- Enigma: Selected Poems by Ingeborg Bachmann
Ingeborg Bachmann, one of the most significant German-language poets of the twentieth century, is still relatively unknown in the English-speaking world. An accessible English translation of her poetry is long overdue and is therefore a welcome addition for Bachmann’s English readership. The collection offers a comprehensive selection of the Austrian writer’s poetic oeuvre, including poems from the volumes Die gestundete Zeit (Time on Loan, 1953) and Anrufung des großen Bären (Invocation of the Great Bear, 1956) as well as from the posthumously published collection of Bachmann’s most personal poems Ich weiß keine bessere Welt (I Know No Better World, 2000). Mike Lyons and Patrick Drysdale’s selection of Bachmann’s poems privileges breadth at the expense of some notable omissions. However, all of Bachmann’s best-known poems, such as “Erklär mir, Liebe,” “Alle Tage,” “An die Sonne,” and “Böhmen liegt am Meer” are included, as well as five “miscellaneous poems” taken from Bachmann’s literary estate that have previously appeared only in literary journals.
Lyons and Drysdale’s translation is endorsed by Heinz Bachmann, the poet’s brother, in the prefatory matter. Resident in London for many years, Heinz Bachmann has devoted himself to furthering the reception of his sister’s work in the English-speaking world. He calls Lyons and Drysdale’s translation [End Page 192] “the first British interpretation since Michael Hamburger’s translation in 1967” (preface). While Lyons and Drysdale’s may indeed be the first “British interpretation” since that of Hamburger, there have been a number of translations of Bachmann’s poetry into English in the decades since 1967. A translation of Bachmann’s selected poetry was undertaken by Mark Anderson and published by Princeton University Press in 1986, and a very fine bilingual edition of Bachmann’s collected poems by Peter Filkins was published by Zephyr Press in 2006. That Lyons and Drysdale are British rather than American translators may therefore be regarded as hair-splitting, since Enigma is still published and distributed by an American publishing house and because it is largely due to American translators—such as the aforementioned Peter Filkins, Philip Boehm, and others—that English-language readers may enjoy Bachmann’s poetry and prose.
For readers seeking an unabridged collection of Bachmann’s poetry translated into English, Filkin’s scholarly bilingual edition of some 640 pages remains the authoritative work. Lyons and Drysdale’s slim volume is, however, explicitly aimed not at the academic reader: “This translation has been prepared for the general reader rather than the academic and for students of literature who are not fluent in German,” reads the blurb. However, even the general reader and the student of literature, I would argue, appreciate basic scholarly editing that makes reference to which of the two men has translated a particular poem, for instance. The practice of putting the translator’s initials at the end of a given text common to multiple-author translations is conspicuously lacking here, so that we are given little insight into the exciting venture of translating Bachmann’s poetry. It is still relatively unusual to find collections of poems translated by more than one translator, and it would be interesting to know whether some poems were translated by Lyons and some by Drysdale, or all by both. These and other questions remain unanswered, as a translators’ preface is lacking in this edition. The fact that several of the poems from the collection I Know No Better World do not in fact have a title in the original, as they do in this collection, is similarly nowhere explained.
Despite these reservations regarding the editing of the volume, this is a faithful translation of Bachmann’s poems—Lyons and Drysdale have stayed close both to the meaning and to the form of Bachmann’s poetry, replicating rhyme where it is present in the original. There are inevitably interpretative choices with which those familiar with Bachmann’s poetry would disagree, but these are relatively few and far between, and in general...