Sie liebt dich, ja ja ja, so the Beatles song goes. In terms of word-for-word translation, She loves you, yeah yeah yeah found its way relatively easily into the German language. The rest of the song, though, went less willingly, and it turns out that after singing two of their hits in German the Beatles threw up their British hands and abandoned this form of international outreach forever. The journey from German into English, and vice versa, comes with more guideposts than, say, the road from Chinese or Arabic, and yet the difficulty—or, as many translators would say, the fun—quickly rears its head. Even John F. Kennedy’s simple statement of solidarity with West Germany back in 1963—Ich bin ein Berliner—caused a kerfuffle, as some suggested that he had just called himself a jelly doughnut. It’s now the stuff of urban legend, but the story continues to get passed around, both because it’s hard to resist and because there really is a possibility for misinterpretation latent in that indefinite article “ein.”
When we ask any work of art to make the jump from one medium—one language—to another, not only do the words themselves need literal, musical, and tonal translation, but the references, the implied history and culture, must go along with it. When a poet refers to Allied bombings or “old sentimental state-bees” in German, it means something very different from when an English-speaking writer does. To see things from another side we have to shift in our chairs, sometimes uncomfortably, and it can feel like listening in on a private conversation between strangers. But we also get a chance to see something of the Germany we don’t know from driving their cars or watching CNN, and to dismantle the loudest and most persistent stereotypes.
The selection of writing from Germany assembled here came about as the result of both intention and accident—NER’s ongoing intention to offer an inspiring, provocative range of literary voices, and the happy accident of our own Ellen Hinsey’s living for a time in Berlin. While there, Ellen read a particularly intriguing essay about poetry, notebook-keeping, and Hannah Arendt, and she suggested it would be worth translating for NER. As you’ll see here, she was right. She also met the essay’s author, the writer Marie Luise Knott, who offered to share her familiarity with the scene to help us choose a selection of new German poetry. Add to that a call for submissions, a series of meetings in Berlin cafés, and several time-zone-jumping phone calls, and the result is that this issue contains not only a multitude of voices from the English-speaking world, as always, but also a multitude of voices from the German-speaking world. They meet here in our pages.
While a group of dedicated and accomplished translators did the heavy lifting here, we English speakers couldn’t resist occasionally dipping into the process ourselves. We puzzled, for instance, with translator Margitt Lehbert, over the idiom “mit dem Kopf durch die Wand” for longer than would seem prudent. Should we use another idiom—the similar but inaccurate “banging your head against a wall”—or should we just translate the words themselves? We noticed in the same essay that she translated the line “Der Stein, der vom Herzen fällt” to the idiom “the load off your mind,” even though the literal “The stone, from the heart falls” is much more lovely. But lovely language is not always the point. Sometimes a writer just wants to convey relief. When a German writer uses the word “kaput” it just means “broken,” but when we use it in English, it has a certain kind of panache, and implies, to my ear anyway, a more final kind of brokenness, also slightly comic. And then there are those words that we think of as quintessentially German, with their Romantic, brooding tones: Weltschmerz (world pain), Doppelganger (double goer), Treppenwitz (staircase wit), Sturm und Drang (storm and yearning). But I wonder, while we might hear quintessential Germanness in these words, what does a German hear?
We’re counting on our translators, who traverse light-footedly between these two worlds, to parse this out. We’re also counting on our readers to take an open-minded and rangy approach to reading this issue of NER, which has a considerable share of riches in English-language writing as well. We hope you’ll hear resonances from one piece to another and feel the ground shift a little too. We send this issue out into the world with gratitude, as always, for all the writers and translators who trusted NER with their work, and in particular for Marie Luise Knott, Margitt Lehbert, and Ellen Hinsey, our comrades in Berlin. Wir lieben euch!