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Australian-German links
by Ralph Elliott

Canberra Times, 2 September 1995

Made in AustraliaGEOFF PAGE’s recent A Reader’s Guide to Contemporary Australian Poetry discusses the work of 100 contemporary poets, neatly arranged alphabetically from Robert Adamson to Fay Zwicky. For good measure, the book concludes with a list of 100 other poets suggested as no less worthy of the reader’s attention, and I can think or other poets who deserve a place in either list, like Canberra’s Michael Thwaites and Geoff Page himself, who modestly excluded himself, but who does figure in Made In Australia.

That Gisela Triesch’s and Rudi Krausmann’s bilingual anthology is restricted to a mere 80 poets is due to each poem being faced by a translation into German. Forty-six of these poets also figure in Page’s Guide and there is more than coincidental, at times verbal, similarity between Page’s lengthy introduction to contemporary Australian poetry and Volker Wolf’s German introduction to the bilingual anthology. Who is echoing whom is not for me to speculate.

Wolf as one of the group of translators which also includes the two editors, charged with the gargantuan task of rendering into German verse the enormous variety of language and styles represented in poems as diverse as Les Murray’s “The people are eating dinner in that country north of Legge’s Lake” and Ania Walwicz’s performance poems (i.e., poetic prose pieces) “Australia” and “The Tattoo”.

Inevitably, the translations vary, considerably. Where Australian poets use rhyme, like Rosemary Dobson, Chris Wallace-Crabbe, and Eva Johnson, this is ignored by the translators, and the distinctive cadences of individual poems are often lost, especially where short English words are rendered by lengthy German nouns or verbs, an extreme example being Bruce Dawe’s “like a traffic-report helicopter over the bankup” which becomes the monstrous “wie ein Verkehrsüberwachungshubschrauber über dem Stau”. Jack Davis’s rhythmic, melodic “We welcome the sundown that heralds the dark” explodes into the prosy “Wir begrüssen den Sonnenuntergang der die Dunkelheit ankündigt”.

Occasionally one wonders whether the translators reply caught the poet’s meaning. In Geoff Page’s “Smalltown Memorials” the final four lines appear to me to refer to the two world wars in reverse order: “The next bequeathed us/Parks and pools/But something in that first/Demanded stone.” The translation turns both “next” and “first” into plural nouns, which does not make much sense. In Judith Beveridge’s “In the Park” the line “of the moon adrift” becomes “des Mondes, der fei” which I assume is a misprint for “frei” (Yes, Ralph. Congratulations, you’ve picked up the only typo in 320 pages, so far). And are Laurie Duggan’s “Qantas Bags” really “Tüten” in German, a word which connotes icecream cones and even breathalyzers rather than cabbin baggage? (Note by the translator: Yes, in Germany they’re called “Einkaufstüten”, (= shopping bags), but not in Austria, where we call them “Einkaufstaschen”, or “Sackerl”)

Admittedly, these are trifling cavils in a book well furnished with good German translations and they are unlikely to detract from the enjoyment which Austrian or German or Swiss readers will derive from the poems in this excellent anthology. Moreover, considering the steady influx of English words into contemporary German, of which visitors to German-speaking countries or viewers of Derrick must be very conscious, it seems quite proper that Jennifer Strauss’s “sand and sex” should appear as “Sand und Sex” or that Robert Harris’s “junkies” should appear as “die Junkies” in Rudi Krausmann’s translation. Even the retention of “possum” in the German text of some poems seems appropriate, although in another poem the word is rendered by the German word “Beutelratten”.

Most of the translations do justice to the original Australian poems. In a few instances they seem almost an improvement on the originals, which is not unknown in the history of poetic translations. Nancy Cato’s “The Dead Swagman” reads very well in the German version, where the penultimate line “die Wurzeln und Knochen berühren sich auf dem Boden” suggests an even closer intimacy of the dead man and the tree than the original. Other renderings which have struck me as particularly felicitous are Krausmann’s translations of Kate Llewellyn’s “Finished” and the German version by Krausmann and Gerald Ganglbauer of Richard Tipping’s “Mangoes”. The German writer Hans Magnus Enzensberger translated (except for one stanza) the longest poem in the book, John Tranter’s “The False Atlas”; it is a remarkably close yet wholly idiomatic German rendering.

As Gisela Triesch points out in her postscript, almost half the poets here represented are women, and there is a fair selection of Aboriginal and ethnic writers. They all rightly belong in an anthology of “Australian Poetry Today”, and the themes which many of their poems address like Eva Johnson’s “Right To Be”, Hyllus Maris’s “Spiritual Song of the Aborigine”, or Antigone Kefala’s “They Are Still Coming”, continue to be highly topical in Australia today.

The arrangement of the poets Made in Australia is by date of birth, beginning with Margaret Diesendorf, who was born in 1912 and died two years ago, and leading up to poets born in 1960. Obviously, preference and available space determined inclusions and omissions, but few readers will dispute that it is a well-balanced, carefully selected anthology. The inclusion, as the last poem, of Maureen Watson’s “Stepping Out” with its final “I don’t walk, I strut/ ‘Cause now, I’m liberated” provides a very moving ending. There are no dates alongside her name (Unknown, as sometimes the case with Aboriginals having no birth certificates).

The only thing I miss in this otherwise highly commendable book are brief biographical notes, such as Geoff Page provides in his Guide. Australian readers can turn to the recent second edition of The Oxford Companion to Australian Literature, but others? However, it is the poems themselves that matter, and there is God’s Plenty in Made in Australia, a book of which lovers of poetry may well feel proud.

Made in Australia