Fools rush in … Translating Artmann


I was translating a few early poems by h.c. artmann when I started thinking: is it possible to translate med ana schwoazzn dintn? What would be the purpose? Well, to acquaint an English-speaking audience with this classic of modernist dialect poetry, with its tender or grotesque sensibilities, and sometimes tender and grotesque sensibilities at the same time, with its strange humor, and with the directness that comes from its self-consciously non-literary but highly stylized forms.

What could be the approach? To make an honest effort of it, the translator should not base the language  on some English dialect chosen because it approximates the distance from the standard language of Artmann’s Breitensee-based dialect.  No, the translator would have to base the language on his own dialect.

Now, my dialect is the Middle American dialect that is spoken with some local variation across the northern United States, starting somewhere west of Philadelphia and ranging all the way to Seattle. (I am from southeast Michigan and have lived 26 years in northern Ohio.) It is the dialect that television announcers emulate, because it has the largest audience. It is the null set, the default mode of American regional speech. It is very close in structure, vocabulary, and pronunciation to standard educated American English. Not very promising for moving the language away from the Bildungssprache the way h.c. artmann did.

But then I started thinking that if I pronounced the language conversationally and used a few of the colloquialisms I grew up hearing, and I invented a consistent orthography the way Artmann did for his poems, then it might just work.

Well, it was fun anyway. I’m reproducing two of the poems here and inviting comment about whether this is a pointless project or whether there is something to it. Does it represent Artmann at all? I will not take offense if someone tells me not to spend any more time on it. I need an audience response to tell me whether this is worth my while as a translator or anyone’s time as a reader.


baysmint steps

baysmint steps

ya gaht three gessiz

wun tu three

wun tu three

hooz stannin down thayr

withiz jidderee han

withiz jidderee aiz

ya gaht three gessiz

hooz crowchin down thayr

withiz jidderee aiz

withiz jidderee han

baysmint steps

baysmint steps

thay’re gunna weev three nais reethz

wun tu three

wun tu three

three liddl reetheez

fer three liddl gurleez

on th baysmint steps

withiz jidderee han

withiz jidderee aiz

wun tu three


whin a gaiz

a star gayzr

then evry day

aftr wurk

at nait

heez lookin

at hiz lil stars

jess laik anuthr gai

at nite

aftr wurk

evry day

iz lookin

at hiz stamp albm

if hee happnz ta bee

a stamp cullectr


Comments RSS
  1. Jill (@bonnjill)

    Great job! I think you did a wonderful job conveying the mystery of the language and dialect.

    • Geoff Howes

      Thanks, Jill!

  2. Martin Prechelmacher

    Hi Geoff,

    first off: congratulations for these translations. I don’t think translating can get any more challenging than the Viennese School.
    Now, I’ve got a couple of questions: Why do you think that any translation of Artmann’s dialectal poetry has to be based on one own’s dialect? The concept of “distance” to some standard language of course is quite unhelpful. Yet, the dialect used in ‘kindafazara’ already has a inherent tendency towards dark (and often morbid) humour, a quality that, to my knowledge, is not associated with any other German dialect. Of course, the dialectal situation in Vienna has long been a mystery to linguists because of it’s uniqueness in the German speaking world and indeed the world (as Manfred Glauninger keeps stressing).
    And, as I am quite unfamiliar with English dialects, how do you assess the intelligibility of your translation across the range of English languages?

    • Geoff Howes

      Hi, Martin,
      Thanks for your response!
      It’s possible that someone else is at home enough in other dialects (or can reproduce them well enough) to translate into them, but I only feel comfortable translating into my dialect.

      Although I grew up in my family speaking pretty much standard English (my father was a newspaperman and a very precise user of the language), I also heard a colloquial version in my neighborhood with such constructions as “we ain’t got none” or “he don’t know,” and with such phonological features as “ahmunna” (I’m going to), “we dint” (we didn’t), and the typical American voicing of medial tt (bottle = bahdl, matter = madr, in my invented spelling). This colloquial socioloect is embedded in my mind. And since one of Artmann’s achievements with his dialect poetry was to base it on what he grew up hearing, I’m repeating that gesture in my translations.

      The concept of distance as I used it is less a principle than a fact: if I decide to use my dialect as the basis for translating these poems, then the poems will end up closer to the respective standard language than Artmann’s are. And maybe that alone makes my project questionable.

      I think that anyone who has heard a lot of Middle American in the movies, etc., will recognize the language of my translation. (Assuming that my spelling system makes sense–I’m not sure I’ve perfected it.)

      And as to the dark and morbid humor of Artmann’s poems, derived from the dark and morbid humor of Viennese dialects, perhaps that is one of the cultural features that one only hopes (and prays, if one is a praying person) comes across to readers of the translation (assuming there are any!).

      Thanks again for the thoughtful response! – Geoff

      • Martin Prechelmacher

        Thanks for this thorough answer! I think the authenticity-argument is a very strong one, yet it needs elaboration to be fully understood. that’s one of the things I never quite understood with translations. It seems there is a demand to give exactly one translation to every poem (or story or drama). However, translations are always interpretations. And just like with interpretations there are hundreds of possible translations, each having some advantage or other over another. So why aren’t there more translations similar to critical editons? Shouldn’t giving commentary and different readings enhance the reader’s experience and understanding? The only project like that I know of is the side-by-side translations of Wittgenstein
        and (yet another question): how did you get to translate Artmann in the first place? I mean, I’ve been born in Vienna and I am having troubles understanding the original…

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