Title: "Leaving it to you to prove and define": "Poets to Come" and Whitman's German Translators
Author(s): Walter Grünzweig and Vanessa Steinroetter
Publication information: Written for the Walt Whitman Archive. First published on the Archive in 2012.
Whitman Archive ID: anc.02026
"Poets to Come" appears in ten collections of Whitman's poetry in German translation. The fact that most of Whitman's German translators were attracted to the poem, given their different ideological and aesthetic viewpoints, emphasizes the poem's adaptability to foreign contexts. German and international readers felt directly addressed by Whitman's poem because it never actually locates the "poets to come" in America. The "poets to come"—and many of the translators were poets, or at least as translators felt closely connected to the world of poetry—were interpreted by German translators as international poets to come. Such a reading was probably even more seductive because the poem suggests that "not today is to justify me," but that "a new brood" (significantly also translated as "new race"), perhaps the Germans of the future, would do the justifying. The notion that these future poets were, in Whitman's words, "native" and "continental" did not have to mean that the "new brood" would be from America because, for European readers, "native" and "continental" could just as easily have referred to their continent.
"Poets to Come" first appeared in German in 1889 as part of the very first book-length translation of Whitman by the German-American educator, scholar, and philologist Karl Knortz (1841–1918) and the politicized man of letters Thomas William Rolleston (1857–1920), an Irishman. Both of them felt that a German Whitman had a political purpose, although they had different ideas about what this purpose was. For Knortz, Whitman's poetry was to shake Germans out of their political apathy and dream world. As a lyrical version of American democracy, it would arouse German readers and teach them the democratic discourses. For Rolleston, this translation would make German readers more self-confident and would ground their tendency towards philosophical speculation in the reality of American culture and democracy, thereby making them politically stronger (and, in the interest of the Irish, better able to stand up against the British). The volume was published in Zurich, Switzerland, by Jakob Schabelitz, one of the few radical German-language publishers of his time who had corresponded with Marx and Engels in the 1840s and 1850s. In this democratic, politically utopian context, the poem would have been read as part of a leftist utopian vision.
The political caliber of Wilhelm Schölermann (1865–1923) was very different. The cultural criticism in which he enlisted Whitman was more nationalistically inclined. Whitman's notions of "perfect" bodies and his representations of national character could indeed have an appeal for enthusiasts of the "Germanic race," even though such a reading would have to ignore Whitman's universalism. His mixed, but mostly "Germanic" background (Anglo-Saxon and Dutch), his bardic appearance, and his exaggerated enthusiasm about Whitman's Übermensch-type personality would have tended to further emphasize such a reception. The vision of the "new brood" as well as the future at large would have inspired this translator and his 1904 translation, which frequently turns Whitman's free verses into rhymes.
1904 also saw the appearance of a second translation, by Karl Federn (1868–1943). A highly accomplished translator and literary critic (he wrote a book on Dante and translated, in addition to Whitman, Emerson and Melville), his translation was praised as fresh and anti-aestheticist. This would also have been a claim made by and for Schölermann, but Federn is indeed much more interested in aesthetic complexity and the formal challenges presented by Whitman's lyrical innovations.
Johannes Schlaf (1862–1941) is one of the most important writers of German naturalism. His discovery of Whitman, as early as 1892, marks a transition from that phase towards impressionist modernism. Although his translation, eventually published in 1907 by one of Germany's first mass-market publishers, has been widely criticized for inaccuracies and errors, it is one of the most influential translations not only of Whitman, but of any American poet in the German language. Schlaf corresponded with many of the Whitmanites of his period, including Horace Traubel, Ernest Crosby, and Léon Bazalgette. He clearly was Whitman's "hot little prophet" in Germany. His translation was widely read by German "expressionist" poets, painters, and modernist writers, including Franz Kafka himself. The "missionary" tone of much of German Expressionist poetry was certainly anticipated by Schlaf's translation of Whitman, and the poem would have been read as a direct invitation by the many German poets who started to write in the second decade of the twentieth century.
Gustav Landauer (1870–1919) is definitely the most "political" personality among the German Whitman translators presented here. A non-Marxist, anarchist, leftist, and radical pacifist, he was a member of the short-lived Bavarian Soviet government in 1919 in Munich, where he was killed by soldiers following the violent suppression of the revolution. The poem's ethical discourse—"for you must justify me"—would have attracted him as would have the communitarian vision of a future society led by artists and poets. Landauer's translation, published posthumously in 1921, is contained in a beautiful, artisan-like book—ornamented with stylized grass leaves on the cover—published by expressionist publisher Kurt Wolff. The collection contains only the poems in the "Inscriptions" cluster, so "Poets to Come" was naturally included.
Hans Reisiger (1884–1968) was a close friend of Thomas Mann. Whitman played an important role in the friendship of the two men. Reisiger's two-volume edition of Whitman appeared in 1922 and was preceded by a smaller version in 1919, which focuses more on the homoerotic poems. The elegant format of the later edition makes Whitman into somewhat of a classical poet, although Reisiger's long introductory essay on poetry and life emphasizes Whitman's extraordinary and unusual qualities. In part because of Thomas Mann's enthusiastic approval of the volume, Reisiger's translation continues to be the most widely quoted German rendition of Whitman. The impact of "Poets to Come" is somewhat lost in the context of these two volumes because, through Reisiger (and Mann), Whitman has already arrived.
The translation by Elisabeth Serelmann-Küchler and her father, Walther Küchler, is characteristic of post-war literary culture in Germany. Published in 1947 on poor paper, it nevertheless expresses the enthusiasm Germans could develop reading Whitman following the horrors of Nazism and war.
Erich Arendt (1903–1984) furnished the only lengthy translation of Whitman in East Germany. Although the Marxist-Leninist context is palpable, Arendt's translation is characterized by the lightness of his exile in Latin America, where he came to know the American poet through his friends, including Pablo Neruda, whom Arendt, a poet himself, also translated into German. The trilingual context of Arendt's translation has led to a rather innovative, "new" language. It has also added many new poems to the canon of German Whitman translations and, of course, added its own version of "Poets to Come."
The small brochure-type edition of Whitman's poetry by Hans and Else Bestian published in 1985 owes its origin to the international counterculture. Selecting and arranging the poetry the way this edition does, the net effect is a post-1968 Whitman, taking on war, racism, and sexism. The "sauntering poet," leaving it "to you to prove it and define it," catches the mood of a translation where "doing one's thing" has a high priority.
Jürgen Brôcan's 2009 translation is the first complete German rendition of the Deathbed edition. With this work, Whitman translation in German reached a new height. Brôcan has made a major contribution with his translations of previously untranslated poems, but, when looking at the previously translated poems, one recognizes his indebtedness to many of the earlier translations. In some ways, Brôcan's edition is a summa of Whitman translations in German: it is highly intertextual—and thus properly postmodern.
In "Poets to Come," Whitman's speaker invites future generations of artists to take up the "indicative" words he leaves them and to create their own works of art by "defining" (in other words reading and interpreting) them. Many of Whitman's translators felt that the poet was addressing them in some way, inviting them to "prove and define" and even to "justify" his message through their own creative work of translating. The poetic speaker seems to suggest the difficulty a translator faces in trying to "define" the original's meaning by describing how the imagined "poets to come" can only ever catch a brief glimpse of him before he retreats into the darkness.
As an interpretive act, translation always entails the concretization of a semantic potential, which can be seen as either elucidating or obscuring, beneficial or corrupting, depending on whether the reader feels that the term or phrase replacing the original clarifies and perhaps even enhances a reading suggested by a more enigmatic (because more elliptical) phrasing in the original, or whether it changes the text in a way that strays too far from a literal reading of the original.
A typology of translation solutions can be worked out that transcends the borders of "national" or single-language literature. The translation of the title (and/or the first part of the first line) "Poets to come" can essentially be divided into five groups. The back translations provided below reveal the highly differentiated reception of the title by German translators:
This almost "structuralist" analysis of the various translations into five languages is more than just a list. It reveals the semantic potential of Whitman's "Poets to Come," established, indeed documented, by the poem's international status. While these interpretations are "creative"—as a result of translation rather than analysis (our analysis here being secondary)—the interpretive significance of this typology is interesting. The interlinguistic status of Whitman's poetry not only points to the poet's international standing but also emphasizes the complexity of his poetic language and, indeed, its essence.
The following brief analyses of individual points and questions raised by the translations will serve to illustrate this point further, shedding light on the ambiguity of the English original and on the trends within German Whitman translation and reception over time.
In this case, all ten translators have shown a remarkable consistency in their use of the German term Geschlecht, which does not contain the animalistic associations of the original, but rather suggests the human race in general (Menschengeschlecht is a now archaic German translation of "humankind"), or a new lineage or family of people to come. It contains no associations of being in a juvenile or fledgling stage of development, though the word "new" (German neu) that precedes it indicates the relative youth of this new kind of poet within a larger history of humankind. The term Geschlecht contains much more positive connotations than the German word Brut would in this context, though Brut is etymologically closest to the English word "brood" and also denotes the offspring of egg-laying animals. Applied to humans, though, the meaning of Brut could best be likened to "spawn" in English, with clearly negative and even diabolical connotations. Thus, it is not surprising that Whitman's German translators—who, after all, see "Poets to Come" as Whitman's creative invitation to them and to their countrymen and -women—opt for the more flattering term. However, it is still worth noting that the use of Geschlecht for "brood" in the German translations of "Poets to Come" is a significant choice on behalf of the translators, since, for instance, Hans Reisiger uses the German Brut multiple times throughout other translations of Whitman's poetry, thus demonstrating that he does not shun the more negatively connoted, animalistic term in every case.
As this brief discussion of the word "brood" in Whitman's poem shows, it is impossible to retain all of the semantic possibilities contained in the English original in a translation, and readers who first or primarily encounter the poem in German may be surprised when they become aware of the English word's connotations.
Fig. 1. Semantic field presented by the back translations of the different renderings of "brood" into European languages.
The image shows the word 'Brood' surrounded by other back translations, from German to English, of the way the word has been rendered in German: 'lineage,' 'stock,' 'generation,' 'class,' 'progency,' 'offspring,' 'litter,' 'tribe,' 'race,' and 'family.'
The most frequent term used to translate "native," eingeboren, has both religious and anthropological connotations. Martin Luther uses the term to translate the Latin unigenitus dei filius, God's only son, a meaning no longer obvious to readers in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Nevertheless, the term is still a solid, if obscure, part of the religious discourse. It gives a spiritual, Christian aspect to this new race, very different from the anthropological meaning of eingeboren, which stands for an overseas native population in the sense of aboriginals. This exotic dimension would be different from einheimisch and hier geboren, which suggest "native" in the sense of "home." Küchler's aus dieses Festlands Mutterboden turns "native" into "maternal soil" and combines it with "continental" (Festlands). Küchler's is probably the most adequate translation, clearly pointing to the home of the poem's speaker as the place of the future "brood." The other two translations differentiate between an "other," exotic context and "home." Landauer's solution is different from all the others—his ursprünglich, meaning "original," signifies "authentic" and real.
When Schölermann omits this word in his translation, he is probably the most honest of all translators. Kontinental and festländisch signal an opposition to island and oceans and thus, if viewed metaphorically, a groundedness. Whereas American readers may well have identified the term with the American continent, this meaning would not, or not automatically, transfer in the translation.
Comparing the ten translators' renderings of Whitman's words into German can lead us to focus more closely on what may otherwise seem obvious or unremarkable to us in the English original. The translations of this phrase range from a materialist, grounded wozu ich da bin ("what am I doing on this earth" or even "what am I doing on this page"), to a more abstract, indeed existentialist wozu ich bin ("what I exist for"). Die Frage nach meiner Bestimmung clearly has religious and predeterministic qualities. Landauer phrases it in terms of the mystery of identity whereas Küchler brings it down to the utilitarian level—"what I am good for."
The most interesting aspect of all ten translations is that they elude the main problem by simply ignoring the final "it." In the German translations, the speaker "leaves it to you to prove and define," as though these were activities one could engage in without an object. What it is that needs to be explained, even if it is only the mysterious "it" of the original, remains obscure. The German translations turn the addressees into generic provers and definers, or, rather, explainers or interpreters (erklären), as the most popular translation of "define" has it. The scientific discourse thus disappears with erklären as well as with deuten (to divine, to read prophetically). It is retained only in the very first, most "positivistic" translation by Knortz/Rolleston, in definiren—a term definitely disliked and rejected by all other interpreters.
This is not so easy with the word "prove" which is mostly translated in its logical meaning (beweisen), although the word prüfen (examine) is used twice, probably because of the etymological relationship between "prove" and prüfen.
All ten translators render Whitman's "you" in the informal plural form euch.