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Prose Translations

‘River’: A Creative Translation Project

This is a start of a collaborative project working from Carol Ann Duffy’s poem, ‘River’. It’s a translation chain, which means that, as the first link in the chain, I have translated Duffy’s original poem into German, providing a back-translation in English and a commentary. The next person in the chain will work from either my German text or my English back translation, and so it goes on, until eventually, everyone on our course has made a contribution. How exciting!

Here’s my response:

Fluss

Bei der Biegung des Flusses

fängt die Sprache an, sich zu ändern,

ein unterschiedliches Geplätscher,

sogar ein unterschiedlicher Name für den gleichen Fluss.

Wasser überquert die Grenze,

übersetzt sich,

aber die Wörter stolpern und fallen noch zurück.

Und da, am Baum genagelt, gibt es Beweise.

Ein Wegweiser in neuer Sprache,

barsch am Baum.

Ein Vogel, nie vorher gesehen,

singt von einem Ast.

Eine frau auf dem Pfad bei dem Fluss wiederholt ein komisches Geräusch,

um den Vogelgesang nachzuahmen,

und seinen Namen danach nachzufragen.

Sie kniet sich hin für eine rote Blume,

pflückt sie,

später wird sie es vorsichtig zwischen den Seiten eines Buches pressen.

Was würde es dir bedeuten,

wenn du mit ihr dort sein könntest,

deine eigene Hände im Wasser baumelnd,

wo blaue und silberne Fische über Steinen hinwegflitzen,

Brocken, Kiesel, Schotter,

wie die Bedeutungen von Wörter,

einfach verschwinden.

Es fühlt sich so an als ob sie schon irgendwoander ist,

hochgradig,

einfach wegen Wörter;

sie singt laut ihren Unsinnsgeschnatter,

und lächelt und lächelt.

Wärst du wirklich dort,

was würdest du auf einer Postkarte schreiben?

Oder in den Sand kritzeln,

in der Nähe von wo der Fluss ins Meer fließt?


Back-Translation into English

By the bend of the river,

starts the language, to change itself,

a different babble,

even a different name for the same river. 

Water crosses the border,

translates itself,

but the words stumble and fall still back.

And there, nailed at the tree, there is evidence.

A  signpost in new language,

harsh on the tree.

A bird, never before seen,

sings from a branch.

A woman on the trail by the river repeats a strange sound,

to imitate the birdsong,

and to ask his name after.

She kneels down for a red flower,

picks it,

later she will press it carefully between the pages of a book.

What would it mean to you,

if you could be there with her,

your own hands dangling in the water,

where blue and silver fish flit away over stones,

boulders, pebbles, gravel,

like the meanings of words,

simply disappear.

It feels as though she is already somewhere else,

intensely.

Simply because of words;

she sings her nonsense-chatter loudly, 

and smiles and smiles.

If you were really there,

what would you write on a postcard? 

Or scratch into the sand,

close to where the river flows into the sea?


Original: Carol Ann Duffy’s ‘River’

At the turn of the river the language changes,
a different babble, even a different name
for the same river. Water crosses the border,
translates itself, but words stumble, fall back,
and there, nailed to a tree, is proof. A sign


in new language brash on a tree. A bird,
not seen before, singing on a branch. A woman
on the path by the river, repeating a strange sound
to clue the bird’s song and ask for its name, after.
She kneels for a red flower, picks it, later
will press it carefully between the pages of a book.

What would it mean to you if you could be
with her there, dangling your own hands in the water
where blue and silver fish dart away over stone,
stoon, stein, like the meanings of things, vanish?
She feels she is somewhere else, intensely, simply because
of words; sings loudly in nonsense, smiling, smiling.


If you were really there what would you write on a postcard,
or on the sand, near where the river runs into the sea?


Commentary: ‘Fluss’

In my translation of ‘River’ into German, I decided to focus more on playing with the format other than the words themselves. My initial rough draft was a lot of fun to produce because I ironed it out over a Zoom call with my German partner, looking for grammatical errors and any clumsy word choice or formulations. This was my first attempt at ever translating a poem into my second language, so I enjoyed the collaborative aspect of asking a native speaker’s advice.

I think the drafting process is a really important aspect of translation that, unfortunately, often becomes invisible by the publishing phase or the final version. We delete and type over our process, but I think the process should be celebrated just as much as the finished product. Here, I’ve used scans of my initial draft as a background to my translation to highlight the fact that all translation is a palimpsest. We work over and over our initial ideas. 

I have played with a few aspects of the words, but my main focus here was creating something visual. I printed out my final version and cut the lines into strips, arranging them in waves on the page. I then overlaid the poem with my own biro doodles and used watercolour brush pens to add a splash of colour.

When it comes to language, I have changed Duffy’s reference to ‘things’ in the third stanza to ‘words’, as I disliked the vagueness of ‘things’ and enjoyed the focus of this poem on translation and language. I’ve made up a word in German: ‘Unsinnsgeschnatter’ (nonsense-chatter) cannot be found in any dictionary, but German is intensely malleable and flexible, inviting the writer to neologism. The new word caused Jannis, my co-editor, to break out in a smile, and I don’t think this poem wants to be taken too seriously.

 In the final stanza, I’ve added the verb ‘kritzeln’ (scratch) to accentuate the image of writing into sand, and Duffy’s use of ‘clue’ as a verb in the second stanza has been replaced by ‘nachahmen’ (to imitate/mimic), as I thought this suited birdsong very well. ‘Clue’ (Hinweis) as a verb (hinweisen) would have taken on a whole different meaning in German, as it means something more like ‘to indicate’, or ‘to point something out’ instead of ‘to figure something out’, which is what I think Duffy intended here, although I cannot be sure. I also really enjoyed the beat the introduction of ‘nachahmen’ created across these two lines, with the threefold repetition of ‘nach’.

By annaputsover

Translator and English tutor

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