Verfreundungseffekt: Make The Call – Translation As Afterlife/Reincarnation

The latest instalment of Jen Calleja's Verfreundungseffekt column puts into play a game of Chinese Whispers on a poem by Sam Riviere — with help from Chrissy Williams, Laura Tenschert, Livia Franchini and Jack Underwood — considering the value and the possibilities of translating a translation, flipping Walter Benjamin the bird in the process. (Illustration by Richard Phœnix)

During the ‘Found in Translation’ panel discussion on poetry translation at the ICA a couple of weeks ago, Michael Hofmann announced – when Jan Wagner said that young German poets read and translate their foreign contemporaries – “it doesn’t occur to young poets to read translations or foreign poets”. I would suggest: not all young poets.

The week before, I’d taken part in an event presenting an ongoing translation project at Goldsmiths’ poetry conference, ‘The Place for Poetry’, alongside other poet-translators and poets interested in translation. PhD students Laura Tenschert and Livia Franchini had invited Chrissy Williams, Jack Underwood and myself to take part in a series of three translation chains inspired by the game Stille Post/Telefono Senza Fili/Telephone, a kind of Chinese Whispers, with the intention to disprove Walter Benjamin’s belief that translating a translation is impossible and pointless. Jan Wagner had opened the panel discussion with the same anecdote that appeared in Laura’s introduction: how one of Goethe’s poems was translated into Japanese, then French, then back into German (believed to be translated from Japanese) due to translators and magazine editors mistaking translations for great, original poems.

Starting with poems by Rachel Long, Matthew Gregory and Sam Riviere, we translated the original poems or each other’s translations to see how the poems would transform and what new poems could be created. There was one rule: that the translators would translate the poem they were given as if it were an original poem and not a translation. The results of ‘Sam’s Chain’ have been published in full below, with commentaries.

In the course of the translation of Sam’s poem, I derailed the chain by making my translation hyper-modern; similar to when much older poems are retranslated for a contemporary readership. Translators, simply by being human individuals, translate differently due to their own conscious or subconscious agenda based on their experiences, ideologies and interests, and are always translating into a time, place and context. We each ended up adopting a different approach with complex and personal motivations in mind, using techniques to make each translation in the chain ‘foreign’, domesticated, contemporary, a product of artistic license, highly personal, the result of mimicked ineptitude and/or disobedient.

If commissioned to translate poetry, some of these wouldn’t fly, but in this instance it showed what complex processes have, may and will occur in translating – that these translations have worth and power as poems in themselves, and aren’t just errors, copies or ‘derivatives of an original’. They could even (careful now) ‘enhance’ the original poem…


Sam Riviere (English) > Laura Tenschert (German) > Jen Calleja (English) > Jack Underwood (English) > Livia Francini (Italian) > Chrissy Williams (English)

Sam Riviere’s poem ‘My Face Saw Her Magazine’ from his first Faber collection 81 Austerities

Sam Riviere: The poem is made of half-private jokes and misunderstandings, so it seems appropriate if these references and mishearings become things shared, somewhat intimately, between the translators and translations. A bit like hearing an unruly coterie gossiping from the other end of the room, which is a feeling I like.

The title is a mishearing of lyrics by the rapper Ghostface Killah. As the point of the exercise is to emphasise the differences that come out of the translation chains, it seemed best to translate this poem for this project.


über die mondlandschaften von skateparks hinweg bist du 13 j

& darfst nicht mehr mit jungs spielen / auf gleis 6

trägst du dein wunderbares cape und bist nicht eigentlich du

sondern jemand anderes / während ich ein typ bin der sich

bei songtexten verhört und sie deshalb umso schöner und persönlicher versteht

mit deinem dunklen pony weissem hemd und strohhut bist du

der blasseste goth beim picknick / entschieden unverzaubert

von meinem doch so bezaubernden freund bist du der inbegriff von desinteresse

im bett & in zusammenpassender unterwäsche versteckst du den tunnel

den wir im amerikanischen gefängnis gegraben haben / antwortest nicht auf meine sms du bist
die aktentasche deren inhalt golden leuchtet

ich begreife, dass ich immer nur in jeweils ein auge schauen kann / es ist reine

propaganda die pupille ein klecks schwärzester tintelstrahltinte

in deiner luxus strickmode machst du werbung

für luxus strickmode / & dann & dann zwinkerst du

(My Face Saw Her Magazine by Sam Riviere, translated by Laura Tenschert)

Laura Tenschert: I was trying to keep a very conversational tone, both in register, as well as in terms of the way the text looks, so I decided to keep it all lowercase, the way you might write an email (or a text message even) to a friend. I think it also really suited the rolling progression of scenes and images in the poem. I decided to keep abbreviations like ‘yrs’, so I abbreviated it to ‘j’ instead of ‘Jahre’ (‘years’).

I struggled with the translation of the line ‘I realise I can only look in one eye at a time’, which can refer to the suitcase, as well as looking into someone’s eyes. So far I haven’t found a way to convey both meanings, so I decided to go with the latter, since the following lines refer to the eye belonging to ‘you’. Suggestions are welcome.

During the conference someone brought up rhymes and assonances, and while it’s sometimes difficult to preserve them, I’m glad that the ‘ink’ and ‘wink’ are echoed in ‘-tinte’ and ‘zwinkerst’. I decided to stick with the English word ‘goth’ in the German version, since the German translation ‘Grufti’ is really dated – it sounds totally 90s to me – and I tried to keep the tone modern. Overall, I’d still secretly like to consider this one a work in progress. There are a few lines that I’m still torn about and I have a few draft-files saved on my computer.


you’re totally over the lunar craters of graveyards 13

& forbidden from further toying with lads / on the platform to holzkirchen

you’re wearing your magic cloak and you’ve

metamorphosed / i’m just a guy unable to hear the controversy in song lyrics

meaning I really get them in keeping with my experiences

with your dyed-black fringe white running shirt and crown of your own dunce-hood you’re

the sickliest health goth at the gathering / outspokenly unconvinced

by my oh so enthralling mate you’re the embodiment of indifference

the one of you between the sheets & in posh undies blocks the view of the tunnel

we hacked in the bit in the american jail / don’t reply to my dm

you’re the neoprene sleeve whose data within glows golden

I get that we don’t see eye to eye / it’s pure

hype the pupil a blur of compacted dpi

in your high-end knit-mesh you’re supporting

high-end knit-mesh / you squint over & over again

(‘Mein Gesicht sah ihre Zeitschrift’ by Laura Tenschert, translated by Jen Calleja)

Jen Calleja: I thought to keep my translation interesting for myself (as I know Sam’s poem) and to make it so Jack would have something different to Sam’s poem (I can’t unremember it, I tried) I decided to do what literary translators do but in a ‘heightened’ way, semi-deliberately mishearing (like the guy in Sam’s and my poem) due to my own particular reading of what I see in Laura’s poem.

I imagined that Laura was a German poet who I could not contact who had written the poem about the same time that Sam had written his, 2012ish, and that I had been commissioned to translate it for a certain audience: a kind of Generation Z audience for a popular online cultural platform.

The figures in my version are different to Sam’s; have more or less agency; in certain cases are more sinister or more knowing. I imagined the ‘you’ is a young cultural writer and gamer with an online presence being followed with interest by a fellow gamer/friend who’s read and disagrees with her writing but lusts after her. These are current archetypal figures (the poem also includes contemporary terms that have been popularised in the last couple of years and modern cultural controversies, there are multiple screens hinted at including a game screen, a phone screen, an Instagram feed, a laptop screen, a blog) which are already different to the time of skateparks and texting from Sam’s poem. Poems age, even contemporary ones.

To an extent the translation is a metaphor for how poems age or disintegrate and how translations can be considered ‘a celebration of disintegration’, or hybridity or evolution of the text into a certain very-present.

Generally I’ve tried to not choose the ‘obvious’ equivalent to show that there is always a choice to be made. ‘Timely Writings’ is a play on ‘Zeit’ (‘time’) and ‘Schrift’ (‘writing’). ‘Über…hinweg can be translated as ‘across’ but also ‘to be over something’ as in ‘get over it’ so I translated this as ‘Totally over’. ‘Skateparks’ have changed into ‘graveyards’ as both are stand-ins for ‘public spaces used by teens’, ‘skateparks’ might have had to be changed when translating into another culture as it wouldn’t have a ring of relevance to the young; skateparks are also dying out and are a ‘graveyard’ site of contemporary culture. ‘Spielen’ is ‘to play’ but also ‘to toy’ as in ‘to tease’. To add a sense of foreign place I imagined that Laura was still Munich-based and looked up where the train from platform 6 goes, changing this to it final destination. To keep my poem hyper-contemporary I chose the very-latest kind of goth – ‘health goth’ – then adapted details to bring out this kind of goth throughout the poem for consistency. In German you say someone’s head’s full of straw if they’re a bit braindead, so imagined the straw hat reference was a jibe about her intelligence. The final word can mean blink, wink, or bat your eyes, and again I was imagining her repeatedly looking at a phone screen.


Orbiting above the lunar craters named after the famously dead,

you pretend to be 13 again, dreaming of the day you’ll finally get intimate

with the other young athletes: perhaps on a podium, or on holiday, working

the barbecue in a rainbow apron, everyone telling you how magical you look.

But back in orbit you’re really just an average, cool, person gathering

controversy around you like song lyrics, as if they might refer to your

authentically difficult persona, with your emo-bangs and white running vest

and your self-administered high-art bathos-crown; you’re the sickest health

goth at the gathering, loudly unconvinced by my keen and attentive

wing-man, putting his good words in for me; you’re the embodiment

of indifference, as I brain-style another photoshoot of you between luxury

linen, in luxury bra w/ matching tanka and alas I can no longer access

my default mind-pic of you, shimmying down the little tunnel we hacked

through the walls of the penitentiary. Fine. Don’t dm me back in your zebra

print tracksuit upon whose sleeves the data gloweth golden! I understand we

don’t see “eye to eye” on the purity of hype, with our pupils a blur

of compacted dpi, but in your high-end turtleneck you’re truly selling

the high-end turtleneck narrative. I haven’t stopped winking all week.

(‘My Visage Saw Her Timely Writings’ by Jen Calleja, translated by Jack Underwood)

Jack Underwood: With the free intralingual translations or versions I’ve done before there’s always been a reason I’ve wanted to work with a text rather than just read it, say, a John Donne poem that I don’t really feel I 100% get because I don’t speak like him.

Working on intralingual translations, from the text and with the text and against the text, at times, can be a way of reading it into your own subjective language. With this project, with the work by people I know, and with vernacular closer to my own way of speaking, it felt different, more performative, or demonstrative. I had in mind that I was working on Sam’s source text and Jen and Laura’s translations, which made me a bit more self-conscious, and so maybe a bit more extravagant! A new voice started coming in there at some point, a slick media guy, a bit unpleasant, and so I settled into a tone, somewhere between me, the poem and this new speaker of my own version.


Orbitando su crateri lunari con il nome di morti famosi,

fai finta di avere ancora 13 anni, sognando il giorno che finalmente entrerai nel giro

di tutti gli altri giovani atleti: magari su un podio, o in vacanza, incaricata

al barbecue in un grembiule arcobaleno, tutti che ti dicono madonna sei magica.

Ma là in orbita sei solo nella media, cool, una persona che attrae

un certo mood intorno a sé come le parole di una canzone, come se si riferissero alla tua

autenticamente difficile persona, con la tua frangia emo e la tua bianca canotta sporty

e la tua autoassegnata anticorona d’alto rango; sei la migliore health

goth che c’è stasera, vocalmente nonconvinta dal mio dedito e attento

comprimario, che parla molto bene di me qui dentro; sei l’incarnazione

dell’indifferenza, mentre nel cervello freestylo un altro photoshoot di te tra lenzuola

di lusso, in reggiseno di lusso & tanka matchy – ma no, com’è che non posso più accedere

alla foto default che ho di te in testa, noi che saltiamo la fila al Tunnel ci facciamo strada

nel muro umano dietro le transenne. Okay. Non mi mandare un DM nella tua zebrata

tuta sulle cui maniche d’oro rifulgono i tuoi data! Comprendo

che non possiamo fare eye-contact, quando si parla di purezza dell’hype, le nostre pupille spillo

di dpi compatti, ma nel tuo colloalto costoso lasciatelo dire fai un egregio storytelling

per quanto riguarda la figura del colloalto costoso. È da una settimana che ho questo tic.

(‘My Massage Cured Her Journalism’ by Jack Underwood, translated by Livia Francini)

Livia Francini: Though I could only access Jack’s version I could remember Sam’s original, and I was aware the poem had already undergone substantial alterations. I thought to both counteract the extreme manipulation that had already taken place, and follow on from it in a deliberately artificial way, would be to approach the poem in a ‘hyper-literal’ way: I began translating it into Italian leaving syntactic patterns untreated, and picking basic, root meanings for each of the words, working as a sort of very common-sense, human Google-translate. This immediately generated two interesting issues:

  1. Some very common language patterns in English sound very ‘literary’ and ‘cultured’ in Italian, which uses the reverse in common speech.
  1. The Italian translation of certain words/references to current trends just didn’t make any sense: those words are always used in English when speaking Italian, and particularly young kids living in big cities will speak a mix of both languages, with an English word tossed in every twenty or so. So I went back and turned those keywords back into English.

What I was left with was this very specific register akin to the kind of ‘lingo’ that is used by journalists and people working in advertisement in Milan, coupling complex speech with the foreign words used by youth culture. A very precise ‘voice’ was coming to surface, and it was interesting to me how this had happened ‘subconsciously’. I’d only pursued ‘literalness’ at this stage. I felt as if that shift in voice was also the heart of Jack’s version (he spoke at the conference about pursuing ‘certain aspects’ over others in the poem and ‘not being sure who the speaker was’). I abandoned my initial plan as it now seemed contrived and a bit lifeless, and decided to let the character that was coming out of the poem guide me. This is not something I would usually do when translating, but I felt there was room for playfulness.

Then, I looked back at Jen’s notes on the ‘ageing of poems’, and how translation can foster the ‘evolution of a poem into a certain very-present’, and asked myself who I was translating for, why was this poem relevant to me. At this time, the EXPO riots were taking place in Milan, dividing Italian public opinion. Given I’d already naturally found a very ‘Milanese’ register, I couldn’t help feeling that the dichotomy between the hyper-capitalist face of a city and the real disconnect hitting its economy and citizens was central in both the writing and the real life riots. So I took the liberty of deliberately siting the poem within this space/time framework (though it is never acknowledged in the body of the text). I kept the realistic hybrid language, and, like Jen had done in her translation, inserted a few site-specific elements (‘Tunnel’, for instance, is a hip club in Milan).


Orbit of lunar craters with the name of famous people dead,

pretend to be at least 13 years old, dreaming of the day when it finally arrives in the womb

all other young athletes: maybe on a podium, or on vacation, which was responsible

barbecue apron rainbow, all those who tell you they are fabulous lady.

But in orbit there are only average, fresco, someone who attracts

a certain umore around him like the words of a song, as if they referred to

person really hard, with your bangs emo and your white tank top sportive

and your auto-assigned anti-choir of high rank; you’re the best salute-

goth tonight, unconvinced vocally from my devoted and attentive

actor, who speaks very well of me in here; you are the incarnation

ndifference, while in other freestyle brain servizio fotographico you between sheets

bra luxury luxury and tanka accoppiamento – but no, not that I cannot access

the default image I have of you in the head, you jump the queue to fight our way Tunnel

in human wall behind the barriers. Bene. Do not send me a DM of zebra

meet sleeves luster of gold! I see

we cannot make contatto visivo, when it comes to pure montatura, our eyes pin

dpi compact, but in your neck-high expensive let me tell you a great narrazione di storie

with reference to the figure of neck-high expensive. It is a week that I have this zecca.

(‘Il Mio Massaggio Ha Curato Il Suo Giornalismo’ by Livia Francini, translated by Chrissy Williams)

Chrissy Williams: Sam’s poem was the one I received last, quite close to the deadline. I noticed the version in front of me used a lot of English colloquialisms in place of Italian ones, and got a sense of the very contemporary clipped feel of the language. I was aware Jack was doing an English-to-English translation somewhere in the middle, and knew this would have generated a more creative chain than the others, so I decided to do something different too.

I imagined I was a non-Italian speaker with no access to the poet (and no translation experience). I decided to run the original through Google Translate back and forth until it settled on a single stable version that no longer altered with each new translation. Noting the English words in the original, I decided to translate these into Italian, using Google Translate for those words individually. But, as Google Translate did not know all those words, the imaginative me decided the best thing to do would be to make them up.

When I did see the original poem in the end, what’s funny is that the sense of how the language is being used is actually not massively dissimilar. The idea of Sam’s misheard lyrics has carried through in the form of ‘words of a song’, which seems like a useful metaphor to me. I think translating the English words back into Italian highlighted something nice about the way different languages appropriate each other. I was happy with the playfulness of it in the end, although my decision-making was clearly informed by the fact I knew we were playing a game. I sent the finished version of Sam’s poem over to Livia with the comment "Oh dear lord, what have I done?"

Jen Calleja is a writer, literary translator and musician based in London. Her short fiction, poetry, articles and reviews have been published by The Quietus, Structo, Huck and Modern Poetry in Translation, and she has translated prose and poetry from German for Bloomsbury, PEN International and the Goethe-Institut. She edits the Anglo-German arts journal Verfreundungseffekt. She plays in the bands Sauna Youth, Feature and Monotony.

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