A personal meditation on the challenging art of translation.
This extended essay by the gifted translator Gansel, a fine translation unto itself, weaves together memoir and a discussion of the nuances involved in translating foreign texts, especially poetry. The book is divided into three autobiographical sections: the author’s early years, her time spent in Vietnam during the U.S. bombings, and the challenges she faced translating the Jewish German-language poet Nelly Sachs. Gansel’s elaborate methodology, carefully developed over the years, was to do extensive research about the lives of the poets she was working on, meet with them personally whenever possible, and immerse herself in the language and the writers’ habits and writing processes. For her, translation was like a “hand reaching from one shore to another where there is no bridge.” It became the “clay from which I would fashion my own interior language.” Gansel grew up surrounded by languages: Hungarian, French, German, and some Czech and Yiddish. Early on, in Berlin, she worked on Bertolt Brecht and then the East German poets Reiner Kunze and Peter Huchel, both of whom she was able to meet and learn from. The repressive political milieu of the German divide loomed over her work. After struggling with a key word in a Kunze poem, Gansel recalls returning to the West side after a Kafkaesque checkpoint experience, smuggling “back the word I had come to seek.” In Vietnam during its darkest days, she worked with a small group of Vietnamese poets on a “vast and entirely different kind of poetry.” Gansel concludes with her personally difficult experiences translating the “deeply painful poetry” of Sachs. The poet escaped Nazi Germany, but many of her family members were sent to concentration camps and died.
For those interested in translation, this slim, delicate book will be a revelation.