I've seen Michael Hofmann speak twice, both times at BU. The first was a lecture he gave on his translations of various German novelists, including his father Gert Hofmann. The lecture was part of Rosanna Warren's excellent spring seminar "Theory and Practice of Literary Translation." (I realize now that most of my current interest in translation arose from the texts we read for that class. My project for the term was a translation of several pieces from Jacqueline Goldberg's book A fuerza de ciudad, Tierra De Gracia Editores, 1989.) Hofmann's lecture was by far the most interesting one that year.
I saw Hofmann read his own poetry a few years later and by that time I was fully convinced of his greatness as a poet. I imagine he would object to the term "great," since his poems quite often deal with mundane and ugly aspects of living. Hofmann read selections from several books and concluded the evening by taking requests from the small audience. I asked him to read his poem "XXXX" from Approximately Nowhere (Faber, 1999) which includes an epigraph from César Vallejo. Hofmann seemed to be half-embarrassed about reading his work, at times shifting uncomfortably in his seat and pausing for long stretches of silence in between poems. He seemed to not take himself very seriously but the poems he read countered this self-deprecating stance. His poems always bring me back to my own reasons for writing: suffering does not cease but we must try to describe it and defuse its power over us.
At his reading, Hofmann mentioned that he was in the process of translating a selection of poems by a German writer roughly his own age, whose work he found thrilling and difficult to translate. I started seeing some of those translations in various journals and magazines over the next year and I'm now reading his versions of poems by Durs Grünbein, entitled Ashes For Breakfast: Selected Poems (FSG, 2005).
I'd like to quote a few excerpts from Hofmann's Preface to this collection, since he makes some interesting observations about poetry and translation.
"You see, the different countries and different languages have evolved different types of poets—although, thrillingly, probably for the first time in history, one's formation as a poet is almost bound to be cosmopolitan nowdays and polyglot, and if it isin't, it damned well should be." (ix)
"What you translate has to come out of you; you have to be able to encompass it, in other words. You can't quite say things you couldn't have said, even if you have been given them to say. (In an odd way, this is more of a problem for poet-translators, who tend to suffer from self-consciousness and squeamishness, and a firmer sense of their own edges, than others, who are perhaps better able to slip into costume and lose their inhibitions.)" (x)
"I have the ability, I think, to go over lines, and make it seem like freehand. (I have learned to do this, both from my own writing and from making so many prose translations. The worst thing in a translation, it seems to me, is the appearance of being remote controlled, ferngesteuert.) You have to look comfortable, voluntary." (xi)
"Finally, I had the feeling I've come so far, I can't now turn back, which, as Kafka said, is the point that must be reached." (xvii)
Hofmann makes it clear in his Preface that these versions he has written end up failing to completely render Grünbein's erudite and masterful poems (Hofmann compares him to Auden). He also acknowledges that he chose to translate only those pieces which he felt he could tackle, leaving many of them out of this edition. This has often been the case with my own translations. I will only choose poems that, first, appeal to me and, second, that I think I'll be able to render with as little damage as possible.
Hofmann has also abandoned any pretense of maintaining equivalent rhyme schemes or other formal devices, choosing instead to evoke (after Lowell's Imitations) a specific tone or mood. What I find exciting about this book is how Hofmann's own poetic style becomes entangled in Grünbein's voice. This introduction to Grünbein's work is thus implicitly tied to Hofmann's particular range of tones, to his own laconic and often gloomy verses.
I also admire Hofmann's acknowledgement, in the final excerpt above, that translation involves a type of transgression, a breaking of and stealing from an original source. One has to move carefully and invisibly through whatever lines are being translated, while remembering that one remains a thief.
The final section of this collection includes two recent poems, written in long, prose-like lines. There's a beauty in their strange English, which I find admirable and completely un-Romantic in the best way:
"December morning. Driving past the cemetery walls in the taxi,
You feel a strange pang of envy. "Their worries are over."
In your eyes, forced apart by light, you have a sensation as of wet sand.
The driver is fingering his worry-beads. You see nothing but biers
In the windows, junk, behind yellow drawn curtains.
And then you begin counting. The fingers of both hands
Are not enough for all the undertakers on the stretch
Between your front door and the station, all hustling shamelessly
For the dead of tomorrow. A cutthroat business, evidently.
Everything here is right angles. Crosses and latticework cure you
Of your yen to die as a samurai with a sword in your guts." [...]