Dzvinia Orlowsky Interviews Stuart Friebert, Translator of Elisabeth Schmeidel’s Poetry

Managing Editor’s Note: Today’s post features Solstice’s own Poetry-in-Translation Editor, Dzvinia Orlowsky, in conversation with writer and translator Stuart Friebert. Enjoy this fascinating, in-depth discussion of Friebert’s work translating the work of Austrian poet Elisabeth Schmeidel. It reminds us how important it is to bring the work of foreign writers into the English language, and introduce it to a whole new readership.

–Amy

 

On Translating Elisabeth Schmeidel’s Poetry: An interview with poet/short story writer/memoirist/translator Stuart Friebert

Intro to Elisabeth Schmeidel:

Elisabeth Bettina Schmeidel

Elisabeth Schmeidel (1945-2012) was born in Austria. Her father Herrmann von Schmeidel, a conductor in Salzburg, and her mother, Eleonora von Arbesser Rastburg, named her after the writer Bettina von Arnim, but she was baptized Elisabeth, absent any saint named Bettina.

After attending Gymnasium, she passed the entrance exam with honors for the Akademie der Bildenden Künste in Vienna, where she studied with Prof. Szykowitz.

She moved with husband and daughter to Los Angeles in 1968, and began writing seriously. In 1976, due to different circumstances, she returned to Salzburg and began a teaching career in secondary schools.

Having left a suitcase of written work, she died in 2012. She’s virtually unknown in English, save for a few translations I’ve published in the 70s (in Field, Malahat Review). I’m preparing a Selected Poems, and scaneg Verlag/Munich will soon publish the German twin-volume in Europe.

Note: Her parents “settled” for Elisabeth because there was no Saint Bettina. They admired Bettina von Arnim, a writer Goethe knew and also admired, by the by. And “Bettina” she was during the some 47 years I knew her, though she moved among several surnames over the course of her life: mostly Schmeidel till she married Peter Grubbauer (a promising architect who died at 60) and used his name for a spell, legally & artistically, till they divorced in the late 60s; then Behn, after Aphra Behn, a much admired woman writer & daring spy in what was then primarily a male world. Her life as a spy much intrigued Bettina. Incidentally, I was quite surprised, when considering what name to publish the forthcoming collection under, how definite Pia was that her mother wanted to return to her birth name in her last years…
—Stuart Friebert

 

We would like to thank daughter Pia Grubbauer for permission to print the poems aboard SCANT HOURS: Selected Poems of Elisabeth Schmeidel (1945-2012) coming from Pinyon Publishing in 2018 in Friebert’s translations, with an introduction by Thomas Wild, the distinguished Germanist. Many of the poems have appeared, and others will yet appear before the collection is published, in Copper Nickel, Field, Malahat Review, Plume, Voyages et al.

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DO: Stuart, you are one of the most prolific writers I’ve had the pleasure of knowing: You’ve published 13 volumes of translations, in addition to 15 books of your own poems, two collections of stories, and several anthologies. Please tell us something about your writing “rhythm.” Do you work on more than one project at a time? If so, does one project somehow energize or illuminate the other?

SF: The “rhythm” patterns of any writer are, as you well know, quite complex, so let me generalize, at best: a la William Stafford, I must write something every day, no matter how trivial, worthless on 3rd glance (later, sometimes much later!), or I’d be even harder to live with (ask Diane Vreuls, my anchor, who has saved me from many a whirlpool off my bow). An early riser, though unlike “Wild Bill” Stafford, must first eat a hearty breakfast before putting a No. 2 pencil to yellow, lined “legal” tablet – when Eudora Welty visited my workshop, she brought a cup of No. 2 pencils and, distributing them, memorably said, “No more motor-mouthing on your computers, please!”

Do tend to work on no more than two projects at a time, one of which is always translation-oriented. When I had my “way,” beginning writing students were obliged to take translation before intro writing, which displeased some students, one of whom actually got her father to protest to the president of Oberlin. Long, tear-filled story short: she later confessed that my prediction came true: everything she wrote afterward was at least a cut above what she’d been up to previously. Lately I’ve been after poet-pals who’ve never considered “helping” foreign writers appear in English. Enough said about my go-to greatest pleasure from any writing-act?

DO: How did you come to know Elisabeth Schmeidel’s poems?   You translated her work in the 70’s and now have returned to it. What called you back?

SF: “Bettina” Schmeidel, an art student in Vienna at the time (early 60s), was hired by Oberlin to be my assistant while I directed the German Summer Session, located by the by in the Palais Kinsky there; and the grand piano in my office was said to have been played by Beethoven for the Kinskys’ gatherings. Bettina convinced me to let students, some of whom were Oberlin conservatory students studying German in A&S courses, plink away from time to time, one of whom was Ben Bagby, if memory serves, the renowned “Beowulf” performer, and co-founder of “Sequentia.”

Bettina met our group when we landed in Amsterdam, and became something of a tour guide as we made our way by bus to Vienna, visiting writers en route I was starting to translate and who graciously consented to host us for a reading from their work: Karl Krolow, Ilse Aichinger and Günter Eich, and Kuno Raeber. It was then I believe Bettina began to write, or more seriously write, poems, as virtually all of us also did who were writers in spe.

As our relationship grew and she learned I was starting to write poems in German as well as English, she began sharing some work, enough to see that if she kept going she’d eventually make her mark; hence it was “easy” to encourage her, mostly on the basis of “we’re in this together.” That soon led, after I returned to Oberlin, to an ongoing exchange of poems. Soon after colleagues and I founded Field, given shared interests in translation in particular, I began translating Bettina’s poems, alongside working on Eich, Krolow, Raeber et al.; and was soon able to place some, in Malahat Review and Field, among a few others less well known…

At one point in the mid 70s, visiting Bettina and her daughter, Pia, while I was on a reading tour to promote one of my German books, Bettina and I put together a collection from her by then considerable body of work, in which I managed to interest a German publisher. Alas, something went wrong during or after she traveled to meet him, and the MS never appeared. At that point, I kept fiddling with a few more of her vintage poems, but we drifted apart till sometime early in this century when I learned she was fighting some illness or other, and we wrote a few more letters before more silence set in. When I learned of her death, at 67 in 2012, and began a correspondence with Pia, her daughter, I suddenly got the urge to see whatever Bettina might have left by way of poems, wrote Pia about my desire to see if I could build a book of them, and was ecstatic when she confirmed there was indeed a bolus of poems, which Bettina had consigned to a suitcase! When Pia set me originals of some 100-150 texts, I set about feverishly ferrying the most intact, the ones that spoke to me most, for which I felt I might find the “right” voice/s, and thence into my brand of “smooth” English. It soon became apparent there was a sufficient number to constitute a collection. After getting Pia’s blessing, who with her good eye and ear, not to mention her intimate knowledge of her mother’s words and ways, vetted my versions and made oh so valuable suggestions, we were able to make twin collections:, the German originals I sent to Matthias Klein and Christiane Wyrwa at scaneg Verlag/Munich, who have among their other books begun a poetry series. If only Bettina knew that scaneg Verlag will publish the originals, and I’ve just learned that Pinyon Publishing will publish my versions about the same time…

DO: With the exception of your early translations published in Field and Malahat Review, Schmeidel’s work remains unknown in English. At any point, did her work gain popularity abroad? You mention that during that period in LA between 1968 and 1976 she began writing “seriously.” Can you elaborate on that?

SF: Alas, for unknown reasons – lack of energy, faith in the work, her almost pathological modesty, her content to be “journaling away” and leave it at that –
I never did understand why Bettina did not send her poems around to Austrian, German, and Swiss journals, which I am convinced would have snapped some up…

It does seem in retrospect –- Pia might have more knowledge about this – that once Bettina and Peter Grubbauer divorced and she returned to Austria with Pia sometime around 1976, she began journaling more intensely and writing more about interpersonal relationships.

DO: Your bio states that Elisabeth’s mother named her after German writer and novelist Bettina von Arnim, famous for her wild spirit as well as for her seductive liaisons with Goethe, Beethoven, Schumann, Liszt and Brahms—just to name a few. One might think that being named after such a literary dynamic persona would create a tough act to follow. Is there any indication that Elisabeth grew up sharing her mother’s obsession with Bettina?

SF: It sure seems as if Bettina shared, as you note, her mother’s obsession with the name; and for all we know her father’s as well, who himself was a renowned conductor and choir director. One more regret: never knew of her parents and her “noble/von Schmeidel lineage and would have hounded her to know of such a “past.” Am encouraging Pia to take up the No. 2 memoir-pencil!

DO: I’m intrigued by that suitcase you mention in Bettina’s bio, and then again in response to an earlier question. I recall Marcel Duchamp’s quote: Everything important that I have done can be put into a little suitcase. Was Bettina planning on leaving Salzburg? Who discovered that suitcase? Were these poems regarded as completed, or was her work edited posthumously?

SF: Suspect, because Bettina and Pia were close, she would know the “story” of the suitcase, why Bettina moved back to Vienna, details of Bettina’s illness that did her in. Pia, I believe, is the first person to review what was in said “suitcase,” but has now turned to Klein and Wyrwa for editing help. I engaged in some minor editing when poring over the partly handwritten originals Pia sent, including entitling some poems that lacked a title as well as giving my versions an overall title, which scaneg Verlag might alter along with changing some titles I decided on for this or that poem. One caveat: in so doing, I did rely on how Bettina and I decided similar issues the times we worked together…

DO:   Schmeidel often writes about death and nightmarish things: a bald princess, a broken magic lamp, a large ominous figure that gets stuck in the keyhole trying to get into her bedroom at night (Children’s Thriller). Or in another example, in a poem titled “Installation,” she states:

 

              The earliest decades did not pass over

              my chest without a trace. Knife pleats, cross striped,

              recall the thoroughness of a radiologist,

              who mammogramed me once.

              Twenty-five percent of all cases, he says, can

              I emphasize (and he emphasizes) CAN become malicious.

 

These narratives and narrative fragments feel very personal, very intimate. Was she influenced by a literary source (or several) the way that Anne Sexton, for example, turned to Grimm’s Fairy Tales as a fount for her “Transformations”?

SF:. Inasmuch as Bettina read widely, was fluent in English, and we sometimes exchanged notes on poems in English as well as in German -– I recall especially a spirited exchange on Plath, another on Aichinger* — it wouldn’t surprise me to “discover” moments in which she might have leaned, as you propose, on Anne Sexton, say. As for Grimm Fairy Tale traces: I suspect if you undertook a study of their “influence” on writers in German it’d show at least spotty instances in a great many (under oath, I’d confess to several myself/grin)…

*In April, 1975, Aichinger invited Bettina and me to join her in a reading at the “Leselampe”/Traklhaus/Salzburg, and together we read some of Ilse’s poems beforehand. Incidentally, as I’ve written elsewhere, when I think I read some of Bettina’s during my half of the joint reading, or if not, given dimming memory, at least showed them to Ilse at some point, she said as how Bettina might be “the best unknown poet writing in German.”

DO:   Yet despite such mysterious and unnerving imagery, there is a liveliness and ironic self-awareness that recalls, for me, Simic’s work. I quote from Schmeidel’s poem suitably titled “For Example”:

 

Fall’s nearing. You’re almost restored.
Look, all the leaves are falling!
You nod your head.
The men lay an arm around your shoulder,
the women say: that has to be done!
and sweep leaves from the balconies.

 

 I also see a strong compatibility in your tonal register, the way you juxtapose an immense existential observation with something surprisingly common or accessible. Your poem “Wings and Circles” comes to mind:

 

              I live without life,

              die without flesh,

              like the feet of mallards

              soft and blind.

 

              my body wants the place

              where wings and circles are.

 

What, if any, connection do you see between your and her work?

SF: Your mention of Simic would have pleased Bettina. Ever since she appeared in Field, in which issue I believe Simic also appeared, or perhaps shortly after she began reading Field regularly, she would comment on a number of poems she was learning from, among them Simic’s.

“Tonal register compatibility” is an apt phrase to get at an aspect of how any poets exchanging work are “infected” by each other’s music; and uncannily, my poem you mention (“Wings and Circles”) I distinctly recall Bettina’s help in editing “down” and away from its original setting on the North Sea coast, where I spent intense hours fishing with a fellow, German student during 1949-50, the year I spent in Germany as one of the first exchange students to study there after WW II. The poem was originally a sort of companion to “A Foot Off the Bottom,” the title poem of a collection, which owned the larger landscape more compellingly. That year, which I’ve revisited in two memoirs and referenced in many a poem, still preoccupies me; and Bettina was one of the first souls who helped me reflect more and more deeply on “The Language of the Enemy,” which phrase my grandmother came to, on her deathbed, who could not understand why I’d “devoted” myself to German ever since freshman year in high school, when the mysterious Kurt Zander wrote his name on the board to introduce himself to the class and drew a comical little pike=Zander in German alongside; and the hook’s still embedded in my liver…

That quite aside, Bettina’s ways with the “enemy” in her poems have always intrigued me…

DO:   What was the biggest concern for you in translating Schmeidal work?   What could be potentially lost in the passage from German to English?

SF: Given the translator you are, Dzvinia, you are deeply aware of what can be and/or is by definition LOST in TRANSLATION – time to see the FILM again! My caveat, “coward” that I am, is that because I’ve mostly worked on living writers with considerable English at their command, they are the first and best to say what I’ve lost of their “body and soul”; and have otherwise set my course by what Miroslav Holub once advised: “Above all, do what you can to make it behave like a poem in your American.” He famously included a “mistake” of a whole line I’d somehow managed to think was in the original Czech; and as I’ve written elsewhere, slapped his knee, howling, “I like it we keep it!” When he was eventually “allowed” to publish the poem in Prague, he included the line he’d insisted remain in my translation

DO: Allow me to back track here for a moment: you spent an undergraduate year in Germany as one of the first U.S. exchange students after World War II (1949-50). Did that opportunity influence your own writing in any way? Were you translating at that time? Did the fact of being Jewish with such close proximity to WWII influence or present any unique challenges?

SF: Huge subject, which I’ve tried to hack away at in the memoirs I’ve mentioned: “The Language of the Enemy” (Black Mt. Press); “First & Last Words: Memoir & Stories (Pinyon Publishing). Anything I could say in this limited space would, forgive me, be but a foolish oversimplification, so I’m asking for mercy, and of course hoping interested readers will move on to the memoirs…

DO:   The act of translating has the potential to arouse a mystical union. Of all the poets you’ve translated, is there one, in particular, with whom you feel an established strong connection?

SF: Again, thanks for such an apt phrase: “mystical union” INDEED. First and foremost, Karl Krolow, of whose magisterial poems I’ve had the great good fortune to publish three collections. He’s the poet I dare say I’ve learned the most from, and close readers would soon see how much I’m indebted to him. It’s probably self-serving to add that one of my most cherished “notes” is from Luzie Krolow, Karl’s wife, who wrote that in his last days he surrounded himself with favorite books, “among which are your translations.” Gulp and gasp. To this moment I greatly regret not having been able to attend his memorial service.

DO: What projects, translation or other, are you working on now?

SF: Currently, assuming energy and focus permit, I’m working with Ute von Funcke on her evocative poems. She’s a Munich writer (playwright and poet, chiefly), whose most recent book my friends at scaneg Verlag published and recently sent me; and I was immediately drawn to them. Ute’s a translator’s dream “co-worker,” whose English is an integral part of how she’s helping to refine my versions. Now some thirty poems into the “project,” and given some acceptances already, I’m quite hopeful we’ll eventually have a MS to send around, “The One Above” willing, Gramma Anna would whisper…

Thank you Stuart for your generous responses to my questions and for bringing Elisabeth “Bettina” Schmeidel and her inventive, affecting poetry closer to us. We look forward to your future translations.

 

And now let’s turn to her poems…

 

Elisabeth Schmeidel, translated from the German by Stuart Friebert

 

CHILDREN’S THRILLER

The princess is bald, the magic lamp broken,
the boy on the dolphin a statue.

When Anna wets the bed he’ll come for sure and if
he doesn’t come, because he’s so big and black so
he gets stuck in the keyhole, then father will come,
because Anna’s wet her bed.
Anna is four.
For the princess a wig, please.
Take off your pants so I can hit you better.

In reality he’s a human being, they say, with a heart.
When Anna sits on his lap nothing happens.
One must talk with the woman. Fewer antics, more
Anna instead. She’s always trustworthy and pocketless.

Anna wakes up, hears him scream, crawls under
the covers. Aladdin, she whispers, get him stuck,
close the keyhole!

FOR EXAMPLE

Something happens. Something or other.
Perhaps for the 6th or 7th time or
however many times.
Up to this first time for you.
You startle.
Landing from nowhere.

You pointing e.g.
a leaf’s falling! bewilders them.
Leaves fall. Why the pointer?
Calm down.
Many leaves fall in the fall.
It’s May.
First snowfall in July,
berries on Christmas trees,
no cause for excitement,
you’ve had nervous breakdowns before:
they treat you, carefully, distribute
jobs unobtrusively (they believe).

Fall’s nearing. You’re almost restored.
Look, all the leaves are falling!
You nod your head.
The men lay an arm around your shoulder,
the women say: that has to be done!
and sweep leaves from the balconies.

Someone points: a leaf’s falling!
You all stand still, look at the falling leaf.
He pulls you along:
in fall many leaves fall.
You nod.

INSTALLATION

The earliest decades did not pass over
my chest without a trace. Knife pleats, cross striped,
recall the thoroughness of a radiologist,
who mammogramed me once.
Twenty-five percent of all cases, he says, can,
I emphasize (and he emphasizes) CAN become malicious.

When I searched for one of my siblings
years later, he cried out, horrified:
Where are your delightful little boobs!
I was holding my child in my arms.
Ever since we don’t talk about it.

Times change or tempora mutantur, writes
a great aunt from Africa. Because of modesty, and
she persists, it was high time to put a corset
on my daughter.

I add vanilla to the banana-milk, continue the past-
perfect enlightenment-campaign about dessert. Look,
I say, today I’m using body-folds as a muff….
We’re living in an emerging ice age.


Stuart Friebert‘s fourteenth volume of translations, SCANT HOURS: Selected Poems of Elisabeth Schmeidel, will appear from Pinyon Publishing in 2018, the originals of which will appear as something of a twin volume from scaneg Verlag/Munich, who along with Schmeidel’s daughter Pia Grubbauer are owed great thanks for permission to print these poems.  In addition, Friebert‘s recently published Decanting: Selected & New Poems (Lost Horse Press) and a second prose collection: First & Last Words: Memoir & Stories (Pinyon Publishing).