Uljana Wolf, Subsisters.
Responding in 1961 to a bookseller's inquiry about his attitude regarding multilingual poetry, Paul Celan writes that while he does not believe in "bilingual" (Zweisprachigkeit) poetry, he does at least acknowledge that "duplicitous" (Doppelzungigkeit, "double-tongued") poetry exists. The wordplay packed densely into Celan's brief letter toys with the multiple senses of the word "tongue" in French, senses readily distinguishable in German; it moves not only between languages, but also diachronically through the history of the German language. Celan's apparent condemnation of "Zweisprachigkeit" is ironized by the word's original reference to "dialogue," which later comes to mean "bilingualism." His turn to "duplicitousness" becomes tenuous when one recognizes its earlier meaning as "chatter" or "gossip," seemingly the opposite of Celan's philosophically rich poetry. The surface meaning of Celan's text--a rejection of multilingual poetry as duplicitous--opposes that produced by a close reading: true multilingualism consists in having a strong sense of the history of one's own language. As a refugee himself, and long stateless, Celan meditates on the relation of multilingualism to exile--a central question in the 1950s and 60s, as it is today. Compressed into just a few lines, it is both dense and playful.
I thought of Celan's letter as I finished the new volume of selected poetry from Uljana Wolf, Subsisters, translated by Sophie Seita. The book offers profound dialogue across, between, and within languages, one that transgresses borders geophysical, political, and historical; it is a dialogue to which the reader--dictionaries in hand--is invited. With original and translation printed together, readers lacking German may also think about the relation of Seita's translations to Wolf's poems, which often contain some English already. The translations are nearly autonomous texts abutting the original--drawing from multiple languages to simultaneously illuminate and opacify the text. This liminality between legibility and opacity delineates both an aesthetic and a political aspect of the work.
The book comes with a postcard-sized sheet with the poem "Dancing Double Speech" in English on one side and in German on the other. Jack Henrie Fisher designed the card and the book, and he should be commended for the thoughtfulness with which his design engages with the literary work. Against the white paper of the card, the yellow font of the English text is inscrutable--its brightness captures the light such that even having the card lie on a table strains my vision. One might take this card as a visual analogue for a cliche about translation--even a successful translation is something of a discoloration. Indeed, flipping the card over, the German poem is printed in a cool, blue font that is easily legible. The book's cover is a multiply offset printing of maroon, white, and black, with parts of the individual letter blocks variously coloured in a manner that seems systematic yet defies system. If the at times painful and enticing card metaphorizes conventional translations, the asystematic systematicity of the book's cover instead serves as an analogy for the role of languages in Wolf's poetry and Seita's translations. Hardly a stain on Wolf, Seita's is a process of transferring and thickening the texts.
The book is composed of six sections, a preface from Yoko Tawada, and an afterword by both Wolf and Seita. The first five sections comprise poems both lineated and in prose blocks, while the last contains four prose texts by Wolf on her own ideas about translation and multilingualism--including on Shakespeare and her own translation of Ilse Aichinger into English in collaboration with Christian Hawkey. The delightful third section is called "Method Acting with Anna 0.," based on Joseph Breuer's patient Bertha Pappenheim, who became an international activist for women's rights, an acclaimed lace collector, the subject of Freud's famous case study, and a translator of Mary Wollstonecraft. Poetically appropriate, one of Anna's symptoms was partial aphasia in which she could only speak English, having lost German, her mother tongue. Wolf explores this fascinating case in two cycles. The first, "Annalogues" contains two texts: "Annalogue on Oranges" and "Annalogue on Flowers." Each combines lineated verse and prose poems, with the lineated verse sitting en face of the prose blocks, like an analyst might write commentary about the transcription of a patient's speech. This section neatly offers the broad extent of the linguistic play in the volume, and what, I suggest, is this play's political consequent. Here is Seita's translation of "Annalogue on Flowers":
das principle case is called face blindness "Je ne dirai a [sic] personne que mon pere n'est pas mort. C'est une de ees verites pour lesquelle je n'ai pas encore de mots." that a promise? ich erinner oder a fan! mich nicht oder a fleur! have we not before?
In Wolf's original, it reads:
das principle fach heifit face blindness "Ereignisse dieser Art werden oft vergessen, vor allem dann, wenn kurze Zeit spater das vorzeitige Ableben des betreffendnen Vaters auf sie folgt." ob das ein versprechen ich erinnere oder ein facher! mich nicht oder ein fleur! haben wir uns schon mal?
One notices Seita's strange introduction of French into the English translation, not the only case where French translates direct speech from German. Redoubling the strangeness, Seita simply introduces novel text. She writes, "I won't tell a soul that my father is not dead. It is one of those truths for which one has no words," where Wolf offers, "Occurrences of this kind are often forgotten, particularly in cases when the premature demise of the father in question follows upon them."
Is Seita's transformation of the passage--from a discursive, scientific German into an artful French--merely arbitrary? And what about her choice to retain bits of German, even introducing dialect ("erinner")? At the beginning of the book, one finds two epigraphs, a couplet extracted from Nelly Sachs's Flight and Metamorphosis (1959): "Against the place of home / I hold the transformations of the world--," and from Antillean poet/theorist Edouard Glissant, "To leave traces in language means to lay a trail into the unpredictable within the shared conditions of our lives." These epigraphs contextualize Seita's translation decisions. She tells me that the text cited in Wolf comes from an out of print edition of Helene Cixous's Ananke. Because Wolf lost the precise reference, however, and neither Wolf nor Seita could relocate it, Seita inserted the French from a passage in Cixous's Dedans, simultaneously untranslating and transposing the text. Not all readers know English, French, and German, so instead these moments of illegibility--particularly within the context of a cycle on the experience of the "founder" of the talking cure, Bertha Pappenheim--become moments when the female voice is not transparent, is not offered to the reader as an object for consumption. To recall another motif in the work of Glissant, one that remains implicit throughout the collection, Seita's translations, as do Wolf's poems, dwell on the question of the "right to opacity."
The other cycle in the Anna O. section, entitled "Tatting "/"Spitzen," makes a convincing case for the feminist stakes of this practice of opacity. The mythological connotations of textile production are diverse. To name a few: Penelope's weaving and unraveling of her father-in-law's burial shroud; the Fates; the terrible story of Philomela, who, after her tongue is cut out, weaves the story of her rape so that her sister can take revenge. Tatting, unlike these classical examples, produces a textile that seems deceptively transparent. Lace hints toward what lies behind, but the veil occludes far more than the perceiver assumes. Tatting similarly creates a parallax experience in which focusing the eye on the pattern of the cloth requires letting what is behind fall out of focus--and vice versa. This multimedia cycle includes text in English, German, and other languages and dialects. It also prints images of various tools of the craft, and on the bottom of the page offers a pattern allowing the curious reader to tat along. (Sadly, I have not explored this possibility yet.)
This section also allows the full extent of Wolf's multilingual wordplay to come into view. Seita's bit reads:
w anna say a pine pattern collar ist der name fur lace a moving face made by me or by means of repeating holes (ear) pierce & close those never tired mouths like die frauen tattern die schiffchen rattern their teeth what did they tattle about what did they need etc.
in annan worten pine pattern collar in tatting is a name for a lace a moving face made by me or means of repeating holes (ohr) offnen u schliessen niemals muder munder wie the women tattled the shuttles rattled their teeth what did they tattle about what did they need etc.
The monolingual English reader may feel an equivalent level of befuddlement here as would the monolingual German reader of Wolf's original. The translation of this richly allusive passage works on the improbable level of the syllable to depart from a traditional translation of the determinable content of Wolf's multilingualism. Due to Wolf's play-with German, English, and syllable groupings of uncertain origin--Seita is compelled to find a way to translate all three--including Wolf's English-into "English." One could fairly say that Wolf's original draws no less deeply from the history of the English language than Seita's translation. In a moment of estrangement, Seita develops Wolf's reinvention of a very old German verb "tattern" in order to translate Wolf's originally English line "the women tattled." According to the dictionary, "tattern" refers to the "chattering" of Geese. Wolf cites this as a fanciful etymology of "tattle"--although, in Seita's translation of this passage, "die origin ist nicht very." "Not very what?" one might ask, and the answer to this question falls aside amongst the ongoing tattering of the poem, lost amidst the voices summoned by Wolf and, as it were, channeled by Seita.
The gaps in the poem, graphically represented by the text layout, and the paratactical conglomerations of language are not a falling silent, a Verstummen, but an abrupt transition between voices. The lack of clarity about the sources of the voices creates a moment of opacity in the text, but this multivocality is only one form of the collection's political engagement. The political stakes of Wolf's poetry, while clearly rooted in a strong feminist tradition, extend to a timely engagement with the politics of asylum. In her poem, "Three Arches: Bobrach," Wolf describes the inhumane conditions in an asylum center located in Bavaria. The first poem in the cycle contains an epigraph from the Grimm's dictionary and a note beneath the poem from Bavaria's laws regarding asylum. In Jacob Grimm's early essay "On Poetry in Law," he argues--through a careful comparison of German legal codes with myth, fairytale, folk sayings, epic, and lyric poetry--that German laws derive from poetry. Pace Grimm, Wolf demonstrates that poets not only establish law but are also its critics. By combining multiple languages, while remaining attentive to the historical alterity within German, Wolf illuminates the inherent falsity of understanding the refugee, and their language, as constitutively other. The first alterity a language confronts is not the obvious one found in speakers of a foreign language, but rather the internal alterity within each individual language. Wolf's poetry draws out the deep history of the German language in order to display those moments in which the language is--even to native speakers--opaque. In the very act of meditating on this alterity internal to languages, Wolf denounces the system that isolates and abuses the refugee qua other.
Stefan George famously called his volume of Shakespeare translations Umdichtung rather than Ubersetzung, which literalizes the Latin "trans-latio," meaning roughly "to set across." "Umdichtung" contains the German word for poetry, Dichtung, yet it is really a process of rewriting, renovation, or thickening, of taking things apart and reconstructing them in odd ways, rather than a translation that aims for clarity--maybe the pieces won't all fit back together, or at least not in a recognizable way. To quote a fragment from Celan, it strives to be "the poem that really bears something (in no means transports): not metaphor, but metabasis." Wolf's poetry and Seita's translations approach languages in a manner highly attentive to the histories of the tongues, and to the histories of those who have used them. Like the work of Celan, this expresses a delicate practice of thinking deeply about these histories in order to reflect on aesthetic, philosophical, and political questions today. The results do not lend themselves to summary, nor the poems to translatability; but in an era of data analytics, algorithms, and targeted advertising, the value of opacity is becoming increasingly clear.