The Secret of Believability

“I have no idea why I always fixate on one word – the kind of word that ends up causing me grief,” I wrote in a poem years ago. I was led to this realization by the great poets who had similarly foundered on words before me. Above all, I would like to name František Halas, a poet from the founding generation of modern Czech poetry who is unfortunately still overshadowed by his more famous contemporaries. This may be because his poems examine the limits of what can and cannot be expressed – as a result, they are so closely tied to the Czech language that they are difficult to translate.

I fear that my texts present translators with similar difficulties, and yet I fail to make their work any easier. For I cannot imagine poetry as anything other than a fascination with words, a magical enchantment with the inimitable sound of a word and the interplay of the very specific meanings that it has in a particular language.

It is often said that poetry evokes feelings that are common to all mankind, and that it is therefore capable of overcoming misunderstandings among nations. To a certain extent, this is true: Poetry, or at least how I have learned to understand it, is the unique, millennia-long attempt by poets to decipher a difficult-to-describe secret. This secret is apparently universal to us all, as are the ways of reaching it – but at a certain point we necessarily run up against differences that should not be ignored.

In recent years, as I have learned more about contemporary poetry in France, Germany, and other European countries, I have been forced to think a lot about how fundamentally the values by which poetry is assessed differ from one country to the next. Where one language works best with abstraction and a refined purity of expression – French poetry is a perfect example – in another language, the same poem might be a flop. Instead of the aural beauty of the word, its emphasis may be on concrete details or on the dispassionate and objective observation of reality. Elsewhere, as in the German-speaking region, contemporary poetry may, in its form and choice of words, resemble a citation from an academic treatise on philosophy, while in the Russian-speaking lands poetry tries to retain its relationship to song and thus insists on rhyme, rhythm, and regular form.

As for Czech poetry, one would have to look long and hard to find as many poems in a different language with such a heightened sensitivity for grotesque stories with a chilling denouement or for the sometimes incomprehensible and mysterious interrelationships to be found in ordinary everyday situations. Czech readers usually do not forgive poets for losing their “believability” – no matter what they write about, they must never let themselves be carried away by excessive pathos or by the touching beauty of what they would like to share. Modern Czech history is primarily the history of constant deception and betrayal, and so the greatest Czech poems remain fundamentally mistrustful of everything.

Why I am saying this: The admirable efforts of the best translators notwithstanding, we can thank poetry for allowing us to once again realize the fundamental value of untranslatability. It is not so much the individual verses or poems that are untranslatable, but the full context of a nation’s poetry. Poems are an urgent reminder of the fact that there are characteristics by which we continue to differ from one another – and that, if we yearn for connection, it is diversity that brings us together, not the uniform production responsible for the economic success of transnational corporations.

Translated by Stephan von Pohl

To read more about František Halas.

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