(Black Lawrence Press, 2012)
A few years ago, thumbing through a copy of Martin Seymour-Smith’s Who’s Who in Twentieth Century Literature, I stumbled on the following entry: “Goll, Iwan or Yvan (ps. Isaac Lang) (1891 – 1950) Franco-German writer (of Jewish-Alsatian parentage).” In those initial words I saw a man of many identities, evinced not only by his affiliation with three names but by the complex (one might even presume incompatible) elements of his ethnic and linguistic heritage. This intrigued me, as did Seymour-Smith’s assessment of the poet-novelist-dramatist’s works: “Goll is perhaps the only indisputably major bilingual writer since Gil Vicente.” At that moment, I felt as if I—who had read Rilke, Celan, Apollinaire, Trakl, Arp, Lorca, and others—discovered the unexplored wing of an old library and was determined to find out more.
Unfortunately, my initial attempts to familiarize myself with the poems of Goll were frustrated by a lack of available in-print translations. After a bit of searching, I located a few dated editions in English and one contemporary translation of Goll’s love poems. Working from these, I explored, and was astounded. Here was a writer who absorbed and transcended aspects related to the most salient literary movements in European literature from the first half of the 20th century; a man whose inveterate curiosity compelled him to author over 50 books of poetry, plays, fiction, and essays; a writer every bit as aesthetically and thematically complex and rewarding as Rilke—and he is virtually unknown among readers of poetry in America today.
It was not always so. In 1939, Goll and his wife Claire fled Europe and took residence in New York City for eight years. While there, Goll formed lasting relationships with many American writers, Louise Bogan and William Carlos Williams among them, who apprehended his genius and were indebted to him for his outstanding contributions to the Expressionist and Surrealist movements, as well as his anticipation, in plays, of the Theatre of the Absurd. In his foreword to Selected Poems (Kayak, 1968), Paul Zweig states, “What [Goll] discovered, he set down endlessly in poems, letters, plays, lyrical novels. He could not stop answering the world, and each answer needed new words, new secrets to defend.” Goll’s “answers” assumed various tonalities and forms. As versatile in French as he was in German, he wrote Jean sans Terre, a book-length collection of interconnected lyrics about a wandering Jew whose very landlessness leaves him at once dispossessed yet free. “Divorced from the land,” Clark Mills writes in his critical note to an English translation of Jean sans Terre, “he is divorced automatically from provincial traditions and customs, from property, the possession of things, and therefore from conformity, the irrevocable law of possession.”
As great as Jean sans Terre is, many critics consider Goll’s German-language Traumkraut (Dreamweed) his masterpiece. Published after his death, these poems, written between 1947 – 1950, record the writer’s haunting, sometimes hallucinatory visions from his deathbed. As mentioned before, some of these poems were available in English through out-of-print translations, but the entire cycle could only be accessed in German. Imagine, then, my elation when I learned Black Lawrence Press was issuing a new bilingual edition of the book translated by Nan Watkins, who had already worked with Thomas Rain Crowe on their excellent rendition of 10,000 Dawns (White Pine Press, 2004),the love poems of Yvan and Claire Goll. Released as Dreamweed in October 2012, Watkins’s translations deserve high praise for their formal grace and accuracy. She also deserves recognition for introducing Goll to a new generation of readers.
So impressed was I with Watkins’s incredible service to American letters, I contacted her for an interview. Patient and generous, she consented to several conversations, which were conducted through e-mail exchanges and on the telephone. Below is the result of our collaboration.
Tony Leuzzi (Rail): What drew you to Goll’s poetry and compelled you to translate it?
Nan Watkins: It was the work itself. I love the beauty of his language. I also admire what Goll is saying. There is a deep sadness in a lot of what he writes, sadness he is not afraid to express. One sees in his poems a person trying to live a meaningful life in a world that has gone crazy: the First World War with its unimaginable carnage, skyrocketing inflation, the Great Depression, followed by the Nazi takeover in Europe. Goll speaks out against the inhumanity around him, but amidst all of it he sees an avenue for beauty through love and peace. I take solace in that vision. Compassion is the solution in the world for me, not more conflict, not more weapons. So when I encountered Goll’s work, I felt I was meeting someone I very much respected and wanted to befriend.
Aesthetically, the dense, compact language of his poems has affinities with Rilke’s and Celan’s work. But while they have been favored with numerous translations of both individual poems and volumes of their poetry, as well as biographies and critical studies in English, very little of Yvan Goll’s work has been translated into English. From 1939 to 1947, Goll lived in exile in New York. His town house at 136 Columbia Heights in Brooklyn Heights was the scene of gatherings with fellow American poets. After his death in 1950, some of those poets wanted to honor Goll’s work, so they published translations of his poems. But those translations were in small or limited editions and are now out of print.
Rail: And yet Goll is every bit as rewarding a poet as Rilke and Celan. Why do you suppose he isn’t as widely translated as either of them?
Watkins: Goll was involved in many different literary movements. He was a seeker right from the start, a very intelligent man whose curiosity led him to examine and participate in the important causes of his time. Already in 1914 his powerful poem on the building of the Panama Canal—denouncing the wretched working conditions and loss of life in the service of industry—appeared in German in Berlin. As a pacifist during the First World War, he emigrated to Switzerland and spent his time in Zurich with the Dadaists; afterwards, he was involved with the Expressionists in Berlin where he published and produced his satirical drama, Methusalem: oder der ewige Bürger. In Paris he engaged in a long argument with André Breton on the definition of Surrealism, and in October 1924 he published his own Manifeste du surréalisme simultaneously with Breton’s. In 1933, as a Jew, he lost his German citizenship and was no longer able to publish his work in German. He solved that dilemma in Paris by writing and publishing his work in French. In the course of his career, Goll published in German, then French, and when he was in exile in the United States, he published in English. It is difficult to pin him down.
People who are remembered tend to be identified with one particular group or cause; they are known for one special thing. Goll moved around and saw possibilities for engagement in many different areas. As a result, he hasn’t been heralded or promoted by any one group. His influence was widespread and his writing was diverse in contrast to Celan, who is known chiefly for his writing in German, “the language of the oppressor,” on the Jewish tragedy of the Holocaust. Rilke, 16 years older than Goll, had the patronage of important figures, including the Russian Lou Andreas-Salomé, the German Princess Marie von Thurn und Taxis-Hohenlohe, and the French sculptor Rodin, all of whom fostered connections that disseminated his work. Rilke’s Sonnets to Orpheus and Duino Elegies have been universally acknowledged as masterpieces of 20th-century poetry.
Rail: So Goll’s eclecticism and facility in a lot of different areas has actually worked against his posterity?
Watkins: Yes, I believe it has. And to complicate matters, Goll’s sense of lack of a fixed identity is also reflected in his use of various pseudonyms. An Alsatian, he was born in 1891 as Isaac Lang. His earliest works used pseudonyms based on his mother’s maiden name, Lazang; and through the following years he wrote under many different noms de plume, his first name being some form of Johannes, John, Jean, Ivan, before settling on Yvan Goll, which is on his tombstone. If you try to look him up on the computer, you must enter many names to find all of his works. As a result he has slipped through the cracks.
Rail: In one sense, this is frustrating for Goll admirers seeking current translations of his work. On the other, the very dearth of translations and critical studies available means the field is wide open for people like you. That’s pretty exciting.
Watkins: Yes, it is! Goll's oeuvre is so vast that it would take many years to translate it all into English. Goll was truly bilingual, writing in both German and French so that his poetry, dramas, novels, lyrics, essays, and criticism were published in both languages. There has yet to be a definitive Collected Works by Yvan Goll; his manuscripts are housed in two archives: the Deutsches Literaturarchiv in Marbach, Germany, and with the Fondation Yvan et Claire Goll in Saint-Dié-des-Vosges, in France. His poems have been painstakingly edited by Barbara Glauert-Hesse and published in four volumes in their original languages by Argon in Berlin, and further volumes of his work are in preparation for publication in new editions. To date, no full-length biography has been written on Yvan Goll, though there is an increasing number of scholarly studies on his work.
There is also an unfortunate misunderstanding by some American readers that Yvan Goll himself was involved in his widow’s accusation, years after Yvan’s death, that Paul Celan had plagiarized passages from Yvan’s work. In truth, Yvan Goll and Paul Celan came together only in the last months of Yvan’s life, and the two admired each other’s work. Celan was 30 years younger than Yvan and looked up to the elder, dying poet; he was among the many poets who offered blood to Yvan during his last weeks in the hospital. Yvan even named Celan to be a literary executor of his estate, should his wife Claire be unable to carry out that duty.
Then after Yvan’s death, Claire asked Celan to translate some of Yvan’s poems from French into German. Claire was not pleased with Celan’s work, and arguments ensued between the two temperamental poets. When Claire made her accusation of Celan’s plagiarism public, a great literary scandal erupted and continued to fester until Celan’s death. Celan’s admirers have not forgotten that scandal, and some have boycotted Yvan’s work, thinking he was involved in the Celan-Goll Affair. There is no foundation to this at all, since it was several years after Yvan Goll’s death that Claire Goll made her public accusations. Yvan knew nothing whatever of “The Goll Affair.”
Rail: You had mentioned before love as a theme in Goll’s work not only as a way one can heal but as an affirmative emotional force that cancels out the brutalities of war. While this is true, Goll’s articulation of love is not easy or sentimental. It is intense, sometimes even disturbing. I find his notion of love is so complicated that actually some of the images that might go into a poem about war find place in his poems about love, poems fraught with anxiety and fear.
Watkins: Yes, I think that is true. Love was a real force in Goll's life, yet he was living in violent times, as mankind has lived for centuries. Love was his attempt to combat the antithetical force of violence, the use of brute physical power. Some of his poems document his wrestling with that force of physical violence. He was trying to turn the tables, making the major force in his life love.
Rail: And while this is evident, that threatening physical power you speak of is not entirely absent from the love poems. I think of one of the poems, in the “To Claire-Liliane” suite, where he writes
Your head of bones of clouds of fire
I take it often in my heavy hands
I can shake it I can turn it
Inside I hear waterfalls tumble, worlds in ferment…
Then, in the third-to-sixth lines of the next stanza he writes:
How I torment this head! I fill it with tears!
I let it grow old unprotected!
And never think: here inside reigns God!
That is lovely and beautiful, but also intense and a bit disturbing.
Watkins: It is! I think you have to realize that these late poems in Dreamweed were written after Yvan and Claire had been married for 30 years. They lived in turbulent times, and there was turbulence in their marriage as well. Often they were separated from each other, each had separate writing lives, and each had had love affairs with others. Claire was a highly volatile woman, and Yvan was more pensive and sensitive. But in the end, their deepest allegiance was to each other—right up until Yvan’s death. Claire outlived Yvan by 27 years, during which time her chief goal was to promote her husband’s work. It is both exasperating and unfortunate that her overly zealous attempts to put forward Yvan’s work sometimes backfired.
Rail: Your first translation project of Goll’s was the love poems Yvan and Claire wrote to one another. I especially appreciate that you and co-translator Thomas Rain Crowe organized the book 10,000 Dawns as a dialogue, where each Yvan poem is set beside one of Claire’s poems.
Watkins: Thank you. When Claire published the original books after Yvan’s death in 1950—first in French as Dix mille aubes (1951), then in German as Zehntausend Morgenröten (1954)—she placed all of Yvan’s poems in one sweep and then all of hers in another. Thomas translated Yvan’s poems from the French and I translated Claire’s poems from the German. After we had sent out our completed translation to a number of different publishers and received an equal number of rejections, we asked, “Why aren’t people picking this up?” We received compliments about the beauty of the poetry, but that was about it. Then we thought, “Let’s organize the book in the form of a conversation, because that’s really what it is.” When we did that, arranging the poems as they had been written chronologically between the two lovers, the arc of their love story became clear. The first publisher we submitted the manuscript to in this conversational format accepted it immediately: that was White Pine Press in Buffalo, N.Y.
Rail: They did a beautiful job, as did you and Thomas Rain Crowe. Presenting the alternating voices as you did allows both sides of the love story to emerge more clearly.
Watkins: The two poets and their poems were foils for each other. You miss that when you have two separate sections of each poet’s poems. Often Yvan and Claire would include poems in their letters. Or, as in the case of the title poem, “10,000 Dawns,” the poem itself was the letter. Yvan slipped it under the door of Claire’s room on the morning of the 30th anniversary of the day they met—not the day they married but the day they met. So their lifelong love really was a conversation between them with all the ups and downs that a 30-year marriage entails. And if you stop to think about it, how many books of love poems do you know that were written by a husband and wife over a lifetime together? One remembers the poems of Robert and Elizabeth Barrett Browning, but who else? Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath were certainly husband-and-wife poets, but we have no volume equivalent to 10,000 Dawns from them.
Rail: While translating 10,000 Dawns, did you know you were going to tackle Dreamweed?
Watkins: No. I was focused on that one volume and had not thought about a further Goll project. I’m not a full-time translator. I’m active in other things—music, for example—but in the end I was so taken by the love poems that I couldn’t stop with 10,000 Dawns. I was soon drawn into the remarkable poems in Dreamweed.
Sometimes, when I first look at a gorgeous poem in a foreign language, I think, “Oh, how beautiful! But I could never do that poem justice in translation.” The beauty of the original is mysterious. Soon the mystery beckons me to try. I start to unfold the layers of meaning and see how dense and complicated that language really is.
Rail: When I saw a notice on Amazon.com that Dreamweed was coming out through Black Lawrence Press I was elated. Most critics consider the book his masterpiece. Would you agree with that critical assessment?
Watkins: I certainly have to say it is one of hismasterpieces. Two others are his love poems, Dix mille aubes to Claire and Malaiische Liebeslieder to Paula Ludwig,and his Jean Sans Terre volumes, rhymed verses of his alter ego, a landless Everyman wandering the earth.
Rail: What were some of the specific challenges you faced while translating the poems in Dreamweed?
Watkins: Translation is the story of making choices. There are so many elements that one must consider in bringing a poem from one language as fully as possible into another, but of all those elements, I aim first to maintain the integrity of the original poem. I ask myself how I think Goll would have written the particular poem, if he had been composing it in English. Then I consider the various aspects of each poem: form, sound, linguistic style, rhythm, rhyme, etc. For example: in Goll’s “Der heilige Leib,” (“This Holy Body”), in the last lines the poet makes use of a rare rhyme: “In meinen Ohren ist ein Lauschen und ein Rauschen/Und kein Gott.” Translated literally it is: “in my ears is a listening (or a straining to hear) and a rushing/and no God.” This is not poetry. The phrase “ringing and singing” kept returning to my mind when I tried to translate that line, so I finally used it, choosing to maintain the rhythm and the rhyme of Goll’s passage rather than a literal meaning.
Linguistic tone is another aspect to consider. In “Job,” when I read the poem I heard so many echoes of the Old Testament in the King James version that I decided to go with it. “Höre Israel/Ich bin der Zehnbrotebaum,” becomes: “Hear O Israel/I am the ten-bread tree,” thus inserting the “O” that is not in Goll’s original, but feels appropriate to my ear and the sense of the passage. And in “Das Wüstenhaupt,” the first line, “Ich baute mir dein Haupt über der Wüste des täglichen Todes” becomes: “Above the desert of daily death I built myself your head.” I began by reversing the order of the two phrases, emphasizing the word “head” at the end of the line. I struggled with the phrase, “Ich baute mir dein Haupt,” which is literally “I built me your head,” an expression from older English as used in the King James version of the Bible. Luther’s translation into German of Ecclesiastes 2:4: “Ich tat grosse Dinge: ich baute mir Häuser, ich pflantze mir Weinberge” uses that same German construction (Ich baute mir), while the King James version reads: “I made me great works; I builded me houses; I planted me vineyards.” My intuition was to translate it “I built me your head,” using the “built me” but not “builded me.” In the end, I weakened and wrote “I built myself your head.” Many of the people I had tested my translation on had felt that “built me” stuck out as “incorrect English.” I notice, though, that when I read this poem to audiences, I always say, “I built me your head.” It’s what feels genuine to me.
Rail: Clearly, then, intuition is an important part of your process.
Watkins: The translator’s intuition is her best asset. The more sophisticated the intuition in the use of language and the deep understanding of the poem, the better the translation. The more I translate, the more I trust my intuition rather than a literal translation. It is also important that the translator have a deep affinity with the poet. I believe this is usually the case in literary translation, for without a real connection between the two, the translation resembles an immature attempt rather than full-fledged flight.
Rail: What were some of the challenges in translating German to English, in particular?
Watkins: German is a fusional (inflecting) language, retaining declensions of nouns and articles and associated modifiers, and it has three genders. It is prone to using compound nouns with the first noun modifying the second noun, as in the title, Dreamweed. Because of its use of declensions, German word order can be far more flexible than English word order. Think of the many jokes about the Germans placing the verb at the end of the sentence! Its poetry can be dense. The very word for poetry in German is “Dichtung,” from the word “dicht,” meaning “dense”: or “compact.” Goll’s poetry is truly “dicht.”
There is an advantage of translating from German to English in that both are Germanic languages, resting on the same local branch of the Indo-European limb of the linguistic tree. English has incorporated many foreign words into its language base, particularly words with a Latinate base, while German, for the most part, has retained a purer Germanic base. In translating, when I had a choice of English words for one German word, I most often chose the Germanic instead of the Latinate word. In the poem, “The Fear-Dancer,” for example, the word “Feind” could be translated as “enemy” or “foe.” For me the directness of the word “foe” (from Old English fah with long a) felt far more effective than “enemy” (from Latin inimicus) in the line:
As in your dealings with the weapon-glistening foe
Still, it is important to think beyond equivalents of individual words. The whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Each poem is an entity with its own unique identity. As a translator I try to compose in English a poem as close as I can to the soul of the original.
Rail: Anyone who translates poetry is confronted with the difficulty of representing the original poem accurately as poetry. One must be faithful to the meaning of the original and yet also concerned with creating a translation that can stand on its own as a poem in its own right, striking, as you mentioned above, the right tone, the right level of English.
Watkins: I had to begin by choosing what level or tone of English to use. After reading Goll’s own writing in English in his post-Second-World-War Fruit from Saturn, I chose to keep an even, somewhat elevated style in English, rather than use more colloquial language. I also chose to stay as close as possible to Goll’s form, including line length and stanza. The bilingual edition of Dreamweed makes this readily apparent.
Yet another aspect of the translation was considering Goll's sparing use of punctuation. Because I chose to follow Goll’s form, I felt the punctuation was an inherent part of that form. I like the clean look that he used, without cluttering up the graceful lines with punctuation marks.
Rail: Other translators have often inserted punctuation where it was not in the originals. This generally means a lot less ambiguity, but your decision, I think, makes for greater translations. For example, in “Eavesdropping on Your Sleep” the lack of punctuation enables the reader to group lines and phrases in various combinations:
I hear the blind pianist
Playing on your ribs
I hear the black waves of night...
In this passage, the line “Playing on your ribs” could be grouped phrasally with the first or third line. By leaving the punctuation off, both readings are possible. This ambiguity occurs in the last three lines of the poem as well.
Watkins: Also, Goll capitalizes the first letter of every line. This, too, causes ambiguity in interpretation. Like the line break, it is another element in the written version of the poem, keeping it more fluid than fixed.
Rail: Do you feel the dearth of existing translations affects the choices you have made in your translations?
Watkins: That dearth has given me more freedom to be bold in expressing my own version of the poems. When I begin a translation, I never consult other English versions of the poem first, so that I keep my mind open to my own sense of what the original poem is saying to me. Only after I have worked with a poem for a good while and feel that it is basically “set” the way I want it, do I consult other versions, if available.
Particularly in poetry, it can be astonishing how different translations are from one another. Each translator brings with her a lifetime of associations and experiences and preferences, and these influence her interpretation of a poem. As an experiment, I recently looked for different translations of Rilke’s “Herbsttag” (“Autumn Day,” “Autumn’s Day,” “October Day,” “Fall”) and found some 20 versions before I stopped counting. They range from classically beautiful language attempting Rilke’s rhyme scheme, to more colloquial speech and a disregard for Rilke’s stanzas and form—even a modern jive version. They all include essential aspects of Rilke’s original, but viewed as a whole, the translations use a very wide palette of colors to paint the poem in English.
Rail: You are, among other things, an accomplished musician. How has your knowledge of music influenced your approach as a translator of Goll?
Watkins: My native language is music, and my formal training has been in music. I was four when I learned to read music, before I learned to read words. I have applied that musical training to my work as a translator. My love of literature, in particular poetry, I inherited from and shared with my mother. It has been gratifying to see how poetry and music have informed each other and have been interwoven throughout my life.
As a pianist, I was deeply involved in interpreting the music of the great classical composers: Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Chopin, et al. I find the art of translating the words of a poet akin to interpreting the notes of a composer. Both require full immersion in the work, exploring the art form, whether sonnet or sonata, ode or fugue. Both are aural, using sound as their medium, while also being recorded and preserved on the page in writing. The same elements are at play in music and poetry: meter, rhythm, melody, harmony. Assonance and alliteration also help contribute to the music of Goll’s poems. Breath and phrasing are common to the overall beauty and structure of both the poem and the musical composition. The turn of a phrase is equally important in poetry and in music.
Rail: When I read Goll’s poems I am often thinking in several directions at once. With the poems in Dreamweed, I noticed quite a presence of scientific and geological language. I found, for example, several references to phosphor and salt.
Watkins: Yes, Goll studied chemistry and alchemy and was fascinated with the role of minerals and metals. He liked dealing with the elements, the basic building blocks of life, and here, decay and death.
Rail: And flame, and burning, and bones. It wasn’t just geological but a sense of the body going through stages of regeneration and decay. Sometimes when the language looks surreal it’s actually precise. For example, in the poem “Bloodhound,” your translation records: “With the wet flame of your tongue/lick the salt of my sweat/the sugar of my death.” As surreal as this sounds, it is literally true. Wasting syndrome occurs when a body produces sugar from proteins to feed its cancer—
Watkins: Oh, for heaven’s sake! That’s good—
Rail: A body can die of starvation trying to feed its cancer. Cancer, which Goll was dying of, metabolizes through a process of fermentation. These poems are not only beautiful poetically, but informative and knowledgeable about the process of decay.
Watkins: That is terrific to hear. Thank you for pointing that out.
Rail: Were you aware of this connection?
Watkins: No. I hadn’t made that connection. Do you have a background in medicine?
Rail: I don’t. I just read your lines and sensed the language was hinting at some anatomical processes, so I looked up “sugar and death” with regards to the human body and that is what I was able to piece together.
Watkins: That is impressive. I remember translating the line and thinking, “this is remarkable,” but I did not look into it the way you have done. I thought the contrast between “salt” and “sugar” might have to do with the extremes of Yvan and Claire’s love relationship.
Rail: That is very probable, too. The salt-sugar contrast also reminds me of the inclusion of bitter and sweet foods at a seder ritual, where the different tastes are meant to symbolize the bittersweet struggle of the Jewish people throughout the ages, their collective suffering and their collective joys. As a Jew, Goll might have easily intended this connection, too.
Watkins: That is possible. Goll was raised by Jewish parents in the Alsatian towns of Saint-Dié-des-Vosges and Metz. As an adult, his Jewish cultural heritage was an important source of inspiration to him, but he did not practice his faith actively. He married a Jewish woman born in Nürnberg. Toward the end of his life he sought answers in the Kabbala. Several poems in Dreamweed use references to Judaism, for example, the three “Job” poems.
Rail: What do you think Goll's poetry can teach us today? Why should we be compelled to read it?
Watkins: I think Goll’s record of his quest in life as revealed in his diverse writings is inspiring for us as we encounter the daily challenges of life in the 21st century. His restless spirit and cosmopolitan intelligence were ever seeking kernels of truth, beauty, and love to aid him on his journey. He was Everyman, the eternal wanderer, visiting the guesthouse of earth while traveling through the limitless cosmos.
As a young man, his starting point was reality. In his “Surrealist Manifesto,” he states, “Reality is the basis of all great art. Without it there is no life, no substance. Reality is the ground under our feet and the sky over our head.” As Goll matured, he recorded his journey into both the seen and the unseen worlds. His was one of the great voices of the 20th century, and it deserves to live on.
This Holy Body
by Yvan Goll
This shaky house of bones
Built upon sand
Lodging for my ancestors
From my eyes they follow
All the roads I take
My spleen is their kitchen
Where they cook with fat and blood
In the niche of the ruins my mother still sleeps
Old men’s tobacco smoke clings to her larynx
My holy body!
Sacrificial animals roar deep within me
And beef loins exhale their stench every Saturday
My mouth still houses
In my ears I hear a ringing and a singing
And no God