Wednesday, May 30, 2007

"Aus Einem April"

Dearest reader:

I promised to write more about translation as departure — about poems that treat translation less as adaptation between languages than as occasions for a new work radically different from their original. I've already referred to Jack Spicer's After Lorca, in which Spicer uses translation as a framing device for a series of poems whose relationship to the Spanish writer's work is placed under the anarchic sentiment expressed in one of the American poet's open letters included within the text: "When I translate one of your poems and I come across words I do not understand, I always guess at their meanings. I am inevitably right."

But what I want to look at today is Frank O'Hara's poem, "Aus Einem April." The poem, unlike Spicer's After Lorca or poetic translations like Zukofsky's Catullus, does not explicitly announce itself as a version of Rilke's poem of the same title (English version here). In fact, Marjorie Perloff, in Frank O'Hara: Poet Among Painters, avoids the term "translation" entirely, substituting instead "loose adaptation," and quoting Albert Cook's "de-'poeticisizing' [...] commentary." David Lehman, in an essay on postmodernism, calls it a "deliberate mistranslation," while Jonathan Mayhew uses the term "channeling."

My interest here isn't in challenging any of these other critics' accounts of the poem, but to draw the two texts into relation to see what is found in the contrast, and to illuminate O'Hara's methods, which include homophony, inversion, and invention.

Lehman's account of the poem addresses only the first two lines: he contrasts O'Hara's "We dust the walls" with Rilke's "Wieder duftet der Wald" ["Again the forest is fragrant"]. As I read it, Lehman wants us to see two things. He calls our attention explicitly to the contrast between the meanings of the two lines. At the same time, by quoting the original German, he points to a translation of the German sounds that is essentially homophonic, though with a few differences. Reading the letters as though they were English, O'Hara transforms the voiced labiodental fricative /v/ (w is named "vay" in German) into the voiced labiovelar approximate /w/; the result recalls Hollywood caricatures of a Germanic accent. And the contrast between Rilke's German and O'Hara's English finds the hint of a lisp in the transition from /f/ to /s/ in "duftet" and "dust." Finally, dropped syllables alter the meter, and bring what might have been rendered in the past tense — "duftet" as "dusted" — into the present. And from here, O'Hara's version of "Aus Einem April" abandons close homophonic play with Rilke's prosody, though select sounds are retained, most clearly O'Hara's "haven't you ever," which recalls and redoubles the German "aber" ["but"].

Much of O'Hara's "Aus Einem April" works from Rilke's text through a series of inversions. That a mirroring practice is at play is evident early: where Rilke implicitly contrasts his poem's "us" against the larks in the second and third lines, O'Hara not only equates the two, but makes the relationship explicit: "we are weeping larks." Words often become their opposites: softness becomes roughness, "empty" is made into "full," the "darkening glint of the stones" changes into "the hour of sunlight, early morning." And joyful connotations become adjectives of pain or sorrow — "soaring" becomes "weeping." The overall result of these inversions is that Rilke's motifs of ascent and rising succumb to gravity.

Donald Allen's endnotes to The Collected Poems of Frank O'Hara identify only the title of "Aus Einem April" as having any relationship to Rilke. And, arguably, the most interesting element of O'Hara's version is the amount of it that is apparently absolute invention on the translator's part. By the fifth line, O'Hara has departed entirely, and Rilke's "aber nach langen, regnenden Nachmittagen" ["but after the long, raining afternoons"] corresponds with "Haven't you ever fallen down at Christmas?" It is not clear where Christmas enters into O'Hara's poem: it can not be regarded as an inversion of "afternoons," nor is it a literal reading of the weather patterns Rilke's poem describes. One possibility is that "Nachtmittagen" provided the occasion for a personal association on O'Hara's part, connecting Christmas with German carols. But if a relationship other than absolute departure — an abandoning of the attempt at translation — is at work here, it is hermetic enough to elude easy explanation.

This practice of departure continues through the end of the stanza: "neueren Stunden" ["newer hours"] shares its relative position within the poem — if little else — with O'Hara's "isn't that what the tree means? the pure pleasure," which can be read as extension of the Christmas motif introduced earlier. Traces of the original are carried across, but bits of even those portions of text are lost or found along the way, and so Rilke's "wounded" emerges, turned from adjective to noun, as "suicide."

Inversions, echoes, flights from the original. In O'Hara's version of Rilke, everything becomes a swoon. And the effect is dizzying: because so much of O'Hara's poem reverses the relationships articulated in Rilke's text, some of the content seems to have come full circle. In the end, though, it is difficult to tell for certain. Both poems close with images of stillness and nature:
Alle Geräusche ducken sich ganz
in die glänzenden Knospen der Reiser.

["All sounds duck entitely away
in the glistening buds of the brushwood"]

Nonetheless, in O'Hara's version this stillness is troubled by its inversion into turbulence, even if it is located "out there," at a remove from the speaker:

in the hour of sunlight, early morning, before the mist rolls
in from the sea; and out there everything is turbulent and green.


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