“WE HAVE TO HAVE NORA GOMRINGER!” An Interview with Annie Rutherford on translating ‘Hydra’s Heads’

Editor Rebecca DeWald met Annie Rutherford, translator of Hydra’s Heads, the first English-language collection of poems by German poet and performer Nora Gomringer.


Nora Gomringer, Hydra’s Heads, translated by Annie Rutherford (Burning Eye 2018)

Rebecca DeWald: To start off, could you introduce yourself and say a bit about how you came across Nora Gomringer and her work?

Annie Rutherford: I work at StAnza as programme coordinator. I am also a writer and translator and I was the co-founder and editor of the literary magazine Far Off Places. So most of what I do has to do with literature in one shape or form.

Translator Annie Rutherford. Photo (c) Perry Jonsson

I came across Nora when I was living and studying in Göttingen, Germany, and was doing a traineeship at the literary centre there. We put on a reading with Nora, who had just brought out her collection Monster Poems (2013), which was a fairly short but really beautiful collection. Facing each poem there is an image by a graphic designer responding to that poem. The collection also came with a CD of her reading them, and she is an absolutely amazing performer: there would be lines she would howl, lines she would sing. She was just a fantastic performer, and a lovely person and absolutely passionate about what she did, and about feminism. Someone who I really clicked with.

A year and a half after that I started working at StAnza, and a few months in we’d decided we would want to do a German focus at StAnza 2016 and Eleanor, my boss, said “who should we invite?”, and my first response was, “well, we have to have Nora Gomringer.” She gave a reading with a jazz drummer, which included Nora performing a silent concrete poem, which was one of the most beautiful things I had ever seen, will ever see. Completely coincidentally, on the way back from StAnza, Nora was sharing a taxi with a publisher, Clive Birnie, who runs Burning Eye Books, publishing performance and spoken word poetry. They got along like a house on fire and didn’t stop talking until they had to go to different gates for their flights. I had always assumed Nora must have somebody working on translating her into English, because she is a big name in Germany. Then I heard an interview, which had been recorded at StAnza, with her lamenting the fact that translations didn’t exist in English, and I sent her this overly polite email asking if I could translate her work, and it was so polite, she didn’t actually know what I was asking. So it took a few more emails to make that clear!  I proposed it to Clive, and he was very excited, especially as it’s the publisher’s first translations; Nora was really excited too, and that was how it came about.

RMD: One of the translation questions I was going to ask fits in well, because you came along to the interview with Saša Stanišić’s Vor dem Fest.[1] One of the interesting things about Nora is that she has got so many registers and a huge range, from different spoken word traditions, to rap music, to Greek mythology and the Torah; her different voices range from swearing to polite publishers’ speak. And I thought Stanišić has a similar range. How do you convey that in translation?

AR: There were a lot of times when I became aware of my ignorance; there are many times where I feel myself stretched, and need to stretch, in order to get those references.

For every poem, I try to find the voice of the speaker and I walk around my flat repeating the poem to myself. The poem ‘The Ground Floor’ was for me very much spoken by a housewife, and I tried to imagine it in the voice of an Edinburgh Morningside lady.

I think a lot of the time people think translation is about trying to find the “one true word”, the most correct way to convey something in English. For me it is about how the character would say that word in English. I really enjoy that element of it, though the talking aloud did mean I had to work alone! It also means that when I work on a poet who doesn’t use characters as much, I feel more uncertain about my translations. Most of Nora’s collections come with a CD; there are recordings of most of the poems and I’ve seen her perform a number of times, so that really helps. If I hadn’t had her voice in my head, I would have found it a lot more challenging to grasp.

RMD: Since you mentioned the Morningside ladies, I was going to ask you about Scotticisms. I went on a translator residency last year and two of the translators confessed that they always try to slip in Scotticisms into their translations. In ‘Oftentimes’, I noticed that they’re dancing the ‘Dashing White Sergeant’, which is obviously a ceilidh dance. Have you – consciously or subconsciously – put in some Scottish terms or references?

AR: Not too much as a whole. If I had had a Scottish publisher, I might have done it more. In ‘Assumptions about the Town’, I would really have liked to put in ‘stramash’ instead of ‘kerfuffle’, and there were a couple of other times when I would have wanted to use a Scottish word, but I felt like that wasn’t what the book was about. I would have maybe felt a bit different if Nora had already existed in English, as then I would have been representing her that bit less. In ‘Oftentimes’, it’s important that it is a rural setting; it’s about the Verdingkinder in South Germany and in Switzerland, which was a situation where children were made into serfs. Children were taken away from their families when it was considered that the families weren’t able to look after them, either for financial or moral reasons. And they would normally be given to farmers and be made to work. They generally weren’t given any education, so they could never leave, which meant they would spend their whole lives with this family but not fully be part of the family. It started in the early 1800s and the last Verdingkind died in the 1980s. Switzerland only fairly recently addressed this issue and issued an apology.

RMD: In Robert Seethaler’s, A Whole Life (trans. Charlotte Collins), it’s a similar situation in Austria…

AR: Yes, and Germany has never admitted to doing it. When I first translated ‘Oftentimes’, I was only aware of the rural setting. Obviously Scotland isn’t only rural, but it does have a very strong rural culture and community, so that transposition worked very well for me. The German of that line is ‘sie tanzte einen Ländler mit dem Landrat’, and while that pun (Ländler/Landrat)  wasn’t that important for Nora, I wanted to keep the wordplay, so ‘dancing a Dashing White Sergeant with the sergeant’ worked really well. The Landrat is a district administrator in a specifically rural setting, and we also don’t have that position, so I thought sergeant could work in that setting.

So no, it wasn’t an attempt to put Scots in there, but I did think that Scots worked well. Scotland has this whole folk culture, and that was really important for this poem. In a way I felt grateful that I had this culture to draw on and that I wasn’t writing it somewhere where I would have had to just say ‘country dance’, because you would never say ‘I’m dancing a country dance’ unless you were performing.

RMD: Many of the poems are quite short. They are all very compact and dense and have crisp and precise references. One of them refers to the fairy-tale of the Wolf and the Seven Young Goats, and it’s only six lines or so long, and the lines themselves are very short. It references this fairy-tale that every German child knows, and it has been translated into English, because it’s a Grimm fairy-tale, but it’s not a very popular one. How do you render some of these precise references in translation?

AR: With that poem, I found the original translation of the fairy-tale into English and made sure that I used the phrase “the little kid in the cupboard”, because that’s what it said in the English translation. So I did my research, but I also felt everybody here knows about wolves and that general sort of fairy-tale. So people would understand it, and I also had a sense of bringing German culture into the UK. If people want to know if the poem references a specific fairy-tale, they would hopefully look it up and find it and that would be exciting.

The one point where I was more aware of people not getting references was the poem about the book fair: ‘Why I don’t go there’. To me, going to the book fair is such an intrinsic part of German literary life, and everyone knows it’s too hot and it’s too expensive, and everyone is desperately trying to get the attention of someone who is more important than them. In the UK, we don’t have the same culture: the book fairs are much more for the industry, not necessarily for the writers and the wannabe writers in the same way. How well I bridged that gap, I don’t know.

Generally, if a poem included particular references, I would either very much try to research and see whether that thing existed in English, or try and find an English equivalent. In ‘I never told you how I got my name’, there is a reference to a Wir sind Helden song, and (with the help of my friend Ceris!) I translated that into a Simon and Garfunkel song, as it was about keeping the sense of the thing. When I was translating the poem ‘With the Light’, I asked lots of friends which translation of the Marlene Dietrich song ‘Das Mädchen unter der Laterne (Lili Marleen)’ they knew, only to find out, when I spoke to Nora, that the poem, that I was convinced was based on that song, actually wasn’t! So that was great…  I asked different people at various points what their associations were with particular objects and references, which probably got a bit annoying. This included a lot of posting on Facebook, asking German- and English-language people what different associations they had. This wasn’t to find out what a word meant, but to find out whether they knew what it meant, that is, whether Nora was referencing something that is common knowledge or that is actually quite esoteric.

RMD: That is an interesting point, because it refers to the different reference worlds. You might think, “oh, the Germans will know”, which might be the case with the fairy-tales, but Nora also references Jewish culture a lot and the Torah, and has Hebrew in her poems. Can you maybe say something about her background? But also how she is handling that: obviously now, Germans don’t automatically understand all the Jewish references, as it is not part of their reference world anymore.

Nora Gomringer. Photo (c) Judith Kinitz

AR: Nora is Catholic, so she has a very good knowledge of the Bible, certainly, and has a strong and genuine interest in Jewish culture. That is something that comes up in later poems as well. And I think it is for her a way of trying to respond thoughtfully to 20th century German history, of not just saying what happened, but of really paying attention to the culture that the Nazis tried to completely get rid of. So I think that’s where that comes from. I don’t know whether she studied Theology, or whether she is just very widely read.

It was something that was quite hard to translate, also because it is actually very difficult to research Jewish culture in the UK. I tried to get hold of a Torah when I was translating ‘And it was a day and the day was ending’ to try and capture that language, but I couldn’t find one, so I ended up having to go to the chapters of the Bible that are sort of the equivalent, and work from those.

RMD: What is interesting about it: it is unusual to read so many poems about Jewish culture in a German poetry collection, even more so if the author isn’t Jewish. In a way, when you are reading the poems in English, they almost don’t stand out as much as they do in German, because of the history.

AR: There is also that ridiculously overquoted Adorno quote about whether it’s OK to write poetry after Auschwitz. I know people have criticised Nora for putting the word ‘Auschwitz’ into a poem. I find the criticism problematic, because she does it in a way that really acknowledges the people who died there, and not in a way that is at all sensationalist.

One of the poems I recently translated, which is not in this collection, is about her meeting Elfriede Gerstl, an Austrian poet, in the 1990s, visiting the flat of Gerstl’s publisher in Vienna. It was a Jewish flat, so there was the mezuzah in the doorframe, and underneath there was a swastika scratched into the doorway. She had never seen that before, and she was quite young, so I think that would have left an impression on her, and made her aware that this is still an issue, particularly in certain parts of Europe.

RMD: The way she writes about it is not as if it was in the past, but it very much has contemporary relevance. In ‘The Ensemble’ – another poem with reference to German literature, like Nathan der Weise, Faust – she then goes on to talk about Marta who died in a gas chamber. So there is something about the way she writes about it that is not just a reminder to remember.

AR: I think about what I call her ‘Holocaust poems’ so much at the moment because I feel they are so relevant. The triad of ‘Monologue’, ‘And it was the day’ and ‘We wouldn’t have taken part’ – and specifically ‘We wouldn’t have taken part’ – feel scarily prescient at the moment. She wrote in many ways about these things knowing they could come back.

For example, the poem ‘Monologue’ is in the voice of a parent talking to their child, a Jewish child, who they are sending away to be safe. But I was at a translation workshop with Nora where she pointed out that if you leave out the single reference to the Star of David on a jacket, the poem could easily be about a child leaving home in Syria. And similarly you wouldn’t have to change much for ‘And it was a day’ to be about people on a boat to Europe at the moment. Not in terms of the ending, but in terms of this experience of the journey where you are very much out of control. I think that she is very politically engaged and very aware of current developments, and very worried about them. Even before the AfD, she was very aware that we couldn‘t just say ‘never again’, it’s not that simple.

RMD: Speaking of Nora’s politics, I would like to ask you more about her feminism. There is the political aspect, and the use of fairy-tales to write about feminist issues. But she also writes about the body in general, like in ‘Picture book uterus’, and about sex in particular. It’s often very graphic… graphic is the wrong word. Not in a pornographic, but in a minute way, which is both a political statement, but also very personal. What impression do you get of Nora as a writer through these poems, and how do you render them?

AR: For me, she is a very feminist writer, and my understanding of her as a writer is informed by my knowing her. I am thinking of her most recent collections which form a trilogy, and which aren’t included in Hydra’s Heads (with the hope of publishing them separately): my knowledge of those poems informs my reading of the earlier ones, and those are very much about the body, and ways of asserting oneself. I think, to some extent, she is someone – sorry, Nora, for talking for you; I have no idea whether this is true –

RD: But it’s your interpretation as a translator, and that’s the interesting thing.

AR: For me, it feels like she is very aware that women’s bodies haven’t been written about in ways which are accurate, because they haven’t been written by women. Generally, we have this very strong male view of the woman in literature, and the male gaze. Subconsciously, many of these poems are a way of writing back, and a way of reclaiming that power and that agency. I think the fairy-tales are a very clever way of doing that, because they are something we all know. I was listening to a radio adaptation of Angela Carter’s fairy-tales recently; they are very feministly done and there are some interesting parallels there, some of which Nora wasn’t aware of, so they weren’t conscious ones at all.

There isn’t much of an age gap between us: Nora was born at the beginning of the 80s; I was born at the end of the 80s, but I think it is quite an important ten years in terms of the development of feminism. I am very much caught up in this current wave of feminism, however I position myself to it. So in some ways translating is about getting outside of that perspective. A lot of these poems were written in the early 2000s; I translated them before #metoo happened, but it was still coming up to that climate, whereas the poems had been written a long time before then. And to some extent I think that’s the fascinating thing,  a lot of these poems do speak to the #metoo debates that have since emerged.

In terms of translating the body, I think German has fewer euphemisms. It tends to be more direct, without being overly direct. Sometimes it felt like the English turned out to be a lot more forward, or a lot more about sex, as for example in ‘And one day you left and took the dog’, where it became very very clearly about kinky sex where I felt that in German, it hadn’t been at all.

RMD: But I mean, there is a leash involved in both…

AR: Yes, but the leash in the German could have been part of an idiom!

I felt a lot of affinity with what Nora was trying to say in the more feminist poems, certainly. So it wasn’t something that I thought about too much.

RMD: You were saying a lot of the poems were written before #metoo, and that there is a bit of an age gap between you and the author. And I’m not saying that the translations are all “Annie Rutherford”. But at the same time, in translation theory we often talk about how translations are more of reflections of the current time than of the time of the original text. Sometimes it’s about that fine balance between saying, “this still speaks to us, because of the topic” – like what you were saying earlier about the Auschwitz poems still having relevance. But it’s not like you changed Auschwitz to Damascus. But sometimes there might be the risk that you, as the translator, are (subconsciously) situating a translation too much in the current day.

AR: I think me being situated in the time and place that I am affected the selection of the poems far more than it necessarily  did their translation. I chose the poems where I thought “I can say that”: things which felt relevant and which I felt could work for a British audience. Although I also chose things that I felt reflected German culture, like the fairy-tale.

Apart from anything else, I don’t really speak today’s slang, so there is nothing where I thought “I really brought this into the 21st century”. But I also think it’s interesting because I remember German translator Susanne Lange once talking about translating Don Quixote. She said “Don Quixote was so modern when it was written”, and that the audience of German speakers was very lucky because it got to experience that newness, whereas the Spanish audience who read Don Quixote won’t experience that newness, as the language has become very old. If you’re translating, you can update the language and you can mimic what that writer was doing. I’m not saying that translating Nora is like translating Don Quixote, and I am also not convinced that I would achieve that, but I don’t feel like that would be a betrayal of the original to bring it more into the current climate and discussion of today.

RMD: Presumably, if she was performing those poems, she would probably bring them up-to-date?

AR: Yes. So, interestingly, there is an audio version of the book, which will be released at some point. After they were recorded, I ended up making some edits to some of the poems, so even between the print and the audio versions, which would ideally be released together, there are differences.

What happens with Nora’s poems as well is that you’ll have the book and you’ll have the CD and there will be a difference, partly because she makes alterations for performances. For one of the poems I translated, one of the trilogy ones – ‘Monologue’, I think – there are many different versions, and one of them is genuinely a couple of lines longer. Nora asked me to use a particular version, and then when she was performing at Poetry International Rotterdam, I sent them the translation Nora had requested – and they were very confused, because it was two lines shorter than the German they’d been working with! So I think particularly with poets who perform a lot, you see that evolution of the work. I kind of like that. It does remind you a poem, and a translation, is not set in stone and there are definitely things that, if I were performing in front of a Scottish audience, I would change – I would absolutely say ‘trams’ instead of ‘trains’ in ‘Assumptions about the town’, for example.

RMD: Is there anything else you would like for readers to take away from Nora and your translations?

AR: I think the amazing thing about Nora is her range…

RMD: Which comes out really well in the collection, although it’s a short collection…

AR: It is. And I hope people will realise that. Because they are very different poems, I hope there is a poem for most people in there. Someone who maybe doesn’t necessarily like the more convoluted poems, they’ll enjoy the spoken word poems and vice-versa. I would say I think these are poems that bear rereading – they definitely did while translating them. Also she’ll be in the UK in February, so check her out!


[1] Translated as Before the Feast by Anthea Bell, Pushkin Press, 2016.


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