Verwandlung und Uebersetzung: Metamorphosis, Translation, and the Poetry of Nelly Sachs

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“Although she stopped writing during the Holocaust, she emerged from its destruction, like the butterfly of which she so often writes, to use her talents to help prevent the slaughter from happening again. In translations, Sachs’ spirit was evident, but her meaning was often lost in too-literal attempts; most of her work is translated by purists who believe in the primary importance of the line. I find the results of this loyalty misleading and confusing. They seem more concerned with denotative level of words than with the spirit of the poetry, yet it is my conviction that Sachs’s work is more lyric than narrative. Her form follows content. Her imagery embodies a highly complicated structure that uses symbolic language to communicate fear and acceptance. She often links two or more words together in unexpected ways, freeing semantic components and intensifying connotative implications (Ilek 135). She juxtaposes words and phrases that in German reflect confusion, pain, trauma, etc. Yet, in English, those patterns don’t always apply. I found myself doing a great deal of work just to understand what was happening in her poems before I could study the deeper implications of her theme. My translations grew organically from my need to understand her work and my desire to see her language flow as easily in English as it does in German.”

The original paper was published in the Journal of Evolutionary Psychology in August 2002. For a hard copy of the full-length text, please contact Arlan Hess.