Nadja Weber declared winner of ITMK poetry translation competition

Nadja Weber, Deborah Foulkes (from the left) (Bild: ITMK/TH Köln)

Nadja Weber (l.), a final-year student of the BA degree in Multilingual Communication at the Institute of Translation and Multilingual Communication, TH Köln, is presented with her prize money and award certificate for the poetry translation competition by its organizer, Deborah W.A. Foulkes, a poet, writer and translator who lectures part-time at the ITMK.

On the last day of lectures in the winter semester, January 19, 2018, Nadja Weber, who is studying for her bachelor's degree in multilingual communication, was declared winner of the inaugural poetry translation competition for students and staff of the ITMK. In addition to studying, 23-year-old Nadja, who hails from a small village near Stuttgart in southern Germany, has scripted rap and music videos for German YouTubers, and written and translated her own novels. She also worked as an associate editor and translator for a French social media publisher for one year during an extended ‘semester’ abroad. After her BA, she wants to do a Master's degree in languages and media.

Nadja was presented with her €100 prize money and award certificate for her translation from English into German of the acrostic poem 'Invertebrate Nation' by the poet, writer and translator Deborah W.A. Foulkes, who also works part-time at the ITMK teaching translation, journalism and English composition (including a creative writing component). Deborah, a Qualified Member of the Institute of Translation and Interpreting, the UK body that oversees standards in the profession, has seen her translations of contemporary Dutch poets published in the literary magazines 'Modern Poetry in Translation' and 'Poetry Wales', and in numerous booklets produced for the 'Poetry International Festival' in Rotterdam. Some of her own Dutch poetry has been published in the literary magazine 'Begane Grond' and some of her German poems in the German literary magazine 'Das Gedicht' and in 'Lyrik, Protokolle'. She is currently writing a series of magical realist semi-autobiographical novels with environmental themes, while also researching the neuroscience of writing and autobiographical memory.

A number of students braved Hurricane Friederike on the last day of the winter semester to watch the awards ceremony and listen to Nadja and Deborah discussing the intricacies of poetry translation. The audience then participated in the broader cultural discussion around the subject of the 'Invertebrate Nation' poem - a critique of German 'Obrigkeitshörigkeit' i.e. slavish obedience to authority. The poem was chosen because it fit perfectly with the theme 'Freedom' of this year's National Poetry Day in the UK, since the annual celebration of poetry in schools and other organisations throughout Britain was the inspiration for holding a poetry translation competition in the first place. National Poetry Day was on September 28 in 2017 - only four days after the general election in Germany which saw an extreme right-wing party elected to parliament for the first time since the end of World War II. Fittingly, the poem 'Invertebrate Nation' questions whether the German people have truly eradicated the root cause of fascism from the national psyche.

Also, since poetry fills a greater cultural space in British culture than it does in German culture, with many poetry competitions and events and also poetry translation prizes, like the Stephen Spender prize, a competition like this gives the students at the ITMK a taste of British culture.

"Translating a poem is for linguists what solving a Rubik's cube is for mathematicians." — Interview with the prize-winner and the organizer

Q: Nadja, the poem 'Invertebrate Nation' is incredibly complex. It contains technical vocabulary from the field of biology, like ‘carapace’, ‘exoskeletal’, and ‘arthropods’, as well as the 'invertebrate' of the title; there's lots of alliteration and rhyme; and to top it all, it's a triple acrostic of the word 'Germany', which has to be transposed into a triple acrostic of the word ‘Deutschland’, and which therefore not only seriously restricts your choice of words at the beginnings of the lines but also requires you to do some deft juggling of line length - indeed to juggle with the whole structure of the poem. Why on earth would anyone want to do something as crazy as trying to translate it?

Nadja [laughing]: Well believe it or not, it was quite fun actually. And I totally agree with what Deborah said in her welcome address [to the award ceremony], that "translating poetry is for the linguist what solving a Rubik's cube is for the mathematician." I felt like I was solving a complex puzzle and I always had complete faith that there would be a solution somewhere - I just had to find it. The skopos theory of Reiss/Vermeer provided me with a good framework to build on here. This theory emphasises the role of the translator as a co-creator of the target text because translation is considered primarily as a process of intercultural communication. Skopos is the Greek word for 'purpose' and skopos theory emphasises the function of the target text in the target culture.

Q: So you don't agree with the American poet Robert Frost, who famously said, "poetry is what gets lost in translation"?

Nadja: Absolutely not. If I thought it was impossible to retain the essential characteristics of the poem I wouldn’t bother trying in the first place.

Q: Ok, I can see why you’d say that. But please bear with me, I'm going to be a bit controversial here. Deborah, do you agree? Did anything get 'lost' in Nadja's translation?

Deborah: Let me give you a metaphor in answer to that: The idea that there is a single perfect translation of a poem is a convenient fiction that one has to hold onto when one is in the process of translating it. It's an act of faith, and one which I hold fast to in my heart every time I translate a poem, just like Nadja does. But the truth is that a poem is like a crystal with many facets, and there are many possible translations of it - like light reflecting through a prism and splitting up into a rainbow of colours. To translate something is to read it more deeply than any normal reader. And just as every reader of a novel will interpret it slightly differently, so then will each translator read a poem differently and translate it accordingly. Nadja, for example, said earlier that she saw 'Invertebrate Nation' as an expression of the alienation caused by modern life in our society, not just as a critique of Germany. This is her right as a reader and translator, because once a poem is sent out into the world it takes on a life of its own. The author loses the sole rights to control of it. Furthermore, far from losing aspects of a poem in translation, a number of different translations can actually help to illuminate the original poem. Nadja did this outstandingly. For example, I had to use the word 'exfoliate' because I needed a word beginning with 'e' at the beginning of a line due to the acrostic structure but I was thinking of Agent Orange, the defoliant (which begins with a 'd') used by the US in the Vietnam war to destroy crops. So when Nadja and I discussed making a couple of final small 'tweaks' to the translation after the competition to get it ready for publication, she was able to use 'entlauben', a translation closer to my original intended meaning.

Nadja: Yes, it was great to be able to dot a couple of i's and cross some t's afterwards. I actually went to see Deborah before submitting my translation to discuss these points but she felt unable to speak to me on grounds of fairness to the other competitors.

Deborah: It was incredibly professional of Nadja to approach me fearlessly as the ‘client’ to clear up ambiguities in the poem. I felt bad about not being to answer her due to fairness considerations and I think in future if I do another competition I’ll include a ‘meet the author’ workshop for the prospective entrants to enable them to ask questions.

For example, the adverb 'punctually' in the last line could have referred to either the 'betray', which came before it, or 'wringing' which came after it. Grammatically speaking, both options would be correct even though when writing it I intended punctually to relate to betray. Nadja in her translation opted for the second possibility. It wasn't incorrect, and she could not have known which option I preferred without speaking to me. Unfortunately, it was impossible to re-create the same ambiguity in the German translation and actually not really necessary. Let me tell you, though, that I was absolutely thrilled at the way she translated the doubly difficult rhymed section of the poem, "their trams are on time but they have / no spine" which had to take into account an acrostic line transition. I myself tried to come up with a decent German translation of this but found it too difficult. Nadja's solution was brilliant: "ihre Bahnen fahren plangetreu / los doch sie bleiben rückgratlos". I was so happy when I opened the competition entry and read that. It really made my day. I was smiling all the way home on the train.

However, to get back to your original question - outside of the competition scenario, it's essential to get feedback from the poet when you're translating contemporary poets who are fluent in the target language and therefore able to read your translation. This was the case when I translated Dutch poets like Tonnus Osterhoff, C.O. Jellema and Huub Beurskens. They were all fluent in English and were able to provide insight into the more hermetic aspects of their poems. Gerrit Kouwenaar, who the Dutch always put forward as their candidate for the Nobel Prize until he died in 2014, was less helpful though. He proved to be a bit of a sexist prima donna.

Nevertheless, although not all authors may like or be able to give feedback, writing and translation are essentially iterative processes - all good writing is rewriting, all good translation is retranslation, each based on cycles of feedback. Which is why both learning to write and learning to translate are highly transferable skills for the modern business world where product development is increasingly project-oriented and based on iterative cycles.

Q: Nadja, do you agree? And are you yourself going to go into the world of business or will you continue on this extremely promising trajectory as a literary translator?

Nadja: It's too soon yet to tell. First, I have to finish my degree, then I'm going to do a Masters in Languages and Media. After that, who knows? The world is changing so quickly there are bound to be more options on the table in a few years’ time than I am currently aware of.

Q: Wise words, definitely. Though now your appetite for solving Rubik's cube translation puzzles has been whetted, can we assume that you might at least be spending the occasional rainy afternoon amusing yourself with them?

Nadja: You certainly can!

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