Rosalie Beatrice Scherzer was born in 1901 in Czernowitz to German-speaking Jewish parents. Having studied literature and philosophy at the city’s university, she emigrated to the US in 1921 with Ignaz Ausländer, her future husband. Although she was divorced from Ausländer after only three years of marriage, she is still best known as Rose Ausländer. Throughout her career, Ausländer was influenced by her Second World War experiences and by the end of her life, she was recognised as one of the most veracious poets of the post-war period. Ausländer deals with a variety of emotions and, oftentimes, offers a bleak and sombre view on the world, including of her own feelings and experiences. A quiet melancholy characterises the entire collection and points clearly towards a poet who has tried to come to terms with her past. Yet while her poems represent an internalised melancholia, the attentive reader can also find glimpses of hopefulness.
While I Am Drawing Breath is a revised re-issue of her posthumously published 1995 collection Mother Tongue. The translation in Arc’s bilingual publication is perhaps more adaptive than literal, sometimes taking certain freedoms with English wording and lineation in an attempt to preserve the actual intent and feel of the original verse. Consider the third stanza of “The Architects” (“Die Architekten”):
|Frühling der Farbenum dich wirbtdie Schlagader des Sommersin deinem Ohr
für dich blutet der Herbst
Erfinder des Winters so weiß
ist deine Einbildungskraft
|Spring courts youwith many coloursthis Summer’s artery
beats in your ear
for you Autumn bleeds
inventor of Winter
your vision so white
The first two stanzas in English are almost identical to the German, although the verb “courts” has been moved to the first stanza (having been in the second in the original), and the pronoun “who” after “Spring” has been omitted in the English translation. The change of wording and the line-breaks in the third and fourth stanzas can certainly be attributed to linguistic differences. The German “Schlagader” does not have a direct English translation; Arc’s translators add the verb “beat”, a very literal translation of “Schlag”, creating a sense of abruptness in the stanza overall. Perhaps the verb “pulse” would have worked better here but that would have interrupted the stanza’s flow. Subtle changes to the translation and syntax in the last two stanzas deprive the readers of the meaningful alliteration in the original and even of its ambiguous twist. By choosing to translate “Einbildungskraft” as “vision” rather than “imagination”, the feel of the verse changes from something that seems to be a personal fantasy and invention into something of a much larger scale. Furthermore, the subtlety created in the sentence by alliteration and framing that is achieved in opening with “Erfinder” and closing with “Einbildungskraft” is also lost. The final change that differentiates the German version from its English counterpart is the syntax alterations. “So white” is moved from the sixth stanza to the last, so the words now solely correspond to “vision”. Thus, the meaning of “so white” becomes less ambiguous and, in turn, more assertive.
This small analysis of “The Architects” reflects something that could be said of the entire collection. While most of the translations work well, there are aspects where the language differences are simply too intricate to convey both the exact meaning and wording. Overall, the feel of the poems is maintained and the clarity of Ausländer’s voice, the recollection of light and darkness during that difficult period is preserved, but there are certain nuances that will be lost on a reader who does not understand both languages. Such problems make me wonder how well poetry can ever truly be translated, and if translations take away from the ideas and aspirations of Ausländer’s poetry.
Rose Ausländer’s work is both emotional and technical, and having both, the translation and the original, side by side, should appeal to an audience that is not fluent in German, but wants to experience Ausländer’s poetry on another level.