Ernst Jandl

The Storm Called Progress
Heartland Germany
Killing Time in Arcadia
Wising Up, Dressing Down

Translating the Thingular Poetry of Ernst Jandl

The poetry of Ernst Jandl (1925–2000) is usually called “experimental”. This means that he “plays” with language. All poets do that, of course. But Jandl does so more radically. There is a tradition of radicalism in Austrian letters (from Schnitzler and Musil to Erich Fried, Thomas Bernhard, Peter Handke, Friederike Mayröcker and Elfriede Jelinek).

However, this is not language separated from meaning. Even where sound is most important, as in Ottos Mops (“Otto’s Pug”), a humorous poem which uses only the vowel ‘o’ (and has been variously translated, or perhaps one should say “jandlated”, into English with different sets of vowels), Jandl is not playing with words for the sake of it. In this case the intention is to entertain. In other cases, the concreteness or “thinginess” of Jandl’s poems draws our attention to the mystery of the objectified world:


on a chair
lies a hat.
knows anything
of the other.
so thingsure.

This is Michael Hamburger’s translation of the poem dingfest. Is it a good translation?

Only the word of the title, which recurs in the last line, poses any difficulty to the translator. But it is a considerable one.

ding means thing; while fest is cognate with the English word “fast” (and shares the same meaning in expressions like “to tie something fast”, “fast asleep”, “fast friends”), but has more meanings, and therefore more associations, than the English word. The principal meanings of fest are: firm; solid; fast (fastened); steady; steadfast; fixed. It is also used in compound adjectives to indicate resistance, as in feuerfest – resistant to fire, fire-proof; regenfest – rain-proof. And we see German fest and English “fast” coincide in a compound adjective like farbenfest – colour-fast.

However, the German word dingfest only occurs in the expression dingfest machen, which means to apprehend or arrest (a person); to secure someone, to place someone in ‘safe’ custody.

So dingfest is wrenched from its normal context by Jandl and given back its literal meaning: thing-firm, thing-solid, thing-secure. The effect is much more poetic than conventional “thingy” adjectives that Jandl might have used such as dinglich or dinghaft, whose meanings are more like “real”, “objective”, “tangible”.

So what about Michael Hamburger’s translation of dingfest as “thingsure”? An argument against it is that this is not an English word in the way that dingfest is (in a different context) in German. Jandl has ‘estranged’ existing German lexis; “thingsure” merely sounds strange. And inappropriate, because “sure” is just a little too far removed from the primary associations of fest in Jandl’s poem, namely “firm”/”solid”/”secure”.

(As an aside, it should be noted that the German word Fest also exists as a noun, meaning “festival” (English: “feast”), so the use of dingfest as the title of a whole collection of Jandl’s poems is a nice characterisation of his poetry in general as a celebration of the world in its object-ive nature.)

How to render dingfest then? There’s no fully satisfactory solution. But I would suggest inventing a word: thingular. Admittedly, this does not exist at all in English, whereas dingfest is a German adjective used in a different context. But “thingular” expresses both the thinginess and the singularity/uniqueness of the objects, the chair and the hat, referred to in the poem.

so thingular

Fortunately, some of Jandl’s poems do not present major difficulties to the translator. I offer below some translations done by me.

In the first of the poems that I have chosen to translate the world of objects is the natural world in its beauty and transience (beautiful because transient).

on the life of trees

even the hard black
buds, even the dilatory
buds are opened by the light.

even the lovely white
blossoms, even the fragrant
blossoms are scattered by the wind.

even the beautiful green
leaves, even the sunny
leaves are worn away by the wind.

even the tall ancient
trees, even the steadfast
trees are broken by time.

In the next poem, the subject of which is human transience, the problems for the translator are to retain the rhyme in the last two lines and the almost bitter irony of the last line. A creative, non-literal translation of the last line is required.

summer song

we’re the people who walk the fields
soon we’ll be people under the fields
and will all become field and oak
yes we’ll be proper country folk

Jandl’s style is sparse and matter-of-fact. Only occasionally does he broach personal themes and when he does, the emotion is understated.

mother’s early death

mother’s early death
was a second birth for me

this time with a Pinocchio nose
and ears like a donkey

so I’m easy to find
I’m lost, you see

Jandl’s poetry is informed by a humanism that is down-to-earth, sceptical, diesseitig:

good luck

all of us wish everyone all the best:
that the blow aimed at them might just miss;
that, although hit, they don’t visibly bleed;
that, while bleeding, they don’t bleed to death;
that, if they bleed to death, they don’t feel pain;
that, racked with pain, they find their way back
to where the first false step has not yet been taken –
each one of us wishes everyone all the best.

Where Jandl’s poetry enters the political domain, it is mainly to express anti-fascist and anti-militarist sentiments. Nationalism is nicely deflated in a poem called the flag. This poem was written by Jandl in a mixture of German and English and does not require translation, but only the provision of a glossary.

the flag

a fleck
on the flag
let’s putzen

a riss
in the flag
let’s nähen
where’s the nadel

that’s getan
let’s throw it

into a dreck

a zweck


fleck = stain
putzen = clean
riss = tear
nähen = sew
nadel = needle
getan = done
werfen= throw
dreck = dirt
zweck = purpose