28 July 2012

Dylan Thomas in German

This is the text of a short introduction I gave for BBC Wales at Broadcasting House at a collaborative event sponsored by the Arts and Humanities Research Council:

My field of expertise with regard to Dylan Thomas is his literary presence in translation in Europe – especially behind the Iron Curtain and especially in German. So my research questions include: What did Dylan Thomas mean in, for instance, East Berlin? How did editors make the case for publishing his poetry there? What happened to the poems in a cultural context so far removed from that they were written in? – one that was highly political and where censorship operated. Why were East German poets dedicating poems to Dylan Thomas? And ultimately: Did the translation of Thomas allow language to be used in ways otherwise being censored out of existence?

An East German survey of British literature, published in Leipzig in 1986, presents Thomas as a writer "working just like the fishermen and boatmen of South Wales, whom he knew and whom he memorialized". The survey defines Thomas as being what a socialist writer was officially meant to be, a spokesperson for the experience of the common working people. Books like this give us clues to the reception of Thomas behind the Iron Curtain. We can also speak to editors who were involved in publishing Thomas in translation and to poets inspired to dedicate a poem to him. We also have indications from the poetry editions themselves – many of them illustrated, some bringing Thomas’s lines into relationship with visual art made in East Germany, and some designed in a way that indicates the intended readership – so we find 12 Dylan Thomas poems in a paperback poetry series on sale at newsstands lying next to copies of the socialist Party newspaper. They weren’t for an elite audience, but for everyone and the volume cost about the same as a loaf of bread.

Following Dylan Thomas into different European contexts via the journey a particular poem makes can be eye-opening. Thomas wrote ‘Fern Hill’ in English in South Wales in 1945. In the early 1950s, it was translated into German by Erich Fried, an Austrian Londoner. It was also later translated by the Munich-based poet Heinz Piontek. In 1974 their two West-made poem translations passed through the Iron Curtain and were published in East Germany. Thomas’s linguistic technique, which Fried and Piontek imitate, demonstrates the type of language play that was stigmatized in the East as formalism. So, Thomas’s poem in translation recovers a style of writing which was otherwise taboo under socialist-realism. It’s an example of taboo-breaking by means of faithful translation.

A very different example is Thomas’s 'The hunchback in the park' poem translated by Fried – which evokes pity for a homeless man, as Thomas’s English does. But by leaving the calls to him of “Mister - He Mister” in English, the German poem signals that he’s in an English-speaking country. In West Germany, this would have no major ramifications for reading the poem. But for readers behind the Iron Curtain, the same poem functions as a snapshot from the Anglo capitalist world abroad, which was being demonized in the media as an unequal, anonymizing society full of alienation and homelessness. Being in socialist East Germany made the Hunchback text into an anticapitalist poem and made Fern hill into a beacon of stylistic change for writers there.

These are just two small examples of Dylan Thomas abroad. It is important to realise that, alongside the words that Thomas wrote in English, their transformation into other languages has had an impact beyond Britain and Wales. And that the Dylan Thomas who sets out, so to speak, is not the same as the one who arrives in these very different cultures. We can talk of inventing the German Dylan Thomas, for instance, inventing a Hungarian one, a Yiddish one, and so on. The list of languages into which Thomas has been translated is longer than you would imagine. Translation and adaptation are crucial aspects of the Dylan Thomas legacy, not to be overlooked at home.