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Michael Cisco
Posted on Friday, April 11, 2003 - 09:18 pm:   

Every now and then I get the nutty idea I want to try my hand at translating something - this is the first in a linked series of pieces by dead German author Paul Scheerbart.
Here's Malcolm Green's biography of Scheerbart from the back of the German Expressionist anthology THE GOLDEN BOMB:

"Publisher, inventor of 'perpetua mobilia,' visionary, anti-materialist, anti-militarist, advocate of glass architecture, agent provacateur against petit-bourgeois seriousness, astro-metaphysician who believed in the life of asteroids and planets, Paul Scheerbart was much loved by the Expressionists, and just about everyone else. He in turn loved a good glass: Scheerbart was a member of the alcoholically enthused literary circle which met in the Black Piglet (Schwarze Ferkel) in Berlin in the 1890s, perhaps the one true bohemian/decadent German-speaking group, centred [sic] around Przybyszewski, Strindberg and Edward Munch, to name a few. Scheerbart took his own life in 1915 as a protest against the war."

A man after my own heart. Jeff: if you'll publish a chapbook series of drunk fiction collectively entitled Album Schwarzeferkelisch, I'll edit it and buy the drinks.

Anyway, if there are any Germanophones out there who can correct my wretched translation, please don't hesitate to post!
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Michael Cisco
Posted on Friday, April 11, 2003 - 09:21 pm:   

[Here it is. If I'm not mistaken, this is the first time this piece has ever appeared in English, or approximation. Try to enjoy.]

RESCUED ...

I had overreached myself. That seemed obvious enough. I had definitely surmounted and overdone myself. And now I couldn’t manage to go on; there was no way up, and no way down, either. Of course it’s true – even if one goes down hard – one can always get down from a high place.
There was just this one catch. Apart from my plummeting down into the depths – which would have enabled me to collapse myself into my own head – this fall would have left me entirely out of breath – and with a body that would have been mashed to a pulp.
I found myself in the mountains, which were all constructed of durable rock. I began very much to regret having so thoughtlessly climbed ever higher and higher. I stared at the featureless rock face before me; not daring to peer too deeply into the chasm down below, I directed my thoughts in such a way as to forestall my becoming thoroughly dizzy.
And then I saw a slab sticking out of the smooth wall immediately before me; it was shoved aside, and, in the opening that revealed itself, I caught sight of a little hippopotamus, less than half my size.
“Say Pops,” the hippopotamus said, “where are you headed?”
“I have mounted just a bit too high,” I said sadly.
“Well, mount this horse then!” cried the hippolet. [Nota bene: just as the Greek “hippopotamus” means “river horse” so the German “Nilpferd” means horse – “pferd” – of the Nile. The hippolet is here indicating himself.] “I’m only one step away! Or – do you prefer to fall?”
“No! No!” was my hasty reply.
So I followed the little creature, who lit a lamp and led me along a stone passageway. In a few moments I stood in a clean hall of stone. In the black vault overhead burned white streetlights of frosted glass; the bulbs were pear-shaped – the stem hung from thick laces. It was then that I first noticed that the little hippo, who went about on his hind legs like a man, had on a dark blue flannel skirt that left only the head and the four feet free.
“Take a seat!” said the hippo, seating himself on a rocking horse chair.
I sat down on a wooden bench beside a huge green oven. A plush quilt of dark grey was stretched over the entire floor. Not much furniture was in evidence; it seemed to be some sort of receiving room. I was extraordinarily indifferent to all this and to where I actually was, being tired and worn out and not especially pleased about being rescued.
“You’re not at all well!” the hippolet said after a while.
And I answered him readily,
“If that’s not the truth, then I don’t know what three time three is.”
“The answer,” my rescuer whispered, “would therefore have to be a downright certainty.”
I stared at the high green oven and kept as mute as a fish. For a long time we listened, motionless, to the great clock ticking in the background. And thus we were pleased to sit out a good half hour, when the hippolet asked, quietly:
“Have you perhaps a manuscript with you, a proper sad one? You usually have a manuscript with you.”
I slowly turned my head and looked at this fat little hippo; I said, a bit uncertainly:
“How would you know that I usually carry manuscripts around with me? I’m sorry, but it does rather surprise me.”
Then the hippolet spran from his rocking horse chair and hopped around the hall crying aloud:
“It surprises him! It surprises him! That he’s rescued by a miniature hippopotamus that talks – that doesn’t surprise him. But that such a little beast should know him so much about him – that surprises him!”
Then the hippolet leapt crazily to my side and, speaking in a deep bass voice, said:
“It pleases me to the point of nausea to discover that you are surprised. People who are still capable of wonder are not yet quite entirely dead. And your not being quite entirely dead is a very good thing. For – if you were entirely and utterly dead, it would have been rather pathetic of me to rescue you; one simply does not go around rescuing cadavers.”
I looked the hippolet in the face, and marvelled now that it could manage to speak so clearly. I asked, quietly and politely:
“What should I do?”
“Give me,” the creature answered, “a story to read, a proper sad one.”
So I rummaged through my pockets and fumbled among all my things, shaking my head from time to time, and finally gave this friendly hippopotamus a story which I thought might please him.
The little beast donned a pair of blue spectacles, returning with my pages to his rocking horse chair, set himself down carefully upon it, and read:

THE SAVAGE CLAW
a rocket-scherzo
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Michael Cisco
Posted on Sunday, May 04, 2003 - 11:33 pm:   

[worth the effort? who can say? anyhow, I include this bit if only to provide a bit of continuity, doubtful I will continue to translate the many remaining stories, all told to the little hippo, that ensue. Now, I present to you with only very unassuming pride:]

THE SAVAGE CLAW
a rocket-scherzo

I climbed ever higher; things really were going well. Gnarled as the branches were, they were not too thick or too thin – just the right size. But I was not quite able to reach the very top of the fir tree I was climbing, despite my best efforts. It really was a terribly tall tree. In truth, far taller than I’d thought. On looking down, I discovered I had already long ago passed the point at which the ground below could still be seen. I had apparently climbed into outer space, and, it seemed to me that, being there, I had considerable cause for proud enjoyment.
Around me – no other trees – not a bit of earth – not a trace of water – only the sky – nothing but sky – with numberless ecstatic stars. In silent veneration I gazed upon the heavens. And the heavens seemed suddenly a bit constricted, a bit cramped, to me – like a little country church.
Something was crackling below me. I was unable to determine more exactly what it was – but gradually I made out a giant shimmering white claw rising against the trembling, star-spangled celestial blanket of the heavens. And this giant claw clutched the star-spangled celestial blanket of the heavens firmly and ripped a great, irregular hole in it; the ragged edge fluttered out stiffly, as if a strong wind were blowing it out towards me. And I could see through the stiff, ragged edge to another universe, far vaster than our own little country church cosmos over here. There beyond – far beyond our own heaven of fixed stars – was a backdrop of profound darkness, infinitely deep. And there, in the midst of this other infinity, there slowly ascended two golden rockets, that could have been fashioned from nothing but two golden suns; they sparkled, climbing ever higher like giant, slowly-erupting fountains. They were not oriented upwards, but lay on their sides like old logs that once had vainly groped up towards the light. And they grew ever larger. They became even more like old logs. The rocket outstretched on the right had no corners, it was rounded all over like a snake’s belly. The rocket outstretched on the left, however, had a great many corners and edges, like a gnarled oak. Everything seemed quite peaceful between them at first – unfortunately, peace is one of those things upon which no one can absolutely rely. The golden rockets leaned to and fro, like tempest-tossed twigs. And soon it all became clear to me: the rockets were blocking each other’s way.
I had thought at first that their reelings, shovings, pushings and nudgings were only expressions of tenderness. It struck me then that all this orderly hostility was only a prelude, as the two of them awaited the right moment to attack. The atmosphere seemed to heat up.
The serpent-rocket stretched its greedy solar body out to an alarming extent, and the oak-rocket reeled and trembled like a wild sulky child, that willfully dons his crown of rage. Neither of these titans was about to let the other pass – that much became clear to me at once. I found myself rooting for the golden oak; as far as I was concerned, the serpent represented low cunning. It’s the cunning one who always gets it in the neck.
“I’ve got my eye on you! No funny business!”
I cried aloud. And, to my considerable affright, a thousand echoes – from God only knows where – answered me then – answered me with a sneer.
Ha! Now the golden suns come in orderly array! See how the gold glitters and flashes! The rockets are certainly hard at it! No more tenderness there! I’ll just stretch myself out as well! My sinewy muscles swell a springing mountain brook in Spring! The yielding top of the fir tree and its gnarled branches shake so vigorously that I must tremble along with them. And now, from the top of the fir tree there fly out blue, green, and red balloons of light – they burn in dark colors and swell ever larger. Yellow and white pins of light shoot from these balloons into the night, that fly like white searchlights across the sky – from one end to the other – what speed!
A battle of lights! Two golden streams of milk were conducting a light battle – in total silence. I must have been very surprised by that.
“Heavens! Elements!” I again cried aloud, “is all this space then so cramped, that there’s not enough room for two sunbeams at once? Is every corner of the universe so small?”
Above me, I heard a violent growling, and I was answered, with a slight cough, by a deep bass voice:
“What do you know of the universe’s corners? Stop carrying on as if you could calculate the vast relationships of our cosmos better than us. Such nosy wisdom doesn’t suit you, you know. Why don’t you go cram yourself back into that little kettledrum universe, where you belong?”
I ducked my head, although I could see nothing.
The rockets continued their battle. It was getting awfully busy over there.
I wanted to see more; the hole in the canopy of heaven just wasn’t big enough. Then, all of a sudden, the giant white shimmering claw reappeared; climbing higher, it made the hole larger. Now I could observe the war games in comfort. The white and gold pins of light flew about with ever greater violence. The red, green, and blue gas balloons became morbidly obese, and then burst – as is the fate of all things that grow too fat. In reply, the fir tree top spurted out more, and new balloons flitted here and there with the white and gold pins of light among the gnarled branches constantly. The serpent-rocket became more and more explicitly crafty; it hemmed the oak in uncannily, like a witch. I could barely make out what was happening; the serpent turned and hoses grew ever thicker from his body – Astarte hardly had fewer – and they puffed up, growing horribly fat.
The background, which lifted up its skirts before the rockets, was as colorful as a huge, trembling screen of opal; the red, blue and green gas balloons with the gold and white pins of light fluttered about, as if they were caught in the wild tumult of a cosmic storm.
I could restrain myself no longer.
The serpent-rocket had descended to real depths of depravity. That’s baseness for you, right there! I wished I could have seized that snake by the throat.
“I wish I had claws!”
I cried. And in the blink of an eye I felt that the savage claw, that had torn up our old dozing country church heaven, was my savage claw. And with my giant white shimmering claw I reached through the hole and swiped at the middle of the serpent’s belly.
“I will not allow low cunning to prevail!” I bellowed and layed into him with my savage claw, slashing the serpent-rocket clean in two.
Then I must have cried aloud – “Ow!” I had burnt myself. A sickening odor of horn struck me, sending me into a sort of nasal daze. I saw no more. I tore the hand with the claw back through the hole, while I endeavored to keep hold of the fir tree. But the hand with the claw hurt terribly badly, and I could not keep my grip on the tree with my left hand alone. And so, I fell with the claw.
A rage for which there is no name seized me.
“Low cunning wins! This is too hard-hearted of you!” I cried.
Thereafter I fell ever deeper. I held my breath, but fell all the same. I could still smell that horn odor, a burnt smell. And it seemed to me as if the wick of an old wax candle were glimmering before me – in a little country church. I fell – the Devil – knows – where. I thought, I must have fallen down in a little country church, back into our atrociously contracted universe of fixed stars. I fell, ever deeper, ever deeper, ever deeper! And it surprised me to think that our cramped little universe could possibly be so deep.


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Matthew Martens
Posted on Monday, May 05, 2003 - 11:01 am:   

What a treat! Here's one reader's expression of gratitude for the above translations: thanks. Now I very much want to read more Scheerbart. The library I work for -- Queens Borough Public, among the largest public libraries in the world, for whatever that's worth -- has only one Scheerbart translation in its collection, and that's a volume on the man's beloved glass architecture. And nothing in the original German at all, oddly enough. Blast. Anyway, again, very cool, truly swell.

--Matthew

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