Books as Bibles

by David Ebenbach

Don’t mess with Moby Dick. And I’m not talking about the whale, though you should probably leave the whale alone, too—I’m saying don’t mess with the book.

A while back I posted a piece on Medium called “Call Me Irritable: A Chapter Outline of Moby Dick in the Form of an Increasingly Frustrating Conversation with a Guy Named Ishmael.” I had just finished reading Moby Dick for the first time (For shame! How could I have waited for so long?) and I had not enjoyed the experience. So I wrote the fictional conversation as a way of poking fun at what struck me as a novel whose scattered great parts got lost in a book that was in general bloated, shapeless, and dull.

Some people liked the fun-poking; I’m not the only person in the history of the world to not enjoy Moby Dick. But some other folks had advice for me. They told me to read the book more slowly, or to apply different standards to the book, or to try to appreciate the little things instead of the big picture. In one way or another, these folks told me that I was reading the book wrong, or that my dislike of the book just pointed to my own deficiencies.

This confirmed my perception that Moby Dick is one of those special books that has become so firmly entrenched as a literary classic that it has become something more than a novel—it has become the literary equivalent of the Bible.

What do I mean by that? I mean this: when a piece of literature becomes a Bible, it is no longer open to question, or at least to certain questions. We can ask, “Hey—why is this so amazing?” and “What did Melville mean with this symbol?” and “How can I get more out of this?” We can ask questions intended to help us understand and appreciate the book more thoroughly. But we can’t ask questions like, “Um, isn’t this book a complete mess, with truly striking, beautiful, exciting stuff broken up by many incredibly boring chapters full of protracted (and often misinformed) lectures about whales and whaling equipment and whaling technique?” We can’t ask questions, in other words, that question the goodness or rightness of the text.

Because here’s the thing about a Bible, understood traditionally: when you have a problem with a Bible, there is no possibility that the Bible is wrong—this is supposed to be divine stuff, after all. There is only the possibility that you are wrong, and you can only hope to work harder in order to better grasp the wisdom of the Bible.

For the record, I don’t think that the Bible should be read this way, either, but that’s a subject for another essay. More to the point, classics of literature may be wonderful, but not one of them was written by a god, and it seems to me, as a reader, that every one of them should ultimately be open to all possible questions that enter your mind. These include: “Is this working?” “Should some of this be cut/expanded?” and “How might this be improved?”

And here’s another question that ought to be allowed: “Should I stop reading?”

I want to get something out of a book, but if it just isn’t happening, there are approximately 78 quadrillion other books out there that might prove more moving and useful. If, after putting in some real effort, my dissatisfaction builds up too much, I try to figure out what’s not working for me (so that I can be sure not to reproduce the problem in my own work), and then I do a potentially sacrilegious thing: I put the book down. I put it down and move on. And surely that happens sometimes with my own books—people put them down and walk away. That’s the reader’s prerogative.

Of course, it’s a delicate balance. When I start reading a book—not just a “classic” but any book—I do enter it somewhat Biblically, in the sense that my mind is open and my stance is humble. I’m ready for it to be good, to teach me something. And if I have early buzzings of uncertainty, as long as they’re not too loud, I try to stay in there. I want the book to succeed. I want to get something out of it. After all, being a writer in part means being very inclined to get things out of books. If lots of other people have liked the book—if it is considered a classic, for example—I work even harder to keep my mind open. If trustworthy friends have recommended the book, I work harder still. I definitely don’t want to miss an opportunity to be wowed by a piece of writing, so I give it every chance I can.

And don’t we want people to approach our own work that way? I think each writer produces work that, if it’s any good, makes fresh demands of the reader—by messing with the rules of point of view, say, or using voice in a new way, or taking an idiosyncratic angle on structure or pacing or characterization or whatnot—and we don’t want people to say, “This isn’t what I’m used to, so it’s bad.” Naturally we each hope that readers will be open to the possibility of meeting the work’s demands. And we believe that they’ll be rewarded for hanging in there with an open mind.

If I’m honest, I think that’s part of what bothers me about Moby Dick: envy. Not envy of the writing, but envy of how it’s received. It’s a “classic,” so people automatically come at it with a Biblical mind-set. Meanwhile, they probably look at contemporary writing (e.g., mine) with a more critical eye. (After all, Melville was pretty much dismissed in his own lifetime.) My ideal is something more equitable, with every piece of writing getting the benefit of the doubt provisionally, at first. That’s the hope I have as a writer, and it’s the ideal I shoot for as a reader: each text approached with the question Is this maybe kind of Biblical? If the answer turns out to be yes, great. If the answer is no, that’s fine, too. You’re allowed to put the book down. Let someone else call that guy Ishmael.

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David EbenbachDavid Ebenbach is the blog editor for AGNI, and also the author of seven books of poetry, fiction, and non-fiction, including, most recently, the poetry collection We Were the People Who Moved. He lives in Washington, DC, where he teaches creative writing and literature at Georgetown University.

Personal Essay as Homage: Rubin’s Deli, 1928-2016

by Alisa Wolf

RubinsDeliIn 2010, Agni Online published my essay “Lokshen Kugel.” It was an homage to Rubin’s kosher deli in Brookline, Massachusetts and my great aunt, Bessie Cohen, who worked in the kitchen there for most of her adult life. I haven’t eaten at Rubin’s in more than a decade. But when it closed its doors for good on Friday, August 5, 2016, I couldn’t help but feel a twinge of sadness that I will never order a Rubin’s pastrami sandwich again.

The deli opened in 1928 (or 1927, by some news accounts). It featured a corned beef sandwich for 15 cents, and, for 25 cents, on Thursday and Friday only, “Ho-Made Gefilte Fish.” That typo from a menu posted on the deli’s Facebook page must have been fixed—and the menu updated repeatedly—by the time my father started bringing my sister and me there in the 1960s. But there was still corned beef and gefilte fish, English spoken with a Yiddish lilt, and jokes whose sensibility I didn’t get. In all these ways Rubin’s was an exotic locale that did as much to form my ideas about the old world—namely Vilnia, Lithuania, at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries —as my Nana’s Shabbos candles and gooey taiglach did.

RubinsMenu croppedI had plenty of colorful details to draw on for my essay. But I didn’t want Auntie Bessie to come off as a caricature. The family already regarded her as something of an oddball. The adults couldn’t resist making jokes behind her back about the way she doted on her husband, feeding him a special diet that seemed to consist entirely of milk, spinach, and toast, and the well-known fact that he wore a truss under his shirt and vest to keep his hernia from popping out. I laughed too.

But Auntie Bessie and Uncle Irving were both there for me when I was floundering in my early twenties. No matter when I dropped by their Brookline apartment, they welcomed me. Uncle Irving took an interest in my various jobs and political opinions, while Auntie Bessie warmed up a meal for me in the kitchen. I protested that I wasn’t hungry, but I always ate.

I struggled to do justice to Auntie Bessie on the page. I wanted to show how strange she seemed to me when I was a kid but also how vital my connection to her was. Yet so much about Auntie Bessie lent itself to stereotype. The whole Jewish food motif is practically a cliché. The “oy veys” and Jewish guilt—Auntie Bessie embodied them all. But she was also a real person. Someone I loved.

In this essay, caricature came first. Only after prodding the broad outlines did the nuances come out. I worked on many drafts, especially of the first paragraph. I wanted to ground Auntie Bessie in a particular time and place, to show her in her element. The rhythm of our meals at the deli, the tone of the adult conversation, how the food looked and tasted—getting these details right seemed essential to conveying Auntie Bessie as a fully realized character and myself as a flawed narrator whose view was decidedly objective.

Because the original deli moved in 1981 to roomier digs down the street, I couldn’t go back there to check the accuracy of my memories. But the essay wasn’t about a building, or even a way of life. It was, I discovered, about my uneasiness with the Jewish culture I was born into, which worked against a deep desire to connect with it. This ambivalence underlies the relationship between the character I called “Auntie Bessie” and the character based on me. It’s there in the way I flaunt my knowledge of the Yiddish term for noodle pudding—lokshen kugel—only to crave pizza and Kraft Macaroni and Cheese when Auntie Bessie serves her traditional dishes. It’s in the way my frizzy curls and olive skin reflect the shtetl culture embodied by Rubin’s, which on the one hand gives me a sense of belonging there and on the other, feeds my jealousy of my blonde, straight-haired sister. It’s in the tension between my fantasy of a close traditional family, exemplified by the older generation of Rubins, and the dissolution of my own family, as my parents find new partners after their divorce and my sister moves away. It’s in the way I show up at Auntie Bessie’s door in my disheveled, “hippie chick gone ’80s punk” outfit, none too happy with myself and just a little worried about how she’ll view me. But when she answers my ring, I get what I came for: a greeting and embrace that convey how glad she is to see me, no matter what state I’m in.

Toward the end of her life, I got to know Auntie Bessie better, as one adult to another. One of the regrets she shared with me was that she never had kids. Who, she wondered, would say the Jewish prayer of remembrance—the Kaddish—for her when she died? In the essay, I hold her hand and mourn my own road not taken. Because by now I know that I’m not going to be a traditional Jewish housewife—a baleboste—and mother. But because of Auntie Bessie’s example and unwavering love, it’s okay.

I can’t say how Auntie Bessie actually felt when these scenes occurred in real life. I depicted her as honestly as I could. I can only hope I’ve done her justice. Or at the very least, that in employing her to bring clarity to my own questions about who I once was and the choices I once made, I’ve drawn her in all her complex humanity, not as a caricature.

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AlisaWolf_May Alisa Wolf’s work has appeared in Agni Online, Calyx, Cimarron Review, Concho River Review, Fjords Review, Pisgah Review, Red Cedar Review, Schuylkill Valley Journal, Sojourner, and The Legendary, as well as the Prentice Hall Reader, 11th and 12th editions. She lives in Medford, Mass. and is a member of the Writers Room of Boston. Find out what she’s published on AGNI here.

An Leabharlann

by Brian Doyle

One time I was in Connemara, that tiny remnant of the Gaelic kingdom that once ruled all the green rocky sprawl of the Irish island, when I finished the books I had brought to read while traveling, and realized, with a start, that I was well and truly screwed as regards reading material, for I had already read the books my companions had, one of them twice, and the cottages where we were staying had nothing whatsoever to read, not even old magazines, so I wandered off in search of the local library. This turned out to be a small cottage with a small librarian and a sweeping view over the sea behind it—“Bertraghboy Bay,” said the tiny librarian, “which is supposed to mean ‘yellow sandbank’ according to what’s in your guide books and such, but it doesn’t mean that at all, and in fact means something more like ‘a great place to find the oysters.’ Names mean more than the words that compose them, you know. But you know that, as a literary man. No, I am afraid we do not have any of your books, but yes indeed, if you send them to me we will happily shelve them, although where to do so is a mystery at present, as you see. We are sold out, as it were, in the matter of shelf space for books, and given the parlous state of the economy, and the ruinous political management of the district, I cannot imagine that money will be miraculously found for the expansion of the library system. But having too many books is a happy problem, is it not? Because the books do wander out every day, and most of them come back. I used to be much more fidgety about retrieving them from those who kept them too long, but I gave that up years ago, on the theory that if it took some fella in Errisbeg longer than a lady in Crumpan to read such and such a book, well, then it took him longer, and as long as he did return the volume eventually, all was well. Here and there someone would lose a book, twice into the waters of the bay, but almost always a new copy would appear somehow, and to be honest it seems to me if a book goes into the bay then it’s a good death for the book, and surely we owe the bay a bit of thanks after all it’s given us, don’t you think? Not to mention maybe there’s a well-educated lobster tribe down there, for all we know, and good for them.

“How did I become a librarian? Well, now, I’ll tell you, and it’s a strange bit of a story, for I think it all began with the very word itself. I was just a bit of a boy with not a word of the imperial English in my head when my grandfather first took me to the library. It wasn’t this building, no, it was a smaller one, someone’s old cottage, as I remember, and it was no bigger than two crows standing back to back. I remember as we walked up to it my grandfather said, with real respect and reverence, an leabharlann, which is the Irish for ‘the library,’ and the way he said it, slowly and gravely, has never left my ear. To him and so to me it was a holy word, a sacred word, a crucial word. Your library is where the community stores its treasures. It’s the house that imagination built. It’s where all the stories that matter are gathered together and celebrated and shared. It’s exactly like a church, it seems to me. People come to it communally for something that’s deep and ancient and important beyond an easy explanation. Who you are as a town is in the library. It’s why when you want to destroy a place you burn down the library. People who fear freedom fear libraries. The urge to ban a book is always an urge to put imagination in jail. But in the end you cannot imprison it, just as you cannot imprison the urge to freedom, because those things are in every soul, and there are too many souls to jail or murder them all, and that’s a fact. So a library is a shout of defiance too, if you think about it: dorn in aghaidh an dorchadas, a fist against the dark.”

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Brian Doyle Brian Doyle is the editor of Portland Magazine, in Oregon. He is the author of many books, most recently the novels Martin Marten and Chicago. Find out what he’s published in AGNI here.

The Difficulty of the Story

by Cynthia Huntington

What follows here is an edited portion of a letter to a former student in the Vermont College of Fine Arts MFA in Writing Program where I teach. I have changed some references to scenes and several details to avoid breaching confidentiality.

Dear J—

I’m glad my letter and comments worked for you. I think you’re doing important work and confronting a lot of natural obstacles; you might find it interesting to keep track of your difficulties in writing this—in every case so far, when you run into an obstacle in the writing, that obstacle is an illustration of your situation in some way. When you can’t find language, there is also an issue in the story about people’s ability to find language. When your structure breaks down and the stories go in all directions, that’s also a mirror of your family trying to pull everything into one necessity of caring for your injured brother, while each person has a different challenge in his/her own life. It’s as if the writing takes on the symptoms of the family you are writing about, and particularly it takes the symptoms of your own story within that.

You are in some way forbidden to write this. It is in some way a betrayal of the family’s conspiracy of silence around your brother’s “accident.” You are positioned as the truth teller, and because it is repressed it comes out in awkward, self-shaming ways, like fighting with your uncle at Thanksgiving dinner, crying, yelling, and blurting out more than people want to hear. The truth teller is always in some ways marginal. She must be deeply enough within the story to know it all, but also in a position to see it obliquely, to change the lens. She is often shunned. In your case, you are the youngest, and the one who went away so you are situated on the cusp. It’s easier to deny what the truth teller says if the ones on the inside focus on the speaker’s “difference.”

And the truth teller isn’t always right. Everyone has a slant on their own story, and no one sees it all completely. You constantly question whether what you are saying is actually true, while you feel in your heart that it must be. And being forbidden to write and speak can further distort the speaker’s understanding of the story. That’s why I suggested keeping track of the difficulties you encounter in this writing; they are quite telling. If you feel you must override the difficulties, create clarity where none exists, you will do the story a disservice. This family story, which you are forbidden to tell, because you are forbidden to know a single, ultimate version of it, is shifting, a story of discovery and reimagining. The obstacles this story raises shape the story, so I can’t guide you through them, only encourage you to go forward and have your understanding changed at every turn.

The scenes are the key. When you render a scene you can give more than one point of view, letting characters disagree, giving their words and actions space to exist apart from your interpretation. Not entirely; you can’t be entirely free of interpretation, but you can step back and allow the questions to expand. Is the angry uncle 100% wrong, as the “you” who is the character feels, or can “you the writer” feel the 10% uncertainty of his emotion alongside your 90% distaste for his words? Are your sisters lying to you when you return from college in order to keep you quiet, or is there a 2% “other” in their words and attitude?

Look for these places where the story you are trying to tell defeats you and lean into them; you are diverted for a purpose perhaps, to look again, to see even greater complexity in this tangled family saga of betrayal and love. You are diverted in order to look again.

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HuntingtonCynthia Huntington’s fifth book of poetry, Terra Nova, will be published in February 2017 by the Crab Orchard Poetry Series, Southern Illinois University Press. A chapbook, Fire Muse, is forthcoming in October 2016 from The University Press of New England. Her latest book, Heavenly Bodies, was a finalist for the 2012 National Book Award in Poetry. Presently a Guggenheim Fellow in Poetry she teaches at Dartmouth College where she holds the Frederick Sessions Beebe Chair in Writing, and in the Vermont College of Fine Arts MFA in Writing Program. Find out what she’s published in AGNI here.

Stanford, Mandelstam, Lavochkina, and Teicher: New Work Up at AGNI!

We’ve got fresh new work up on the main AGNI website—poems by Eleanor Stanford and Osip Mandelstam (the latter translated by Svetlana Lavochkina), and a story by Craig Morgan Teicher. Check it out!

Stanford“residents of small hope
and coal smoke make peanut butter
sandwiches or bicker, or sing
their coal-tinged lullabies”
“Centralia,” a poem by Eleanor Stanford

“the basic unit can only be
affirmative: the soft
gray rain fogging
the windows. Palm
on palm.”
“With J., Discussing Grammar in the Anarchist Coffee Shop, West Philadelphia,” a poem by Eleanor Stanford

Lavoch“Moscow Drizzle…hands out its sparrow coolness
in such a parsimonious way:
a bit to us, a bit to bushes,
a bit to cherries on the tray.”
“Moscow Drizzle,” a poem by Osip Mandelstam (translated by Svetlana Lavochkina)

“The shade goes purple, ever deeper”
“Impressionism,” a poem by Osip Mandelstam (translated by Svetlana Lavochkina)

“Shining milestones won’t stop us,
We will walk without turning,
Dawn to dawn, light-laden lanterns
Under heaven’s violet awning.”
untitled poem by Osip Mandelstam (translated by Svetlana Lavochkina)

Teicher“He gets as far as the subway station in front of the American Apparel a block from his building before realizing there is no world beyond his mother to run to.”
“The Child Runs Away,” a story by Craig Morgan Teicher


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On Poetry: The Stall

by Benjamin Landry

One question I get a lot is: What is it like to write poetry? On most days, it is indistinguishable from the business of living. Cleaning out the coffee percolator—the unscrewing of which requires some doing—or going to the store for 2% milk or updating my online status or checking for the mail or lumbering through the new biography of Augustine.

But on the best days, I barbecue, lacing the air in the neighborhood with hickory smoke and rendered fat, slow-cooking a pork shoulder from five in the morning until five in the afternoon, when I can drink a beer before the guests arrive. I love the chemistry and the alchemy of barbecue, the transformation from blood to bark, the whittling down of the cut by time and heat in an ordinary “UFO-saucer” grill. I like how it happens mostly outside of sight, when the lid is placed firmly down and the vents are cracked just so.

We’re renting an old house again—two hundred and thirty years between our last two houses—and I am sitting on the stone steps, waiting for light to filter back into the sky and then for the streetlights to shut off. Sometime later, I can tell by the crunch of gravel and a gentle thump that the newspaper has been delivered round the other side of the house. The coals are banked, the smoke gone from blue to white. Sometime later, the neighborhood takes off for work, and it is just me folded on the top step with a thin notebook tented on a railing and a cup of coffee going cold on the sandstone. The calls of birds, so strident first thing in the morning, flatten out. I wait so long that I forget that I am waiting.

Occasionally, I think about the latest inhuman tragedy, or more pleasantly, about my daughter, still on foot in the obliterating sleep of childhood. My extended family, with its fierce loves and enmities. More often, my mind is like a sail taking the shape of the wind; or, more appropriately on this occasion, like the smoke leaking into inscrutable patterns. Perception is a creative act.

I have an admirable friend who also likes to grill and who is gifted in circuits. He built himself an ingenious device with a circuit, probes, sensors and fans, so that he can cook a pork shoulder in his ceramic grill without lifting a finger to adjust vents or add coals. He graphs the ambient and meat temperatures over time and emails a link to the live feed to the guests he invites to eat with him later in the evening. “I could grill while I’m at work,” he grins, and I don’t doubt it. “But then,” I object, “you would not be able to wait all day.”

I watch the slowly turning hands of the sycamore, the dappled arms. The faint pulse in my temple matched to the waving rhythm of keys being pressed in an interior room. It gets hot. The smoke thins as the wood chips dry out and begin to catch fire. In ten minutes or ten hours, the guests will arrive. But first, I will experience a flash of a few minutes in which I feel nauseated, and then entirely, keenly myself. In that moment, I pick up an unremarkable, unlined notebook, and a poem happens, just as the world happens before my eyes, needle by ant by mountain by cry. As irreligious as I am, I cannot deny it feels like finally seeing—something—“face to face.”

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Author Photo Official Benjamin Landry is the author of the poetry collections Particle and Wave, An Ocean Away and—just this year—Burn Lyrics. His work was recognized with a 2016 Ohio Arts Council Individual Excellence Award and has appeared in journals such as Kenyon Review, Guernica and The New Yorker. Find out what he’s published on AGNI here.


On Rainer Maria Rilke, William Gass, Stumbling Across My Younger Self, and the Pleasures and Perils of Translating Poetry

by Kai Maristed

This past spring, at AGNI’s Issue 83 launch, I had the chance to chat with David Daniel, whose atmospheric, heart-moving poetry I had just discovered in the way you discover something you’ve missed before knowing it exists.

At some point I confided to David that, not being a published poet, I had recently experienced twinges of self-doubt, of feeling like a trespasser, while translating Ingeborg Bachmann, Paul Celan and others. At the same time, the doing itself was exhilarating, and seemed, well…if not exactly easy, to flow toward rightness and resolution. Or was I being grossly naive, to believe I could simply listen closely to the German words and verses, immerse myself in the worlds they made, twirl them through my ear and mind and have them emerge as lines of English, lucid and faithful to original meaning while carrying as much of the original music as possible?

Shouldn’t there be more hard labor involved, more agony and frustration? Isn’t that why so many modern poetry translations appear to have been composed by a duo of Established Poet and her/his trusty sidekick, the Native Speaker? Like high level military brass going into the battlefields guided by, well, local translators. Didn’t William Gass, in his 1999 book-length essay, Reading Rilke, Reflections on the Problems of Translation, assert that, compared to having fluency in both languages, “it is more important that the translator have native-like possession of the language into which he is trying to put his chosen poem”? (‘Native-like possession’ being in context a strikingly awkward euphemism for ‘should be a skilled poet or literary eminence, capable of wrestling with the intransigency of the task.’)

David listened patiently to my questions, then answered with a single one of his own: “Well, and aren’t Gass’s translations of the Duino Elegies really terrible?” Nothing like a baldly-stated truth to make you burst out laughing.

I was able to cite Gass’s point because I’d reviewed his book back in the day, for the Globe, although I’d no memory of what I might have written. But recently, by chance, the seventeen-year-old, dog-eared advance copy of Reflections fell into my hands again. I opened it and the chase was on. On nearly every page, scrawled comments in various colors of ink in a rounder handwriting than mine is now. Excited exclamation points and double-underlines. “Crux!” “Nope.” “Huh?” “Use!” “How awfully pat.” “Once again, a religious, near-ecstatic moment.” (Evidence for my argument that RMR was not the absolute atheist Gass maintained.) “God-awful similes!” “Revolting, but sorta works!” Even a quiet, “I like this.” Traces of my younger self, preserved in the pages like the rose petals Rilke wrote of in so many poems, and himself liked to press.

The marginalia and responses were new to me. Not one struck a bell. But it was heartening to find myself mostly in agreement with that younger reviewer and even enlightened by her in places, while wishing she’d had the gumption to be more critical in her finished piece. (Also exhumed from the dustbin, thanks to the power of the World Wide Web.)

Has any other German poet been so often and variously translated into English as Rilke? What is the abiding appeal of the work, why does it and its insecure, social-climbing creator inspire such passion and possessiveness, and why do so many who fall under the spell—me included—feeling that all previous efforts somehow miss the marrow, embrace the temptation to try their own hand?

Is it the sheer beauty of how in Rilke image giving way to image forms meaning, paired with surficial accessibility? Because despite Gass’s lamentations, Rilke is not dauntingly difficult to translate. More challenging than classic stylists such as Goethe or Schiller, but he’s not in the same league as, say, Paul Celan. Or Bert Brecht, for that matter, the tart flavor of whose Berliner colloquialisms is devilishly difficult to redistill in any other language.

I told David Daniel that I too would like to try to translate Rilke, but heck, there were up to twenty versions of most of his poems out there already. “Don’t let that stop you,” he said. But truth is, I was lying. I’d already done it, and would continue. The marginalia in the Advance Copy include my own stabs at rendering Rilke, attempts at a simpler, more direct reflection. Gass quotes multiple predecessors (only to find them wanting, naturally) including such big guns as Spender, Leishman, and Stephen Mitchell. All of these authors worked in ‘duo’ mode as far as I can tell. It is beyond strange that he doesn’t mention Michael Hamburger, a native speaker and sensitive translator. And did Gass know that in the same year that Reflections appeared, Galway Kinnell would publish The Essential Rilke, in collaboration with Hannah Lieberman? Unlike Gass with Heide Ziegler, Kinnell gave his ‘native’ assistant jacket billing.

We speak of a ‘mother tongue’, and what more is there to say, the infant-mother bond being a universally shared human experience? But having a close second language is something else, a uniquely personal relationship. No matter how fluent one becomes in two languages, the rudiments of one came first. The second begins with an encounter, voluntary or not, and develops from there, a story as individual as a love affair. My German story started in high school, where I was given a no-brainer choice between that language and chemistry. At the outset I came to class with the too-common expectation of a silly-sounding, even ugly language, and a leery curiosity about the country, given its track record in the twentieth century. All that changed to fascination thanks to an inspiring, unconventional, demanding teacher. There followed a year of gymnasium in Berlin, then university in Berlin and Munich. Jobs. A marriage. A child who spoke no English until age eight, when we came to the States. I was, as they say, ‘eingedeutscht.’ My first publications (radio plays, reviews, political essays) were all in German. Later, I made a deliberate decision to write henceforth in English. A mistake, looking back?

Whenever I go back to in Germany (recently that’s been a few times a year) it’s an emotional homecoming: to the deep greens of forests and city gardens, the thick-walled houses, clanging street-cars, thronged bookstores, enormous dogs, waves of freshly baked bread and broetchen, and the language in my throat again, malleable as sculptor’s clay.

Gass deplores the ‘mean-spirited’ nature of the translating biz, full of jealousy and mutual put-downs. He must have reasons for saying so, but for me it’s hard to imagine the world of translation as a snake-pit. My own motive for venturing into the territory, apart from the excitement and illumination of the exceptionally interior reading translation demands, was a notion of giving back. Putting to use a gift that has transformed my life, that of having plural languages, of being two or three different people in one—or my own twin or triplet—relating to people, dreaming, and grasping life through the prism of different grammars, cadences, and vocabularies: Wortschaetze in German. Wordhord, in Old English. ‘Word treasure.’

Besides, what would anyone be fighting over? The pay is modest, and where’s the glory in such an intrinsically humble endeavor? One is the handmaiden of the author, and the less visible the better, I should think.

Not everyone thinks so. Gass writes, approvingly, about “the temptation to push past Rilke’s German into the Platonic poem itself, the poem no one can write without resorting to some inevitably distorting language…” And here is where I abruptly part ways with him and his like-minded colleagues. The Platonic poem? What beast is that? An abstract essence the translator perceives beyond the poet’s own language? Worse than hubris, this smacks of abuse, of the translator’s ego antsy to improve upon a poor, language-limited text. Not surprisingly, the results of said distortion are often clumsy, over-complicated, risible, or downright ugly. I leave it to the reader to consider these examples:


Rilke (from The First Elegy):

Wer, wenn ich schriee, hoerte mich denn aus der Engel Ordnungen? Und gesetzt selbst, es naehme
einer mich ploetzlich ans Herz: ich verginge von seinem
staerkeren Dasein.

Maristed (close translation):

Who, were I to cry out, would hear me from within the angels’
array? And even if one should take me
suddenly to his heart: I would be annihilated by his
stronger being.

Gass (‘improving’ translation):

Who, if I cried, would hear me among the Dominions of Angels?
And even if one of them suddenly held me against his heart:
I would fade in the grip of that completer existence. [pp 57-58]


Rilke (from Archaic Torso of Apollo):

Wir kannten nicht sein unerhoertes Haupt
darin die Augenaepfel reiften. Aber
sein Torso glueht noch wie ein Kandelaber,
in dem sein Schauen, nur zurueckgeschraubt,

Sich haelt und glaenzt.


We did not know his unimaginable head
where the eye-apples ripened. But
his torso glows still like a candelabra
in which his seeing, merely less bright,

persists and shines.


Never will we know his legendary head
Where the eyes’ apples slowly ripened. Yet
His torso glows as if his look were set
Above it in suspended globes that shed

A street’s light down.

Even when done by writers with a more gifted ear—Gass points to Robert Lowell and Ezra Pound as his illustrious predecessors in reaching for the Platonic ideal—I would maintain that veering from the text in pursuit of the ‘Platonic poem’ is a breach of the contract between original work and eventual reader. At best, the result is a third sort of oeuvre. Not a translation.

Lest I appear to be meanly picking on Gass (rather than taking him as an apposite and self-declared example), here is a 2010 ‘loose’ translation of the above, ueber-famous opening lines, by Sarah Stutt (a native speaker) as quoted and lauded in The Guardian:

We will never know his magnificent head,
the ebb and flow of his youth—
an orchard of ripening fruit,
yet his fire has not diminished,
incandescent light radiates
from his torso, (etc.)

Of course we want from the translator more sensitivity and intuition than Google’s service is likely to provide. But is it the translator’s task or prerogative to offer a text that strays radically from the original, no matter how pleasing the new imagery and versification? Is the poet well-served? Is the reader respected?

In my short review for the Globe I wrote that there are two axes in the matrix of translation problems: “the question of whether native proficiency is required” and “literal fidelity versus taking liberties.” Seventeen years ago I didn’t quite come down on one side or the other. I’m able to do so now, and also to see where the two axes are linked at origin. My recent exploration of translation might be called trans-positioning—one finds oneself in two places at once, listening to the nuances and double-entendres and historical undertones of words and phrases play in both languages, both worlds. Choosing, discarding, choosing, trying out the sound, the rhythm, the music, the stated intent and veiled allusions until something coalesces that rings true. Something that you feel the poet him/herself would accept as limning the intent, as keeping the heft of word-choice and images more or less intact.

Accept without flinching too much, that would be more than enough. Because no translation can be right, or definitive; questions and doubt must remain. We are all inadequate to our desires, translators and poets alike; the ultimate vision dances out of reach. Rilke expressed his own life-long struggle in this later poem:

Die Wende (Auszug)

Wenn er, ein Wartender, saß in der Fremde; des Gasthofs
zerstreutes abgewendetes Zimmer
mürrisch um sich, und im vermiedenen Spiegel
wieder das Zimmer
und später vom quälenden Bett aus
da beriets in der Luft,
unfaßbar beriet es
über sein fühlbares Herz,
über sein durch den schmerzhaft verschütteten Körper
dennoch fühlbares Herz
beriet es und richtete:
daß er der Liebe nicht habe.
(Und verwehrte ihm weitere Weihen.)

The Turning (extract)

When he, the waiting one, sat in a foreign place; the inn’s
distracted, turned-away room
sulking to itself, and in the avoided mirror
again the room
and later from the torturing bed
there it took counsel in the air
Incredibly took counsel
over his palpable heart
over his, despite the painfully shaken body
palpable heart
Took counsel and pronounced:
That he had no love.
(And denied him further sacraments.)

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MaristedAfter starting as a journalist and playwright in Germany, Kai Maristed published the novels Out After Dark (a Pen/Hemingway finalist) Fall, and Broken Ground, and the story collection Belong to Me. She’s taught at Emerson, Warren Wilson MFA and Harvard Extension School. Her stories, essays and translations have appeared in, e.g., The Kenyon Review, StoryQuarterly, The American Scholar, Zoetrope, and The Anchor Essay Annual, and most recently in AGNI, Epiphany, Consequence and Southwest Review. Kai lives in Paris and Massachusetts. Find out what she’s published in AGNI here.