German poet Zeller reads poems and discusses translating literature

Eva Christina Zeller shared a variety of poems and answered questions about translation


German poet Eva Christina Zeller speaks for community members and students on Nov. 1 in the Charles V. Park Library Baber Room. 

Central Michigan University students and Mount Pleasant community members listened to poems and learned about the issues that arise when translating literature.

German Poet Eva Christina Zeller recited her poems to a standing-room-only audience on Nov. 1 in the Baber Room in Charles V. Park Library. 

Zeller and English language and literature faculty member Robert Fanning alternated reading. First, Zeller read her poems in German, then Fanning read the same ones in English. This shift in style allowed the audience to get the feeling first, then understand the actual narrative. 

“It was good to hear the origin of the poem. Even though I don’t speak a lick of German, it was nice to hear the flow of it and then what it actually meant after,” Traverse City graduate student Erin Collins said.

The main issue when translating poetry between German and English, Zeller said, was the number of words available with slightly different meanings.

“The German language has less words than the English one. It is sometimes difficult for them to decided (sic) what one to use," Zeller said. “You have sky and heaven, we only have himmel. You have the words luck and happiness, we only have glück. The translator has to decide what word I mean. I often don’t want to choose, I want it to mean both.”

Regardless of word choice, the end product could still maintain meaning through the language barrier.

When choosing words, translators also think of the way  words sound between languages. She admitted the process would be much more complicated if her poems rhymed.

“It is really interesting in poetry, you have (to) translate feeling with words. A dictionary translation is the most exact word, for poetry it is the feeling you have to change,” Mount Pleasant sophomore Ryan Pashenee said. 

The difference in translations can be seen in Zeller's poem: "Hoelderlin was not in Tuebingen or Hölderlin never visited Tübingen?" The poem is about Friedrich Hölderlin, a German lyricist who was kept in a room in the city of Tübingen because he may have been insane. 

The first two lines of "Hoelderlin was not in Tuebingen" are:

“He was not here

he had nothing to find here”

"Hölderlin never visited Tübingen?" says:

“He never came here

he had nothing to look for here”

Fanning introduced Zeller, explaining they met at a party in Germany hosted by a friend from Detroit. There, Zeller was the one reading to a native audience, while Fanning’s words had largely no meaning beyond his tone and rhythm. 

He was told by his German audience they understood the feeling behind his words, even though they didn’t understand them, just as the Mount Pleasant audience heard Zeller's this time.

The reading was sponsored by the creative writing program, the Meijer Visiting Writers Series, and a grant through the Meijer Foundation. The series aims to expose the Mount Pleasant community to writers from around the world.