house of the old language

Author: Maja Haderlap
Translator: Deirdre McMahon


their borderlines link a string
of snares and breaches.
in the annals of division
the limes came up winner.
in the war the border’s ribbon
swung back and forth,
villages cut off from roads,
slid to the periphery.
their inhabitants sealed throats
with clumsy locks,
observed silent crime scenes,
which i enter on tiptoe.
i often went with wide eyes
along the armed path
into a neighbouring country,
to hear about past times
when a fence edged the meadows
and all the names were linked
by related echo, where once
there was a street, its traces
fading. everything is edge
oblivion and transition.

house of the old language

confused bees buzz around the hallways
of my abandoned language.
birds of passage spill their guts
in chambers stormed by abuse
as if they were home at last, back
to where they came from. language
bound me to the world, fascinated me
while it failed to satisfy me.
biting through it, i tasted its desolation.
combing through those years i left
little behind, even if it was everything.

behind those porous crumbling walls
epochmaking promises lay dumped
an odd lovely song
with its promise of milk and honey
its collapse long evident.
at last i forced my way out
followed by what I had left behind.
it has reached its destination,
while i circle without cease.

Translator’s Note:Encountering Maja Haderlap’s work was like opening a door into a world I knew well, yet one very different from my own experience. Initially I was drawn by her novel Engel des Vergessens into a rapidly disappearing rural culture, a minority community and a language under threat, a world where the landscape hides knowledge and wisdom as well as the divisions and bitterness of history. After getting her first German language volume of poetry langer transit I began to read and translate, at first as part of a university assignment and then for its own sake.

Maja Haderlap’s poetry is a poetry of borderlands, linguistic, cultural, historical and political. It draws the reader in, delights but challenges before revealing its range of possibilities. It is challenging in its use of German. Capital letters are completely absent. This is more unusual than in English. Substantives and some pronouns are generally capitalised in German. ‘ihr’ without capitals in borderlands invites interpretation of the poem either as an address to the borderlands or a more conventional speaking of them in the third person – ‘their’. Such lack of linguistic signposts creates ambiguity and invites the reader to engage in the search for meaning through close reading. While it is difficult to maintain the intensity of this challenge in English, keeping the text in lower case and using lexis and line structure helps to convey as much of the original as possible. Very precise punctuation does provide the reader with a handrail for understanding.

For Haderlap, who grew up speaking Slovene as part of a linguistic minority in Carinthia, southern Austria, choosing to write in German is, in itself, a political act. She has spoken of using German as a lens through which she can safely explore memories and experience.

She moulds the language to her needs, particularly in her pairing of words to create new compounds. In borderlands she uses ‘grenzband’ to describe the border, an unconventional pairing which evokes the image of the border as a ribbon which swings and varies according to political or social pressures. The speaker moves ‘beäugt’ through this landscape. This word offers a multiplicity of interpretations from a highly visually aware speaker to one who moves with ‘eyes-wide-open’ or ‘eyes-peeled’, conscious of danger in a threatening landscape. After a lot of thought I went with ‘wide eyes’ which invites examination but does not hammer any particular interpretation. The path on which the speaker walks is described as a ‘harnischpfad’ (armoured, armed or fortified path), again an unconventional pairing inviting a reader to reflect. Is the path armoured? Is it protecting the speaker or protecting itself from intruders? She moves ‘leichtfüßig’ or light-footed, perhaps to avoid awakening ghosts or memories. The image of the silent people with padlocked throats resonates with many borderland situations where silence seals off stories of suffering and horror. The ‘echo of names’ within the poem hints at connection, even conversation but also the change of names due to political or linguistic realities. The final image of oblivion or transition may be positive or negative in that the borders may become unimportant as understanding grows or its opposite, where borders, though impermanent are a force of destruction. Translating this necessitates a balancing act to try to maintain as many perspectives as possible.

Haderlap’s evocation of this desolate border area resonates with my own experience of travelling along the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic prior to the Good Friday Agreement. Roads and paths along the border had frequently been cratered or barricaded, vanishing or becoming overgrown and deserted as a result of political unrest or savage acts. Around them nature flourished, obliterating traces of human activity.

In ‘house of the old language’ Haderlap explores the nature of language and the effect of changing languages. Elsewhere she has spoken of writing out of a lack of language the tension between her two languages and the way they allow her to experience the world. Haderlap has described her bilingualism as an enriching experience but has also said that speaking Slovene could be seen as politically suspect in some quarters. The image of her old language Slovene as an abandoned and derelict house is a very powerful one, beautiful yet desolate. This resonates with me as a Gaelic speaker, another language threatened from both within and outside its population, struggling to survive amid social, political, economic and cultural difficulties. Such minority languages are repositories of cultural history and wisdom but are accessible to an ever-decreasing number of people.

The lines ‘zugvögel entleeren ihre mägen in den/von der schmähung erstürmten kammern,’ were two lines which challenged me most in my attempt to understand and translate them. My own experience of entering a house where crows had met their traumatic end (with devastating effects!) by falling down the chimney suggested a translation as ‘spray shit’. However this does not convey the full meaning of this image in the poem. Haderlap’s birds are migratory; they carry experience of elsewhere within themselves. They empty their stomachs but is this from the crop to feed young or simply faeces? Do they “empty their stomachs”, ‘void their guts’ or ‘spill their guts’ which might suggest story or other enrichment?

Translating these and some other poems by Maja Haderlap has for me been a very enriching experience. Her lyricism, themes and preoccupations fascinate me as a reader and translator and I am delighted to introduce and share her work with other readers.

From Maja Haderlap, langer transit. Gedichte © Wallstein Verlag, 2014