Suspect Language

Evelyn Schlag – All Under One Roof, translated by Karen Leeder (Carcanet, 2018)

A pig in a poke.

Some sayings have lost their original reference points. They are carried in our speech like dead bodies, lifted along by the living words that crowd around them, their feet dragging on the floor.

Now imagine a translator. They are tasked with changing words and phrases for their closest foreign relation. How do they react when they find one of these corpses being carried along? Or perhaps, not corpses, but living dead. Phrases no longer signifying but still working, moving, and evoking responses from others…

I put it to you that once infected with poetry, all language takes on this zombielike appearance. It seems at once itself and other, but soon that otherness takes it over, consumes its original meaning. The rose that is sick ceases to be a rose at all. Words have become suspect.

I offer these observations as a result of reading Karen Leeder’s new translation of Evelyn Schlag’s poetry. The poems are in some ways difficult, but by the same measure they are deeply engaging. Especially if, like me, you enjoy ambiguity and enigma. The poems are set in the concrete world, but their language turns our minds away from it.

Interior lighting in a globogod. Tongulator

to the first floor. Not looking no one in the

eye. Sinking faces long since swilled way. Not

in the market for friends. Nameless plankton the

lot of them shopperplankton drifting. The season’s

innocent colours have arrived like never before.

Neologisms and a disregard for punctuation are typical of Schlag’s writing. She sometimes lets sentences drift too long, sometimes – as in the shopperplankton lines above – she joins a series of unfinished subclauses to make new, short units of sentencelike meaning. This effect, described by Leeder in her introduction, has been carried over into English. Our loose English grammar can incorporate such devices, however, and so I find myself overcompensating in my grammatical expectations. I’m trying to be German about it all.

The question, I suppose, is whether you can translate a broken grammar. If so, can you translate it so that it reads in the same way? I don’t expect that you can. I suspect that there’s something else here going on.

So too with Schlag’s imagery. We are promised the concrete, shown the fantastic, and left to decide our own level of literality:

                  Sufi and Versailles. Gateway to fresh-squeezed apple juice.

                  Police direct the traffic somewhat with a scarf and cigarette.

                  At night little sledges career across the roofs.

I find the words compelling, the poetry addictive. But I am filled with suspicions. Am I bringing too much of myself to the images? Have I replaced reading with presuming? Is “direct the traffic somewhat” an inelegant translation of elegant German, or inelegant German translated elegantly?

Maybe this is why I avoid poetry in translation.

Yet it is Evelyn Schlag’s poetic style itself that exploits language’s haunted qualities. Its ultimate inability to differentiate physical objects from metaphors, or metaphorical objects from physical presences.

                  In the Euro tunnel on the great west track

                  the glasses tremble on the table. I think of bats

                  and their tiny spit. For sticking speech marks

                                    back when they’ve fallen off

                  quotations. It’s fine it’s fine. The little witches…

For language clear and uncluttered, Schlag’s poetry still asks you to double back often, to re-read and then perhaps to read on with the sense still partially unfixed. You must read it with a clear head, the better to appreciate the poetic fuzz that covers its words.

Sometimes the best pigs are purchased in pokes. One must trust that what’s in the bag is really there, and that it is what it says it is. Poetic language, especially in translation, is a suspicious thing; shifting and circumspect. Schlag’s poetry is captivating for its very embrace of the unfixed and the slippery. Leeder’s translation does tremendous work carrying this through to English.

As these translated poems show, there are no frictionless borders in language. We must come to love our friction.

– Joe Darlington

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