by Heiko Michael Hartmann
translated by Emily Banwell and Ofer Schorr
1This line may have given us the most trouble; the verb ‘ringen’ means to wrestle or fight, but is part of the idiomatic phrase ‘Verdacht schöpfen,’ which means to grow suspicious. I’m not sure why the author would have included this as an option , except that in German it’s a play on words. It was solved by adding a preposition, and I think it works rather well.
2The word ‘Preis’ means both price and prize—literally, “the price/prize kept me on my feet.”
3This is reminiscent of the well-known Loriot sketch about a hapless couple buying a suit for the husband. In the end, the wife believes everything the salesman says, and the husband ends up walking out of the shop in a crouching position (“to stretch out the pants”), sleeves trailing on the ground.
Though perhaps not what one might call canonical, Heiko Michael Hartmann’s writings-including his two novels, MOI (1997) and Unterm Bett (Under the Bed, 2000), and his poetry and short stories-have won critical attention as social satires. Hartmann, born in 1957, is a lawyer as well as an author, and lives and works in Berlin. The poem translated here was featured in the journal Akzente (vol. 2, April 1999), which showcases young German authors.
Hartmann’s writing, at least in the works I have seen, is dry, humorous, and somewhat dark. A sense of helplessness is present in this poem, as well as a loss of perspective, as a result of which everyday conflicts can grow into a desperate struggle for survival. The ambiguity and multiplicity of this particular text forces the reader to reread it several times, testing out various possible meanings; this precludes the possibility of a superficial understanding of the poem. In my translation, I faced the danger of losing any or all of these double meanings if a word’s equivalent could not be found in English. The resulting process was a complex negotiation between English and German, testing the limits of the target language to see whether a parallel effect could be achieved.
The poem is extremely dense and uses complicated constructions. Hartmann takes advantage of German word order--since in many dependent clauses, the verb moves to the end--to link sentences that seemingly have little to do with each other. This rather extreme form of enjambment results in the reader’s impression of being pulled one way and then the other, a power struggle whose theme is reinforced by the language of the poem. The overall impression is that of a boxing match mapped onto a department store transaction in which the salesman is rather too aggressive. For example, in the fifth line the protagonist says: “Die Macht elastischer Seile stieß mich”--while “elastic ropes” clearly sound like part of a boxing match, a customer could just as well be spurred to action by the promise of an elastic waistband. Other word choices create similar juxtapositions, that is to say, contradictory images with intentionally ridiculous results.
This poem was translated as part of the final project for Comp Lit 260 (Politics and Poetics of Literary Translation), and as an exercise in cooperative translation. Although translators, like writers, generally prefer to work alone, I found working with a partner to be very productive. Ofer and I met several times over the course of the semester to exchange ideas on the translation of our respective poems, and to commiserate on the difficulties of poetic translation. I think we were both pleased with the results, and I am very grateful for his help!