Out Into Nowhere-ness: Interview with Translator and Poet Uljana Wolf

Photo by Dirk Skiba

Uljana Wolf and Christian Hawkey spent over a decade translating a collection of celebrated Austrian writer Ilse Aichinger’s prose poems into English. Borne of Wolf’s enduring fascination with Aichinger’s work, the project accompanied Wolf and Hawkey as they worked between Berlin, New York, and Rome before being published under the title Bad Words by Seagull Books at the end of 2018. For this interview, Sarah Timmer Harvey spoke with Wolf about Aichinger, the politics of being “other-tongued,” using language as a tool to shape and traverse borders, and why, in the era of fake news, a restaging of Aichinger’s work in English is as urgent and necessary today as it was in postwar Europe.

Sarah Timmer Harvey (): Bad Words has been a long time in the making, hasn’t it?

Uljana Wolf: Yes, I believe we started in 2007, or maybe even 2006 was when the idea was born because I was always telling Christian [Hawkey] about Ilse Aichinger, who is an important writer for me. I wrote my thesis on her autobiographical writing. She’s published a wide array of work, but this particular book, Schlechte Wörter [Bad Words] really got stuck in my head. I was reading it and over and over again, constantly speaking to Christian about it. He said we should translate it and I told him it was impossible! It’s such a difficult, strange and wonderful book; impossible to translate, but we started it anyway.

Harvey: We’re now in 2019, and your translation has just been published. Obviously, you must have been through a number of drafts, put the project away and picked it up again. Did your approach to the text change over the decade you were working on it?

Wolf: Definitely! I think it underwent a lot of changes. The prose pieces in Bad Words are almost like long prose poems or short stories but without a lot of context given and a narrative that unfolds around small details or objects. Often language assumes the role of the narrator or the content, it’s very language-based work, and I think that Aichinger gives us no clues. You always think there’s something to decipher, something that is so particularly worked out that it must refer to something else, but it doesn’t. That’s the first thing; you have to take whatever’s there at face value, even if it doesn’t make sense. When you translate, you always want to find a point of reference, so that you can do a proper translation but, on a language level, Aichinger works a lot with a German that is resisting syntax—or pushing up to the limits of syntax by employing a lot of prepositions and relative pronouns. When you translate them, they lose their referential function because in English they end up being “it” and “that” whereas in German they are a little more specific because they are gendered. So, we ended up with prose that was even stranger. In the beginning, I was pushing a lot to just leaving the translation as it was. I said: “you can’t change the syntax, you have to leave all the beginnings and endings of sentences that are sticking out into their nowhere-ness.”

We had a lot of discussions about whether we were preserving the strangeness of Aichinger’s language or whether we were foreignizing her strangeness even more in English. And so, over a decade of work, we went through multiple drafts where we tried to find the right equilibrium between her strangeness and English strangeness that would also read well as an English text.

Harvey: I read in the introduction to Bad Words that your major intention was to resist the impulse to “fill in the gaps” and resist making “references clearer.” How did you do that? Did you have a particular way of encouraging each other to dial back or push the translation even further?

Wolf: I think we each had roles. I did the first draft from German to English, and Christian worked on that draft, then I would respond to his draft and so on. There was a hinge between us, which was the translation, but we were each drawn a bit more toward our own language, mine obviously, the German and Christian’s being English. In the beginning, he was the one inviting the text—not pulling but inviting the text into English and I was trying to pull it back to German. So, it was a kind of dance back and forth as if we were re-staging my language. Do you know Aichinger’s story, My Language and I? It was like that; as if we were wandering on a coastline. We did that over and over again.

Harvey: I had to think about this when I was reading The Crossbeam, another piece in Bad Words in which Aichinger refers to being resistant to the form of the triad or triangle, only to have triangles keep naturally appearing everywhere in the narrator’s world. It made me think of the triangle between yourself, Aichinger’s text and Christian [Hawkey]. Co-translating something can be very different from translating a text on your own, and I wondered how that was for you. Does it feel natural? Are you more comfortable with a co-translator?

Wolf: You know, I’ve worked with other translators in many different configurations, so this was one where I was more comfortable with the original language, and I’ve worked in other configurations where I was not as knowledgeable or close to the other language. For example, when I was translating the Polish poet, Eugeniusz Tkaczyszyn-Dycki, I worked with a Translator who was closer to the Polish, and so I know this triad and the dance from different positions. I’ve come to like it in these different positions because although it’s laborious and takes longer; it’s a way to have an incredible dialogue about a text. As a translator, obviously you have a dialogue with any text you are translating, and you find out all kinds of things about yourself, your language and the text, but when you work with another translator, it’s even deeper, and seemingly there is no limit to talking about the same sentence over and over again. And there’s also a point where you think; I want to translate the next project by myself because I value the solitude that you can have when the dialogue is just between yourself and a text. A solitude full of voices is what it feels like when you translate alone. I like all of these configurations. It just depends on who you are working with and what the text is.

Harvey: What was Aichinger’s relationship to language?

Wolf: This book, Bad Words, sits in the middle of her complete works. She started writing a novel in the middle of the war, which she survived living in an apartment in the middle of Vienna. Through the perversity of the Nuremberg laws she was protected, and she protected her mother, who was Jewish. Because her father had been Christian, she was a so-called a half-Jew, so this very complicated set of rules spared her even though her grandmother and many of her relatives were deported or died in camps. After the war, she began to write this novel Die größere Hoffnung or The Greater Hope, and the language in it was very intensely poetic, dealing with the Jewish children in Vienna. It was poetic, very rich and darkly surreal at times, which I loved. That [book] was the big splash or burst of her language. Afterward, her language became sparser and sparser. She wrote prose poems, always weighing every word very carefully and ended up with Bad Words, with these prose poems and short stories. One of the most important sentences in the book reads something like “no one can force me to make connections if they’re avoidable.” This [quote] comes from, the title story, Bad Words, in which the narrator also proclaims to no longer be using “better words.” After a decade of intensely using a language that was tainted by the second world war, by the Nazis, and the complicity of everyone around her, she had to work had to find a language that would not give her away, that one could not just go into and take at face value or trust every idiom. I think it’s very useful to read Bad Words alongside Derrida’s thoughts about the monolingualism of the other. The idea that I only have one language, but it is not mine. Aichinger’s prose pieces are a constant fractural re-imagination of this relationship.

Harvey: To me, that piece in which this tension you describe is most apparent in the story, Rahel’s Clothes. It’s such an incredibly fraught exploration of what happens when we try to confine conversation and avoid unearthing trauma by not letting language wander where it wants to go, in a way using conventional language to corral or suppress a certain kind of expression. It was interesting to me to think about this in the context of your own writing, which is often also about not confining expression to one language, exploring the grey areas between languages, hybridization. Is this where your poetry converges with Aichinger’s writing?

Wolf: Yes, my work kind of feeds off the pure skepticism in her language. Skepticism of mother tongue as only tongue. My way of seeing German through English or other languages is another way of not being too comfortable in the language, not trusting idioms, not trusting the common sense of a language, but rather turning away again. Speaking of Rahel’s Clothes, it’s almost like that, taking another bus or taxi to run away from prefabricated understanding. That’s something I always go back to with Aichinger’s Bad Words because the sheer beauty of this incommensurability, the beauty of this resistance to being fully decipherable, fully legible and fully consumable is so important to me, as is her humor. It’s such a strange humor. It’s a humor of disaster and definitely of suffering. It’s always lightly slanted, and there’s hellish laughter. In one of her stories she plays in German with the word ‘hell’ which means ‘bright,’ but she repeats it so many times that you come to believe that she also means the English ‘hell.’ And coming back to the question of where my writing connects to Aichinger, another reason I’m so drawn to Schlechte Wörter is something that I wasn’t aware of when I first started; that it is all kind of written in an invisible dialogue with another language, in her case, with English. In the second part of the book, many of the stories have English titles and mention England. England was a very important place but also mental space for Aichinger because this is where twin sister escaped on one of the last kindertransports out of Austria. And one of the first visits, after Ilse and her mother got enough money together after the war, was to her sister. So, I think that this fascination you can find in many of her stories with the English landscape, with the north, and with figures from there is a mapping of another possibility outside of her language but also with another fate that is very closely connected to hers. In a way, I look at her language as not multilingual as much as other-tongued or other-lingual.

Harvey: Aichinger wrote herself in My Green Donkey “I want to confine myself to guesswork concerning him and later even less…” and in Bad Words, I noticed Aichinger’s continual undercutting or reduction of her own language in an effort to push herself towards guesswork or instinct. Given your connection to the original, I wondered how much of this translation felt instinctive?

Wolf: Do you mean how much felt instinctive or how much was guesswork?

Harvey: Well, I think it’s the same thing! I mean, if we are guessing, isn’t it always instinct that points us to the right answer?

Wolf: Oh absolutely. I think that’s a brilliant question. Obviously, a lot is guesswork in this translation. For example, does the place in “My language and I” reference a given geographical place that I need to decipher, so as to find the right word for a particular kind of landscape or dune? And as translators, I think we’re always performing the same kind of work that the narrator in The Green Donkey does. It’s the perfect example because the green donkey [in Aichinger’s story] is crossing the bridge, then disappearing. In a way, it’s at first like the donkey is doing our translation work, then he just disappears, we’re on our own with this language, and we have to bear it. That we are alone with this complete responsibility for the translation, with our guesswork. It’s a very beautiful sort of self-searching process that she inspires. I wrote an essay about one of the other pieces in the book, “Queens,” on the desire to decipher everything. There’s just enough to think if I put these in the right order, I will find the right source and know exactly what she is thinking about. I did this for a long time, and all I found was my own puzzles and my own questions. So I wrote about how this work leaves us alone, facing our own ideas about what reading is, what deciphering is. Understanding Aichinger is really about being able to bear yourself as a reader and to bear your own open questions.

Harvey: This is such a beautiful way of looking at Aichinger’s work, and yet, at the same time, despite her wandering and the openness, Aichinger can also be incredibly pointed. In that vein, I think that even though this project was delayed and probably frustrating at times, there are some pieces that so relevant to the social and political climate now in Europe and the U.S.A that having this translation published now somehow feels very right. For example, The Connoisseurs of Western Columns is particularly reflective of conversations around language and culture that are happening at the moment.

Wolf: I think in a way the title, Bad Words, speaks to us in a way that we never suspected it would. I mean, what are bad words? America has a president whose favorite word is bad—he labels everything bad. People have started to use language in a way that establishes alternative, unchecked bubbles of truth with the certain rhetoric of righteousness and it’s exactly that righteousness that each and every sentence of Aichinger’s work undercuts. She establishes that distance between the narrator and the one who uses content while also pointing to linguistic structures that have their own life. On the one hand, if you just let them roll, they will do beautiful things by themselves, that’s what all her stories show you. On the other hand, they also go into dark territory and point to a language of power and misuse of language in power. As you mentioned, in The Connoisseurs of Western Columns Aichinger shows how, by labeling a certain group of clandestine people as “the connoisseurs of western columns” the majority will talk about a certain group of people, exclude them and wait for their demise. This is how a mob begins in language; this is how people are ousted. But she does this is such a strange way, it’s not even didactic, it’s not even often clear. She resists those simple truths, the easy truths that everyone seems to long for these days.

Harvey: Shall we try an easy truth? Which is your favorite piece in the Bad Words?

Wolf: That’s actually really hard. There are a couple [of stories] that have stayed with me in my little snow globe, constantly turning and revolving in my head. The Connoisseurs of Western Columns is definitely one of them. Aichinger describes this field where the columns are laying and when I spent time in Rome last year, I thought “These are the western columns!” There was something suddenly very Italian in it—the way that people regard Romans and reconstruct and their past and present from these ruins.

Harvey: I’m not surprised. You just spend a year at a residency in Rome, did you work on the Aichinger translation while there?

Wolf: Yes, we worked with the proofs and wrote our foreword while there.

Harvey: Going back the idea of triangles, while there you were somewhat removed from German and from English, kind of thrust into the midst of a third language, Italian. When slipping between languages, I sometimes find that when I am fully immersed in my first language, I can find transitions or translations to my second language more challenging. If I am somewhere completely different, or somewhere in between, somehow both languages become clearer, making translation easier. I wonder if you have experienced something similar?

Wolf: Looking back, there was definitely that clarity. It could have been the distance to both our languages and the immersion in Italian, or it could have also been the stage we were at after the fifth or the sixth or the tenth draft, just looking at the proofs when it all came together. The way that the book is structured took a long time to decide because we translated the entire collection of Bad Words, but there were other prose pieces, like The Green Donkey and The Mouse which come from Aichinger’s other short story collections that had become very dear to us. We didn’t want to completely translate all three collections, so it took a long time to settle on which pieces to pair with Bad Words. They all kind of really belong together in this one book now, I’m really pleased with how it turned out.

Harvey: It’s such a seamless flow; I would never have guessed that they were not all originally published together. Aichinger wrote in The Mouse about not wanting to control, usurp or rule over things, which almost feels like her giving permission to move things around, to create your own book of her work and her language.

Wolf: And that is such an important sentence. Being a masterful writer by being un-masterfully so, by not gaining control of language or trying to preserve something that is as untraceable as Aichinger’s mouse.

More About Uljana Wolf

Uljana Wolf is a German poet and literary translator. Wolf has published four collections of poetry in German, several of which have been translated into English.  False Friends, translated by Susan Bernofsky was published by Ugly Duckling Presse in 2009, i mean i dislike that fate that i was made to where, translated by Sophie Seita was published by wonder in 2015 and Subsisters, also translated by Sophie Seita was published by Belladonna* in 2017. Wolf has received a number of prizes for her poetry and translation work including the Erlanger Prize for Poetry as Translation in 2015 and the Adelbert von Chamisso Prize in 2016.  Wolf teaches German language, writing, and translation at the Institut für Spachkunst in Vienna and the Pratt Institute in New York.

About the Interviewer, Sarah Timmer Harvey

Sarah Timmer Harvey is a writer and translator currently based in Brooklyn, New York.  She holds an MFA in writing and translation from Columbia University and most recently, her work has appeared in Asymptote Journal, Modern Poetry in Translation and Gulf Coast Journal.

Appears In

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