Ailie Margot on translating Ingeborg Bachmann

Ailie Margot

on translating Ingeborg Bachmann

The 1811 myth of a water-nymph named Undine — the same fairy tale that inspired Hans Christian Andersen’s Little Mermaid — inspired Ingeborg Bachmann to reclaim Undine as a central speaking figure. Rather than depending on sexual difference in order to speak, or falling in love with a man to gain legs, Bachmann’s Undine refuses human language as she does gendered codes, instead chastising, and then leaving, her audience, whom she addresses as “Hans.”

Bachmann’s difficult-to-parse phrases and repetition peppered throughout call attention to the way in which the signifier always misses the thing it signifies. That is, words always miss their mark, fall imperfectly, never quite get it right. Refusing to live on land, Bachmann’s protagonist offers an alternative to fitting herself into words, even as she speaks from within them.

With a writer like Bachmann, compromises abound for a translator. For me, one has been the loss of syntactic rhythm. Ungeheuer, for example, loses its aural rhythm and ugliness when translated as the English “monster.” The double meaning of particular German words that do not carry with them the same multiplicity in English has also been lost. For example, gehören in German means “to belong,” but shares a root with the word which means “to listen” (hören). Listening and belonging are combined in German through a shared root for which English has no near approximation.

Translation is, as Barbara Johnson writes, “an exercise in violent approximation.” And yet it can also be a site of creativity, where an author and a translator meet, and, in doing so, generate something between them that is new. I have attempted to follow Bachmann’s call to move within her text without displacing myself. My hope is for readers of this short excerpt to do the same.

about the author

Ingeborg Bachmann (1926 –1973) was an Austrian poet and author. The daughter of an early Nazi party member, Bachmann’s work grapples with the imperialist, antisemitic, racist, and sexist ideologies of the party as part of German language. While studying for her doctorate in philosophy, she became an influential voice in literary circles, publishing widely in the fields of literature and philosophy. She also contributed to the growing salon culture, like that of Group 47 in Vienna. In what was and is a largely male dominated, post-war German literary world, she published her first volume of poetry, Die gestundete Zeit (Time on Loan). After moving to Rome in the summer of 1953, she published her second volume of poetry, Anrufung des Großen Bären (Invocation of the Great Bear). In 1965, she became the first woman to win the Georg Büchner Prize. Bachmann died in Rome, in October of 1973, at the age of forty-seven, after an apartment fire. One of her translators, Gabriel Annan, writes that Bachmann is “fiendishly difficult” to render in another language due to the intricate philosophical implications of the way she plays with words.

about the translator

Ailie Margot studies medieval Christian mysticism and letter writing. She is currently working on her dissertation project, which focuses on the epistolary exchanges of the medieval German religious group who called themselves “God’s Friends.”