Dr Sophie Seita interviewed in Bomb about her translation of Uljana Wolf’s Subsisters: Selected Poems. Read the full interview here.
SS Uljana and I were talking recently about how I have absorbed some of Germany’s cultural context without necessarily having read what Uljana read in preparation for her books. There are references to Ingeborg Bachmann and Paul Celan, for instance, whose work I know a little bit but not the pieces Uljana refers to. When I then translated those allusions, they might still have the same resonances or they might not.
You have to accept that the original reference might disappear, but other meanings will emerge in its place. Édouard Glissant compares translation to the composition of a fugue—a melody introduced by one instrument or voice and then taken up by another, repeated in a different pitch, and accompanied by a counterpoint. So I’m kind of singing alongside Uljana in this built-in permutation and transformation of translation.
ZB I don’t speak German, but I can still appreciate the language for what it is, rich and evocative. When you first started translating it, did you worry about it not making sense?
SS (Laughing) Worried that people wouldn’t understand the book? No. We need to give readers more credit. There are many different forms of “understanding.” Uljana’s and my experience is that language—any language—actually escapes you and never fully “makes sense.” We were trying to capture that in both books and bring out the strangeness inherent in language. It’s like laying a language trail that leads into many different directions. I don’t want to discredit work that is more straightforward and less “difficult,” but writing of that kind can sometimes seem too idyllically orderly as if poetry was a sanctified space where everything falls into place.