Play for Two Voices: On Translating the Poetry of Anja Utler

Kurt Beals


Written in the form of a dialog between translator and translation theorist, this article considers both the difficulty and the necessity of a reciprocal, mutually informed relationship between translation theory and practice. The starting point of the article is my experience translating the poetry of Anja Utler, a contemporary Austrian poet whose linguistic experimentation poses a significant translation challenge. Utler's poetry functions in part by means of what she calls “interweaving” (“Verflechtung”), making use of highly polysemous words to efface boundaries between landscape, body, and language. In addition to blurring semantic lines, Utler also employs certain syntactical and grammatical characteristics of the German language (such as separable prefixes) in unorthodox ways that multiply possibilities of meaning. One of the greatest difficulties for a translator, then, is to find ways of approximating this semantic and syntactic play and innovation in a language that rarely offers a one-to-one equivalent. In addition to addressing specific practical issues in translating Utler's poetry, I consider the role that translation theory played in shaping my translation strategies, and more generally the interaction between the theoretical conceptualization of translation and its actual execution. I also describe my communication with the author, who has contributed greatly to the translation process, supporting an idea of translation as collaboration. Translation theory and practice appear less as correctives to each other than as a cooperative undertaking, part of a conversation between translator, theorist, author, and reader from which, ideally, all sides benefit in the end. By portraying this exchange as an internal dialog, I hope to demonstrate that the realms of translation practice and theory are not alien to one another, but rather engaged in constant, productive exchange, both within the mind of the individual translator/theorist and on the level of translation as a social phenomenon.

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ISSN 1920-0323