THE LIMITS OF LANGUAGE
Songs in Flight, The Collected Poems of Ingeborg Bachmann.
Edited and translated by Peter Filkins. Marsilio.
Reviewed by Marjorie Perloff
Ingeborg Bachmann was born in 1926 in the provincial Southern city of Klagenfurt, not far from the Italian and Yugoslavian borders. “So near the border,” she remarked in a radio interview, “is another border: the border of language.” What Bachmann has in mind here is evidently the Wittgensteinian aphorism that “The limits of my language mean the limits of my world” (Tractatus 5.6). In the early fifties, she was one of the first philosophy students at the University of Vienna to take an interest in Wittgenstein, then barely known in his native city, and it was Bachmann who later helped to arrange for a bilingual paperback edition of the Philosophical Investigations (1953). “What I really learned [from Wittgenstein], she told an interviewer in 1973, “is how to think with enormous exactitude and clear expression.” And she cites the “beautiful” conclusion to the Tractatus: “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.”
Bachmann’s great novel Malina (1971) is written under the sign of Wittgenstein: it is here that she works to “unwrite” (zerschreiben) the clichés and “prefabricated sentences” of the dominant discourse of postwar Vienna, avoiding like the plague those Big Words of the public sphere like Democracy, Economy, Capitalism, and Morality. But in her poems, almost all of which were written in her twenties, the “limits of language” are less important than those other borders, which, as David Anderson, her earlier translator (of whom more below) points out, all modern Austrian writers confront: the linguistic border between High German and Austrian (whose inflection and idiom are so subtly different from the mother tongue), and the historical border between Austria and those polyglot nations that once were part of its giant empire. Bachmann always claimed affinities to the Slavs in the South rather than to the Germans in the North–Germans who were, in her mind, irrevocably marked by their Nazi past. Add to these two borders that of gender, a major line of demarcation in the early fifties when Bachmann’s first book of poems, Die Gestundete Zeit (Mortgaged Time) appeared, and the highly particularized, erotically charged poetic universe which is Bachmann’s comes into focus.
Like Sylvia Plath, her exact contemporary whom she so oddly resembles (although the two poets knew nothing of one another during Plath’s lifetime), Bachmann uses formal structures– stanzas, sometimes rhyming, sometimes not, of great intricacy– to contain her explosive and hallucinatory nature images. Like Plath, she favors catachresis and elaborate conceit over the “direct treatment of the thing” of such contemporaries as the late William Carlos Williams and Denise Levertov. And again like Plath, her “I” is less confessional than oracular, strangely detached from the world of objects within which she moves. There is a schizoid quality in the separation between observer and the self observed, a neo-Romantic angst that reads sinister and sexually charged meanings into the landscape. In Bachmann as in Rimbaud or Trakl, “Je est un autre.” At the same time, the subject is presented as hard-boiled and practical: a woman who knows her way around and isn’t letting anyone–not even herself–get away with anything.
When Bachmann was twelve years old, she witnessed the Nazi troops marching into her formerly peaceful Klagenfurt, a traumatic experience she has described again and again: “The pain came too early and was perhaps stronger than anything since. . . the monstrous brutality, one could feel it, the yelling, singing and marching, an attack, the first, of deathly anxiety.” Like the Plath of “Daddy” and “Little Fugue,” this Aryan poet came to despise her father (in Bachmann’s case a bona fide Fascist) and to identify with the Nazis’ Jewish victims. But, and here there is again a parallel to Plath, Bachmann’s political outrage represents a displacement from something much more personal–perhaps the pain felt in response to the betrayal of a lover with a concomitant sense of isolation, despair, and a longing for death. As she puts it in “Darkness Spoken”
Like Orpheus I play
death on the strings of life,
and to the beauty of the Earth
and your eyes, which govern heaven,
I can only speak of darkness.
or in “My Bird”:
Whatever happens; the devastated world
sinks back into twilight
the forest holds its night potion ready,
and from the tower, which the sentry deserted,
the owl’s eyes gaze downward, steady and calm.
Or in the late poem “Enigma”:
Nothing more will come.
Spring will no longer flourish.
Millennial calendars forecast it already.
And also summer and more, sweet words
such as “summer-like”–
nothing more will come.
You mustn’t cry,
says the music.
This was written in 1967, some six years before Bachmann suffered the terrible accident (if indeed it was an accident) that ended her life: she died of burns induced by a fire caused by smoking in bed in her Rome apartment. But, if not quite a suicide like Plath, Bachmann was, like Rimbaud, what the French call a literaturicide (or, more accurately, poésie-icide) much earlier. Having become a celebrity for her two poetry collections in the fifties, having won every prize, having been on the cover of Der Spiegel, and appointed to the newly created Chair of Poetry at Frankfurt, in her thirtieth year, Bachmann all but stopped writing poetry and turned to prose–a prose that is, ironically, at least as “poetic” as her poetry, and more consonant with our own postmodern poetics than was her lyric of the fifties. The radio plays, the short stories, the unfinished novel trilogy Todesarten (Ways of Death)–these are the accomplishments of Bachmann’s maturity and the most lasting testimony to her genius.
Why did Bachmann stop writing lyric poems? In an interview, she remarked: “I have nothing against poems, but you must try to understand that there are moments when suddenly, one has everything against them, against every metaphor, every sound, every rule for putting words together, against the absolutely inspired arrival of words and images.” What she means here, I think, is that, in the writing of lyric, she couldn’t seem to get around the male and patriarchal voice so powerful in German poetry. “I had only known,” Bachmann admitted in 1971, “how to tell a story from a masculine position. But I have often asked myself: why, really? I have not understood it, not even in the case of the short stories.” Then, too, Bachmann feared, as did her contemporary Paul Celan, that German lyric too easily falls into the trap of “harmony,” the harmony which, as Celan puts it, “no longer has anything in common with that ‘harmony’ which sounded more or less unchallenged, side by side with the most dreadful.” The reference here is of course to the Holocaust: Bachmann was well aware of the difficulty Celan speaks of.
A mere decade of lyric poetry, then, as intense and exciting as it was brief. In 1986, David Anderson brought out, in the “Lockert Library of Poetry in Translation” series for Princeton University Press, a selection of Bachmann’s poems called In the Storm of Roses. And now, in his new and ambitious collection Songs in Flight, Peter Filkins has translated all her extant poems, which is to say, given Bachmann’s limited output, that he adds some twenty-five poems to Anderson’s fifty, as well as a section of Juvenilia (Poems 1948-1953) and the curious “Monologue of Prince Myshkin to the Ballet Pantomime ‘The Idiot’.” Both Anderson and Filkins provide helpful introductions, notes, and a chronology; Filkins also includes a list of secondary sources, most of them in German. Songs in Flight thus presents itself as a “definitive” bilingual edition of Bachmann’s poetry and, as such, it is very welcome.
All the more disappointing, then, to have to report that the translations in Songs in Flight are problematic. According to the dust jacket, Filkins is a graduate of Williams and Columbia, who has studied at the University of Vienna on a Fulbright. That means, I surmise, about a year abroad and it shows. In poem after poem–and he doggedly takes on the difficult rhyming ones like “Reigen”– Filkins confuses tenses, substitutes plural for singular (or vice versa) and misunderstands words and idioms. As one reads, one begins to wonder just how much German this poet-translator knows.
Take the opening of “Die Gestundete Zeit.” The title means “Mortgaged Time”: to mortgage something is to give it up with the hope of later redemption. Anderson understands this:
Harder days are coming.
The mortgaged time,
recoverable at any hour,
takes shape on the horizon.
Soon you must lace up your shoe
and chase the hounds back to the marsh farms.
Filkins unaccountably calls the poem “Borrowed Time” and gives us this:
Harder days are coming.
The loan of borrowed time
will be due on the horizon.
Soon you must lace up your boots
and chase the hounds back to the marsh farms.
This undercuts the subtle valences of “mortgage,” and, more important, loses the arresting image of “time” becoming visible (“wird sichtbar”) on the horizon–a time one can mysteriously “see” coming. Again, the single shoe becomes the plural “boots,” as if to naturalize what is a strange image of an isolated object. And “marshfarms” (here Anderson is guilty too) doesn’t quite render “Marschhöfe,” with its connotation of farmyards, enclosures to which the threatening dogs can be removed.
Or take the opening stanza of “Holz und Späne” (“Wood and Shavings”):
Von den Hornissen will ich schweigen,
denn sie sind leicht zu erkennen.
Auch die laufenden Revolutionen
sind nicht gefährlich.
Der Tod im Gefolge des Lärms
ist beschlossen von jeher.
Notice here the off-rhymes (“schweigen,” “erkennen,” “Revolutionen”) in lines 1-3 and alliteration of s’s and sch’s. A literal rendition would be:
Of the hornets I will say nothing
for they are easy to recognize.
And even the ongoing revolutions
are not dangerous.
The death that comes accompanied by noise
has always been decreed.
Filkins’s rendition of the last two lines–
Death has always been resolved
in the fanfare of noise–
garbles Bachmann’s syntax so as to undercut her meaning. For whereas Bachmann wants to deny the hackneyed representation of death as “noisy,” Filkins implies that this is how death has always been “resolved.”
Such errors are all the more egregious considering that Bachmann’s syntax is predominantly straightforward: enigmatic as her images may be, her sentences tend to be simple and declarative. But Filkins doesn’t do much better with individual words than with syntax:
Der Krieg wird nicht mehr erklärt,
sondern fortgesetzt. Das Unerhörte
ist alltäglich geworden. (“Alle Tage”)
“Das Unerhörte” literally means “the unheard of”: in our time, Bachmann is saying, the unheard of, the inconceivable, has become the everyday. War doesn’t have to be official or even declared; it merely goes on in one form or another. Filkins’s “outrageous” does not convey this meaning. Many things, after all, are outrageous but they are not unheard of. And the contrast in lines 3-5 between “Der Held” (the hero) and “Der Schwache” (the weakling or coward) loses its force when “The weak” are unaccountably made plural.
One of Bachmann’s most beautiful and characteristic poems is “Die Brücken” (see p. 48). In this strange dreamscape, the wind binds a ribbon around the bridges (perhaps anticipating Christo?), even as the blue sky grates unpleasantly against the bridges’ beams and “Here and there our shadows change places.” “Pont Mirabeau . . . Waterloo Bridge”: how, Bachmann asks, can these famous names bear to carry the nameless who cross them? And how (stanza 4) do we give up the dream of transcendence, the “Schritte der Sterne” (steps of the stars)? Better, the poem concludes, to stick to the riverbanks, to keep one’s eye out for the chosen one, the mysterious “elected” who will cut the ribbon and who assumes control, seizing the scissors of the sun. For pride goes before a fall: the ribbon cutting involves staring into the blinding sun and the “leader,” blinded by sunlight, falls back into the everyday fog.
Filkins’s version of “The Bridges” occludes this startling vision. Take lines 17-18: “Still, over the slope of transience (“über Gefälle des Vergänglichen”) / no dream arches us,” where “us” is the dative, that is, “arches for us.” More important, the command (“Auftrag”) of the shore becomes “It’s better to follow the riverbanks,” and, in a curious locution, “der Berufene” (he who is called or chosen or appointed, or again, the scapegoat or guilty one) is translated as “the official.” “Beruf” does mean “profession,” “occupation,” or “office,” but the holder of a job (“Beruf”) is “ein Berufter,” not “ein Berufene.” Nor does the fog “swallow” him when he falls; it merely–and more ominously–surrounds him. Anderson’s “the fog will cushion his fall” is a free but quite elegant translation of “umfängt ihn der Nebel im Fall.”
Filkins does better with the later “Lieder auf der Flucht” which give his collection its title: these short enigmatic fragment poems seem more congenial to him although even here, he makes bloopers, as when he renders “unter der vedammten Glut!” in #V as “and the fire’s curmnnsed aura,” where “the cursed embers” or “the damned embers” would have done quite nicely. “Aura,” after all, is a very specific word with its own Benjaminian aura, and its use overstates the case rather badly. Indeed, the primary question raised by Songs in Flight is how the book came to be published in the first place. Marsilio, based in Milan, has an excellent U.S. branch; it has given us some fine English editions of various Continental classics. Why, then, did an editor not submit this manuscript to more rigorous review? Why not commission a practiced bilingual translator like the poet Rosmarie Waldrop or the dramatist Gita Honegger, both of them Austrians living in the U.S.?
There is a lesson to be learned here. Increasingly, as our culture becomes more and more monolingual, translation, badly paid and insufficiently honored, is received by readers as somehow status quo: if it reads reasonably well in English, why question it? Filkins, so the reasoning goes, is himself a poet, and some of the translations in Songs in Flight first appeared in respectable magazines like American Poetry Review and TriQuarterly. What, then, could be wrong? I myself may well react this way when I don’t know the language of origin.
I am thus of two minds about Songs of Flight. The translations, as I have argued, are less than adequate. On the other hand, the reader who knows at least a little German now has access to Bachmann’s entire lyric corpus in the original and can consult the English version on the facing page. In the case of the shorter poems, this is no small gift. Here, to conclude, is #xii of the title poem:
Mund, der in meinem Mund genachtigt hat,
Aug, das mein Aug bewachte,
und die mich schleiften, die Augen!
Mund, der das Urteil sprach,
Hand, die mich hinrichtete!
Mouth, which slept in my mouth,
Eye that guarded my own,
and those eyes that drilled through me!
Mouth, which spoke the sentence,
Hand, which executed me! (pp. 236-37)
Here the English doesn’t quite convey the terror of the original (the first line literally reads “Mouth that spent the night in my mouth”), and the reader is urged to sound out the lines, so as to get the full effect of the alliteration, especially in that final “Hand, die mich hinrichtete.” But even in translation, this poem is devastating. Mouth, eye, hand: the organs of love (each gets a line to itself) become, in the mysterious space between the two tercets, the conveyors of hatred. How did it happen? And why? Bachmann doesn’t even try to answer these questions. Indeed, it is what is not said that matters here. For however attentively one studies the movements of a given mouth, an eye, or a hand, one can never penetrate the thoughts and emotions that produced them. All one can safely surmise is that, in this particular instance (and lyric, for Bachmann, always deals with particular instances, not with generalities) there is no going back.