By Richard Deming
I get a daily newsletter via email from Berlin about a variety of cultural offerings happening across the city, a city where I spent six months in 2012. It’s a bit like city window-shopping. Now back in Connecticut, I am no longer in Berlin, but I can imagine what I might do—would do—if I still were there. In yesterday’s email I came across the following sentence: “Das Traumwunderland ist per S-Bahn wirklich nur ein paar Katzensprünge entfernt.” This translates as, “By streetcar, the dreamland is really only a few cat jumps away.” As a poet, Katzensprünge is what caught my attention. Generally speaking, to make this sound American, I would exchange “cat jumps” for “stone’s throw” or “a hop, skip, and a jump,” the idioms we would use in English. But something surprising happens in translation—something other than meaning, and much more like an experience of language itself.
When someone says in English, “It’s just a stone’s throw away,” my mind automatically translates that into “It’s not far at all.” I don’t conjure the image of someone throwing a stone. The metaphor is so dead that we hear it neither as a metaphor nor as a literal description; we translate it into an abstraction. Yet, when I, an American, hear or read Katzensprünge, I break that word into its constituent parts, and for a moment I really do see a cat, springing. My tentative sense of the German language means I synthesize the elements one by one. I read German the way I might read a poem—testing every word for its meaning and implication. That length of a cat’s jump isn’t an exact distance, of course, but in some sense, I experience the phrase both literally and figuratively. I note too that the two words are fused together—it isn’t that there is a cat and the cat springs, but rather the cat is inseparable from its springing forward. The thing is its motion and the motion is a thing. The distance is figured in terms of a kind of embodied motion.
This level of metaphor isn’t unique to German; we have it in English, too. But as someone who is not a native German speaker, my feeling of perpetual estrangement throws me into negotiating the capability of words to create new possibilities of experience. It is my foreignness that keeps revealing new depths if enough time and attention is given to them. The words retain their newness for me, unlike in English, which gets immured in familiarity. That interpretive distance means one cannot take anything for granted, and cannot experience any meaning as fixed. Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote, “All language is fossil poetry.” Encountering a word such as Katzensprünge brings that latent poetry back to life, if even for just a moment. At the edges of language, caught between here and elsewhere, there is hope that if we look out of the corners of our eyes, we can sometimes catch the metaphors lying round about, hidden in the most ordinary words, in wait for the possibility of surprise.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Richard Deming’s collection of poems are Let’s Not Call It Consequence and the forthcoming Day For Night. He is also the author of Listening on All Sides: Towards an Emersonian Ethics of Reading. In 2012, he was awarded the Berlin Prize by the American Academy in Berlin. He is currently Director of Creative Writing at Yale University. He almost died in Cork, Ireland.
Photo credit: Ben McIver