I first came across the poetry of the German poet Sarah Kirsch when studying East German literature. But I returned to her work more recently in an attempt to understand more about how free verse functioned by entering Kirsch’s poems through the close reading and mimicry required when translating.
My main interest in Kirsch’s poems the second time around, then, was their mechanics. How were her free-verse poems structured? And were there any other salient features that I would have to consider? I was examining them, in short, as a translator would appraise any translation assignment, to discover any elements that would require special attention during the translation process.
One of the main organising principles of Kirsch’s work, which I discovered in the course of such analysis as well as by trial and error in the initial stage, is underscored in this short poem by the words highlighted in bold. (Ignore the words in red for the moment):
Jedes Blatt [Kirsch]
Ich sage dir was ich sehe manchmal
Jedes Blatt einzeln am Baum oder
Aufm Kies kleine Sicheln oder wie das
Weitergeht mit mir: kurze Aufenthalte
Alles wieder zusammenpacken und fort
Since German is a phonetic language, it should be clear even if you don’t read German that the poet is deploying end-line assonance, so I decided to try to replicate this feature in English, as highlighted in bold below:
Each leaf [Stokes]
I tell you what I sometimes see
Each leaf singly on the tree or
Little sickles in among the stones or
How things will go for me: short stop-overs
Packing everything up again and off
As you might have surmised from my rendering, assonance also features throughout Kirsch’s verse, as does alliteration, and both features enrich the sound of the poems. I noted this and attempted to replicate this quality in my English translations, too, as highlighted in red above.
Given the differences in sound patterning of German and English, the English sounds necessarily differ from the German ones: The German ‘ae’ sound represented by the spelling ‘ei’ is replaced in my rendering by ‘i’ because I wanted to retain as much of the content of Kirsch’s poems as possible and maintaining the German sound pattern in English would have involved too much loss of the original’s denotative and connotative meaning. I also decided that Kirsch’s phonic patterns weren’t symbolic, i.e. it wasn’t the specific sounds in the original’s alliteration and assonance that mattered but the sound patterning per se. Kirsch, in short, uses sound musically rather than suggestively, so I was able to replace German sounds with sounds in English that are different but have a comparable effect.
Another notable feature of the above poem is the diction. I noticed that Kirsch frequently uses colloquial language and that earlier translators had often overlooked this. In the poem below, for instance, ‘sollen’ was previously translated as ‘reputed’ while ‘Huhnähnliche Wesen die zu / Singen vermochten…’ was rendered as ‘Gallinaceous creatures capable of / Song…’. The register, to my mind, isn’t right, so in my own translations I set out to replicate the simplicity of Kirsch’s language, which also supports the message of this poem.
Früher sollen sie
Wälder gebildet haben und Vögel
Auch Libellen genannt kleine
Huhnähnliche Wesen die zu
Singen vermochten schauten herab.
It is said that in times gone by
They formed forests and that birds
Also called dragonflies
Small creatures like singing hens
Looked down from them.
The above poems were written after the poet moved to the West in 1977. But I’ll leave you with a longer and earlier poem by Kirsch in which all of the features mentioned above are already in evidence. Note also Kirsch’s use of run-on lines. What the German writer and critic Peter Hacks termed the ‘Sarah sound’, when the writer first started publishing in East Germany in the late-sixties, is characterised by a sense of flow attained through minimal use of punctuation and by a sliding syntax in which the final part of one clause often serves as the start of the next one as well. Also, as is evident from all three examples, though Kirsch’s use of punctuation varies, commas, when used at all, generally separate out ideas or different geographical or temporal spaces, rather than serving the usual grammatical function in German of dividing clauses. And many of her poems end with a full stop, even if no other punctuation is present.
The sense of casualness and the ambiguities that result from Kirsch’s diction and syntax were undoubtedly expedient features of critical verse produced and published within the ideological confines of the GDR. But after the poet moved to the West, these elements remained essential features of her style. I consequently retained Kirsch’s punctuation in my translations since it worked equally well in English.
Ich sah einen er kam im Taxi der Vordersitz
War flachgelegt so hatte er Platz
Man hob ihn heraus vor dem kleinen Fischgeschäft
Geleitete ihn in einen geschorenen Garten
Da stand er ernst in der Luft überragte
Die ihn stützten seine Augen erreichte nichts
Die Kleider waren verblaßt Goldreste
Überzogen die Brust er war ohne Flügel
Seine Führer lehnten ihn an einen Karren
Blockierten zuvor die Räder damit er
Nicht ins Gleiten käme sich etwa zerschlüge
Ich sah seine Hände sie waren leer
Hatten wohl vorher den Ӧlzweig getragen oder
Ein Saitenspiel jahrhundertelang
Jetzt war er taxiert unterwegs auf Wohnungssuche
Erst ins Antiquitätengeschäft was wird aus ihm wer
Braucht schon einen Engel der so groß ist
Er füllt eine Küche stände
Wo besser ein Kühlschrank steht oder der Tisch mit
Der Brotschneidemaschine, der Ausweg für ihn
Wäre ein Kindergarten wenn der ihn beherbergte
Wer wüchse nicht gern mit einem Engel auf
I saw one he came in a taxi the front seat
Was laid flat to make space for him
They lifted him out in front of the little fish shop
Escorted him into a close-cropped garden
He hovered there solemnly in the air over-towering
Those supporting him his gaze fixed on nothing
His clothes were faded gold vestiges
Coated his chest he was wingless
His guides leaned him up against a cart
Whose wheels they had jammed so that
It wouldn’t roll off and crash perhaps
I saw his hands they were empty
Had of course held the olive branch earlier
Or for hundreds of years a stringed instrument
Now he was being taxied about hunting for a flat
First stop the antique shop what will become of him
Who on earth needs an angel who’s so large
He fills a kitchen and would occupy space
Better used for a fridge or the table with
The bread slicer on it, the alternative
Would be for a playschool to take him in
Who wouldn’t like to grow up with an angel
I translated over 100 poems by Kirsch in the end and learned a lot about free verse along the way. My selection of poems from the ten volumes Kirsch published between 1967 and 2001 is collected in following volume, which also contains a critical introduction to this free-spirited individual’s life and work: Sarah Kirsch, Ice Roses (Carcanet, 2014).