Durs Grünbein

[tr. Michael Hofmann]

I have breakfasted on ashes, the black
Dust that comes off newspapers, from the freshly printed columns.
When a coup makes no stain, and a tornado sticks to half a page.
And it seemed to me as though the Fates licked their lips

When war broke out in the sports section, reflected in the falling Dow.
I have breakfasted on ashes. My daily bread.
And Clio, as ever, keeps mum...There, just as I folded them up,
The rustling pages sent a shiver down my spine.

(Ashes for Breakfast, FSG, 2005)


I'm finishing Grünbein's book this week, having read the text straight through, trying to get a sense of his poems over time. In this case, for me at least, the translator is an essential part of these English versions. What both poets share is a tendency toward distancing themselves emotionally from their subjects. And yet, the image of lived experience as "...the black / Dust that comes off newspapers..." is evoking the horrors we avoid or suffer daily, the ink on our hands that makes detachment almost impossible. In his "Translator's Preface" Hofmann mentions his affinity for Grünbein's writing:

"Above all, you feel an attachment to the idea that you have some German poet twin—the one who, unlike you, stayed at home—whom it is your duty and sacred pleasure to translate into English."

Reading these versions, I've noticed the sense of doubleness translation sometimes gives, of a palimpsest or a tracing that doesn't quite adjust to the original. Listening to the static created by the space between two languages, in their collision, their perspectives on each other, an amplification of both tongues. James Fenton, on the other hand, finds these English versions too encumbered by the translator's voice.

I think of my friend Juan E. Cruz who wrote in a poem, "Maya Linda Apart(ments)," published in 1998 in ((ñ)) Magazine:

"from now on, our entire lives may be translations"


Looking up information on the Cuban poet Lorenzo García Vega, I've noticed he wrote a short story about his experience working at a Publix supermarket somewhere in Miami. It was published in an anthology of short stories called Cuentos desde Miami (Barcelona: Editorial Poliedro, 2004) edited by Juan Abreu.

In "Aforismos autistas" García Vega writes:

"At the Publix, while we put on our respective aprons, as we wait for the moment to punch our time cards, I hear an old bag boy, who has recently had a prostate operation, say smiling: 'We are the deceased faithful.'"

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