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From the Translator: How to Translate a Circle

By Jake Schneider

The difficulty of translating a circle is not the geometry. In an analog age, I might have written my English version on a turntable. Indeed, Simone Kornappel’s mystifying poem “as a mouse” most resembles a vinyl record: a discus that flaunts its Platonic form before exposing its outlandish sound. The poem even skips midway. And, like a 45-rpm single, it closes with a gaping hole after the final chord.

As my eyes revolved around the exuberant lyrics, I traced a chain of apparently free associations from chest colds to cough drops to “shell pops” to Botticelli’s Venus. After several readings, a few interwoven patterns emerged. Most prominently, a kind of mute and elegant containment: the butterfly pinned in its case; the heart-like cuttlefish implanted in a human chest, only to reappear as a bone chew-toy in a birdcage. This larger pattern was interspersed with littler motifs such as artists (Botticelli, Warhol), Homeric figures (Icarus and his dad Daedalus), and electricity (mosquito lamp, electric recoil). Having uncovered these things, I still found the poem baffling, but as I listened in, it had more and more to say.

All translations are tinged with their translators’ interpretations. What happens when the translator resists one? I was convinced that “as a mouse” was scurrying away from a coherent reading, so it felt crucial to preserve Kornappel’s ambiguities and encourage my readers’ own insights. Sometimes that meant stretching my language towards hers. Daedalisch, for example, is a crossword puzzle-word for “inventive”—so, I thought, why not “eureka”? Then a fellow translator pointed at waxen Icarus on the second line, so “dedalian” it was. Similarly, Herzkranzgefäße, or “heart-wreath blood vessels,” is standard medical German for the coronary arteries. But I was desperate to preserve the suffocating bear hug of that “wreath” in English, and so I did, doctors be damned. To weave a correspondingly baffling—or illuminating—web, I had to keep the threads intact.

The German equivalent of the idiom “quiet as a mouse” is mucksmäuschenstill. The original poem is titled “muxmäuschen” (peep-mouse) and concludes, on a gratifying note, with “still” (silent). Yet the English idiom comes in the opposite order. Like the original, the translation ends with “quiet,” but the idiom now doubles back to the title, “as a mouse,” completing the circle. The already dizzy readers are invited to return to the beginning and negotiate the poem another time. Perhaps they will discover something that still eludes me.

Published Jul 24, 2015   Copyright 2015 Jake Schneider

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