Jake Schneider is a Berlin-based editor and translator from the German, born in 1988 in New Jersey. The incoming Editor-in-Chief of SAND, Berlin's English-language literary journal, his literary translations have appeared in Circumference, Washington Square, and the Massachusetts, Chicago, and Boston Reviews, among others. I recently exchanged emails with Jake over his forthcoming first book, Fragmented Waters, translations from the German of poems by Ron Winkler. Winkler, the author of four collections of poetry, has had his poems translated into twenty languages, and has also translated from the English books by poets such as Billy Collins, Denise Duhamel, Forrest Gander, and Sarah Manguso, among others.
KH: You worked on the poems in this book over the course of a decade, starting as a freshman at Sarah Lawrence College, and are still, to date, the youngest translator to ever receive an NEA Translation Fellowship, at the ripe young age of 23. Now that you're the ripe young age of 28, can you tell us what was it like to cut your teeth on translation so early? Has your voice as a translator of Winkler's work changed in the intervening years?
JS: I always credit the poet Jeffrey McDaniel, whose work Ron has long been translating into German. At eighteen, I was sitting in his office at Sarah Lawrence, trying to convince him to let me into his workshop, and during our conversation I mentioned that I spoke German. He pulled out a copy of Ron’s first book, and asked me to tell him about the first poem, curious about his translator’s own work. I was baffled by it, but I took the book home and gave it a shot. I’ve been translating Ron’s poems, on and off, ever since.
I think maturing as a translator means seeing the text in larger and larger units. As a novice who had spent all of a month in a German-speaking country, I was too preoccupied with Ron’s chemically synthesized neologisms and compounds (which I couldn’t find in any dictionary) to capture the flow of the lines. After moving to Berlin and listening to German in its own habitat, I began to understand better how Ron plays with the conventions of conversation and the absurdity lurking in ordinary stock phrases, both now and in the vanished East Germany of his childhood. He merges a memorized punctuation rule with a Cold War imperative—“a comma / always belongs between subordinate countries”—and, fast-forward to the age of CD-Rs, he sets fire to friendly music-sharing in a poem about the forest: “I can burn it for you, no problem.”
KH: In your translator's note, you explain that words in Winkler's poems often serve as double agents, “animalating” their environments, as in “animalated poem,” with multiple meanings: meteorological, morphological, metaphor-ological; the poems are rich with weather, flora and fauna that transmute on the noun-edge: “Lake Nonsense,” “birdbrackets,” “goose prairies,” and the “liquigevity of fish” for example. Can you tell us a bit about the process of arriving at these inspired metaphor-ological choices?
JS: All the inventions you mention are his. The fun part about translating the work of someone not handcuffed to the dictionary is that I get to coin words in my own language. The hard part is finding new coinages that “work” or subjectively “sound good.”
Feuchtlebigkeit is a good example of the stackability of German’s Lego blocks.Feuchtlebig literally means wet-lived, analogous to long-lived. Since Greek and Latin roots are easier to work with in English, I went for “liquigevity,” like longevity, as the noun form.
“Goose prairies,” a play on goosebumps, is a funny one. For obvious reasons, I decided against the more direct translation citing an Old-World landscape, which would have been “goose steppes.”
“Birdbrackets” is pretty one-to-one. I try to make music when I can because the original is musical and sometimes the English equivalents aren’t. Also, every line in Ron’s poem ends in a compound of some kind, so I tried to follow suit, even if English nouns usually demand more personal space.
KH: As a follow-up, what were your priorities as a translator/poet “animalating” the English-language landscape of these poems? Did these priorities stem from features particular to the syntactic structure of the German language, which is much more flexible than standard English in allowing modular constructions of complicated noun composites, as much as they did from Winkler's style and tone?
JS: My goal was to keep the poems startling without making the Anglophone reader feel like an outsider to an inside joke. That said, I don’t think any native German-speaker would pick up on every last allusion or know which words Ron’s punning on every time. I wanted to make the game internal to English rather than domesticating the wildness and adventure out of a worldly body of work.
The collection does treat language very differently from contemporary American poetry, which has its own set of interests and influences. The greater “fertility” of German words no doubt plays a part, but Ron is also exploring different stylistic questions and responding to different predecessors. I need to be careful not to let my own aesthetic background skew his voice.
KH: Winkler is an avid translator of poetry from the English. As such, I'm curious as to his involvement in your process of writing the English-language versions of the poems—did he give you free rein to make the choices you thought necessary to best embody the English versions of his poems? Or was the process more collaborative and interactive?
JS: Ron was involved with the translations the whole time, from answering early questions to checking the proofs, and I couldn’t imagine translating his poems without him. He always has expansive explanations for the smallest choice, and I’ve been very privileged to have so much input but also so much trust, which he offers all his translators who approach him. By the way, it was great to meet his Mexican translator last year, Daniel Bencomo, and discuss our shared experiences and trials. In fact, I even borrowed one solution from the Spanish version.
KH: I also loved the translation-ary telephone, the literal carrying across of language, that happens in the poem “the extent of deer,” which Winkler wrote in German after reading an earlier version of your English translation of his “deer meter.” To that end, “the extent of deer,” in the English, then, is a translation of a translation of a translation of a translation (if I've counted right [if I counted, would he like it, would he like it, if I counted]), as though the final lines of each poem/translation articulate an ars poetica for poetry in translation:
In “deer meter”their decelerated evolution gave us time. / so we abandoned them to radial decay and calmly went / back to our apartment products.”
and then, in “the extent of deer”: “their evolution was approaching the limit: to our / advantage, so we reverse-engineered them and headed home / to sleeker things
For example, in the first poem, the line “(→Schrödinger flickering).” flickers forward into “(=Schrödinger flare).” If observation renders translation (and language, for that matter) unstable, how does it feel to look back on your own translations? Do they shape-shift beneath your gaze? Or do that they feel finished, abandoned to radial decay?
JS: By now, after working on and editing them over a span of ten years, they feel finished. I read the final proof in one sitting without wincing. But a few times along the way, while I was looking for a publisher and focusing on other projects, I’d pull out the manuscript and despair that I needed to start over from scratch.
I do wish I could find that first English version of “deer meter,” which was one of the first poems I ever translated at 18. At the time, I was embarrassed about Ron’s amusement at my amateurish rendering. Now I’m pleased to have played a small role in the original collection.
KH: You're also getting ready to take over as Editor-in-Chief of SAND, Berlin's English-language literary journal, after serving as Poetry Editor for the past two issues. As Issue 14 launches this Friday with a party and readings by Lizzie Roberts, Lucy Jones, and Inger Wold Lund, what are your ambitions for upcoming issues of SAND, and what role do you see the journal playing in Berlin's literary scene?
JS: After six years, SAND is becoming a local fixture, like one of those rare Berlin expats who decides to make their life here. As a translator, I’m especially keen to bring in a variety of global voices. In the last two issues, we’ve published writing and art from five continents, including several translations, and I want to keep cultivating connections in some of these places. But we always print work by Berliners, who are themselves a very international bunch.
Apart from those all-night issue launches, I’d love to branch out to more types of events and collaborations. Our outgoing Editor-in-Chief Lyz Pfister has a cookbook coming out, and it would be fun to do something bringing together literature and food. I once organized an event called “Untranslatable,” a kind of round robin of impossible literary imports, and I’m always hoping to find time to do a sequel someday. Really, we all have dream projects in the back of our heads, so we’d like to make as many of them happen as we can.
KH: In a moment of serendipitous synchronicity, I sat down to write you these questions next to a letter that had just arrived from a friend, the artist Hilla Steinert, with this written across the envelope: “Ich stoße auf Spuren von Rehhufen im Schnee. / Sprache, aber keine Wörter” (“I come upon traces of deer hooves in the snow. / Language, but no words”). And so, to close: what's with the many deer populating the poems in Fragmented Waters. Are they a recurrent motif in Winkler's work? Or does he just like deer? Do you?
JS: Deer are just implausible creatures living in a parallel dimension. And don’t get me started on the ridiculousness of antlers. When I first arrived here in the second-largest city in the EU, I discovered a flock of deer living in the park across the street. They were just going about their business like the rest of us. That priceless, caught-off-guard look they pull—wait, do I belong here? do you?—defies translation.
Sweet Home Lämmer
du warst dir sicher, die Wahrheit dieser Räume
sei größer als Wolle, ihr über große Distanzen hinweg
gereichtes flauschiges Staksen eine Hoffnung,
übersetzt zu werden: in weniger sauerstoffhaltige Dinge
vielleicht. vielleicht nicht. vielleicht
wären sie gern eine Art Distanz zu sich selbst
(die Tierart Distanz zu sich selbst).
wären sie Kapitalismus, sie könnten alles verkaufen.
nur müsste der Zaun eine andere Ordnung haben.
[From Fragmentierte Gewässer by Ron Winkler. Published by Berlin Verlag, Berlin 2007. © Schöffling & Co. Verlagsbuchhandlung GmbH, Frankfurt am Main]
sweet home lambs
you were positive that the truth of these spaces
was greater than wool, that their fluffy wading
spread through great distances was a longing
to be translated: into something less oxygenated
maybe. or maybe not. maybe
they want to be a kind of distance from themselves
(the species distance from themselves).
if they were Capitalism, they could sell everything
only the fence would need to be reorganized.
[From Fragmented Waters by Ron Winkler, translated by Jake Schneider. Shearsman Books, 2016, Bristol]