Hugo Ball is best known for his Dadaist poetry, which is often so crazy and onomatopoeic that it works as it stands. So his novel Flametti (1918) is surprising for being relatively straightforward although, on closer study, gloriously hellish to translate. What inspired me and kept me going was Ball’s language, the fact that he proves, maybe even more than anything I have ever translated, that you cannot translate words. He proves how inadequate dictionary definitions are when you’re translating, how unimportant it is to define words and, in contrast, how VERY important it is to understand their context. Words are like people: they never stand alone. Practically everything Ball says is fraught with layers of meaning.
An example: Lydia is in a melodramatic, hysterical tizzy, convinced that her husband who has gone to war (though he is probably still happily sitting in the barracks, playing cards and drinking up a storm) is “lying mangled and mutilated on a grassy bank in Siberia as fodder for ravens, crying out to her, ‘Here Lydia, here, come to me!’”
Somehow it seemed odd for Lydia to talk about a “grassy bank.” That’s not something I would ordinarily associate with Siberia; the clichés are flat grasslands and cold winters. So I started looking for the German word Rasenbank on the Internet and found it in a song that was popular in 1918. Could Ball have been making a subtle, or maybe in those days not so subtle, reference to that song? Yes, he could. Some ten pages later, Fiddling Marie (not yet 20, scrawny, and wearing a pince-nez) plays Die Rasenbank am Elterngrab when she auditions for Flametti’s Vaudeville company. The combination of grassy bank and Siberia demonstrates Ball’s frequent use of double entendre, his humor and irony. The song’s refrain reads:
Der liebste Platz, den ich auf Erden hab,
Das ist die Rasenbank am Elterngrab.
(My favorite spot on all the earth is / the grassy bank at my parents’ grave.)
There’s another twist. Many’s the time I have struggled with a phrase, trying one thing out after another, only to come full circle and use the first thing I started out with. Rasenbank, grassy bank, no, not bank, bench, of course, because the German word bank means bench. I started hunting all over again, trying to trace the meanings of the word, this time in books, in volume 14 of the German dictionary compiled by the Grimm Brothers (1893). There, to my (Dadaist) delight, coincidence would have it illustrated by the following quote from a poem by L.H. C. Hölty (1771):
Hier taumelt er von ball zu ball,
Vergasz der rasenbank,
Wo, beim getön der nachtigall
Sein mädchen ihn umschlang
(here staggered he from ball to ball / forgot the grassy bank, / where, to the nightingale’s song, / his lassie did embrace him)
And now it’s midnight; time for a highball.