Bad

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Bad

Postby Arneb » Mon Nov 22, 2021 8:39 pm

You know yes, Shakespeare's the greatest and everything, but a few others made decent poems here and there, too. And they did not even all write in English, even if Harold Bloom says they either did or had better.
Here's a very good on, by one Gottfried Benn. A colleague, I am proud to say, starting out as a frustrated pathologist in the twenties and later running a busy dermatology and venereal disease surgery in West Berlin. My father liked this, and of course, he recited it by heart. I used it at my Godfathers funeral. I'd like to ask you: Does the sound carry, does the subtle peripety from loony humour to deathly melancholy become apparent? AFAIK, only Richard (who was there at his Uncle's funeral) and maybe Mactep can judge the translation - is the deviation from the German grammatical structure in the Hölderlin line allowed? Is there a better solution to the hard-to-translate title? But of course, the English-only speakers can say if soil can be "easy on" a spade instead of "light to" it. If the slightly askew grammar in the "invited" stanza can pass. I the adverbial phrases grate. If the thing just sounds contrived, where in German, it easily covers almost Pythonesque humour, dark melancholy and a lot in between. So here goes a very non-English poem that e´ven starts with not speaking English. First, the original:

Gottfried Benn wrote:Was schlimm ist

Wenn man kein Englisch kann,
von einem guten englischen Kriminalroman zu hören,
der nicht ins Deutsche übersetzt ist.

Bei Hitze ein Bier sehn,
das man nicht bezahlen kann.

Einen neuen Gedanken haben,
den man nicht in einen Hölderlinvers einwickeln kann,
wie es die Professoren tun.

Nachts auf Reisen Wellen schlagen hören
und sich sagen, daß sie das immer tun.

Sehr schlimm: eingeladen sein,
wenn zu Hause die Räume stiller,
der Café besser
und keine Unterhaltung nötig ist.

Am schlimmsten:
nicht im Sommer sterben,
wenn alles hell ist
und die Erde für Spaten leicht.

Here is the translation:
Bad

If you can’t speak English,
To hear of a good English crime novel
That hasn’t been translated into German.

In the heat, to see a beer
That you cannot afford.

To have a new thought
But no Hölderlin verse to wrap in it into
As the Professors do

In the night on a journey, to hear the waves rippling,
And to say to yourself, they’re always doing that.

Very bad: To be invited
When at home, the rooms are quieter,
The coffee better,
And no conversation required.

The worst:
Not to die in Summer,
When everything is bright
And the soil easy on the spade.

(P.S. Benn died 7 July, 1956; my father, 20 August, 2019. So there.)
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Re: Bad

Postby Richard A » Mon Nov 22, 2021 10:46 pm

I'd say it's a pretty good translation, though the stanza about the waves should probably say "breaking" or even "crashing: rather than "rippling" - or can "schlagen" also be gentle?

But I don't think the translation does sound contrived (and yes, I think, "easy" is the right word here for soil on a spade: in summer, the spade breaks the soil easily, not like trying to ram it into frozen ground in a German winter. Only "invited" is contrived; "eingeladen" often doesn't lend itself easily to an English translation. There are equivalent expressions in English, but none so concise or elegant. And there are different meanings, which perhaps Benn also plays on. Arneb, your Missus is an English teacher; how would she translate this?

Sehr schlimm: eingeladen sein,
wenn zu Hause die Räume stiller,
der Café besser
und keine Unterhaltung nötig ist.

Aber gar nicht schlimm, eingeladen bei Hitze sein,
wenn man ein Bier sieht,
das man nicht bezahlen kann.

(For the non-German speakers, "eingeladen" can, depending on the context, mean "invited out" or offered food or drink that the other person pays for.)
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Re: Bad

Postby g-one » Tue Nov 23, 2021 7:10 pm

Just a couple guesses based on the two above posts, more from a literary point of view.
'Bad is...' might as a title convey more of the theme.

The first stanza assumes a German speaker, could be re-worked if that is not the intent. (possibly change first line to 'if you are a German speaker', or the 3rd line to 'translated to your language').

Maybe 'pounding of the waves' rather than 'waves ripple'?

Maybe 'wined and dined' rather than 'invited'?
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Re: Bad

Postby Arneb » Wed Nov 24, 2021 8:46 am

I think "Bad Is..." could totally work. The problem is that in German, the order of the words makes "Was schlimm ist" excludes the possibility that the phrase is a question. "What is bad" doesn't, and "what bad is" doesn't exist.

The waves. Well, "schlagen" (lit., to hit, to beat) does not necessarily assume a loud noise. "Einen Rhythmus schlagen", to beat a rhythm, can be done softly or loudly. My image was of water waves lapping against the hull of a moving ship peacefully. I think the point of the stanza is that the listener would find the moment romantic and elevated only to see, that that is what they're always doing (and hence the use of the continuous form).

Oh, invited. I didn't see that one coming, really. As Richard wrote, to be invited covers a lot of ground in one concise word. In the context of the first half of the 20th century, I interpret it as meaning there is an invitation to some festive event, a dinner or cocktail party, which you can't really turn down. A more formal affair, not an evening wit the lads for pizza and beer to watch the game together. Something for which you make an effort, dress up (everything suit-and-tie in the fifties, right?), and take a taxi. "Whined and dined" sounds a little loose there. "To have an appointment for the evening" is to verbose, "to be on a party" is too narrow (it could be two couples, or just a business partner). What about "being a guest"? It's tough.
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Re: Bad

Postby Мастер » Wed Nov 24, 2021 5:44 pm

I think I had a rather mistaken idea about “schlagen” then. I always thought of it as rather violent.
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Re: Bad

Postby g-one » Wed Nov 24, 2021 6:57 pm

Lapping of the waves would be good then. Rippling being visual where lapping is audible.
Agree that 'wined & dined' is too loose. There must be something, 'invited', I did not understand that stanza til I saw Richard's post. 'A dinner guest' would exclude the other types of formal occasions you mentioned, so not that good either.
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Re: Bad

Postby Arneb » Thu Nov 25, 2021 9:39 am

So here is the updated version, let's see if we ironed it out:

Bad is...

If you can’t speak English,
To hear of a good English crime novel
That hasn’t been translated into German.

In the heat, to see a beer
That you cannot afford.

To have a new thought
But no Hölderlin verse to wrap it into,
As the Professors do.

In the night on a journey, to hear the waves lapping,
And to say to yourself, they’re always doing that.

Very bad: To be a guest,
While at home, the rooms are quieter,
The coffee better,
And no conversation needed.

The worst:
Not to die in Summer,
When everything is bright
And the soil easy on the spade.

Two more thoughts - One Richard is right, "eingeladen sein" can simply mean someone quickly offers to foot the bill for the lunch Döner you took together, but it's certainly not that in this poem. We're talking formal invitation.
Two, I substituted "required" with "needed". The poem makes a point of using simple language (to the point of a little sneer at "the professors" with their exalted language, so the less Latin, the better (here!). I briefly considered to also use "talking" or "chatting" instead of "conversation", but "conversation" seems to fit better with the 4 syllybles of "Unterhaltung" (which can also mean "entertainment", btw., but doesn't here).

Finally, I once had the exact emotional moment described in the "waves" stanza: I spent the new year with a bunch of friends in a summer house in Denmark a few times in the 90s. For the New Year, we would got down to the beach to pour a bubbly and light one little rocket or so. And exactly the notion of the poem came to me: Yeah, here we are standing at the beach pretending it is some special moment, while all our cheers of Happy New Year drown in the loud noise of the waves crashing against the beach (it was always stormy), as they have been doing since a few billion years and will go on to do long after we're gone. It does give you a little sting, a small "dethroning" insult that Freud ascribes to Newton, Copernicus, Darwin and (of course) himself, and efficiently wipes out any romantic notion.
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