Academic journal article Journal of Evolutionary Psychology

Verwandlung Und Ubersetzung: Metamorphosis, Translation and the Poetry of Nelly Sachs

Academic journal article Journal of Evolutionary Psychology

Verwandlung Und Ubersetzung: Metamorphosis, Translation and the Poetry of Nelly Sachs

Article excerpt

Poetic translation is more than opening a bilingual dictionary and substituting one word for another. Inevitably, such clumsy attempts return stanzas whose true soul is lost in the translation. Before undertaking a serious study of a foreign poet's work, it is necessary to understand the fascinating and diverse linguistic ideologies of translation. One school of thought believes translation is impossible: it is presumptuous to believe one person could ever try to speak for another, let alone in a foreign language. On the other hand, some linguists adhere to the notion that not only is translation possible, it is necessary for the survival of great literature. The more people read a given author or text, the longer that author or volume exists.

This is true for Nelly Sachs. A German who shared the Nobel Prize for Literature with S. Y. Agnon in 1960, Sachs' Holocaust poems try to individualize the millions killed during the war. Rather than dwelling on the misery created by the Nazis, the poet uses universal images and themes of metamorphosis to instill in her reader a sense of hope and survival for all people.

On December 10, 1891, Nelly Sachs was born to William Sachs, a Jewish inventor, industrialist and music lover, and Margaret Karger Sachs in the prestigious Tiergarten area of Berlin. An only child, Nelly was tutored at home, reading Novalis, Holderin, Dostoevsky and Stifter, before attending secondary school at the Berliner Hohere Tochterschule (Berlin High School for Girls). Biographers describe her ns a shy, quiet girl who aspired to be a professional dancer. Yet, before she was fifteen, Sachs read Selma Lagerlof's Gosta Berlings Saga and wrote a letter of admiration to the author that resulted in a thirty-five year friendship. This adolescent gesture came to define Sachs' life.

Before the age of eighteen, Sachs wrote poetry. Her early rhymed work dealt, like much Lagerlof's prose, with nature and mythical events. Conventional, atmospheric and melancholy, Sachs' work was firmly rooted in the German Romantic tradition. She was influenced by the Catholic Middle Ages, German mysticism and Jakob Boehme, the 17th century thinker who believed that "God" was characterized by a balance of two extremes; light and dark, good and evil, love and hate, etc.

Artistic patron Stefan Zweig published Sachs' first works. He considered her poems "ecstatic," not avant-garde or Expressionist like other mainstream German poets of the day.

In 1921, Sachs issued a 124-page book titled Legends and Stories, in which many pieces, such as "The Icon," have a distinctly Christian feel despite her Judaism. In later life, Sachs would declare Christ the Supreme Sufferer. Preferring that her Holocaust material remain her legacy, she turned her back on her early pieces and refused to have them published in her collected works.

After her father's death in 1930, Sachs became a recluse. Friends and relatives began to disappear when Hitler strengthened his anti-Jewish measures. Yet, the poet was still published in German-Jewish publications until 1938. As Sachs took comfort in the writings of Jewish and Christian mystics, her work began to reflect the Old Testament, the Cabala, and Hasidic texts where characters became mythic archetypes.

In this way, Sachs acknowledges her literary heritage. Book, inscription, archive and alphabet manifest themselves for the first time in her work. She reinterprets the ancient book of nature and, rather than copying its signs into her own work, absorbs and re-expresses them in future poems:

   The alphabet's corpse rose from the grave, 
   Alphabet angel, ancient crystal, 
   Immured by creation in drops of water 
   And unwraps, as though it were linen sheets 
   In which birth and death are swathed, 
   The alphabet womb, chrysalis 
   Of green and red and white obscurity 
   (Enzensberger vii). … 
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