This excerpt presents to English readers for the first time Alfred Döblin’s dystopian epic of the future Berge Meere und Giganten (“Mountains Oceans Giants”), written in 1921-23 and published in Berlin in 1924.
In 1921, the lifelong city-dweller Döblin became seized by an overwhelming sense of Nature: “The Earth fetched me…I experienced Nature as a secret…as the World Being: weight, colour, light, dark, its countless materials, as a cornucopia of processes that quietly mingled and criss-crossed… I often became frightened, physically frightened, giddy in the face of these things–and sometimes, I confess, even now I feel uneasy” (Die neue Rundschau, June 1924).
For the first time in his writing career, he took a break from his day job as a neurologist to give expression to this feeling. The result was a monstrous 500-page vision of the next seven centuries, as humanity continues to give technology free rein regardless of adverse consequences for humanity and the world.
H. G. Wells, meet Hieronymous Bosch! Wells the Fabian, in The Shape of Things to Come, saw the solution to humanity’s problems in World Government and a better sort of committee. Döblin’s darker view is a literary counterpart to Bosch’s dark and powerful imagery. Try reading it with Bosch’s The Last Judgment at hand!
Mountains Oceans Giants explores themes relevant to our times: globalisation, consumerism, wealth concentration, mass migration, murderous elites, lust for power, headlong technological “progress” that often makes life worse for its supposed beneficiaries and the natural world.
The excerpt describes the development of synthetic food, marking a radical break between humans and their natural and social worlds.
– Chris Godwin
The following versions of Friedrich Hölderlin’s poems are covers in the popular music tradition. Singing them I hope to discover an elasticity in the German that can almost, if not quite, cover my English.
The arc of the life so briefly described in the biography provided here reminds me of the arcs of the lives of so many blues, jazz, and rock ‘n’ roll artists of the American 20th century—great musicians who made huge contributions to the sounds of the century through their own writing and playing and through their influences upon other artists, but who, for various reasons, including passionate temperaments, fell off the success tracks and were immediately or slowly left behind by their friends and colleagues, perhaps to spend decades in quiet towers writing and singing mainly to themselves, much as Hölderlin did.
The three poems presented here are from the initial phase of a project to compose a (book or) album of cover versions of short Hölderlin poems. The project has two principal goals: to please myself (I have fun composing these versions—it’s like singing Aretha or Zeppelin or Queen in the shower); and to do something to bring Hölderlin’s life and work to the attention of readers who have not yet heard of him. I love the Janus-like gaze of cover versions of music, songs that deliberately read past works and yet might, if they give pleasure, take an active part in conversations to come.
– Daniel Bosch
Manas is an epic novel in free verse and a mashup of two different cultures: Hindu mythology and Existential philosophy from 20th-century Europe.
This excerpt from Manas includes the first 350 or so of the 13,000 lines of the epic. War-hero Manas returns victorious to Udaipur, but broken by his existential awareness of Death. He insists on going to the source of this sorrow: Shiva’s Field of the Dead in the high Himalaya.
Encounters with human souls and demons render Manas unconscious. Demons hijack his body, hoping to use it to go down to Earth. Puto is tricked into “killing” the body, and Manas’ soul wafts back onto the Field. Puto hauls the body down to Udaipur.
Manas’ wife Savitri refuses to believe that he is dead. She sets out on an arduous quest to find him, eventually coming to the Field, where she encounters Manas’ soul. Their coupling leads to Manas’ re-embodiment. Shiva makes contact with Savitri, now revealed as the universal principle of Love. She rejoins Shiva on Kailas.
Manas rejoices in his restored body, but is unsure of his individuality and shows no empathy for other humans. He captures the three demons who caused his earlier “death” and returns with them to Earth. Holy men declare that he and the three demons together make up one new and terrible personality. Shiva comes down to retrieve the demons, but Manas challenges him with his new-found Ego, receives Shiva’s blessing, and becomes a benign spirit facilitating the transmigration of souls.
These bare bones of the tale are wrapped in scene after intriguing scene of action, comedy, pathos, and lyrical description, which leave the reader wondering, “Gosh, whatever next?”
– Chris Godwin
These sonnets were written in 1918-1919, amidst the chaos of a defeated Germany. In them, Benjamin recalled his closest friend, Christoph Friedrich Heinle. In 1914, at the age of nineteen, Heinle had committed suicide, along with his girlfriend, to protest the start of the Great War. Heinle had believed that the world was descending into barbarity, from which it would never emerge, and he’d chosen to live in it no longer. His death shattered Benjamin, for not only was Heinle his childhood friend, but also his closest intellectual companion. Benjamin never got over this loss and returned to it again and again in his personal and intellectual life. He gathered Heinle’s few poems and tried unsuccessfully to have them published. He also expressed his loss in a series of polished sonnets (seventy-three in all), in which a tangle of ideas merges into a biblical lamentation–death, tumult, confusion, friendship, immortality, salvation, and the mysticism of the word. The sonnets were first published in 1986, and this selection is the first English translation.
– Nirmal Dass
Klaus Merz is one of the most prominent, prolific, and versatile Swiss writers writing today. Born in Aarau in 1945, he worked as a secondary school and adult education teacher before devoting himself full time to writing. He has written more than two dozen books of poetry, long and short fiction, essays, and commentary, along with screenplays for television and film, and stage and radio plays. His projected seven-volume Collected Works is being published by Haymon Verlag. Merz has won numerous important prizes, most recently the 2012 Friedrich Hölderlin Prize.
In 2016, Seagull Books will publish his three novellas, Jacob Asleep, A Man’s Fate, and The Argentine in a single volume entitled Stigmata of Bliss in Tess Lewis’ translation.
InTranslation is pleased to be collaborating for the fifth time with the New Literature from Europe (NLE) Festival, which took place November 6-9 in New York. Our November issues in 2010, 2011, 2012, and 2013 were likewise dedicated to the festival and its participating authors.
Our current issue features translations of fiction and nonfiction prose by this year’s authors from Albania, Austria, Bulgaria, Denmark, Germany, Poland, and Romania.
For more information about the festival, its events, and its partners, visit: http://newlitfromeurope.org.
When I first read Bernhard Aichner’s Austrian crime novel Woman of the Dead, I found it a real page-turner. He sets up his heroine, Blum, so that she looks like a villain at first, avenging herself on the parents who adopted her solely so that she could carry on their family business, and who never understood a child’s need for affection. Then, once the happiness she has found in family life is destroyed by the murder of her police officer husband Mark, the reader comes to sympathize with her more and more. She finds a purpose in taking on the case that led to his death, continuing his unofficial investigations into a particularly sadistic group of killers and rapists exploiting Eastern European immigrants, and the storyline ingeniously unravels.
By the end I was rooting for her. Bernhard’s narrative skill shows in all kinds of ways, such as the practical details of an undertaker’s work, which he learned firsthand for this book. Most of all, however, its sheer readability lies in the heroine’s sense of natural justice. Her quarry includes such pillars of the community as a priest, a fashionable photographer, and a local politician. But Blum takes out only the truly guilty. One of those three, for instance, is a thoroughly unpleasant man, but not in fact a core member of the group she is pursuing, and she lets him go.
Then, in translating, I had the chance to appreciate Bernhard’s writing all over again. I like translating dialogue, and there is plenty of it here: short, snappy exchanges in between the passages of straight narrative. Those are in the historic present tense, which I also like for its immediacy. Bernhard uses it for most of the story, with occasional flashbacks in the ordinary past tense.
I admit that I was surprised when I found out that Woman of the Dead was the first of a trilogy, and wondered how, with so many main characters dead by the end of it, the story could continue. But Bernhard gave me a copy of the second novel, fresh off the press, when we met in London in June this year, and all I can say is that you’d be surprised–I was.
– Anthea Bell
Bettina Suleiman’s debut novel Auswilderung (in my English translation: Back to the Wild) takes the relationship between a female human and a male gorilla as its main focus. It explores an interesting and productive question—whether animals ought to have something akin to human rights.
Auswilderung is narrated by Marina, an academic specialized in sign language. She tells the story—not in linear form; that would be far less interesting—of research projects she’s been involved with in Leipzig, essentially investigating whether gorillas can live as humans and whether they have personalities that would entitle them to rights. One particular subject, as the animals are called by the researchers, is Yeh-teh, the male in this extract.
Like in Karen Joy Fowler’s We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, but deeper—Suleiman being a philosopher by training—the animals live with human families and are treated like human children. Eventually the study is abandoned and the next project is to return the gorillas to the wild. Not such an easy task, it turns out. So Marina is brought back on board to persuade Yeh-teh that moving to an island with a bunch of female gorillas he doesn’t much like is a good idea. She manages, using lies and manipulation on both sides. Marina and a small team move to the island to get the subjects settled in.
The plot is great; edge-of-the-seat stuff at times, and things come to a head on the island. But one of the things I find most exciting about Auswilderung is not the storyline, but the characters. Marina is one of those people who has trouble with other human beings and works things out using theory and self-help books. And Suleiman’s depiction of Yeh-teh proves—within its fictional universe at least—that he does indeed have a personality, and, on a different level, that a writer can create an animal character as believable as a human one. The act of creating an animal character is a statement in itself.
Translating the extract proved more challenging than I’d expected; Suleiman gives her narrator a naïve voice that was difficult to get right. I wanted it to read smoothly but not be too polished, because Marina is a character with jagged edges. I was aided, however, by having translated Bettina Suleiman’s essay “Lessons from the Human Zoo” for Words without Borders. This extract and that piece make good partners. I hope you enjoy reading them and thinking about all the questions they prompt.
– Katy Derbyshire
Do others sneak their words to our lips? Is it confiscated at customs, or will it suit our own angles of approach? These questions of language are ones that Uljana Wolf never poses directly in her debut collection kochanie i bought bread, published by kookbooks in 2005. Wolf’s ear is tuned to what happens at the porous borders between literary cultures, everyday experience, and national history, engaging a poetics in which this dissonance is galvanized into a vibration that rattles us. That we feel unsettled and seduced in this border dance, where “strophe by strophe / the guest is better versed,” alerts us to how we incessantly draw and contest borders through the particularities of language. For Wolf, born in East Berlin in 1979, the complex historical strata of Germany–the ineradicable shadow of the war, the East-West dissonance, the multilingual melting pot of Berlin–offer a site of intercultural contact, her poems brimming with multilingual and historical variances that provoke and kaleidoscope her homeland’s murky inheritance.
Wolf is equal parts inventor and dementor of language, and each poem shimmers with the possibility of what ordinary object or utterance might undergo metamorphosis. A phrase in “postscript to the dogs of kreisau” describes much of Wolf’s wordplay and my approach as a translator: “lautrausch,” or “sonic intoxication.” The semantic and aural qualities of words are not distinct categories in kochanie, but ones that infect each other.
– Greg Nissan
Silke Scheuermann is decidedly a lyric poet, but her language is not ornamental. Instead, her lyricism is plaintive, imaginative, and humorous, and Scheuermann evokes familiar, accessible language to recall a more uncertain space. Through apparent syntactical coherence Scheuermann devises possibilities and impossibilities, wonders out loud, reimagines familiar stories as playfully unfamiliar, and tests the waters at language’s edge. In translating these pieces, I have tried to preserve the innocent, curious lyricism that I find so integral to her work, a truly unique and vulnerable lyricism unlike that of any other poet I know. Scheuermann is unafraid of cliché: she is a poet in constant state of wondering, and I hope I have translated this exuberance.
– Patty Nash
The Brooklyn Rail welcomes you to our web-exclusive section InTranslation, where we feature unpublished translations of fiction, nonfiction, poetry, and dramatic writing. Launched in April 2007, InTranslation is a venue for outstanding work in translation and a resource for translators, authors, editors, and publishers seeking to collaborate.
We seek exceptional unpublished English translations from all languages.
Fiction, Nonfiction, and Poetry: Manuscripts of no longer than 20 pages (double-spaced).
Plays: Manuscripts of no longer than 30 pages (in left-justified format).