Untranslated: Frankfurter Vorlesungen by Ingeborg Bachmann — Douglas Robertson

I am in the middle of translating into English the Austrian writer Ingeborg Bachmann’s Frankfurter Vorlesungen [Frankfurt Lectures], a series of five lectures that she delivered at Goethe University Frankfurt between November 1959 and February 1960 and that were first published in 1982, in the posthumous edition of her works edited by Christine Koschel, Inge von Weidenbaum, and Clemens Münster. Although these lectures do not have an explicitly formulated program, they can be accurately if broadly described as seeking to define what literature ought to become in the light of what it has been in the past, mainly since the beginning of the twentieth century, and in the light of its intimate participation in the tumultuous vicissitudes of that century. They pursue this search by examining the changing fortunes of certain literary conventions (e.g., the first-person narrator and the named character) and preoccupations (e.g., the loss of a sense of meaning and the hope for redemption), in the context of the work of both canonical authors (e.g., Proust, Joyce, and Kafka) and less established ones (e.g., Hans Magnus Ezensberger, Hans Henny Jahnn, and Marie Luise Kaschnitz). Like the rest of Bachmann’s prose, the Frankfurt Lectures are difficult to translate principally because they are as relentlessly, remorselessly allusive as her poetry. Although they do function admirably as essays in criticism, one cannot hope to convey a fraction of their meaning by simply reproducing the threads of their arguments, because too much denotation and connotation is exuded by individual words and phrases acting in constellation with recurrences of themselves, and with other words and phrases elsewhere in the lectures or in other texts entirely. I cannot think of an apter metaphorical vehicle for this difficulty than one furnished by the lectures themselves, specifically at a moment in the third one, “Das schreibende ich” [“The Writing I”] when Bachmann is specifying the first-person prerogatives of the writers of diaries. The diarist’s I, she writes, “need not dislodge anything from its place; no interconnections are imposed on it as givens; it moves step by step or by leaps and bounds; it can break off, touch everything and leave everything just as it found it.”

The ideal Bachmann translator strikes me as an antithesis of this I: he or she mustn’t dislodge anything from its place; all interconnections are imposed on him or her as givens; and while he or she can never break off, he or she must touch everything and yet leave everything just as he or she has found it.

Above all, he or she is duty-bound to leave the lecturesinventory of figurative language intact: to transfer into the target language every element of every metaphor, conceit, and simile just as he or she found it; and perhaps even more exigently to introduce no figurative elements of his or her own discovery or invention. Temptations to neglect this duty in Englishing the lectures have so far come to me not, as one might suspect, from the incommensurability of full-fledged figuratively couched idioms à la it’s raining cats and dogs versus il pleut des cordes, but rather from quite ordinary German words and phrases for which there simply happen to be no ordinary English equivalents or quasi-equivalents that do not seem to fall far too short of the source text’s best and most comprehensive intentions. An example of such a word thus crying out for figurative treatment is the verb entscheiden in the following clause from “Questions and Pseudoquestions”: “dort entscheiden die Tests, die Behörden, das Geschäft,” meaning most literally, “[out] there tests, [the] authorities, [and] business decide.” This clause occurs in a passage in which Bachmann is giving a stern dressing-down to people who benightedly suppose they can retreat into the cosy bosom of their family or church in an old-school bourgeois way, and in which tests, the authorities, and business figure as ineluctable disruptors of such would-be complacency. The problem in dealing with entscheiden here is that the passage, in virtue of centering on this person at the mercy of three implacable entities, seems to imply a transitive sense of decide, and yet because no object is specified, one is obliged to supply the verb with a sort of dummy object—things, matters, stuff, or the like. Now in this setting, decide things or what have you sounds perfectly okay, and yet it somehow does not seem to do justice to a certain quality inherent in the original, a certain trenchant punchiness suggested by the juxtaposition of those decidedly matter-of-fact yet official German nouns, Behörden and Geschäft with that nominally interloping yet somehow highly congruous Anglo-Saxon loan-word Tests. The phrase call the shots seems to do justice to this quality, and so I have opted for it in my provisional final draft, although I would really like to replace it with a freestanding verb with no overt figurative overtones, for call the shots is after all transparently derived from some kind of literal activity governing the firing of a gun or a camera (irksomely if intriguingly the lexicographers cannot seem to agree on which), and one would ultimately rather not risk misleading the reader into conjecturing that Bachmann was as interested in guns or cameras as in poems or novels. But sometimes a locally apt vivid figure of speech must be forborne in favor of a less vivid and locally apt one for a more transparently exigent reason—namely, because opting for the more vivid and apt locution would obviously undercut a moment of continuity within the lectures. I have had to exercise such forbearance with especial reluctance in connection with a certain pair of occurrences of the verb umgehen in “Questions and Pseudoquestions,” specifically in the following sentence: “Wir meinen, wir kennen sie doch alle, die Sprache, wir gehen doch mit ihr um; nur der Schriftsteller nicht, er kann nicht mit ihr umgehen.” [We think we all know language like the backs of our hands {literally, and in hindsight afforded by the most recent considerations addressed in this essay, preferably We think we are all fully acquainted with language}; after all, we are constantly umgehing with it, but the writer does not; he cannot umgehe with it.”] Umgehen is composed of two semantic parts–the verb gehen, meaning “to go” or “to walk” and the adverbial prefix um, meaning “around” or “about.” Such being the case, the two most rough-and-ready English translations of umgehen mit are “to go around with” and “to walk around with,” and indeed the activities denoted by these phrasal verbs are hermetically subsumed under the semantic umbrella of umgehen, but not on their lonesomes. For umgehen comprises the full range of mutual voluntary associations between persons, from the happenstance consumption of drinks at adjacent barstools over a few weeks to lifelong cohabitation. Such being the case, the translator of umgehen may select any English word or phrase that denotes such an association. In the above sentence umgehen seems best rendered by a word or phrase like consort, fraternize, rub elbows, or pal around; for here Bachmann seems to imagine that in our ordinary non-writerly use of language we are familiar with it in both principal senses—that we both understand it well and treat it with a lack of ceremony. In my first go at Englishing the passage, I opted for pal around; by now, if I had my local contextual druthers I would opt for rub elbows, as unlike pal around it is colloquial rather than downright slangy and therefore spares the reader a precipitous drop in register by no means implied in the original (and as for consort and fraternize, they bear overtones of matrimony-cum-regality and consanguinity-cum-masculinity, respectively, that unduly restrict the scope of the implied association). But having in the meantime also translated the penultimate lecture, “Der Umgang mit Namen” [“Keeping Company with Names”], I know that I cannot allow myself to have my local contextual druthers, because Umgang is a derivative of umgehen, and in that lecture’s text Bachmann does not restrict umgehen and its derivatives to denoting the kind of familiar acquaintanceship explicated above but rather and consistently employs them in their most capacious sense. And so umgehen in the passage from “Questions and Pseudoquestions” must sacrifice more than a modicum of its familiarity, although fortunately not all of it, for I have after all managed to entitle “Der Umgang mit Namen” “Keeping Company with Names,” and as an Umgang-rendition “keeping company” is at least decidedly not quite so coldly dispassionate as, say, associating. So in full the final version of the passage reads: “We think we are all fully acquainted with language; after all, we are constantly keeping company with it, but the writer does not; he cannot keep company with it.”

Umgehen/Umgang is by no means the only concept within the Lectures whose local and quasi-global occurrences must be considered in synchrony.

There are probably between a half-dozen and a dozen such master-concepts (some others are verbindlich/Verbindlichkeit [binding/bindingness], Wahrnehmen [perceiving accurately or genuinely], Erkenntnis [knowledge or insight], and the ever-elusive Wort [only seldom translatable as word]), and it seems to be me that they occur with such frequency and in such a diversity of settings that merely by scrupulously attending to their interstitial and extrastitial resonances, by doing one’s best to make sure that each occurrence of a master-concept reinforces other occurrences of members of that concept and does not undermine any of the other master-concepts, one may succeed in constructing a kind of Buckyball—like armature of the lectures in their entirety–an armature with respect to which all the other Englishing, however intricate and time-exacting it may be, will essentially amount to detail work.

But within this small collection of master-concepts there are two terms that defy smooth assimilation to such an armature, and these terms unhappily happen to be the most central ones in the entire lecture-series—to be the two terms that happen, crassly speaking, to specify what the lectures are ultimately all about. These two terms are Dichtung and Literatur. In modern German, Dichtung sometimes denotes poetry and Dichter a poet, a writer of Gedichte, poems. But Dichtung also sometimes refers to certain types of writing other than poems, and Dichter to certain types of writers other than poets. And finally Dichtung is sometimes used as a conceptual antithesis to Wahrheit, meaning truth; such that Dichtung, like the English word fiction, is sometimes understood most restrictively as denoting writing with no direct referential basis in reality. As for Literatur, it has always been more or less the same fuzzy conceptual grab bag for every sort of writing as its near-homonyms in the other European languages, including English, and such being the case, it has always enjoyed less prestige than Dichtung, as Bachmann herself points out in her final lecture, “Literatur als Utopia” [“Literature as a Utopia”]. Frustratingly—and yet by no means unsystematically, let alone capriciously, as I shall try to show shortly—in the lectures Bachmann both runs and appropriates the full connotative and denotative gamut of both terms: she starts out writing or talking, in “Questions and Pseudoquestions,” as if Dichtung applies exclusively to poetry; then, later in the same lecture, it would seem that for her Dichtung comprises all writing of any value to her, whether in prose or in verse, and that she regards Literatur as something invariably far slighter. In the second lecture, “Über Gedichte” [“About Poems”], Dichtung once again seems to equal poetry for her, partly in virtue of the lecture’s fidelity to its title in discussing no prose texts except as secondary sources, and partly on account of her assertion that there can be “no doubt” that the two famous versifiers Ezra Pound and Gottfried Benn are Dichter. But in the third and fourth lectures—both of which concentrate on prose writers, bandy Dichter and Dichtung around quite freely, and scarcely ever explicitly mention Literatur—she seems to have re-settled on the notion of Dichtung as a self-sufficient designation of meritorious writing in any mode or genre. Finally, in “Literature as a Utopia”, she both voids the field and lays her cards on the table by making it plain that Literatur is what matters most of all to her and yet conceding, as mentioned above, that Dichtung enjoys far more prestige than Literatur in the German-speaking world. Obviously, this constellation of terms cannot be sorted out entirely in English. Probably the only fair and thorough way of dealing with it is to follow each occurrence of literature, poetry, or fiction with a square-bracketed specification of whichever German word it is rendering.

But no such philological makeshift will be of any use unless the reader is sympathetic to Bachmann’s admittedly rather old-fashioned assumption that at their best certain types of writing, whether they are termed Dichtung or Literatur, occupy a privileged position in the field of cultural production. Not that by according pride of cultural place to such types of writing Bachmann by any means attempts to put them on a lofty pedestal, to inculcate a hermetic, formalist, quasi-Kantian aesthetics of literature such as was then being promulgated by, for example, the New Critics in the English-speaking countries.

This is evident most obviously in her explicit denunciations of earlier manifestations of such literary hermeticism—of the school of the symbolist poet Stefan George at the turn of the century (“for all the weightiness of [this school’s] ‘pure artistic firmament”s* foundations, it proved unsustainable”), of Ezra Pound’s “convoluted” schemes for a “renaissance of the Renaissance” and of the “flashover” of “l’art pour l’art” into the worship of the machinery of warfare among the Futurists.

But it is perhaps even more tellingly evident in the almost shocking frequency with which, when talking of Dichtung or Literatur in the most general register, she juxtaposes allusions to the most sacrosanct literary artifacts with allusions to the kitschiest and the most horrifying phenomena of the twentieth century—this as if by way of implying that these phenomena cannot be po-facedly held at several arms’ length from Dichtung or Literatur but rather that they have at least at some time and place been organically inextricable from a comprehensive understanding and practice of Dichtung or Literatur. Take as one of many such instances of such juxtapositions this longish yet somehow pithy sentence from “Questions and Pseudoquestions”:

Art has already been shifted from one site of residence to another an incredible number of times, from the house of God into the house of the ideals, from the house beautiful to the bateau ivre, and then into the gutters, and then again into the house of dreams and into the temple with the hanging gardens, and then onwards into the pseudo-mystical suffocating atmosphere of blood and soil, and further still into the house of humanity and the house of politics.

The governing conceit of this sentence, that of a person being repeatedly forced to move house, implies that the catalogue of metaphorical houses is chronologically arranged, that the first house in the catalogue, “the house of God,” corresponds to the earliest link in a historical housing chain, and “the house of politics” the last. Such being the case, every item in the catalogue must be seen as a precedent for what art has been or been taken to be, and hence as something to which it potentially can revert in the future. This palingenetic conception of the historical trajectory of art is signalized by the immediate precedence of Rimbaud’s unimpeachably Parnassian bateau ivre by the phrase house beautiful, which is in English in the original. House Beautiful is the title of an American magazine that commenced publication in 1896, was still in circulation when Bachmann delivered her lecture, and remains in circulation now. This magazine was (and still is) the principal tone-setter in interior domestic design; hence, in placing the house beautiful immediately ahead of the bateau ivre, Bachmann is essentially implying—not only to her initial audience but also to us, her more recent audience, who are still at least residually subject to the fiats of House Beautiful—that interior domestic design, for all its kitschiness and triviality, has a more ancient pedigree than French symbolism and hence remains as well entitled to be termed a version or manifestation of art. No less palingenetically telling is the precedence of “the house of humanity” and “the house of politics” by “the pseudo-mystical suffocating atmosphere of blood and soil.” “Blood and soil” was the aesthetic watchword of those German and Austrian artists who unabashedly curried favor with the Nazis. By the “house of humanity” and “the house of politics” Bachmann evidently means the Existentialist-humanist artistic ethos in vogue immediately after the Second World War and the anti-Capitalist-cum-anti-Imperialist so-called literature of commitment that succeeded it in the 1950s. One cannot but infer from the sequence of ism-metonyms that she believes a substantial proportion of the residents of the houses of humanity and politics have merely been Nazi leopards pretending to have changed their spots.

Typically such cuttings-down-to size of the purportedly noble by juxtaposition with the notoriously ignoble are adduced in service of a program of unregenerate and all-encompassing cynicism, of an attempt to reduce all aspirational endeavors to so many quivering giant blancmanges of bullshit. Nothing could be further from Bachmann’s intentions in the Frankfurt Lectures; to the contrary, in these lectures she has accentuated the essential and exceptional nobility of Literatur and Dichtung, and I for one have found this accentuation magnificently persuasive; I have come believe that literature is indeed a single noble gas despite including so many heterogeneous ignoble particles in its composition.

I have in the main been persuaded by the tone she sustains indefatigably from the beginning of the first lecture to the end of the last, a tone that I would describe as mandarin, a tone that conveys a sense that the speaker or writer makes absolutely no bones about the fact that he or she understands his or her subject much better than his or her readers or listeners do and is positively hell-bent on making them understand it better; a tone that is unabashedly didactic without being in the slightest bit pedantic or preachy. But this tone is undoubtedly underpinned in turn by a style, a style that reminds me of nothing so strongly in German-language literature as the so-called high style in English-language literature. This was the style favored by most non-homiletic English-language writers both in prose and verse until about the middle of the eighteenth century; it was the style of Shakespeare (whose works form the conceptual and imagistic basis of Bachmann’s most famous poem, “Bohemia Lies by the Sea”) and the metaphysical poets, of Thomas Browne and Samuel Johnson. In contrast to the so-called plain style that has entirely displaced it, at least in English prose, the high style relies heavily on epic-esque catalogues like the one in the longish sentence cited above, on a bookish vocabulary, and on such classical-rhetorical figures as anaphora (the repetition of initial lexical elements, as in the above catalogue of houses), homoioteleuton (the repetition of final lexical elements, as in “Vorfälle, Zufälle” [“incidents, accidents”]) and “haltbarer und vertretbarer” [“more durable and more defendable”] in “Keeping Company with Names”), and chiasmus (AB:BA constructions—e.g., “Sie haben das Ich zu ihrem Versuchsfeld gemacht oder sich selber zum Versuchsfeld für das Ich” [“They have made the I their experimental bailiwick or made themselves into an experimental bailiwick for the I”] from “The Writing I”). Needless to say, even the most nuanced purely semantic translation of a high-style text will fail to convey its stylistic hauteur, and so the conscientious translator of such a text must do his or her best to reproduce the rhetorical characteristics of the original: if, for example, he or she encounters a string of words all beginning with a single prefix, he or she must if at all semantically possible pair it with a string of English words all beginning with an analogous prefix. Because the Frankfurt Lectures teem with such high-stylistic elements, because indeed virtually every sentence in them contains at least one such element, it was really rather disingenuous of me to describe the fleshing-out of their conceptual armature as mere detail work. And here I must add in closing that it is only with the help of this style that the basic gist and import of Bachmann’s culminating thesis that “literature [Literatur] is an ideal that we are constantly correcting into a more proper state, an ideal in which we abandon certain facts and eradicate certain others” in “Literature as a Utopia” becomes intelligible, and the seeming inconsistencies in her constellation of master-concepts can be resolved. For the high style is preeminently the style of poetry, and more particularly the style of the greatest old poetry. Accordingly, having composed her lectures in this style, Bachmann is well within her rights to employ Dichtung in its most restrictive sense, as the German word for poetry. At the same time, in having eloquently employed this grand old style in a series of prose orations on matters of the utmost modernity—on twentieth-century novels, poems, and diaries in connection with House Beautiful, the machinery of warfare, Nazism, etc.—she is well within her rights to speak of Literatur in its broadest and most capacious sense and to pair it with the nobly otherworldly concept of utopia in her final lecture. For if an ancient literary style can be not merely resuscitated in a neoclassical way but imbued with new life by being made to speak about matters of exigent interest to the living, there would seem to be grounds for hoping that literature will one day achieve utopia in its truest and fullest sense, as a place utterly unbounded by geographical or historical contingency. And to the extent that this style is preeminently though not inalienably an English-language style, a readable English translation of The Frankfurt Lectures may bring us ever so slightly closer to realizing this achievement, Bachmann’s Bohemia by the Sea. If there is one unequivocally consoling conclusion to be drawn from The Frankfurt Lectures, in their unflaggingly eloquent enlistment of texts hailing from so many different parent languages, it is that the most significant insights afforded by literature are not the inalienable property of the respective languages from which literature emerges; that no matter how ineluctably ideas are chained to specific languages at their initial moment of articulation, it is nevertheless as ideas and not as exercises in linguistic chauvinism that they must eventually take wing.


*Translator note: Here Bachmann is quoting from a manifesto anonymously issued by the George school.

Ingeborg Bachmann was born in Klagenfurt, Austria in 1926 and died in Rome in 1973.  She was among the most significant writers of poetry and literary prose in the German language after the Second World War.

Douglas Robertson is a writer and translator who lives in Baltimore, Maryland. So far two instalments of his translation of the Frankfurter Vorlesungen, “Questions and Pseudoquestions” and “The Writing I,” may be read at his blog, The Philosophical Worldview Artist. Twitter: @shirtysleeves

Image: ingeborg bachmann, kellerabteil, Creative Commons

Frankfurter Vorlesungen is published by Piper.