Years ago, when I first studied poetry and translation as a literary critic, I began what became a lifelong habit of copying out by hand the poems I was trying to understand. I also memorized them, though I can’t recall now if that was intentional or was just a product of the time I spent with each poem. The slow, embodied, word-by-word and line-by-line engagement with language and form allowed me insights beyond those I gained by re-reading and marking pages of text. To me, translation is another embodied form of deep reading. When I translate, re-writing a poem either of my two native languages, I enter a poem and it becomes part of me. Just as my original poems begin in a notebook, I write the first drafts of my translations longhand, getting to know the music and rhythm of the poem, learning where it speeds up or slows down and the places where (as the poems I love most do) it resists understanding and remains mysterious.
Pontus, the 2009 book that established Daniela Danz as a major literary figure in Germany, explores the connections between antiquity and the present, Europe and the Middle East, water and land through the lens of the Hellespont. It asks: what is homeland? What are “East” and “West” and how are their histories linked? Published before the Arab Spring and the outbreak of the Syrian civil war and five years before the refugee crisis became major news in Europe and around the world, the book is prescient about the questions and conflicts that dominate political and social discourse today.
I am drawn to Danz’s simultaneously intimate and historically and philosophically wide view, the beauty of her lines and images, and her challenging syntax and line breaks. As a translator, I seek a musical register in English that mirrors what I find in Danz’s German, working until I see two poems in conversation side by side, each speaking to the other.
The prose poem “Souvenirs” opens the first section of the book with a line from Pat Barker’s World War I Regeneration Trilogy. Moving from a scene set in the war to a museum to the story of Medea and Jason, Danz uses the motif of the souvenir to explore history, memory, war, intimacy, and the othering of the feminine and the foreign.
The three sections in Pontus of “Fox and Fatherland” are the first in a series of poems that continue into V, her 2014 book that works to dismantle the concept of fatherland. In three linked poems centered around the quintessentially German trickster figure of the fox, Danz considers how language, speech, image, and place operate in the dynamic between hunter and hunted.
Along with giving me an opportunity to find more readers for poets I love, translation is an intellectual, creative, and deeply personal endeavor for me. In diving into the words of another poet and recreating them in another language, I find a home in the words that bridge my two worlds.
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