiv)

And more importantly, he has given me more Benn.  Because what this book really gives is not deathless verse, not on the English side of the page at least, but a strong personality, like in a novel.  I ought to write one more post about that, the flavor of Benn.


  1. Strange that he's not better known.
    Some of my favourite poems are in verse. Would be interested to see how they have been translated.
    Here's Benn reading "Astern". It's great to hear how he accentuates the words.
    Btw - you might want to change Aufschitt to Aufschnitt.

  2. Thanks for the correction - should be fixed now. Thanks for the recording, too. Helpful. Perfect, really.

    Hofmann lists some stray mentions of Benn by heavyweight poets (Eliot, Berryman, etc.), but suggests that there has been too much emphasis on Benn as "the man of ideas, the German" at the expense of his poetry. In English, Benn has been like a rumor of a great poet.

  3. The Benn situation reminds me of Gide's « Hugo, hélas ! »

  4. The great German poets are as strange a bunch as the great French poets.