My Life As a Translator: Throwing Open the Doors to Chaos

By Aaron Kerner

What do we see when we don't know what we're seeing? So asks Commonwealth English teacher Aaron Kerner, who has had a veritable second and simultaneous career as a translator. Here, he reminisces about that experience.

I photocopy and hand to a class full of seniors a poem in German, a language that none of them speaks—a quiet, colloquial poem of eighteen lines by Gottfried Benn, "Was Schlimm Ist." 

We go around the room one by one, each of us reading a line. Their pronunciation is surprisingly good—most are unfazed by the umlauts and eszetts. As we read, I'm remembering, at two or three removes, a comment by the English poet W.H. Auden (one that I've almost certainly mangled, and so won't place in quotation marks): Whenever I approach a poem for the first time, before I go on to ask myself what it's about, I evaluate it as a device—examining its various parts, their formal properties and interactions, as if I were dealing with a machine. Today, as readers without a lick of German, my seniors are ideally placed to do just that. 

Well, what kind of machine are we dealing with? Together we contemplate sentence structure, cognates, assonance and consonance, repeated words, the overall shape of the thing on the page. We still don't know whether we're facing a witty metaphysical conceit or a cri de cœur, an epithalamium or an elegy. We know that "Café" is involved, and also "Bier." We can identify "Professoren," "Sommer," and, intriguingly, "Englisch." We aren't quite sure what "schlimm" means yet, but know that it recurs in several forms beyond the title: "sehr schlimm," "am schlimmsten." We listen without understanding, exactly, but sense that in our lack of bearings there's a form of knowledge—though maybe "knowledge" isn't quite the right word. It's a bristling suspension; the same sort we've felt at our first encounter with an abstract painting or difficult piece of music; an unfamiliar twinge in a body that we thought couldn't surprise us any longer; the cryptic expression on the face of a fresh acquaintance. Before the gears begin to mesh, before confusion grinds toward comprehension, there is waiting. How might we learn to remain inside that first uncertainty, to live with it—to make it into a new kind of knowledge, make it bloom? 

What do we see when we don't know what we're seeing?  


Over the past ten years or so I've translated four full books—along with various poems, essays, chapters, encyclopedia articles, instruction manuals, contracts, emails, and miscellaneous oddments—from Spanish, German, Italian, and French into English. By now it's beginning to feel like a career, but only in the sense of "swift, uncontrolled movement in a particular direction." It hasn't paid me very well. It's elevated my blood pressure and ruined my posture. I'm far from convinced I have any particular talent for it, certainly no secure foundation in a second, or third, or fourth tongue. After all, I learned them as an adult—Spanish back in college, and the others in the world. Or more precisely: in a little corner of it, reading. 

My primary connection to all of these languages is, and has been, literary. In my early twenties, I wanted to read things that weren't available in English, so I struggled through them on my own, with dictionaries, guides to grammar, the occasional assistance of a native speaker. My first experience of all of them was of struggle, confusion, misprision: of groping along among shrouded forms, clinging to cognates and patterns and vaguely familiar sentence shapes, struggling page after page to suspend the desire to get it, to understand the whole, or even part. That was a hard fight, a battle that felt unprecedented: How could I suspend that desire without at the same time cutting the current that kept me moving forward through the text?

Naturally, it wasn't quite unprecedented. For all of us, there was a time before even our native language was ours: the era of William James' "one great blooming, buzzing confusion" and the extended battle to beat it back, to cut a highway through it. Learning a language as an adult means reliving that vanished campaign in miniature—with lower stakes, perhaps, but also unanesthetized. Why would anyone do it voluntarily, if not out of desperate need—the need to secure a future, a decent job, a home in a foreign country? What kind of person would do such a thing for kicks?           


Most of the time I prefer to describe translation as an alibi, a cover story, a sideline, something to pass the time—to broadcast my lack of commitment. There's always been something a little disreputable about translation as a profession. It tends to arouse suspicion, not just in readers (always concerned about "fidelity," that old chimera) and authors (understandably worried as they prepare to go under the knife) but publishers, as well. What, they ask themselves, are we paying for, exactly? And then, the inevitable adjunct: How little can we get away with dispersing? 

The question seems to have no real bottom. Like other intellectual workers (freelance writers, adjuncts, editors), a large part of the translator's compensation is the sense that one is "doing what one loves," serving literature, living the vaguely romantic life of a scholar gypsy; flitting between cultures, a rootless cosmopolitan in the best of senses; an ambassador, a spy; a guest on panels; a person known, and in the know. On the other hand, one is part of a trade systematically disparaged by the common reader, by other writers, by critics, since time immemorial: a second-hander, "a poor drudge," in Dryden's phrase. This, of course, keeps the translator from getting too full of herself, conveniently driving down prices.

Poor drudges: The thing is, we are. The work is long, exhausting, never over. But am I alone in thinking that one of the most valuable, the most bracing aspects of translation as a practice (and the same might be said of editorial work, in a slightly different key) is that the very real drudgery involved—the effort, physical as well as mental, the frustration, the dead ends and lexical elf-knots, the way that so often the process can feel like some fiendish challenge out of Grimm or Perrault (say, spinning hay into gold, or attempting to grind an axe on a wheel of cheese)—is in fact a supremely effective solvent for various kinds of literary mystification? One finds oneself forced to make friends with abasement, subjection, disdain; face one's own clumsiness, bluntness; to suffer late pay and deadline angst. One's vision is clarified: the cult of originality, of authenticity, of first-thought-best-thought, founders. Again and again, the translator finds herself living in that space of bristling suspension, in the Land of Almost. It's rough there, windy, often cold, often almost unbearable. And yet, to meet that inhospitableness with a kind of glee, to embrace it, to cling to the coalface, is possible. Wittgenstein's triumphant exclamation, from an entirely different context, keeps recurring to me: "Back to the rough ground!" 


Overnight, the seniors have translated Benn's poem with the aid of various online dictionaries. Most have hewed close to what they consider "the plain sense" of the thing, straightforwardly recasting the poem's main thrust into recognizably English sentences. A few have played wittily with estrangement, preserving the "back-to-front" feel of the German constructions. And a handful of the readings are unapologetically Dadaist. (The latter tend to be my favorites.) We talk about the way the poem's "poetry" seems to leak steadily away through the gaps between English words; about the way we felt that poetry alive and in motion while we were actually working, and the way it seems so wholly absent from the objects we've produced. Someone remarks on how funny that is—that as we're working, even as we're reading aloud, we can feel the gleam of life; that when our activity stops, our voices fall silent, it flees. "A surgeon can dissect a lung," she says, "but not a breath."

We move around the room, reading through our renditions, discussing the process. Again and again I find myself hearing the word "lost." "I think I lost the sense in this passage," "I lost track of time," "I lost a lot of sleep over this, and I still don't know quite what it means." And I think back to the first time I encountered the poem in German, as a twenty-seven-year old. Back then, all of this lostness—the time, the sense, the sleep—was mine, too, in the rented room where I read and re-read it alone, long after dark. That night-mood has entered our classroom on a sunny Wednesday morning. I'm not sure what more I could want from the exercise, what more I could have hoped for.     


I copy and hand to the same class of seniors a poem in English, a language that all of them speak very well by this point—a poem of sixty lines by Roy Fisher, "The Thing About Joe Sullivan." 

Fisher's poem examines a form of translation so mundane that we hardly even think to call it what it is: I mean musical performance, whether the player is working from a score or, as in this particular poem, imitating the characteristic improvisatory style of a midcentury jazz pianist. To my mind, the poem is a miracle—at once describing and inhabiting the process of translation, with the ground-bass regularity of Fisher's unrhymed couplets jarring against the wild, spontaneous tossing of his phrases: Fisher describes (and enacts) the way that Sullivan will 


     amble, and stride over

     gulfs of his own leaving, perilously


     toppling octaves down to where

     the chords grow fat again


     and ride hard-edged, most lucidly 

     voiced, and in good inversions even when


     the piano seems at risk of being

     hammered the next second into scrap.


After we've read it aloud, one of the seniors (a musician, as it happens) draws our attention to the end of the poem. There, Fisher trains his language explicitly on his own process (or, better say, processes)—musical performance and writing—simultaneously, when all the shapes at play here, in Fisher's words, "flaw and fuse." The poet notes the way that 


     fingers following [Sullivan's]

     through figures that sound obvious


     find corners everywhere,

     marks of invention, wakefulness.


Those "corners everywhere" are the pockmarks that make the rough ground rough, and make our purchase on it possible. If clinging to that rough ground is often pain, it is also a privilege. Thinking back to our translations of Benn, we see that we've been struggling, all of us, to preserve what Fisher, in his poem's triumphant climax, describes as 


     the rapid and perverse

     tracks that ordinary feelings


     make when they get driven

     hard enough against time.