Nelly Sachs | Critical Essay by Burghild O. Holzer

This literature criticism consists of approximately 9 pages of analysis & critique of Nelly Sachs.
This section contains 2,511 words
(approx. 9 pages at 300 words per page)
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Critical Essay by Burghild O. Holzer

SOURCE: "Concrete (Literal) versus Abstract (Figurative) Translations in Nelly Sachs's Poetry," in Translation Review, No. 18, 1985, pp. 26-9.

In the following excerpt from her dissertation entitled "Nelly Sachs and Kabbala," Holzer discusses the problem of conveying in other languages the multiple meanings created in Sachs's highly symbolic poetry.

During the process of translating [Nelly Sachs's] Teile Dich Nacht, I frequently came across individual words that seemed of key importance within a poem but resisted translation. Upon closer inspection of such an obstacle, I would often find that the word functioned both on a literal and a figurative level, and that the English language forced me to make a choice between the two. In German both possibilities would clearly echo within the context of the poem, but in English I would lose that echo. I would then try to comb the poem for clues that would support either a literal or a more figurative translation of the word, but would find myself unable to determine either. During this search, however, I would become extremely sensitive to all the nuances between these concrete and abstract poles. I finally decided that this was precisely the "function" of such a word—to echo between these two poles. However, this function can rarely be translated. While in the German original the concrete and the abstract echo within the same word, in English they are often represented by several different words. This is, of course, a problem which translators have to confront frequently. But when I am translating a poet who is influenced by the Kabbala, this function of the Word—the representation of concrete and abstract poles of language—can be a significant part of how the poem means. The following poem will illustrate one example of such a translation problem.

       Wieder Mitte geworden
       für abgezogene Musikskelette
       im Gehörraum
       die Hölle gegründet
       mit Bienensang
       verirrt im Ohr—
       Oasen wo Tod die Raumräuber
       Schweigen lehrt
       Ihr göttlichen Verstecke
       schlagt die Augenlider auf—
            (II, 131)

The difficult word here is "abgezogen." On the most literal level this could be translated as "peeled" or "skinned." This interpretation would be supported by "Musikskelette." suggesting the image of musical instruments that have been "scraped," "stripped," "blanched," "pared." All of these are literal translations of "abgezogen," which would work in the context of the poem. They suggest pain and torture, which is reinforced by the next two lines "im Gehörraum / die Hölle gegründet." The "musical skeletons" now are connected to the "inner ear" and the sense of torture is reinforced by "mit Bienensang / verirrt im Ohr—."

On a somewhat less concrete level "abgezogene Musikskelette" could be translated as "departed musical skeletons." This is the translation I intuitively chose when I first translated the poem, perhaps because of the effective contrast it establishes in the first two lines, of "becoming a center" for something that has "departed." This interpretation seems to be supported by the last four lines of the poem which, in contrast to the previous lines, have a soothing effect: "Oasen wo Tod die Raumräuber / schweigen lehrt / Ihr göttlichen Verstecke / schlagt die Augenlider auf—." Both "Oasen" and "Verstecke" seem to function as names for something that has been mentioned earlier in the poem. They are plural nouns, and the only thing they could grammatically refer to in the previous lines is "Musikskelette." One would thus have to interpret that "abgezogene Musikskelette" are later in the poem called "Oasen" and "göttlichen Verstecke."

On a third and more abstract level "abgezogen" can be translated as "subtracted." This seems a most unlikely and rather awkward possibility for "abgezogene Musikskelette." I would, however, like to point out that this poem appears in Part II of Teile Dich Nacht, and that it is the first poem in that attempted cycle which was later interrupted by Sachs's illness. Sachs seems to do battle with the Word in these poems, that this battle takes place at the border of "Nothing," that the realm of Nothing is often signified by inverted concepts, and that many metaphors in these poems function as signs of inversion, indicating movement toward a strange realm. Thus "abgezogene" could conceivably indicate "subtracted" in the sense of "inverted."

The interpretation, and therefore the translation of this poem hinges for the most part on determining "abgezogene." Let us assume that I interpret "Musikskelette" as "words." Are these words which have left for a while and are now back, causing pain? Or are they stripped words, reduced to skeletons, thus causing pain? Or are they subtracted (or inverted) words causing a hell in the ear? And how do these interpretations connect to the last four lines of the poem? Can "Oasen" and "göttliche Verstecke" refer to "Musikskelette" if "abgezogene Musikskelette" indicate painful words? Perhaps the last four lines of the poem do not refer to anything in the previous lines, but form a separate statement. If so, then the poem falls into two statements. One, that the poet has become a center for flayed, absent or subtracted words. Two, that she also experiences oases of silence which she addresses as "divine hiding places."

Finally I realize that the difficult word, which refuses determination and therefore balks at translation, demands of the reader a careful excavation of word content. It makes the reader sensitive to the nuances between the concrete and abstract poles of language. As a translator, one would like to make this experience available to the reader in the translated language but is only rarely able to do so. Thus, I failed with "abgezogene Musikskelette," since I could neither determine its specific meaning nor recreate its function as an indeterminate linguistic unit. I finally returned to my original intuition and translated it as "departed," hoping that the contrast between "become center" and "departed" would cause the reader some thought. "Departed" is also close enough to the literal translation to allow, in the Kabbalistic tradition, some revelation through the structure of the word.

In the poem "Früh die Meere," which follows the poem "Wieder Mitte geworden" in part II of Teile Dich Nacht, we find again a word which functions both on the literal and figurative level and which seems of key importance in the poem.

      Früh die Meere
      mit ihren versteckten Echos
      eingeschlingen in Muscheln
      sendest du mir
      versunkenes Mutterland
      Fremde Säer streuen
      entsetzte Zeichen
      verwunden das Licht
      sind Waisen geworden
      verwunschen in blutiger Hand
      Aber "Niemand"
      reisst der Blitz der fällt—
             (II, 132)

At first glance the word "entsetzte" may not demand attention in the context of this poem. It conveys a sense of terror, and depending on the amount of terror the context suggests, it would normally be translated as "startled," "shocked," or "terrified." Thus "Alien sowers cast / terrified signs." This figurative translation of "entsetzt" produces a vivid image. The signs become personified, and one sees them with terrified faces. The sense of terror is reinforced by "Fremde Säer" in the previous line and by "verwunden das Licht" in the following line. Assuming, however, that I interpret "Zeichen" in the Kabbalistic tradition as letters (or numbers, or code), and that I know from that tradition that these "Zeichen" are the powerful elements of the universe, the question arises: why should they be terrified? Suddenly the literal translation of "entsetzt" seems much more appropriate. "Entsetzt" literally means—"displaced" and the nuances of displacement can go all the way from "depose" (unseat, dethrone) to "shocked" (losing one's composure, being beside oneself). In this literal sense the "entsetzte Zeichen" could have been dislocated, or placed wrongly by the alien sowers. The reverence in the Kabbalistic tradition for each letter of the alphabet stems from the belief that a mishandling of the "Zeichen" could have catastrophic results in the universe.

To mutilate a single word in the Torah, to set it in the wrong order, might be to imperil the tenuous links between fallen man and the Divine presence. Already the Talmud had said: "the omission or the addition of one letter might mean the destruction of the whole world." Certain illuminate went so far as to suppose that it was some error of transcription, however minute, made by the scribe to whom God had dictated holy writ, that brought on the darkness and the turbulence of the world.

This belief that an improper handling of the letters may result in catastrophe must be taken into account when interpreting the function of "entsetzte Zeichen" in Sachs's poem.

Reading the German poem over, I find that both the sense of terror and dislocation are echoed in the rest of the poem, and that the word "entsetzt" has both a literal and a figurative function in the poem. If I were to attempt a true translation of form into form, I would have to be able to recreate how the Word does what it means, or how I came to the insight that terror has to do with dislocation. But I am unable to find a word in English which reveals its concrete and abstract roots in the same way. This, however, means that I am unable to translate how the Word witnesses for language. It does so by revealing its own structure. I finally translated "displaced signs" following the Kabbalistic practice of literal interpretation and hoping that the literal (and rarely used) form would provoke insights for those readers who had some access to the original. In this way some revelation of structure would take place. For those readers who have no access to the original, the translation "displaced signs" functions to emphasize my Kabbalistic interpretation of the poem. The question is, of course: is this interpretation supported by the entire poem? Or perhaps the question should be: is what the word "entsetzt" reveals about itself reflected in the entire poem? To answer this question, it is again necessary to demonstrate how Kabbalistic belief entered into even the formal aspects of Sachs's poetic language.

I mentioned in the previous section that the Kabbala tells of an accident that happened during the process of creation which resulted in the spilling of divine light. I mentioned that the process of collecting the scattered sparks of divine light and the re-integration of the original whole, can be aided by man. It is what is behind Benjamin's argument for the "pure language." This belief also demands an extreme reverence towards letters, since they represent the forces of the universe as well as the names of God. But this process of re-integration can also be reversed, with catastrophic results, by an improper handling of the letters. In Sachs's poem we see "Alien sowers cast / displaced" (and therefore) "terrified signs." The word "entsetzt," when the literal and the figurative are both heard, reveals that terror and dislocation have the same root—when letters are cast about by "alien sowers" they "injure the light." What these central lines in the poem express, Nelly Sachs experienced in her own life. The German language was cast about by "Fremde Saer" with disastrous effects. The world which she had known as home became "verwunschen in blutiger Hand." But while the historical background of Sachs's life is certainly reflected in these lines, is this the subject of the entire poem? How are we to understand the last two lines of the poem?

     Aber "Niemand"
     reisst der Blitz der fällt—

These two lines present us with two translation problems. One involves the recognition of a mystical code, the other involves syntax and punctuation.

The first problem, that of recognizing and appropriately translating a mystical code word, is not especially difficult in this case. Nelly Sachs herself tries to help us by capitalizing the word and putting it in quotation marks, thus identifying it as a name. "Niemand" is a mystical term for God, equivalent to Nothing or "Nichts." In the Kabbala it signifies the first Sefirah, the first divine emanation before the Word. It is also the mystical realm which is the goal of the mystic on his way back through the Path of the Sefiroth. This path starts with our world (the tenth Sefirah) and ends up in Nothing (the first Sefirah). In this context it is not insignificant that the first line in Sachs's poem contains a code word for the tenth Sefirah.

     Früh die Meere
     mit ihren versteckten Echos
     eingeschlichen in Muscheln
     sendest du mir
     versunkenes Mutterland

With the code word "Meer" in the first line of the poem, and the code word "Niemand" at the end of the poem, the poem can be read as a journey back, through the broken state of the universe, back to the primal cause, the first accident.

     Aber "Niemand"
     reisst der Blitz der fällt—

The syntax is broken in this sentence, it does not make sense as is. It does not establish cause and effect. The German verb "reissen" (to tear, to rend) can be transitive or intransitive. It can be used to portray a situation where the subject acts upon (tears) the object. In this case the sentence would have to be: "Aber Niemand reisst den Blitz der fällt—." Or "reissen" can be used to show that the subject itself tears. Then the sentence would have to be: "Aber Niemand reisst, der Blitz der fällt—." In this case the tearing of "Niemand" is a separate action, but it could be the cause for the stroke of lightning. However, Sachs deliberately breaks the line after "Niemand," placing the verb on the next line where it does not establish cause and effect. There is a tearing, a dislocation in the language of these last two lines of the poem. The realm of "Niemand" cannot be entered with reason, and the primal cause cannot be figured out. (It is also of interest that "reissen" is related to "ritzen"—to scribe, draw, design—zeichnen.)

     Early the oceans
     with their hidden echoes
     snuck into shells
     you send me
     sunken motherland
     Alien sowers cast
     displaced signs
     injure the light
     have become orphans
     spell of a bloody hand
     But "No-one"
     rends the stroke it falls—

What the word "entsetzt" reveals about itself is reflected in the structure of the entire poem. Moreover, when its concrete and abstract poles are understood, the word reveals something about the universe. The function of this type of semantic doubling is to testify for a "divine etymology." "The Ur-Sprache had a congruence with reality such as no tongue has had after Babel…. In the original poems such semantic doubling is a language gesture that is a significant part of how a poem means. But a translation is rarely able to duplicate this effect. Thus, while the original reveals itself through its entire language structure, the translation often has to make do with partial revelations. This, however, is of considerable consequence when translating a poet who tells us that she is "searching for the language of home / at the beginning of words—." The language that she is seeking is precisely one where abstract and concrete are not separated, an unsplintered, divine language. Her attempt to show this and actualize it in her poetic language may therefore represent an attempt at restitution of a broken language. A translation can, however, stunt or even reverse this process, since it is forced to choose between one or the other term. My literal translation of "entsetzt" cannot actually recreate Sachs's language act, but it can, in the Kabbalistic tradition of literalness—that is, revelation of word content—point to the mystical process behind that act.

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This section contains 2,511 words
(approx. 9 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Essay by Burghild O. Holzer
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