Judyta Preis and Jørgen Herman Monrad

Anne Blonstein Aufgegeben

Anne Blonstein's name, so evocatively alphabetic, continually engages the bearer of the name to play along. For instance the foreword to correspondence with nobody begins 'About this book' and ends 'Basel, August, 2008', the poet's initials enclosing the text symmetrically. Tracing these sequences in her writing, half reminiscent of genetic codes, half reminding one of estranged spelling-books, the reader is tempted to expand and continue the succession of letters to form ABC-sequences:


Doubtless, Anne Blonstein's literary correspondences engage with other than the Celanian; the above series illustrates the circumstances under which we first encountered her poetry. In July 2008, while correspondence with nobody was being printed in Basel, we, two translators of Bruno Schulz, Franz Kafka and Joseph Roth into Danish, made a pilgrimage to Celan's native town. The former Austro-Hungarian provincial capital Czernowitz had only just been overtaken by the Romanians and renamed Cernăuţi when Paul Pessach Antschel was born there in 1920. When in the aftermath of the Second World War he left on a truck for Bucharest with fellow Jews in 1945, he changed his name to Paul Celan, and the city, now overtaken by the Soviets, changed its to Чернівці.

           Czernowitz, Cernăuţi or Чернівці, where once a Babylonian concoction of Yiddish, Polish, Ukrainian, Romanian and German was spoken, has now shrivelled into a provincial Ukrainian town that emits a monoglot Ukrainian dappled with Romanian. The grandiose buildings of the philharmonic, the town hall, the university and the Deutsches Volkshaus are all in a dilapidated state. Synagogues have been transformed into cinemas, protestant churches into gambling dens. We left the town on a bus going to Suceava. At the border, peasant women, headed for the Romanian markets, had to bribe customs officers with dollars to make them ignore their vodka, cigarettes and cauliflowers. But our contraband, an ash leaf from one of the trees lining Saksahanska, passed unnoticed. This was the street where Celan lived with his parents at number 5 until 1935. At that time the street was called Wassilkogasse, Celan's name was still Antschel an—according to one of his early poems—chestnuts grew there instead of ashes. Max Schickler, an 85-year-old man, who greeted us with a polite, "Sprechen Sie vielleicht Deutsch?" outside the city's Hebrew community centre, confirmed the "authenticity" of Celan's line:

Erst jenseits der Kastanien ist die Welt…

Upon our return to Copenhagen, a friend, Charles Lock, provided the connection when he told us that Anne Blonstein, a poet living in Basel, was reading Herzzeit, the correspondence between Paul Celan and Ingeborg Bachmann, which she had been awaiting for years. And then he handed us a copy of correspondence with nobody, in which Celan's translations into German of 21 Shakespeare sonnets are notarikoned back into English. This first encounter with the poetry of Anne Blonstein as readers was soon followed by an invitation to become her translators. Having shown correspondence ... to Gordon Walmsley, a poet originally from New Orleans, he asked her to send some poems for the next issue of The Copenhagen Review, which he edits. They were to emerge bilingually, in English and in Danish.

           Anne Blonstein has spent a quarter of a century (half her life) in the "Dreieck Stadt", immersed in, mainly, German, French and Italian —languages that her poetry embraces and accommodates within the English matrix. Anne once wrote us that she could not imagine writing in any other language than English, whose willingness to be stretched, its fluidity, its ability to blur the boundary between noun, verb and adjective are all central to the fine mechanics of her poetry, how it reads and works. And yet, as she once expressed it, "it goes without saying that without German my writing in English would not be what it is." The "correspondence" between Anne Blonstein and Paul Celan, as in correspondence with nobody, creates something that is both Shakespeare, Celan and Blonstein—"the three layers of a 'skin' through which pass very thin panes of glass".

           The five poems that we attempted to translate belong to a sequence entitled the unfinished year. Anne immediately informed us that these poems, all written during 2007 to 2008, are highly structured according to the date of their writing:

Since the year 2000, one feature of my 'journal'-like poems, as in "memory's morning" for example, is that they 'encode' the date on which they were written. In the sonnet-like poems of "mm" this is very subtle, not perceptible to the reader I suspect and even I have difficulty (!) remembering what procedure I used each year (it changed annually) to encrypt the date. Also, in the "mm" poems, we are talking about the Julian calendar . . . I have subsequently moved to the Hebrew calendar and that is what you have before you, in one of the most constraining structures I have ever used in my writing.

And while some visual similarities between the five poems were not difficult to identify—the second and fifth stanza contain the same number of words with the same initials, the third stanza is in italics and all five poems bear gerund titles—the idea behind the pattern was opaque. After some weeks of translating and groping "in the dark" to familiarize ourselves with the poems, Anne revealed the structure: in the first and fourth stanza the number of words equals a date. The second and fifth stanza is a notarikon giving the Hebrew name of the month. The third stanza is a citation in italics containing a 'to' in the syntactical role of either infinitive or preposition. And finally, the number of words in each of the four last lines gives the year according to the Hebrew calendar. diminishing, the second poem, was written from 10 to 14 Adar I 5768 (16 to 20 February 2008):

what she liked about nouakchott :
the absence of street signs
suddenly it seems
as if the purpose of it all
is to become environment

the unwanted black swans in the thunersee
— australian immigrants —    
may nest in this poem
the heart acting on itself
will slip away like the moon tonight
into the colouring of its shadows
exchange a bloodredness for some very dark grey

det der tiltalte hende ved nouakchott :
fraværet af skilte i gaderne
pludselig er det
som om formålet med det hele
er at gå i et med sine omgivelser

de uønskede sorte svaner i thunersee
— australske immigranter —    
bygger måske rede i dette digt
hjertet følger sig selv
undslipper som månen nu i aften
ind i sine skyggers farvespil
skifter sin blodrødme ud med en meget mørk grå
hun satte pris på nouakchott :
byen var helt uden gadeskilte
pludselig er det
som om formålet med det hele
er at blive et med sine omgivelser

de uønskede sorte svaner i thunersee
— australske immigranter—    
kan bygge rede i dette digt
hjertet slår mod sig selv
undslipper sådan som månen nu i aften
ind i sine skyggers nistrede skær
bytter blodrødmen ud med en meget mørk grå

A structure is both a refuge and a limitation for the translator; both a shell that may stabilize the process of translating and secure concordance with the original (at least on the level of Schein), and a devastating constraint. The first concern was related to the gerund titles: adorning, diminishing, enveloping, invigorating, provisioning. In English the -ing-form has a phonetic lightness, even weightlessness, that reflects its grammatical nature of motion and flight. The Danish equivalent -ende, on the other hand, is flat and, when pronounced, disappears at the back of the throat in an unarticulated murmur. The English "ringing" becomes a gurgling water. Anne mentioned the infinitive as a possibility, which would certainly work in a German translation:

I would certainly consider the infinitive, since in German I think, with its -en ending it hovers between the English "to do" and "doing"; after all: Tun and tun, to say nothing of Schreiben and schreiben. (And of course, if a translation into German followed my practice of not using uppercase letters, the ambiguity would really be there even if the article is missing).

Alas, in Danish the infinitive and the verbal noun do not, as in German, share a common form: at skrive (schreiben) and skriven (Schreiben).[2] But this reminded us that some Danish verbal nouns end on -ing, as in digtning (Dichten). We therefore considered using verbal nouns ending on -ing for the gerund titles, with the effect that the visual concordance between original and translation would deceitfully conceal grammatical disparity.

           The -ing-form also appeared within the poems. In diminishing we find drifting, desiring, acting. The first two were converted into drivende (participle) and begærlig (adjective). But acting from the line "the heart acting on itself/will slip away like the moon tonight" caused more struggle, not least because of the different idiomatic possibilities of "act on". The gerund imparts English with a elasticity not unlike the German participle as in "der in Basel wohnende Dichterin" or the Polish "poetka mieszkająca w Bazylei". In Danish this participle does exist, "den i Basel bosiddende digterinde", and works well in this example, as "bosiddende" is idiomatic. But otherwise one usually translates these participles from English, German and Polish using a subclause, "digterinden, der bor i Basel" (the poet who lives in Basel). We ended up cheating a bit, converting the gerund into a present tense verb. In one version the heart "beats against itself", in the other it "follows itself". By working with two versions we could highlight ambiguities. This can also be seen in the translations of diminishing: in the first version we could write that the black swans "bygger måske rede i dette digt" (are maybe nesting in this poem), while the other translation was "kan bygge rede i dette digt" (can nest in this poem).

           An even greater challenge was posed by stanzas that formed notarikons of months in Hebrew. An exception can be found in the poem invigorating in which Anne had notarikoned the month Adar (adr) 'à deux/rives' and 'à désir rhythmique', in which case the linguistic transference had already been undertaken. And 'atlantic-drifting/reactions' could effortless become 'atlanterhavs-drivende/reaktioner'. In the same poem 'alien-desiring/readership' somehow became 'arktisk-drivende/rejsende' (arctic-drifting travellers). 'accuracy demands/retarding     accelerating/distraction ratios' from the poem provisioning proved just as difficult. So difficult in fact that this very passage split the translation up schizophrenically into two versions; one that stressed the semantic aspect and another that translated form. In the latter version the above-cited lines became an apocryphal: 'augurer der/rydder asken/derpå regnen' (augurs who/clear the ashes/then the rain). Now the initials were right, but the semantics not. Clearly, this sentence had become a fatal parasite that destabilized a coherent structure. And yet the schizophrenia represented, we felt, something true about the process of translating Anne Blonstein's poetry, whose structures sometimes work like membranes, allowing a drifting in and out, and at other times an impenetrable fortress. But to translate form and fill in the semantics in a more or less symbiotic relation with the original would be to stretch the hospitality of the membrane structure. It was at this point that we made two versions of the titles; in the "apocryphal" version we used Danish -ing-titles, which sounded similar to the English although the grammatical form was different, while the "semantic" version used the same grammatical form as the English, but sounded different. Apparently proximity and similitude are not necessarily symbiotic.  

           Then there were individual words and lines; how to make them sound natural—or strange in a convincing manner. Anne draws on all the flexibility that English can offer, blurring the boundary between different word classes or inflecting adjectives to become nouns with an ease unknown to Danish. In the poem enveloping it says: "the shoulds readhere     incompletely". English is able to perform language acts bordering on the unusual without making sound suffer. Another example of this is "bloodredness". English can effortlessly transform adjectives into nouns. In Danish one can add -hed to an adjective to make it into a noun, but what is allowed in theory is not always pleasant to the ear. Luckily the Danish adjective "rød" (red) can become a noun by adding two letters: rødme (blush, also used of the sky) and we could therefore write "blodrødme".

          In the first line of diminishing, "what she liked about nouakchott :", we noticed another fundamental difference between English and Danish; English is more hospitable when it comes to fragmented clauses, while Danish easily becomes clumsy when a component is missing. "What" has to become "det der" or "det som" ("that which") in the Danish translation, which we used for the first version above. In the second version we slightly rephrased the two lines that became "she valued/liked nouakchott :/it was without any street signs". Another instance of this can be found in the poem enveloping:

they've sewn their skin together
with a thread too smoke-like to
break     stapled it with a refusal
to admit to a fear     of     stainless steel

The second line has to be slightly rephrased in Danish, which needs a relative clause to bind the thread and the smoke together. In the "semantic version" the passage became:

de har syet deres hud sammen
med en tråd der er alt for røg-agtig til at
briste     hæftet den med en afvist
angst     for     rustfrit stål

 While the other version became:

de har syet huden sammen
med en røg-lignende tråd der ikke
kan briste     fæstet med en stemme
der ikke indrømmer sin frygt     for     rustfrit stål

 For solace or a caesura in our work we turned to Paul de Man's lecture from 1983 on Walter Benjamin's essay 'Die Aufgabe des Übersetzers' ('The Task of the Translator'), in which de Man states that Benjamin uses the translator and not the poet as the exemplary figure because the translator "per definition, fails". Hence the Aufgabe in the title of Benjamin's essay denotes the task as well as the giving up, implying that within the field of translation the two are inseparable. Paul de Man further writes: "That is the naivité of the poet that he has to say something that he has to convey a meaning which does not necessarily relate to language. The relationship of the translator to the original is the relationship between language and language, wherein the problem of meaning or the desire to say something, the need to make a statement, is entirely absent." But what if—we asked ourselves—Anne Blonstein as a poet works with an approach more similar to that of the translator? Paul de Man's premise pertains to texts that are like linguistic crags, where stones cast shadows and a few thistles grow on an overhang, themselves casting or growing in shadow. These crevices and dark areas are recesses for the translator, the poet's blind spot, where the translator may take over and make something grow out of the invisible. But Anne Blonstein's text, so aware and structured, seems fully illuminated. This is not to say that meaning is lacking, but that Anne Blonstein too seems to be working in a sphere of dark patches and white flecks where the "relationship between language and language" takes precedence. Where can the translator hide?

           Anne had sent us the five poems in February. In May we walked from the peninsula Amager, the southern tip of Copenhagen, to Østerbro in the northeast, to show our work to Gordon Walmsley. Strolling through the city, blocking out traffic, catching glimpses of  chestnuts in bloom, we took turns leafing through worked on screen, another of Anne Blonstein's notarikon works in which the titles of 108 Paul Klee paintings, exhibited in Basel in 2002, structure the poems. We reached Gordon's apartment carrying with us two translations which—as we very well knew—highlighted ambiguities instead of being smooth, and which had not yet reached a final form. After reading the translations two or three times, comparing original with translation, Gordon looked up. "Well," he said, "I guess these poems can be translated in numerous ways, but no single way seems satisfactory." Anne's poems were included in the next issue, untranslated. But as for us we are still lost, looking at that dazzling crag. The translation remains unfinished to this day. Unfinished and an Aufgabe.


1 Or, alternatively, a circle: Anne Blonstein => Basel => "Selan" => Anne ...
2 Danish verbal nouns may end on: -en, -ing, -ning, -sel, -else and -ion. The -en-ending is the most "verbal", as it retains movement, while the other are more static.