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“None of my writings will be understood”

Edward Mackinnon's third collection, 'Heartland Germany'

Edward Mackinnon's second collection, 'Killing Time in Arcadia'

Edward MacKinnon's first collection, 'Wising Up, Dressing Down'

The mistranslation of Volker Braun’s political poem Das Eigentum

DAS EIGENTUM

Da bin ich noch: mein Land geht in den Westen.
KRIEG DEN HÜTTEN FRIEDE DEN PALÄSTEN.
Ich selber habe ihm den Tritt versetzt.
Es wirft sich weg und seine magre Zierde.
Dem Winter folgt der Sommer der Begierde.
Und ich kann bleiben wo der Pfeffer wächst.
Und unverständlich wird mein ganzer Text
Was ich niemals besaß wird mir entrissen.
Was ich nicht lebte, werd ich ewig missen.
Die Hoffnung lag im Weg wie eine Falle.
Mein Eigentum, jetzt habt ihrs auf der Kralle.
Wann sag ich wieder mein und meine alle.

THIS PROPERTY

I’m still here, though my country’s gone to the West.
THE COTTAGES BE DAMNED, THE PALACES BE BLESSED.
I kicked it on its way myself, I guess.
It’s giving away what was meagre indeed.
After winter will come a summer of greed.
And I can go to hell and stay there for good.
And none of my writings will be understood
What I never possessed is being snatched from my hand.
I’ll miss for ever what I lacked in this land.
Hope was a trap wherever we ran.
This property of mine, it’s in your claws, it’s gone.
When shall I now say “mine” and mean everyone

 

Volker Braun is an eminently political poet. Is that why so little of his work has been translated into English? A proper appreciation of his poetry, both his oeuvre in the former German Democratic Republic and his subsequent publications in the post-1990 Federal Republic, certainly requires some familiarity with Germany’s politics and highly politicised cultural landscape. What would seem to make him daunting to translators, however, has not been a barrier to academic interest. Volker Braun the poet, dramatist, novelist and essayist is well known within German Studies departments of universities in the English-speaking world, where he has also given readings on several occasions before and after German reunification.1

Braun was ten years old when the two separate German states came into being in 1949. Born in Dresden, he worked in various manual jobs before studying philosophy in Berlin. After an engagement as literary advisor to the Berliner Ensemble theatre, he emerged as one of the country’s most insistent poetic voices, with clear hints of the tone of Mayakowski and the pervasively influential Brecht, but also resonances of the classical German literary tradition. Above all, his was a critical voice, condemning complacency and bringing into sharp focus the contradictions between socialist ideals and reality. Like many writers in East Germany, he had his battles with the censors, though as a writer for the theatre more than as a poet. In West Germany, where his poetry enjoyed a good reputation, he acquired an aura of political dissidence, particularly when, in 1979, Suhrkamp of Hamburg published his novella Unvollendete Geschichte (“Unfinished Story”), a factually-based depiction of a love affair brought to a tragic end by political pressure, which in the East had appeared four years earlier only in the literary journal Sinn und Form.

Unlike some of his fellow-writers in the East, however, Braun had no desire to be courted by, or to relocate to, the West. He was a convinced Marxist who wanted to exert influence in his own society and indeed had a decidedly activistic conception of the writer as someone with a definite role to play in making socialism more humane and democratic.

After reunification and the collapse of the socialist project in Germany this has inevitably changed. However, the tone of his poetry, albeit now suffused with a degree of invective bitterness, is still much the same. And social upheaval remains Braun’s most favoured theme. A recipient of prestigious literary prizes in the new Germany, he has nevertheless managed to remain true to himself and become an angry old man, though hints of melancholy are noticeable in his latest poems. A prose work of 2004, Das unbesetzte Gebiet (“The Unoccupied Territory”), which deals with the historical oddity of a small area of Germany which immediately after the Second World War enjoyed a brief period of self-government when for 42 days it was left unoccupied by both the Americans and the Soviets, would suggest that he still clings, though without illusions, to the notion of a third way, of an alternative to the actual historical path taken by post-war Germany.

The poem Das Eigentum, my translation of which appears above, was written at what is commonly referred to in Germany as the “turning point” (die Wende), when the Wall came down and the GDR was assimilated by the Federal Republic to form a united Germany. Writers, not unnaturally, were among those participating in the debates on the country’s political future in those heady days of 1989-90. In summer 1990, for instance, a colloquium was held in Potsdam to discuss Germany’s cultural identity in the new circumstances that had so unexpectedly arisen. It was also a time in which accounts were being settled with the past, and with the perceived sins of East German intellectuals. The novelist Christa Wolf, who in 1989 had spoken out – as had Volker Braun too – against unification and in favour of a reformed GDR, came under particularly heavy fire upon publication of her short prose work Was Bleibt (“What Remains”) one year later. (She found it prudent to move to California in 1993.)

This, then, was the context in which Braun wrote Das Eigentum in summer 1990. His best-known poem, it first appeared in the communist daily Neues Deutschland in August 1990 under the title Nachruf (“Obituary”). Its publication provoked a considerable reaction and no little controversy. Copies of the poem were widely circulated and discussed and many poems were written in direct response to it, including a particularly hostile one by Günter Kunert. For some people the poem articulated their mixed feelings about the demise of the GDR; others saw it as the manifestation of a sulking unwillingness to accept the new political reality and a glossing-over of the past.

There is no doubt, however, that the sorrow expressed by Braun is genuine. The poem, which I will now consider line by line, is an elegy on the loss of political hopes that were never fulfilled, on the paradox of “property” – the title will be discussed later – that was never truly possessed.

Line-by-line commentary

I’m still here, though my country’s gone to the West.
A matter-of-fact opening. Braun’s use of the colon is contrastive rather than syntactical-deductive. The poet announces he’s still alive, and still in the East, while his whole country, not just individuals, is moving to the West. Mein Land echoes the title and foreshadows the use of the first-person possessive pronoun in three subsequent lines, notably in the last one.

THE COTTAGES BE DAMNED, THE PALACES BE BLESSED.
Literally, this line reads WAR ON THE COTTAGES, PEACE TO THE PALACES. This is Braun’s ironic reversal of the slogan “Peace to the Cottages! War on the Palaces!” that prefaced Der Hessische Landbote, a revolutionary pamphlet of 1834 written by Georg Büchner, the author of Woyzeck. (The slogan was originally coined by Nicolas de Chamfort (Sébastien Roch) during the French Revolution: “Guerre aux châteaux, paix aux chaumières”. Lenin also used it.)

By reversing the slogan, Braun clearly sees German reunification in terms of class politics as a victory for the rich and powerful.

I kicked it on its way myself, I guess.
Here the poet alludes to his own role as a critical writer in the GDR. Having criticised with the intention of raising people’s consciousness and making the social and political system more democratic, he has only succeeded, he suggests, in undermining the state and bringing about its demise. This is clearly to overstate the importance of the writer, for factors other than cultural criticism were surely decisive in the collapse of the system. Yet I believe that Braun’s tongue is only partly in cheek here. The idea that literati could have effected momentous political change followed logically from his view that the role of literature was to “make things happen”. Not all Marxist poets in the GDR shared his view. For Karl Mickel and Rainer Kirsch, for instance, the role of literature was rather to educate the emotions, to sensitivise the reader, and accordingly they regarded Volker Braun as an essentially “romantic” poet.2

It’s giving away what was meagre indeed.
The idea expressed here is that his country is throwing itself away, little though it has to offer. It is as though the country had no self-respect, and little reason to have any. The paradoxes of lines 8 and 9 are anticipated in what is an oxymoron or condensed paradox: mager = meagre, skinny, gaunt, scanty, poor; Zierde = adornments, embellishments.

After winter will come a summer of greed.
Winter suggests perhaps the Cold War, but also the deprivations and stagnation of socialism in the GDR. This is contrasted with a summer not of fraternisation, but of greed – for consumer goods on the part of the Easterners, and for markets and profits on the part of the West.

And I can go to hell and stay there for good.
At the time of the colloquium on Germany’s cultural identity in summer 1990, which is referred to above, a journalist in the liberal weekly Die Zeit wrote an article in which he argued that German grammar was practically the only thing that linked East German intellectuals with the culture of the Federal Republic and told the Easterners, in no uncertain terms, that they should distance themselves immediately and unconditionally from their past and their ideals – if they couldn’t, they should go to hell or, as he put it, the “dead souls of real socialism” should “stay in hell” (literally, “stay where the pepper grows”).3

This line of the poem incorporates, in italics, this phrase from the newspaper article.
The article in Die Zeit was indicative of the intellectual climate of those days, and Braun’s estranging use of the quotation suggests wounded pride and a brutally realistic assessment of the treatment that East German writers can expect in a reunited Germany.

And none of my writings will be understood
Volker Braun opines that there will now be no interest in his works, principally those of the past but also what he might write in the future. His poetry, as well as his work in other genres, was completely bound up with the peculiarities of East German society, its background, history and conflicts, and this often involved the use of a particular lexis and sometimes a semi-cryptic mode of expression. All this, he fears, will not be readily understood in a united Germany. He suspects too, no doubt, that his whole conception of littérature engagée will become obsolete. “My whole text”, as it says in the original German, may also possibly be construed more widely, moreover, to mean his existence and identity (it may be significant that this is the only line without a full stop).

Volker Braun articulated here a fundamental fear felt by many East German writers at this time. With the demise of the GDR, their whole frame of reference, as well as their public, had been lost. A corollary of censorship was the fact that their work in the East was taken seriously – too seriously! – and whatever the frustrations, they did have a definite public and enjoyed large print-runs. At this particular moment, though, they were facing the prospect of having to work in a society where they had no audience and where literature was very much a commodity.

Braun’s reaction, as voiced in this line, was certainly understandable in 1990, when there was a general scorn for everything Eastern and a corresponding fascination with everything Western (the worst reflection of which was the shredding of large quantities of East German books). However, this attitude was to change somewhat as the initial euphoria that accompanied reunification subsided. And now, a quarter of a century later, there is a realisation, at least in academic circles, that the GDR produced a corpus of literature that is well worth reading and studying.

What I never possessed is being snatched from my hand.
I’ll miss for ever what I lacked in this land.

After the previous two lines beginning with “And”, expressing anger, or at least bitterness, and with a stressed final syllable – the only lines in the original German apart from line 3 that end this way – , we now have an anaphoric couplet ( Was …/ Was …) that reverts (in the German) to the unstressed endings more suited to the poem’s elegiac tone. (This formal aspect is not reproduced in my translation, for I have used a masculine rhyme. However, the parallelism of niemals/ewig has been rendered by “never”/”for ever”.) These lines are the key ones in the poem in that they underline the paradox that is expressed: that of ideals which were never realised, property which was imaginary rather than real.

Hope was a trap wherever we ran.
Why was hope a trap? Did it blind him to reality? Was it a mistake to have hopes in the GDR? Or was it wrong to have any kind of political hopes?

This property of mine, it’s in your claws, it’s gone.
The German is slightly stronger: “you’ve got your claws on it”. This suggests the predatory West German eagle, the national symbol. Reunification is thus seen as a grab, as the outcome of power politics.

The definite article of the title now becomes the possessive pronoun. And to those familiar with Volker Braun’s poetry, the phrase mein Eigentum brings to mind an earlier poem by Braun addressed to Friedrich Hölderlin, the starting point of which is Hölderlin’s own poem called Mein Eigentum.

Hölderlin’s ode of 1799 contains the words jedem sein Eigentum – “to each his property”, though we might also translate this (following Michael Hamburger’s translation of the poem) as “to each his possessions”. Here, in the context of Hölderlin’s poem, “possessions” has the wider meaning of land, place of work, a secure home that cannot be lost, a refuge. And for Hölderlin this property, this refuge, is the non-material world of poetry: Sei du, Gesang, mein freundlich Asyl! (“Be thou, o Song, my kindly refuge ….”) .

The noun Eigentum can have such connotations because its root morpheme, eigen, means “own”, and is in fact cognate with the English adjective. (Hence it is only seemingly contradictory that the adjective eigentümlich means “characteristic”/“peculiar” – in the sense of “peculiar to someone or something” – and does not refer to “property”).

The importance of these connotations has been highlighted in a study of the responses of East German poets to unification in the decade starting in 1989-90. In a passage that is of direct relevance to Braun’s poem and makes clear the line that can be drawn from Hölderlin, the author of this study writes:

“The journey in search of identity, a crucial motif in post-unification poetry, embraces the opposition between “eigen” and “fremd” [fremd means “strange”/”foreign”]: writing becomes a refounding of identity in the fact of all-consuming “Fremdheit”, a means of finding memories and history to make one’s own text. “Eigentum”, in the sense of values, an identity and a place of one’s own, is central to the poetry of the period”.4

When shall I now say “mine” and mean everyone

The final line repeats the mein of the previous line, line 7 and the opening line to sum up the end of the poet’s role as someone who speaks for society and the loss of his vision of society as a community. The lack of a question mark suggests a slight element of defiance.

* * *

Volker Braun’s Mein Eigentum is by no means a difficult poem. It is certainly less dense than much that he has written, less allusive and with less intertextual quotation and collage. In order to translate it, however, it is necessary to know its political context and understand the poet’s political mindset. Background knowledge of this kind is important when undertaking any translation, of course. What can happen when it is lacking can be seen by looking at a translation of Braun’s poem by Michael Hofmann.

I first became aware of Mr Hofmann’s translation on reading an online review of Volker Braun’s volume of poems Lustgarten, Preußen. In a note to the review, it is pointed out that:

“Three of the later poems were published in English translation in an issue of Poetry magazine devoted to German poetry (October 1998). The three – O Chicago! O Widerspruch!, Das Theater der Toten, and Das Eigentum – were translated by Michael Hofmann, and unfortunately can be taken to serve as an explanation of why Braun is not better known in the English-speaking world. Despite Mr Hofmann’s reputation (it is apparently a high one) these translations are, in our estimation, nowhere near adequate (and that’s expressing it as politely as we know how to).”5

The reviewer later adds, logically in view of the above comment:

“Note that the English versions of Braun’s verses provided in our review are all of the too-literal sort, meant as a gloss on the German, not a substitute. We make no claim to providing what might be considered a translation. …… But our versions are probably still more useful than what Mr Hofmann perpetrated.”6

As well as in the magazine referred to above, the translation of Das Eigentum perpetrated by Mr Hofmann can be found on two websites, www.lyrikline.org, an excellent international, multilingual poetry resource created by literaturWERkstatt Berlin, and germany.poetryinternationalweb.org, the website of the Rotterdam-based Poetry International Web Foundation.

TRANSLATION BY MICHAEL HOFMANN

PROPERTY

I’m still here, though my country’s gone West.
PEACE TO THE PALACES AND DEVIL TAKE THE REST.
I gave it the elbow and heave-ho once myself.
Now it’s giving away its negligible charms itself.
Winter is followed by a summer of guzzling.
But I remain, worrying at the root of all evil.
And my poem becomes increasingly puzzling.
To wit: what I never had is being filched.
I shall always mourn what never happened to me in person.
Hope lay across the path like a trap.
And that’s my junk you’ve got your paws on.
Will it ever again be given to me
To say mine and thereby mean the collective me.

Line-by-line commentary

Title
Given my comments on the connotations of the German noun Eigentum and the wider meaning it carries in the poem, I feel that the abstraction “Property” is inappropriate as a title. The noun in the German title is at once generic and specific. If the definite article is to be dispensed with in the English translation, then “Possessions” might be a better solution. I have chosen to make the title slightly more concrete by translating it with a demonstrative pronoun as “This Property”, which also recurs in my translation of the penultimate line.

I’m still here, though my country’s gone West.

“Gone West” suggests merely geographical movement and also has an idiomatic meaning not found in the German, where the poet is talking about “the West” as a political entity.

PEACE TO THE PALACES AND DEVIL TAKE THE REST.
This does give the flavour of the German – and has the advantage of retaining “peace”, though not “war” – but the absence of “cottages” means that both the literary/historical intertextuality and the contrast between rich and poor are weakened.

I gave it the elbow and heave-ho once myself.
The semi-comical register is inappropriate. And why use two idioms that mean the same thing? Why “once”?

Now it’s giving away its negligible charms itself.
The line is too long and, moreover, is prosaic and unrhythmical. “Itself” is redundant and, coming straight after “myself” in the previous line, is ugly.

Winter is followed by a summer of guzzling.
Wrong tense. It has to be “is being followed” or “will be followed”. What has happened to the rhyme?

But I remain, worrying at the root of all evil.
This is unidiomatic and, unfortunately, a total mistranslation. The fact that the mistranslated expression is in italics in the German should surely have alerted the translator, but apparently he could not be bothered to look it up.

And my poem becomes increasingly puzzling.
No, it’s the translation that is becoming increasingly puzzling. Volker Braun is not talking here about this particular poem, but about his work in general. Any attempt to render the rhymes has been abandoned.

To wit: what I never had is being filched.
“To wit” suggests that the translator is trying to explain the poem rather than translate it. But he does not even succeed in that, as the logical connection implied by “to wit” is nowhere to be found. In this and the following line there is a total failure to render the parallelism and the paradox, as well as the elegiac tone and the rhyme, of the source text.

I shall always mourn what never happened to me in person.
We now have a piece of nonsense. See the comment on the previous line.

Hope lay across the path like a trap.
Prosaic and unrhythmical.

And that’s my junk you’ve got your paws on.
The attempt at rhyme is abandoned here and in the last line. But what is much worse is the mistranslation and incorrect register – “paws” instead of “claws” and the word “junk”, which indicates a total misunderstanding of the poem and effectively destroys its whole tone and meaning.

Will it ever again be given to me
To say mine and thereby mean the collective me.

Here the translator makes two lines out of one, because instead of translating he is providing a long and unpoetic paraphrase. Nowhere does Volker Braun say “the collective me”, which in itself is a piece of non-English.

* * *

Volker Braun’s fear that his writings might not be understood is confirmed in Michael Hofmann’s translation in a way that he could not have foreseen. Anyone reading this must consider him a second-rate political thinker rather a political poet. The translation fails at several levels. Technically, it is noticeable that in some instances the translator tries to interpret or explain the poem rather than translate it. Linguistically, there are some blatant errors, the omission of important carriers of meaning and the interpolation of lexical elements that are absent in the German text, as well as uses of an egregiously inappropriate register. Formally, there is a failure to render the poem’s fundamental tone of elegy mixed with subdued anger and a disregard for the poem’s metre and rhyme. There is an obvious inability, moreover, to understand the poet’s mindset. This would suggest to me that, whatever merits Michael Hofmann might have as a mediator of German-language literature – he has received a number of awards for translation and is described by Gabriel Josipovici as “one of our finest translators”,7 someone who “moves with ease between German, English and American cultures and idioms”– political poetry is perhaps a sub-genre he should steer clear of.


1 See, for instance, Rolf Jucker, ed., Volker Braun in Perspective. German Monitor 58 (Rodopi, Amsterdam/New York, 2004). Jucker has also edited a monograph on Braun in the contemporary German writers series published by Swansea University’s Centre for Contemporary German Literature.

2 In an essay on Karl Mickel, Rainer Kirsch speaks of Braun’s “actionistic romanticism”. Rainer Kirsch, Ordnung im Spiegel. Essays, Notizen, Gespräche (Reclam, Leipzig, 1991), p. 333.

3 “Die toten Seelen des Realsozialismus sollen bleiben, wo der Pfeffer wächst”. Ulrich Greiner, ‘Der Potsdamer Abgrund. Anmerkungen zu einem öffentlichen Streit über die “Kulturnation Deutschland”’, Die Zeit, 22.06.1990.

4 Ruth. J. Owen, The Poet’s Role: Lyric Responses to German Unification by Poets from the GDR (Rodopi, Amsterdam/New York, 2001), p. 187.

5 www.complete-review.com/reviews/braunv/lustgp.htm

6 Ibid

7 Quoted in: ibid. Not having read other translations by Michael Hofmann, I am unable to judge them