The poetry of Georg Trakl (1887–1914) has attracted numerous English translators, from Eugene Jolas in 1927 to Robert Firmage, Stephen Tapscott, and James Reidel only within the last decade. In the twentieth century, composers like Anton von Webern and Paul Hindemith set Trakl’s poems to music, producing what Roman Jakobson calls “intersemiotic transpositions.” In addition, in recent years, two poets, Christian Hawkey and Daniele Pantano, subjected Trakl’s work to recreative processes that go beyond the conventional notion of translation.
Hawkey’s Ventrakl, published as part of Ugly Duckling Presse’s Dossier Series in 2010, is now in its third printing. From the cover design (imitating the layout of Trakl’s 1913 Gedichte) and the title page (featuring both poets’ names) to the book’s description (“a collaboration”) and the author photo at the end (Hawkey with Trakl’s mask over his face, a visual allusion to David Wojnarowicz’s Rimbaud in New York series), Ventrakl embodies a strategy of “writing through” another poet’s oeuvre. The strategy doesn’t require any familiarity with the language of the original; in his preface Hawkey admits to knowing no German, at least while he was working on the book, and there is no German text included in it. What it does require is an ability to treat language as a building material rather than a communication tool and, in practical terms, a great deal of intense looking and listening.
Throughout Ventrakl, Hawkey meditates on photographs of Trakl and conducts séances with his ghost. He performs rudimentary literary and cultural criticism and reflects on the well-known aspects of Trakl’s biography (alcohol and drug addiction, possibly incestuous relationship with his sister, emotional breakdown and suicide), while admitting he is just “repeating, reinscribing the myths.” But above all he does strange things with — or more precisely to — Trakl’s poems. He identifies some of those operations in his preface: “centos” constructed from lines of Trakl’s poetry that contain references to colors (resulting in poems like “Whitetrakl,” “Bluetrakl,” “Redtrakl” and so on), homophonic and homographonic translations (the latter building on “lexical similarities” between German and English), poems created by using word processing and online translation tools, poems created through erasure, for example making a hole in a book of Trakl’s poems with a shotgun or leaving another copy inside a glass jar filled with rainwater, leaves, and mosquito larvae “until its pages, over time, dissolved into words, pieces of words, word-stems, floating up and rearranging themselves on the surface.”
In “The Translator’s Task,” Walter Benjamin argues that translation always exists in conjunction with the original, emerging from its afterlife and thus ensuring its survival. Translation does not replace the original, nor does it obscure it, but allows “pure language” (by which he means all communication) to shine through even more powerfully. Benjamin’s theory clearly informs Hawkey’s methodology in Ventrakl: language gives way to more language, meaning to more meaning, in what he calls his “transwriting, transrelating” procedures. This is especially true of the “color” poems, composed of fragments of other poems. The poems that result from homophonic and homographonic translation, or what sometimes seems like a mixture of both, work differently, often producing startling lines — “Nuns wearing Diesel jeans embalm him in a ditch” — that are foreign to Trakl’s sensibility but not the reader’s.
Ventrakl ends with a conventional translation of Trakl’s most famous poem, “Grodek.” The poem takes its title after a town in the Austro-Hungarian region of Galicia, the site of one of the first battles of World War I. As a medical officer put in charge of caring for the defeated Austrian soldiers, Trakl suffered an emotional breakdown and died of a cocaine overdose several weeks later in Kraków. By translating “Grodek” faithfully, in consultation with a dictionary and several existing English translations, Hawkey acknowledges the limitations of his experimental method, his ultimate responsibility to what he describes as the poet’s (not the reader’s) “truths.” Yet even then his conventional translation is a kind of transposition. By appending specific place and time to the text (“Berlin, Germany, January 28, 2008”) Hawkey, an American living in the German capital, links Trakl’s experience to other military conflicts of the twentieth century and to the “current condition of permanent, technology-driven global warfare.”
In contrast to Hawkey’s lengthy preface and frequent reflections on his compositional process, Pantano’s authorial commentary in ORAKL is quite concise: “I have translated. I have alphabetized. I have nothing to regret.” Even though it has a ring of Julius Caesar’s “veni, vidi, vici,” the statement seems modest in comparison, and representative of the Swiss poet’s much simpler and straightforward approach. Published by Black Lawrence Press in 2017, the book consists of twenty-six sections, each consisting of lines of Trakl’s poetry translated into English and ordered alphabetically by their first words. The overall effect is one of “controlled mutation,” as the late Okla Elliott describes it in his introduction, “meld[ing] the best aspects of conceptual poetry and traditional lyric verse.”
Indeed, ORAKL impresses above all with its beautiful music. Parallel structures resulting from the alphabetical organization produce extraordinary montages of sound and sense. Pure language seems to shine through as individual verses are brought together partly by chance, partly by design. Many are self-contained units of meaning, but as they merge with the surrounding verses they create startling associations that resemble Trakl’s own disjunctive practice (Pantano also makes use of sentences and clauses from his prose poems). Interestingly, the serial approach allows for an intimate encounter with the English rather than German language. Pantano organizes his sections by nouns, but as frequently by other parts of speech, including lesser ones like prepositions, conjunctions, and articles. Some sections, like A, S, and T, are longer than others on account of the established linguistic patterns, while sections X and Z contain no lines at all.
To create the title of his book Pantano replaced the first letter of Trakl’s name with the letter “O.” This turns the poet into a kind of oracle, as Elliott notes. Incidentally, the letter “O” is commonly used as an interjection in the poetry of address. “O” is one of the longest sections in Pantano’s volume, primarily because of the large number of lines featuring apostrophe: “O bitter death / O blue luster she wakens in the panes, framed by thorns, black and stiffly rapt / O dark fear of death, when gold died in a gray cloud,” and so on. The fact that Trakl used this figure of speech over a hundred times in his entire body of work may not constitute a major critical discovery, but it still reveals something that the reader might not have noticed otherwise, or at least not right away. Even the brief passage quoted above — a string of verses taken from three different poems — offers something like an instant experience of Trakl’s poetry. It highlights his reliance on color, which so fascinated Hawkey, as well as his use of recurring words and images.
Both Hawkey’s and Pantano’s attempts at translating Trakl experimentally fall under the category of “deformance,” which in 1999 Lisa Samuels and Jerome McGann described as “a highly regulated method for disordering the senses of a text” aimed at discovering its “variable self.” But in this case it is not a single text but Trakl’s entire body of work that is subjected to the deformative procedure. Each approach is, at bottom, more creative than critical, and each translator does something different with/to the source material. To push the “body of work” metaphor a little further, if Hawkey succeeds in raising Trakl from the dead, he does so violently: his strategy of “writing through” is not possible without a sense of fundamental damage or distortion. Pantano is more respectful of the dead. By methodically translating and rearranging his entire oeuvre, he neatly encapsulates his legacy. Rather than disturb Trakl’s ghost, he embalms his corpse.