When I got here it was very calm. Villa Waldeberta seemed deserted to her, although five other scholarship holders currently live in Wildafing. “I thought I was scared,” says Karen Leader. In the meantime, she got used to being quiet and hardly wanted to leave. There is the “villa allure” that you feel right now, the “lake”. There is also a tower in the palace and, perhaps, rumor has it, ghosts. They come at just the right time, for ghosts of all kinds are a major subject of the Oxford professor of literature, who is also considered one of the most important British poet translators.
However, on this frigid midsummer day, Karin Lieder boarded the S-Bahn, abandoned by all the good spirits as it broke down again, and headed to Lyrik Kabinett in Munich. She will do so more often in the coming weeks, after her “Lyrical Residency” will last until the end of September. Karin Leder is not only happy to be among the people of Munich for a change. Here she also works on new translations of Durs Grünbein’s poems and compares the different editions in the library, some of which contain different texts: “You can tell that Durs writes quickly and changes things.”
However, Karen Leeder is not only on first name terms with Durs Grünbein and his poems. Anyone who glances at her long list of publications, from academic articles and books to translations of the works of Volker Brown, Michael Krueger, Ulrik Driesner and Ulric Almut Sandig, threatens to freeze in awe—and then, in light of the cheerful laughter of the lovable but relaxed-looking British woman slowly again. Here is a person, not an institution – even if this scholar had a role in transmitting German literature in Great Britain and the United States, it should not be underestimated.
Born in 1962 and raised in rugby near Coventry, Karen Leader almost became an engineer like her father. As a schoolgirl, she traveled to Rüsselsheim for a partner city exchange – then turned to words rather than cars: “I thought they were very beautiful,” she says musingly, “I was someone else. I could be someone else. In German.” Enthusiasm for literature soon followed, for Goethe, Dornmatt, and even Gotthelf’s The Black Spider. Leader smiles when she thinks about it: “I was so excited about it all.”
In the 1980s, I immersed myself in the scene of Prenzlauer Berg in East Berlin
Some field research contributed to the enthusiasm: after completing her studies, Lieder worked on secret poets from Prenzlauer Berg in East Berlin for her doctoral thesis. I traveled to the German Democratic Republic in the early 1980s, and immersed myself in the samizdat scene, which included Bert Papenfuss, Sasha Anderson and Grunbein as well. “Weird time, I got hurt,” Lieder says. It all seemed bohemian without really being so. You can already feel at the time that we were “out of fear,” as Papenfuss once said. Even if there was no utopia at the end, even if, as one might add from today’s point of view, one Stasi ghost or the other peeked out from under the ground: “Poetry was very important at the time,” says Leader, not Just like an experience, but “like life”.
She was herself “that cheerful Englishwoman who showed up”, whether in East Berlin or Ilmenau, and she was given a cordial welcome. At that time, other sparks of interest in German literature ignited in her, which have not faded since. Among other things, Karin Leider developed into an expert on East German authors and actually wrote about ghosts in East German literature. There were a lot of them in literature, cinema and art around 1990 in particular, she says, for example, she called Heiner Muller the “Hamlet machine”. The ghost appears when something must be said that cannot be said. It disturbs the present, reminds of the repressed past – whether it is about the ghosts of the German Democratic Republic or coming to terms with fascism.
“Secular Angels Are Lost in Twentieth-Century German Literature”
Karen Leader is interested in “Layers of History”. She is interested in many things, her broad spectrum ranging from Brecht to Ingeborg Bachmann to Rilke, and in the latter also the subject of angels. Doesn’t it go well with ghosts? In any case, when Lider talks about such subjects, she seems completely non-essential: “In a world where God is no longer, you need the image of a mediator,” she says, of a mediating being that you can do so much legitimately. She declared, “Secular angels fly lost through twentieth-century German literature.”
One may now want to dig deeper into this matter, but now it is finally time to approach the topic of poetry translation. At some point, Leader began translating, because “there are so many wonderful poems that you did not know in English.” Soon she felt that poetry was closer to her than prose: she simply says, “I understand poetry.” “I feel so lucky when I do that, I feel so in my element.” The fact that this feeling is not deceptive is not only confirmed by numerous awards. It is also easy to understand, for example in a poem from the new volume “Luminescent Sheep” by Ulrike Almut Sandig, which Leder is currently translating. It contains a concrete poem in the form of a captive balloon. Leeder has not only succeeded in translating the content in an airy, light and accurate way, but also in keeping the balloon shape in English. As she herself says: “Not a word, but a feeling!”
feeling that “spirit“In any case, you consider that the most important thing when translating is translation. Now it’s time to talk about the special features of German and English.” German is a more abstract language,” says Leeder, while English, on the other hand, is more subtle and shy in abstraction. German is also a “much smaller language,” and by it you mean: with smaller vocabulary. In German you can link a lot of words together, “Tie it all together.” Karen Laider, the unavailable engineer, laughs. At least she can tinker with the words now?
Another difference between languages: German rhymes are much easier to do than English, Leder says. And that brings you back to Durs Grünbein. She is currently translating mainly his new poems, for example from the recently published volume “Equidistant”, where he dispenses with rhymes: “This makes everything a little easier.” Prior to this, Leder had spent a significant amount of time working on his “porcelain” tape. Based on his translation, which was awarded the Schlegel Tech Prize in 2021, a lot can be explained – about Dors Grunbein, Karin Lieder, about ghosts of Germans anyway.
Durs Grünbein’s poem “Porcelain” – a special challenge
“Porcelain” is a rhymed “poem” about the fall of Dresden in 1944, which was destroyed by British bombers. The volume was almost unanimously criticized by German critics when it was published in 2005 – Grünbein was accused of false pathetics and an inappropriately outdated format, among other things. Leader thought this was unfair – and was determined to translate the book. How is the form handled? Whereas in German poetry (and in Grünbein) the classical scale such as the hexameter left its traces, the English language was influenced by Shakespeare, in the pentagram, by the iambus; Each language has a “different sense of rhythm, which I find interesting,” says Leader.
To sum up many thoughts and years: Leeder was finally able to adequately convey both rhythm and rhymes. She succeeded in creating an understanding of this work in a way that could also be important to the German reception. For in English she provided the volume not only with a clever introduction, but also with a detailed appendix: in it she explains the many hidden quotes in which Grunbein alludes to Paul Celan, for example. Here the scholar can use her immense knowledge – one wonders if it cannot also be used in a new German edition to enable a second look at this work? Of course, Leder also understands how sensitive a political book is in which Germans are described as victims of a war they themselves started. When she presented her translation in the US, for example, many readers with a German background were “horrified”. On the other hand, Leder finds the text interesting in its many interludes, too: “Who is allowed to write about trauma—and how? That’s a big question.”
There are some tough questions, some ghosts in German history. Karin Leder is currently considering whether she should write another book about how they traveled through German literature. A pending project, for which you may find additional inspiration at Villa Waldberta: her ghost will likely visit her this summer.
Workshop talks with Karen Leader: September 18, 11 a.m. Villa Waldbert Fieldafing (with Ulrich Almut Sandig); September 21, 7 p.m., hair cabinet Munich (with Dors Grunbein)