Wildes Licht: Poems / Gedichte aus Aotearoa Neuseeland. Englisch–Deutsch [English–German], edited and translated by Dieter Riemenschneider (Tranzlit Christchurch + Kronberg am Taunus, 2010), 180 pp., $35.00.
Shutting out the torment and the fear
deep into the night’s cold morning hours
I work on my translation.
deep into the night’s cold morning hours
I work on my translation.
Tim Jones, 2010
Dieter Riemschneider’s collection of New Zealand poems translated into German, Wildes Licht, was launched in New Zealand’s four main centres last year in a series of public readings, and then in Germany — thus becoming another important element in establishing the country’s art and literature in the Nordic soul. New Zealand’s status as nation of honour at the upcoming Frankfurt Book Fair (2012) is based on a solid foundation of work of this quality. But Wildes Licht is also clearly a labour of love.
For Germans, distant New Zealand seems to have something of a utopian, epic presence with its spectacular landscapes, its proud indigenous population and its strong assertive home-grown culture. It is not relevant in this kind of Weltanschauung to see this as the whole truth and nothing but, because violence and murder sometimes seem to be weekend pastimes in these green isles; and we have witnessed an erosion of freedom and civil liberties, as well attacks on our ecology and a rise in inequality in the last few years that few other civilised nations have succumbed to. But the carefree ‘Wandervoegel’ with their backpacks, their Lonely Planet guides and lists of Facebook pals on their iPhones can ignore this, as they party with the cheery sexy folks around Courtenay Place or taste the freedom of our beaches, unaware of conflict and simmering resentments airbrushed out of the tourist guidebooks.
Certainly Wild Light is a significant contribution to our literary heritage, both in being a selection by a German academic who has long been impassioned by the poetry of these islands, and as being a careful choice of poems rendered in sensitive translations.
On the question of the choices made, there is not a hell of a lot this humble writer can say. The usual suspects are there, often presented by pieces well known from other anthologies, a few no doubt will smart at being left out, or at being presented by poems they feel are not their strongest. This is inevitably the eternal dilemma of anthologists – we are in the presence of an editor’s privilege at work here. He has chosen to select mainly post-1980s work, but begins with a section that includes work of earlier poets significant for this later generation. Without rattling the boring bones of the mercifully long-buried Mr Leavis, we would, I imagine, agree that there is a great tradition of poetry represented with big names such as Mason, Fairburn, Curnow, Tuwhare and Stead and others whose publications and teaching have left their inevitable imprint. The omission of Glover may be a little surprising, but then how would Quardle oodle wardle ordle doodle translate into German?
Riemenschneider is obviously pitching his collection at a German audience. In his introduction he writes of a ‘Double Structure’ which he says gives equal weightings to the country’s landscape (where some of the work tackles the problematic discourses underlying this) and poetic renderings of everyday life. He essentially takes us on a ‘road trip’. It is apposite in this connection that I googled up a recent reference to him delivering a talk at Munster University described as a ‘Literarische Reise durch Neuseeland’ (a Literary Journey through NZ).
‘The anthology invites the reader on a literary voyage from pastoral Central Otago to the raw West Coast, from brooding Mount Taranaki and the sunny Bay of Plenty, through to the Hauraki Gulf, and then Hokianga Harbour in the North. On this poetic promenade we are introduced to the people of the land, as well to the economic transformations which this apparently untouched timeless land has not been sheltered.’ Employing this logic, Riemenschneider presents his poets in five thematic sections, which is a change in approach to other anthologies but suits his underlying strategy well.
So we have:
· ‘A cross-country journey’
· ‘Histories and stories’
· ‘Environment and change’
The first section concerns the preoccupations of a small and uncertain island state. I would have preferred the German title ‘Signatures’ for this, as it sits better with the work. The other sections give us an elliptical journey through the landscape, offering encounters with the people and then a suggestion of cultural malaise, of islanders facing an uncertain and troubled future. It would be fair to say that the selection and its structure leads to a possible vision, or understanding maybe, of New Zealand, through some of its poets, rather than to an understanding of New Zealand poetry as its own field of discovery.
While Riemenschneider’s translations are entirely convincing to this bilingual reader, the first thing that strikes one when opening Wildes Licht is that, as in German airliners of yore, the seats are a little wider. German takes more room than English, with a wonderful building up of portmanteau Germanic words, a careful and occasionally ponderous Germanic syntax. Fortunately, then, Riemenschneider sees no need to become obsessed with prosody or rhyme: most German speakers have a good knowledge of English and would probably use this work as a parallel referent, as we might look at a parallel text of Rimbaud or Rilke.
His vocabulary, in keeping with the plain-speaking of most of the poems, is sober and straightforward and there is little need for strategies such as paraphrasing or overwriting to make meaning or context clearer. Riemenschneider is more concerned with rendering the meaning and contents of the original as clearly as possible and the sobriety and neutrality of his German renderings, when seen in parallel with the New Zealand English originals, most of which are not exactly excessively florid either, make for a clear and respectful approach with which we are at ease.
There are however, a few problems inherent with this approach. One, which could only be solved by a ponderous critical apparatus, is the decoding of references which would be amply clear to Kiwi readers and lost in any other context. If we read a poem by Apirana Taylor or Sam Hunt, say, the places, the names are of a huge significance which would be foreign to a reader from Australia or Ireland, even, let alone from Germany. If we read Robert Lowell’s ‘Quaker Graveyard in Nantucket’, say, we are informed by Melville, by evocative photographs from the likes of Walker Evans and Robert Frank, and by a whole array of other literary, artistic and cinematic references.
A minor linguistically based hitch arises with grammatical ambiguities around the poetic persona: that is many of the poems use the form, ‘you’ as a general pronoun, which in German can be rendered by an impersonal ‘man’ (compare the use of ‘on’ in French), thus inevitably changing the distance between the persona and the reader, being less intimate. ‘Poetry’, too, has a different meaning in German. Although its etymological origin is apparently from a different branch of the language, it is nevertheless folk knowledge that the German word for poetry, ‘Dichtung’, also means ‘densification’, or ‘making tight’, as in a seal. As explained above, Riemenschneider’s project would not really be what the Germans call ‘Nachdichtung’, which is essentially a literary project of re-creating a literary work in a different register. Classic examples of this abound, from Pope and Dryden to Stead’s versions of Catullus. It is evident that if the author is a literary figure this can have certain implications; for example, unless we are Chinese language-speakers, we are more familiar with Ezra Pound’s re-creations from Chinese verse, surely than we are with the originals. Moreover, both in these works and in Pound’s translations from the Anglo-Saxon sagas we are surely in a strange garden as far as the attempts we might make at everyday understanding goes. Epic deeds do not usually happen before breakfast.
To sum up, Wildes Licht is a fine and scholarly anthology which deserves a decent market in Germany, as well as a presence in our university libraries. The book is augmented by a glossary covering some Māori and New Zealand terms and a handful of proper names that appear in various poems. There are also useful biographical notes on the fifty-five poets represented and there is a good bibliography on the sources.
 Published in New Zealand Books December 2004, included in Best New Zealand Poems 2004, then in All Blacks’ Kitchen Gardens 2005
 Quardle oodle wardle ordle Gekritzel (the last word the automatic translator picked up on ‘Doodle’. From Wordlingo: http://www.worldlingo.com/en/products_services/worldlingo_translator.html). Babylon http://translation.babylon.comgives a much improved version: oodle doodle ordle Quardle wardle which presumably respects German syntax!
 [My Translation] Die vom Tranzlit-Verlag herausgegebene Lyrik-Anthologie lädt seine Leser ein zu einer literarischen Reise von Central Otago bis zur rauen Westküste im Süden Neuseelands, vom Mount Taranaki und der sonnigen Bay of Plenty durch den Hauraki Gulf bis Hokianga Harbour im Norden des Inselstaats. Auf der Wanderung eröffnen die Gedichte den Blick auf die unterschiedlichen Menschen, die dem Reisenden begegnen, und auf den Wandel der Lebenswelt, von dem auch dieses scheinbar unberührte Land nicht verschont geblieben ist. http://www.uni-muenster.de/Rektorat/exec/upm.php?nummer=13784
 When a series of James Baxter’s poems came out in a Spanish translation in the Bogota based review Palympsetos, translated by Caleb Harris, they were published with photographs by Lloyd Godman and by the writer of this review. This enabled the reader to have a strong visual context for the work. This is not in any way to reduce the value of Riemenschneider’s work, and the book’s cover photo by Jan Kemp has an elemental rocky honesty and remoteness which portrays an authentic New Zealandness well.
MAX OETTLI was educated at the University of Auckland, and is a former lecturer in photography at Otago Polytechnic. He currently lives in Geneva, Switzerland.