Wednesday 23 December 2020

J. Bernlef: 'Alfabet op de rug gezien' - introduction

J. Bernlef: Alphabet backwards




The American poet Robert Frost, when asked about the essential nature of poetry, is said to have answered; ’What gets lost in translation’. If Frost is right, then my translation ’Alfabet op de rug gezien’ by Kurt Schwitters (from the German [Alphabet rückwärts]) must be the only one that has not violated the original.


alphabet backwards


z         y         x

w       v         u

ts       r         q

po     n        m

lk       i          h

g        f          e

dc      b        a


What impels somebody to translate poetry? For me the first thing was admiration for the original and curiosity as to how it might possibly look in Dutch, what it would sound like if it was transferred into a specific complex of sounds, rhythms and meanings into another complex of the same ingredients.

According to Frost, during this metamorphosis the specific nature of the original would evaporate. What we are left with would be no more than the dregs of the decanted wine.

My experience is that poetry, which is strongly dependent on sound and rhythm (the poetry most often referred to as ‘lyrical’) is more difficult to translate than poetry in which imagery plays an important part. That is what led me to abandon my attempts to translate the poetry of the Swedish poet Werner Aspenström, because what I was left with in the Dutch was little more than senseless meanings. The specific ‘language-music’ of the original appeared to be incommunicable. The opposite can also be true. An English translation of Paul van Ostaijen’s most famous poem once elicited this comment from an American poet: ‘But just explain to me what is great about that poetry’.

There is, then, poetry that is so firmly anchored in the musical aspects of the language in which it is written that the best thing to do is to steer well clear. Most in most cases solutions can be found that do sufficient justice to the original.


What attitude should the translation adopt to the original? Reams have been written about this. There are translators who swear by the greatest possible degree of literalness. But there are also those who allow themselves considerable freedom and sometimes deviate considerably from the original. Nobody has a monopoly on the truth in this respect since no objective truth exists in such issues. Each poem lays down its own laws.

In his essay on the Greek poet Kavafis, Rudy Kousbroek suggested A pure spectre in a polluted creation: ‘Reading poetry in translation is like caressing with gloves on. It can be quite arousing, what you feel is always the inside of a glove.

The accepted controversies about translating, and more specifically about translating poetry, can be described as being the question of what is to be preferred: to be wearing gloves that imitate the loved skin as perfectly as possible – are then a product of artificial fabrication, but by virtue of this represent an irrevocable barrier to the real skin beneath – or, conversely, gloves of which one only demands that they be as thin as possible, even though that unavoidably produces a dry and clinical feeling.’

It is a successful comparison since it places the emphasis on the sensual qualities of the poetry. There is something to be said for both types of glove. Personally, I tend to go for the kid gloves, perhaps because I do not want to get too much in the way between the reader and the original poet. Rather the shadow of the original caterpillar than the pupated product of the free translation.

When translating strictly rhyming poetry the latter is practically unavoidable. The rhyming possibilities of different languages are so dissimilar that one comes to a point where the translation itself becomes an adaptation. 

Half of the poets translated in this book are American. When I started writing poetry myself, around 1954, the literary climate was quite naturally international. What particularly pleased me about the American poets was the insouciance with which they gave the most dissimilar elements a place within their poetry, their interest in the everyday. There was no clear dividing line in their poetry between art and what one calls reality. That hesitation to prefer art (and thus tradition), the reluctance to arrive at a fixed form underlies all of 20th century American art and can be traced back to a battle against handed-down European culture and for an art of one’s own, rooted in the local contingencies and where the dividing line between art and reality, order and chaos is kept as fluid as possible. ‘Notes jotted down in the midst of action,’ as William Carlos Williams once described it in his poetry.

The translations collected here represent about sixty per cent of all the poems that I have translated. Some of the translations have been omitted , because they no longer pleased me on re-reading them; in other cases, the fascination I had once felt for the original had disappeared. Practically all the translations have undergone alterations.

In organising them, I have based myself on the chronology in which I have ‘discovered’ the poets. For each poet, I have adhered to the order in which the original poems were published.

I would like to thank Jan Kuiper, who gave me the idea of making this anthology for his many useful suggestions when editing the manuscript.

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