Occasional musings, Geistesblitze, photos, drawings etc. by a "resident alien", who has landed on American soil from a far-away planet called "Germany".

Monday, March 2, 2009

Word of the month: Die Nachdichtung

Nachdichtung combines the preposition nach ("after", "according to") with Dichtung ("poetry"). The word denotes a piece of poetry that tries to re-create the spirit in which another piece of poetry was written and its effect on the reader without being literal about it—what's more important is that the new piece is a successful piece of poetry in its own right while staying "true" to the original in a deeper sense.

The term is particularly useful in discussions about translations, and the discussions we had on this blog about translations (from the German) motivated me to introduce the term, for which I cannot find an English equivalent. I'll give examples and a note on pronunciation in my comments.

Word of the Month: Index


Ulrich said...

I recently bought a coffee table book presenting woodcut prints in which one of my favorite graphical artists of all time, Hokusai, illustrates 100 famous Japanese poems of the "tanka" type. Like a haiku, a tanka has a prescribed number of lines with a prescribed number of syllables in each line: it consists of five unrhyming lines with 5, 7, 5, 7, and 7 syllables, respectively, for a total of 31 syllables. The translations given in the book illustrate nicely the differences between a nachdichtung and a translation that attempts to stay as close to the original as possible.

Here's poem no. 75 in a translation by Clay MacCauley that reproduces the tanka scheme:

Though your promise was
"Like the dew on moxa plant,"
And to me, was life;
Yet, alas! the year has passed
Even into autumn time.

Here's a nachdichtung by Kenneth Rexroth:

Your fine promises
Were like the dew of life
To a parched plant.
But now the autumn
Of another year goes by.

Note on pronunciation. Nachdichtung is tough for English speakers because it contains two consonants that do not exist in English (that may be a reason why the term never migrated to English):

The "ch" in Nach is hard as in Bach or Scottish loch. The "a" is longer, though, than in Bach--it's like the "a" in English "father".

If pronounced by a Rhinelander, the second syllable, dich, may sound like English "dish". But when pronounced correctly, the "ch" is softer than English "sh"--it's the consonant that ends ich ("I") in high German.

The "u" in the third syllable is a short English "oo" as in "foot".

Marlene said...

As always, Ulrich, a very interesting and evocative choice. I was just at a party, where I chatted with a woman who was a translator, and when I said to her that translating was so difficult--I meant to find the right balance between getting the literal translation right and keeping the language musical or richly connotative--she basically snorted at the idea of literal translation.

She seemed to think, and it made sense, that any serious translator tries to stay in the ball park where the original meaning is concerned but that the focus has to be on the beauty and musicality of the words and if some of the literal meaning got lost too bad. It seems to me your two examples illustrate her point. The first, more literal poem is something of a clunker, but the second, which completely abandons, for instance, the "Moxa plant," whatever that is, is quite lovely.

I must admit to having been kind of obtuse about the purpose of poetry translation. I really did think that the goal was to get as close to the original as possible in terms of meaning and now that seems silly. Where poetry is concerned, every effort at translation should attempt to be a "nachdichtung," or the translation seems beside the point.

Lastly, I googled 'nachdichtung," and the prevailing translation seems to be "paraphrase," which misses the point I think.

Ulrich said...

@Marlene: To start with the last point: I also found "paraphrase" as a translation of Nachdichtung, but it really misses the poetry aspect of the German term. A paraphrase, according to several online dictionaries, is a restatement, and the purpose is often to clarify or to make another didactic point. A nachdichtung emphatically is not a restatement, it's a recreation. As I have said in previous posts, a translator has no business clarifying the original--it's not only presumptious and condescending, it's also extremely error-prone b/c the meaning of a piece of poetry is almost never "clear"--how can a translator claim to know exactly what it is about?

As to literal translations: I can see a real benefit in a literal translation placed next to the original b/c it helps readers who have some knowledge of the original language, but may not want to use a dictionary for every word they do not know--that's a real downer when you try to enjoy poetry.

In my own translations that I have published on this blog, I tried to go beyond strict literal translations and to capture some of the tone, rhythm, and flow of the originals w/o pretending to create real poetry.

Marlene said...

Your comment about the purpose of a literal translation makes me think that English could really use its own version of the word "Nachdichtung," as separate from paraphrase. (I checked my dictionary and the word does not seem to have been incorporated into English) It's fine to translate a poem literally in order to help speakers of other languages gain a sense of what the poem is about, but I wonder now how many poems in other languages I and others may have failed to appreciate because the translation was actually a paraphrase when it should have been a nachdichtung. So thank you again for this really lovely and useful word.

mick said...

The closest approximation that came to my mind would be 'adaptation' or perhaps 'free adaptation'. Does that make sense to you??

Ulrich said...

@mick: Yes, but you lose again the specific poetry connotation. That's why I think it's best to import nachdichtung as a foreign word, like kitsch, gestalt, zeitgeist, zugzwang, schadenfreude, and a great number of other German words that are now in the English language.

[As if to prove my point, my spelling checker--on my new MacBook--accepted all of the above foreign words except for zugzwang--and nachdichtung, of course]

Marlene said...

Hi Ulrich, Although I have not been visiting your blog because I'm crazed from work, I have been thinking about the difference between a literal translation and nachdichtung. I even had grandiose plans to look for two different translations of the same poem to see if I could consider one a literal translation and the other a nachdichtung.

I did, however, type into a search box the words "literal translation versus nachdichtung" and up came the chapter!!! of a book, which I did not read to end but which mentions someone named Schadewaldt, who apparently wrote on the subject of nachdichtung. The chapter--the parts that I could read anyway, it gets mathematical at points--suggests that whether or not poetry can or should even be translated is a controversial subject. In any case it's here and I thought it might interest you.

Marlene said...

Given that I'm now convinced that any translation worth reading has to be a Nachdichtung, I was struck by what Nabokov, quoted in the chapter, had to say on the subject: "The clumsiest literal translation is a thousand times more useful that the prettiest paraphrase. " My sense is that Nabokov would spit on the idea of Nachdichtung being superior to literal translation.

Interestingly enough, someone named Murray insisted that poems could only be translated into prose because trying to add rhyme and meter would muck with the ideas too much. As I said before, this word choice is a very interesting one because it really forces you, or me anyway, to think about the relationship between the original language of a poem and the limitations or special gifts of translation. Typically the deconstructionists made the point that the original was nothing and the translation the real work of art.

Ulrich said...

@Marlene: I'm also very busy and haven't had time to read the chapter yet, but a brief glance reveals that it deals exactly with the issues I'm interested in. So, many thanks in advance--I'll get back once I've read it carefully.