Contributor Notes

Touch of Vertigo:

Selected Poems

Sabina Naef

by Sabina Naef

Mischa Lucyshyn and Helga Michie

Translated by Mischa Lucyshyn and Helga Michie with the author

Sabina Naef
Sketches on Translating Sabina Naef ’s Poetry

by Mischa Lucyshyn



Writing “about” literature puts an amateur like me at risk to say things

that will be either too rigid or too shallow - or both.


Translating a piece of literature, a task that, if taken seriously, will need

to go beyond what could be termed the “information content” of a text,

is a very strange activity - and some argue one where "success" is

impossible. (Robert Frost is alleged to have been one of them.)


Translators can but offer us a vague equivalent;

their language is necessarily full of echoes and associations.


What Virginia Woolf writes in “The Common Reader” about Greek will perhaps

hold true as well for any journey a text is undertaking when traveling from

German to English. Indeed from any one language to any other - let alone

from any one language at one point in time and place to any other language

at another point in time and place: The work of the translator won’t be more

than a vague equivalent.


And what can this mean: One language?

“From German” - but which German?

“To English” - but which English?


Georg Christoph Lichtenberg notes in his “Sudelbuecher”, writings that

went across the channel just to arrive as “Waste Books”, of all translations:


Ist es nicht sonderbar, daß eine wörtliche Übersetzung fast immer eine

schlechte ist? und doch läßt sich alles gut übersetzen. Man sieht hieraus,

wie viel es sagen will, eine Sprache ganz verstehen; es heißt, das Volk

ganz kennen, das sie spricht.


Isn ’t it strange, that a verbatim translation almost always is a bad one?

yet everything can be translated well. This goes to show what it truly means

to fully understand a language: it means to know the people using it.


Certainly, I am in a fairly poor position to begin with a translation of Sabina

Naef ’s poems. Hence, I might have thought, no one else could be better suited

to attempt it - regardless. Perhaps I am thus following H.C. Artmann ’s

poetical hero.


Sabina Naef is Swiss.

I am Austrian.

Thus much in answer to the question: Which German?

How much do I know the people who use English?

Very little.


Yet these are minor obstacles compared to a difficulty two lines in one of

Sabina Naef ’s poems hint at:


if the poem would stop

I could go aboard


Poetry - in sharp contrast to prose, I think - does not stop.

It does not allow us to go aboard.

We might be able to wander through novels to meet and join Huck Finn or

Esther Summerson. Yet reading a poem for me seems to bear far greater

resemblance to resonance than to a walk.


Nikola Tesla perceived the earth as a conductor of acoustical resonance.


Transposing this magnificent line near the end of Jim Jarmusch ́s

“Coffee and Cigarettes”, I like the idea that readers of poetry can be

perceived as conductors of poetical resonance.

(It is for a reason that Jarmusch chose to use Mahler ’s

I am lost to the world in this scene.)


Translations, particularly those we have done, can be read in this vein.

The language used is necessarily full of echoes and associations.

Translations in this sense can not be “right”.

It is fairly likely that, by any so called standard, they are mostly “wrong”.


'I beg your pardon?’ Alice said with a puzzled air.

'I’m not offended,’ said Humpty Dumpty.


A magnanimity like that is of course much more than we can wish for.










* * * * * * * *











from A Touch of Vertigo











                                if only the gaze could write

                                that whispering sound of wind

                                in the trees

                                if writing only were blind enough

                                for that soaring












                                touch of vertigo

                                she shuts her eyes

                                like a sailor

                                in downpour

                                in sheet lightning

                                in a smoking break












                                scratching the blue from the sky

                                on the roof terrace

                                where time stands

                                just birds ́ twitter

                                and wind













                                snowflakes on my lashes

                                as way back outside the heel bar

                                when I heard your voice for the first time

                                and knew it and didn’t know whence













                                on tiptoes


                                the slow motion steward

                                waits on the last patrons

                                and wins the affections

                                of a tulip

                                the moon wears a blindfold














from Blindly





                                in autumn leaves ought to fall out of books

                                Ramón Gómez de la Serna













                                leaves fall into my handbag

                                once the ship has withered

                                billows arrive

                                if the poem would stop

                                I could go aboard

                                could fold the lake

                                and pull out













                                the day smells

                                like a new pencil

                                not yet sharpened















                                even when turning



                                winks at us

                                black and white














                                lavatory of a café


                                on the white washbasin

                                a black walking stick

                                as if somebody all of a sudden

                                had unlearnt going















                                night watchmen

                                for example

                                have eyes for the unseen


                                an assay of snow in the crook of the arm














from Presumably Swapped














                                rain fashion is

                                tailored to my body

                                my comb is lacking

                                three prongs

                                if nobody calls

                                I am at home













                                no light at the blind man ́s

                                nobody to visit me

                                my shoes stand in the middle of the room

                                it happens that I give them a shine

                                and put them in the window













                                annual fair


                                the child ́s jacket

                                stuffed with marvels

                                wrapped in paper

                                with expiry date

                                dolly wishes

                                new teeth














                                the hat


                                the chair outside

                                the hat on the head of

                                the man on the chair


                                to collect hints

                                not dropped













                                presumably swapped

                                head and feet

                                what has been devised first

                                parasol or -pluie

                                all I know is

                                today 79 poppies are blooming on the roof