Greatest Women in Translation: Rosmarie Waldrop

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Rosmarie Waldrop was nominated by Cole Swensen.

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1. When you were 10 years old, you spent half a year acting with a traveling theater. That is quite interesting! Could you tell us a bit more about that experience?

It was the summer and fall of 1945. In Germany. My hometown, Kitzingen am Main, had been severely bombed. There was no school. The adults were busy finding food, which for my family meant bicycling to the farms in the vicinity and bartering what possessions we had. We kids were running wild. When a local theater group announced an audition for children, my mother took me there immediately. The theater had managed to get an American army truck (we were in the American Occupation Zone) in which we traveled from village to village, from stages in town halls to improvised spaces in restaurants. In the afternoons we played Snow-White and the 7 Dwarves; evenings, The Love Potion, where I played the son of a Russian nobleman. (I thought the farce was by Chekhov, but have not been able to find it among his works.) It was exciting to be away from my always fighting parents, with adults very different from them and a pack of other kids (dwarves!). I was thrilled to be paid the same (very small) Gage as the adults, a kind of validation I had not expected. But I also got bored with doing the same thing every day. I remember catching hell and a lecture that, no matter how often you’ve done it, each time you perform you give it your all. A big lesson in discipline. Nevertheless, I was relieved when school reopened in January 1946, with its more varied challenges.

2. In 1961, you and your husband, also a poet and translator, launched Burning Deck Magazine, which later evolved into Burning Deck Press, one of the most influential publishers for innovative poetry in the United States. Could you tell us a bit more about the story behind the magazine and the press? Why did you decide to create them?

The press was Keith Waldrop’s initiative. He wanted a poetry magazine and, as we were penniless graduate students, decided the only way was to print it ourselves. The early 1960s happened to be the moment when print shops all over the country dumped their letterpresses. We were able to acquire one with all the accessories for a mere $100. It took a little while to learn to print, but we did. Burning Deck Magazine was slated to come out 5 times a year. Instead it came out only 4 times in 5 years! Keeping a fixed publication schedule was clearly too much, so we shifted to printing chapbooks of poetry, which would appear whenever we could manage. Full books came later. And finally our branching out into publishing translations from French and German.

So much for the material side. The impulse behind the magazine was “the war of the anthologies.” In 1961 there appeared two anthologies of American poetry 1945-1960: Donald Allen’s The New American Poetry and what was known by its editors’ names as “the Hall-Pack-Simpson.” They represented the opposing camps labeled ‘beats’ and ‘academics.’ Not a single poet appeared in both. Burning Deck magazine disregarded this split, so that on occasion an author complained of being published in the company of such-and-such! For the press, however, we soon realized that with our limited means it made more sense to narrow our focus to exploratory, experimental poetry which was our chief interest. The impulse to throw bridges survived in the two translation series (French and German).

My initial skepticism quickly gave way to taking pleasure in the “material practice” of printing which I found a good counterweight to the more abstract work of writing and reading. More than that, the extremely slow process of setting type by hand brought home poetry as “slow language.” I haven’t read any poems as thoroughly as those I set by hand. Hand-setting also made me very aware of any “fat,” any unnecessary word, and made for concision in my own writing. The labor was enormous, but the pleasure of holding in my hands a book I had physically made was ample compensation. Another pleasure of having a press or magazine: it creates community, puts you in touch with other writers. Perhaps more important for poets who live, as we did, in Ann Arbor, Michigan than for those in New York, but in any case a good balance to the essentially lonely work of writing.

3. How did you get into translation?

It came out of my personal situation as an immigrant to the U.S. I had started to write poems in Germany, but once I was in Ann Arbor, immersed in English, thinking and dreaming in English, I found it impossible to write in German. I turned to translating poems by Creeley, Stevens, etc. into German. Then, when I gradually mustered the courage to try writing poems in English I also turned to translating into English.

4. In this article on Poetry Foundation, you say translation was one of the ways you found to improve your poetry. How is that?

Writing and translating are much the same process, with translation just having an extra constraint in the original text. They definitely cross-fertilize each other. But the space between two languages is a space open to potential/possibility. It taught me to navigate without fixed course, to trust the (seeming) boundlessness.

Or, let’s say: when we write we tend to be focused within ourselves whereas translating is always conversation–with a text, an author, a culture, a society. So the habit of translating has helped my writing process to stay open, stay in conversation with what is outside my little self even while concentrating on what seems most personal. Collage has also done this for me.

In practical terms, translating has added perspective. Translation kills the illusion that a relation of word to “thing”/signified is “natural” and therefore the only one. Knowing it could always be some other way makes me test more possibilities, work harder. This ends up stretching, transforming, improving what I started out with. 

5. In 1970, you spent a year in Paris, a turning point in your career, right? Why

There wasn’t any career yet! But it was certainly a break-through in my writing. For one thing It was the first time that I had a long space just to concentrate on writing, without also being a student or teacher. I worked on the sequence “As if we didn’t have to talk,” which has a double set of analogies: “you” is to crowd as line is to open space and as utterance is to code. But the analogies are never stated. They are pushed into the background as structure and matrix for the poems. I also started pushing at the boundaries of the sentence by letting the object of a phrase serve also the subject of the next one.

Then came crucial encounters. First, the poets Claude Royet-Journoud and Anne-Marie Albiach. Smack in the middle of Claude’s first book is a manifesto, on a page by itself: “Shall we escape analogy.” Without question mark. I was electrified: here was a clear statement of what I’d been groping toward in an intuitive way! There followed many all-night discussions, translations, a clearer direction for my writing, and a deep friendship.

When Claude learned that I had begun translating Jabès’s The Book of Questions he ran to the phone to arrange our meeting. I had sent a 50-page sample with description and review excerpts to many US publishers, most of whom replied: no thanks, we have always lost money on translations. On reading these pages Edmond Jabès said, he recognized himself in the rhythm. Then I of course dropped everything to continue translating while I had the chance to ask him questions. I eventually translated 14 volumes of his work. Jabès was overwhelming through the power of his work and his presence, the way he lived The Book, lived the constant questioning of his writing. He was also funny, which I hadn’t expected. Our friendship remains a treasure for me.

6. In this article on Foundation for Contemporary Arts, you say “The linguistic displacement from German to English has not only made me into a translator, but gave me a sense of writing as exploration of what happens between. Between words, sentences, people, cultures.” How is that so?

I have a strong affinity with the word “between.” It is the title of my earliest poem in English, when I felt still very much between my native Germany and my newly adopted country, between “not all here/ or there/ a creature with gills and lungs.” But it isn’t just my personal situation. Our whole reality is no longer substances, but relation between things, quanta, words, etc. The space between two languages provides an incomparable experience of the between as the essential locus of relation, encounter, communication. I would call it a model for living.

But let’s not get too solemn. I recently ended a poem:

“The space between two languages is not between mirrors, but curves along the great wall of error, a refined form of adventure.”

7. Now it’s your turn to nominate our next Great Woman in Translation.

Sawako Nakayasu

One thought on “Greatest Women in Translation: Rosmarie Waldrop

  1. Pingback: Greatest Women in Translation: Cole Swensen | Carol's Adventures in Translation

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