Translating Nelly Sachs: An interview with Joshua Weiner

Editor’s Note: Poet and translator Joshua Weiner is an old friend of B O D Y. His translations of Nobel-prize-winning German poet Nelly Sachs (1891–1970) will soon be published as Flight and Metamorphosis by Farrar, Straus and Giroux. (Read an excerpt in B O D Y). Weiner’s versions of Sachs’ astounding poems hit home: they feel inevitable in English. We recently took to email to discuss how he did it.

Stephan Delbos: In your introduction to Flight and Metamorphosis, you write that Sachs’ life in Sweden and her translation of Swedish poets was decisive for her poetry in German. This suggests a kind of literary transnationalism. But some might say Sachs’ poetry is too deeply grounded in the Shoah and the Jewish/German experience to be fruitfully separated from it. Could you elaborate?

Joshua Weiner: My translation of Flight and Metamorphosis is framed by a kind of critical argument that I make explicit in the introduction: that I’m trying to save Sachs from her reputation as a poet of the Shoah, because the Holocaust poems, per se, don’t strike me as her best poetry; rather her poems of exile and flight strike me as the really exciting work. So, you see where I’m going here: that body of work, the poetry of flight, is essentially transnational. It reflects and expresses her experience, which is transnational; that’s the experience of being a refugee, it’s a fucking transnational experience of infernal proportions.

But that’s not to suggest that the poetry transcends the Shoah or her identity as a Jew or her upbringing as a German. That’s the grounding: it’s not only where she starts, it’s from that grounding that she continues. So you can’t separate her from it. But let’s be clear: the Shoah was a transnational firestorm. And part of the Nazi motive was to get rid of Jews, especially Jewish Germans, because they were viewed, by Nazis, as being, in some sense, transnationalists, what is often thought of in terms of cosmopolitanism, and therefore not German.

In terms of her poetry, Sachs was definitely picking up, through her translation work, on modernist techniques from a younger generation of Swedish poets. And this absorption was fundamental, I believe, to the achievement that we find in Flight and Metamorphosis. This is not a work of the Shoah, which is an event restricted in its meaning to the destruction of European Jewry, but a work of exile, of flight, of seeking refuge; it grows out of a fundamental human condition of homelessness and migration.

SD: Your introduction explores the relationship between Sachs and Celan. How does Sachs’ poetry fit in with or stand out from that of Celan, Bachmann and other members of Gruppe 47, including Hans Magnus Enzensberger, whom you also cite in the introduction? 

JW: Well, Gruppe 47 was a loose collective of young German writers devoted to the renewal of German literature after WWII—in other words, what is the possibility for an authentic literature in a country that was dealing with its Nazism? The Trümmerliterature or “rubble literature” that emerged out of the literal rubble of a bombed-out country invested itself in the obdurate facts of reality. That was its basic critical posture: don’t look away, don’t step back, but lean in, deal with it.

In 1947, Nelly Sachs was 56 years old. She’s from a different generation entirely. And she’s been robbed of her nationality—she was no longer German: once the state rips that from you, it can be returned in an official gesture, but can it be received? Sachs is not thinking about German literature, or German culture, or German society. She’s living in Stockholm, in a tiny flat with her mother, translating Swedish poetry to earn a nickel, very isolated, bereft, and adrift. She’s a refugee.

Okay: the poets of Gruppe 47 are all very different. And the collective is very loose, it has no real program, it’s a collective expression of affinity. Enzensberger is a social poet, a champion of Sachs’ who is instrumental in her finding a wider audience at a moment in Germany when there was some interest in trying to rehabilitate and restore, or reconcile, Germany and its Jewish population. But his poetry is nothing like Sachs’, who is a deeply lyric poet of growing mystical perception.

Celan becomes a close friend of Sachs’, they see each other as kind of siblings (with some of the tensions that come with that); but Celan’s approach to language is much more advanced than Sachs’, who is drawing from a deep cultural archive of objects, elements, and phenomena—he’s from a younger generation, and he is grappling with the language itself, breaking it down, rubble-izing it, in order to create a German that will be the material for his poetry.

Sachs’ German is strange, because of her use of ellipsis, juxtaposition, association, and mystical, almost hermetic thinking (I’m speaking here of the period around the writing of Flight and Metamorphosis, so a little later than 1947). But Celan, who renamed himself Celan by atomizing and reforming the alphabet of his ancestral name, is a much more radical poet than Sachs. Sachs, in a way, is like a bridge between Rilke and Celan. That’s how I tend to think of her.

SD: Where are Rilke’s fingerprints in Sachs’ poetry, and where are Celan’s?

JW: It’s not really a fingerprint, in the sense of style. It’s more about sensibility, culturation, formal imagination. Celan’s poetry is essentially deconstructive, that’s part of why it speaks to us so powerfully, it anticipates whole philosophies of language that come later. Sachs is going the distance, through language and form, to the edge of what’s articulable; but she doesn’t tear apart and reconstitute the language like Celan. That’s not to say that she’s conventional in these poems, or traditional—she’s not. She’s quite radical. But Celan is under a different kind of pressure. She goes further than Rilke but not as far as Celan. Rilke is trying to imagine new possibilities for spiritual existence in the modern age; Sachs is trying to move through language and form to get closer to the divine, to strike a more intimate relation to the godhead; these possibilities don’t exist for Celan. His experience has disabused him and set his imagination free to bear other burdens.

SD: Were there any particular quirks of Sachs’ prosody, or the German language more generally, that posed challenges to translation? 

JW: The biggest challenge of translating Sachs into English, for me, had to do with tracking the movement of her mind in the forming of a poem, because of her ellipticism and syntactic compression, her drawing from the symbology of Kabbalism to create her own particular language of mystical search for the godhead. She has a way of doing things in German, with German, that are not really possible without poetic license. The challenge for a translator of a modern German work like this is to render a version that captures those deforming and reforming energies in a way that is not simply fucked-up German, but artistically expressive.

SD: Marina Tsvetaeva suggested that translators of her work should focus on the metaphors rather than the rhymes.What kind of choices did you make translating Sachs, in terms of fidelity to form and / or content? As you write, “it has been my task as translator to try to create the combinations of poetic sound and sense that might move the reader’s poetrymind in concert with [Sachs’] poetry.” How did you go about doing this?

JW: Sachs thinks of her metaphors as constitutive of her body and psyche. “My metaphors are my wounds” she wrote. One answer to Tsvetaeva is that rhyme is itself a kind of sounded or voiced metaphor. The poems of Flight and Metamorphosis are brimming with different kinds of correspondences, some acoustic, others figurative, and ideational. But Sachs is not using traditional rhyming metrical forms; the poems are free of rhyming patterns or metrical frameworks. So, for a translator, the challenge of working out those formal fidelities is not in play (thankfully). But rhyme as a metaphor is at the heart of the matter: these poems, you could say, are a rhyme word searching for its pre-rhyme word, to create the cosmic sound of a spiritual couplet.

Fidelity is an overwhelming responsibility; but what does it mean? Translations tend to oscillate along a continuum of equivalence and analogy, or, you could say, fidelity to the letter and fidelity to the spirit. But I don’t have a poetics, and I don’t have a philosophy of translation. Or if I do have one, it’s something like translation as a process of friendship. Reception, intimacy, commitment, connection, honor. Simply put, I just do the best I can.

SD: In the introduction, you ask “what is [the translation’s] authority in relation to the original work?” How would you answer this? 

JW: The original work is itself, in some fundamental sense, also a translation. In the Kabbalah, which was so important to Sachs in her writing of Flight and Metamorphosis, there is a mythological and cosmogonic idea that every epoch has a different Torah; that the white space you see around the letters of the Torah are themselves letters, ready to come into view and be read in another epoch. God created the world by reading from a primordial Torah; in a sense the world is God’s translation of that Torah.

So, a true translation of a work, from one language into another language, expresses its authority in relation to the original by being, in the so-called target language, its own version: it’s authored by another, but ultimately self-authorizing. One never really feels like one has written a poem; rather one feels like a poem was written through oneself, that you’re an instrument. The poem finds another home, with the luck or serendipity of finding the translator, in another language. Poems, like persons, migrate.

SD: Yes. It is interesting how different poets have used different metaphors for that process of being written through. I’m thinking of Yeats and his metaphor-bearing spirits, Jack Spicer / Jean Cocteau with radio transmissions and Rilke with those Duino angels. Thoughts?

JW: There’s this thing, called the unconscious . . . ? Seriously, though. The mind, as an organ that interacts with the world and is a growth form of it; add language; then add poetry, or the thing we do with language when we want language to do something excessive: Rilke’s angels are his figure for the feedback loop. We should definitely drop acid again soon.

SD: Let’s take a closer look at some of your translations. In “The Hunter” three English lines runs thus: 

for the silk butterfly’s cocoon?”

Whereas in the German the word “Nacht” comes last. I’m curious what drove your decisions here. I’m also curious about “And Always”, where your English inserts a caesura here: 

“Is something, like the wind,
fanning the hair of our ignorance?”

This one I find particularly interesting because it could also be: “Is something like the wind / fanning the hair of our ignorance?” What can you tell us about these passages in translation?

JW: In that passage of “The Hunter”, the word ‘Nacht’/night comes at the end of that strophe in the original. Sachs exploits the open syntactic positionality of German, which allows for words to fall in places of the sentence that English won’t allow. This quality of German adds power and flexibility to an element that augments poetic expression.

German is a great language for poetry because it is both very precise in its syntactic relationships (making it an excellent language for philosophy and law), and also very open in this sense of positionality (the cases indicate the relationship of parts). Okay, so: Poetry as an art form maximizes connotation by spatializing, through verse structures, one’s experience of language. A poet can create or intensify the suspense and tension of an expression by, for example, delaying the arrival of a word.

A poet can create
or intensify
the suspense and
tension of an expression by,
for example,
the arrival of a

By virtue of that delay, intensified by poetry’s spatialization of language, Sachs adds a kind of rhetorical emphasis that is not possible in prose—it is specifically a verse effect. But it would be unnatural to do it in English, and it would introduce a quality that, while possible in English—that kind of twisting—is not in tune with Sachs’ meaning (or my interpretation of that meaning). Night in this strophe sits apposite the sun; and I wanted to set that relationship by virtue of a more natural (to English) syntactic parallelism.

The kind of question Sachs is asking about time in relation to the sun—how should we pull time / from the sun’s golden threads—she is also asking about the silk butterfly’s cocoon in relation to the night—i.e., and also, how do we coil night for the silk butterfly’s cocoon?

Putting aside the imperative question—which is what kind of questions are these?—my first imperative is to translate the passage in a way that makes sense in tune with Sachs’ meaning. So, I had to give up the wonderful placement of Nacht/night at the end of the strophe (a formal felicity) in order to capture a quality of lyric emotion in the voice that comes out of those lines. I adhere to Sachs’ feeling of lineation in relation to the sentence, however, and place “night” on its own line; and that’s something I do throughout, as much as possible.

In the second example, you’re asking about my insertion of punctuation in the English where there is none in the German. You’re absolutely right that the lines read perfectly well without the commas; and another translator would likely not do what I’ve done. Those commas are a kind of interpellation, that I’ve inserted to accentuate a dramatic voicing. The commas create the effect of a speaker in the middle of a lyric thought, who is discovering what she thinks in the moment. Another way of explaining what I’ve done might be in terms of musical performance, the way a conductor interprets the tempo of a musical passage in leading the orchestra. How slow is adagietto, how fast is allegretto? There’s a kind of range for each tempo, or rhythm, that is separate from the meter. Basically, I’ve translated the passage the way I hear it, the way it reaches me as living speech.

SD: On that note, could you conclude by sharing how you perceive your translations in relation to previous English versions of Sachs’ poems? What is the relationship of poem to translation when there are multiple translations?

JW: When you fall in love with a book that’s been translated, you tend to, like, cathect that particular translation; that translation is the sound and movement of that book for you. You’re emotionally connected to that one. Another translation can come along and technically be in some sense better, but it can never really displace for you that other translation. This is usually more true for novels and stories than poems, but not exclusively. In poetry more than other verbal art forms, if you have a few good translations, and you know a little of the language, then the poem somehow exists in between them all. We’re getting close here to Benjamin’s notion of pure language, which is a bit mystical, (but no less true for that).

With Rilke for example, I often feel like, if I could bring together Ed Snow’s feeling for diction with Stephen Mitchell’s genius for tone/voice (not that they’re not connected), I’d somehow have a super-Rilke in English. With this new translation of Sachs, of course I feel like it should dominate the field and be the Sachs translation of this work for the next 50 years. But it’s not up to me. I really respect and have learned a lot, and have more to learn, from Michael Hamburger’s translations of Nelly Sachs (as well as other German poets). But even with Hamburger, he’s writing in a mid-century British English, and an English he became fluent in as a native German speaker; so it’s a different English than the one I speak, write, and hear, even when I am listening to a German poet (Sachs) who came roughly from the same linguistic situation as he did. If he had translated many of the poems in Flight and Metamorphosis, I don’t know that I would have tried—but most of these poems were translated by Ruth and Matthew Mead, and I just am not a fan of how they hear the poems: therein lay the opportunity—I could hear the poems past the translation that they rendered. Their English is not a living English to me, it doesn’t exist anywhere. So I bow deeply to the work they did, it was groundbreaking. But reading their translation is like listening to someone tell you about someone really interesting that they know very well—it does you absolutely no good. You have to do it yourself, find them yourself, for yourself.

NELLY SACHS (1891–1970) was a German-Swedish playwright and poet. Her collections of poetry include In den Wohnungen des Todes (1947), Flucht und Verwandlung (1959), Fahrt ins Staublose (1961), and Suche nach Lebenden (1971). She was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1966. 

About the Translator:

JOSHUA WEINER is the author of three books of poetry and the editor of a book of essays, At the Barriers: On the Poetry of Thom Gunn (all from University of Chicago Press). His Berlin Notebook, reporting about the refugee situation in Germany, was published by Los Angeles Review of Books in 2016 as a digital edition. He has received Whiting, Guggenheim, and Rome Prize fellowships, as well as the Amy Lowell Poetry Traveling Scholarship, which took him to Berlin in 2012-13. His translation from the German of Nelly Sachs’ 1959 book, Flight and Metamorphosis, will be published by Farrar Straus Giroux in March 2022. He teaches at University of Maryland, and lives in Washington D.C.

More Nelly Sachs in B O D Y:

Five poems by Nelly Sachs, translated by Joshua Weiner
A review of Flight and Metamorphosis by Nelly Sachs by Stephan Delbos