Journal: Percutio

Cover: S. Bianciardi

An annual published in hard copy in New Zealand and France paying special attention to the creative process and issues relating to translation.


Percutio is dedicated primarily to reflections upon the creative process, particularly in relation to work that bridges cultures.

Cover: N. Bunn

Percutio may, therefore, feature poetry, essays, extracts from novels, choreography, approaches to composition and journal entries in English and the language of creation.

Cover:A. Loeffler

The deadline each year is April 10th.

Submissions are welcome.

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Bridging, Living, Writing An essay by German scholar Nils Plath, translated by the author. First published in Percutio 2006 (added 16.06.2010).


Bridging, Living, Writing

Nils Plath

for C.P. in K.

'Reading is like a translation from one riverbank to another, from writing into language. The work of a translator of a 'text' is a translation from coast to coast, from one mainland to another, from Text to Text.'(1) We read this in an essay by Hans-Georg Gadamer. A not-entirely-new topos is presented here, as well as a familiar figurative language, with whose help the execution of understanding in interpretation and interpretation' s basic linguistic and literary concepts are described. According to this hermeneutical view, even the reading of poetic 'texts' in their original language is equivalent to translation. Reading resembles a rerendering (translation) into a foreign language. Two entities again, separated. It is remarkable how many statements about reading, understanding, and translation are secured by metaphors of place.

The bridge, a lofty symbol. The German language contains the word 'Baukunstwerk': architectural art-work. Many bridges belong to this category, but, perhaps more so than any other type of architecture, the traditional definition of bridges subjugates them to the domination of a primary function: a bridge guarantees transportation. Or so it appears. A sentence from a documentary film tells a different story: 'The autobahn bridge registers a perspective in the countryside.' The film's title: Reichsautobahn. Direction, script, editing: Hartmut Bitomsky, first screened in 1986. The film is about the German autobahn, built in the thirties, a man-made myth, a perfect piece of art, whose bridges came to have the effect that cathedrals once had. From the voice-over: 'There were two factions among the bridge builders that butted heads with each other. Architects here, engineers there. That's the way the roles were distributed. One side wanted to construct modern bridges out of concrete and steel. The other side wanted bridges built out of massive stone blocks and mortar. 'We love the heavy walls and narrow arches of old bridges,' said one side. 'We demand a clear emphasis on function, the clear presentation of the building forces in every detail, clean lines, avoidance of every unnecessary accessory, no compromises, the simplest and clearest form.' The others called this soulless calculation. The task of their builder was to form material and mass, not reproduce it. To build [...] means to form the space: the Autobahn will become sculpture in the space surrounding it. Concrete is an artificial material, it has no patina, but stone bridges are as festive as cathedral arches... [The outcome was that] stone bridges as well as concrete bridges [were] built for the Autobahn [...] and, in fact, most of the stone bridges had an internal concrete structure. There was only an illusion of stone. Whoever drives over a bridge won't notice much about the aesthetic of the architecture anyway. The bridges were meant to be viewed from beyond the autobahn.'(2) They were parts of a network of roads conceived as a work of art, it was said. And more: 'The autobahn cut into the country. It created a context.'(3)

To divide and connect, part of one operation. To manufacture connections that can then be observed by others. And perhaps only by others. For as we know from reading Elfriede Jelinek' s Wolken.Heim not everyone observes while driving. They are in an emphatic mood: 'A good feeling, to drive through the night over our autobahn bridges. Underneath them, lights shine out from the pubs: even more people like us! A bright light. The characters, strangers as we are, travellers stream into the bus stations, distributing themselves from place to places...'(4) We are we. (The ultimate tautology.) We, who attest to ourselves. We, who are here Belong to us. Are among us. At home. At least soon.

In the conventional view, such as that of Gadamer, translators are proper bridge builders who, conversely, take care that there is 'constantly flowing traffic.' (And if the traffic is blocked, clogging up, one feels disappointed.) They guarantee an undisturbed mediation between the self and its reading material. Translations, although also of practical necessity, according to the conventional definition, rank behind the original they are of secondary importance. The authority of the original text, especially of the literary self of irreducible distinctiveness, remains, in contrast to the translation, beyond question. This authority is perpetuated by the effects of the translation: the authority of the original is handed down. At the same time, the act of force that comes from its definitive purpose is veiled while a type of literary criticism develops, demanding to be recognized as law, which refers to this authority.


What if we, while a border is being crossed even after such a strategically planned operation as construction of a bridge or bridgehead encounter ghosts? Ghosts that cause a loss of figurativeness, ghosts that haunt the translation of words into another language without serving understanding, without allowing us complaisant rest in peace and unity. 'I had hardly crossed the border when ghosts came toward me,' reads an intertitle from Friedrich Murnau' s Nosferatu (1922) that reappears in Jean-Luc Godard's film Allemagne Neuf Zéro (1990). A portrait of a country undergoing unification, becoming something, a state in a state of emergency, unshaped and undefined, depicted by a filmmaker who frankly admits using the past to portray the future: 'In the whole film there is almost no word of my own: it's all quotations, but they have all passed through my memory.' A sentence to illuminate an idea. To speak, that is, to quote, with the words and images of others, foreign ones? Traces of memory to describe a time yet-to-come (avenir). Can one ever do anything else here and now? After this intertitle, Eddie Constantin, playing the re-awakened secret agent Lemmy Caution from Alphaville (1965), ferries himself across the river right beside the Glienicker Brücke in Berlin, a bridge whose eastern part was in the west: more exactly, in the American Sector of Berlin. The bridge poses a special challenge to the perspective, since over it, in daily life, ran an impassable border. 'We had to protect the bridge from attack from our own hinterlands and West Berlin,' one former commanding officer recalls: 'The border guards here, as throughout the entire border system, kept an eight-hour watch. There was a border patrol around the clock. This patrol did not stand directly on the bridge, since it was completely obstructed for reasons of security. At the end of the bridge, there were enormous concrete blocks; they were planted with flowers...'(5) The bridge served as the stage for public- pleasing gestures of détente: the exchange of agents, who in the words of the Berlin GDR news agency ADN were called 'scouts' (Kundschafter). They got into large limousines with shaded windows, observed by television cameras and journalist's cameras; that is, by apparatuses used by the media to spread images meant to illustrate an otherwise invisible cold war and a block building determining the thoughts and lives. The bridge, a true-to-style staging of reality that used a form of fiction the spy film as its model, became, in turn, the model for yet other future spy films. A bridge, made to be observed from both sides had become an observation platform of use to both sides.

'The bridge connects', says Heidegger in 'Bauen Wohnen Denken' , 'not only pre-existing banks. The banks first appear as such when crossing the bridge. It is the bridge that places them on opposite sides through the bridge, one side is distinguished from the other. The banks do not run along the sides of the stream like insignificant outlines of the solid land. The bridge brings not only the two shores together but, one way or another, it brings the hinterland behind the shores to the current. The bridge brings river, bank, and land together in multi-layered reciprocal proximity.'(6) Without the bridge, banks and land were unthinkable or, at least, unrecognizable as different entities. If we are reluctant to cross evident abyss between text and text, culture and culture, translation and translation, might we not, with the help of translations, perceive and apprehend this difference and try to examine the jostling for position and the obsessions that are closely linked to the very act of translating? An obsession with voids, for instance, or one that turns difference into a stabilizing force capable of forging (forming) identity. The task is also a question: how may this 'economy' of reading that circulates throughout and through every translation be described? This can be called the task of the translator.

Jean-Luc Godard: Allemagne Neuf Zéro

1. Hans-Georg Gadamer, 'Lesen ist wie UEbersetzen' , in: Gesammelte Werke, Band 8, AEsthetik und Poetik 1. Kunst als Aussage, Tuebingen 1993, p. 284.

2. Hartmut Bitomsky, 'Reichsautobahn' in: Jutta Pirschtat (ed.). Die Wirklichkeit der Bilder. Der Filmemacher Hartmut Bitomsky, Essen 1992, p. 75.

3. ibid p. 76.

4. Elfriede Jelinek, Wolken.Heim, in: Elfriede Jelinek. Stecken, Stab und Stangl. Raststaette. Wolken.Heim. Neue Theaterstuecke, Reinbek 1997, p. 137.

5.Thomas Segeth, commanding officer of the security forces from 1988 to the opening of the bridge during the night of November 9-10, 1989; see: Thomas Blees, Glienicker Bruecke, Berlin 1998.

6. Martin Heidegger, 'Bauen Wohnen Denken', in: Martin Heidegger. Vortraege und Aufsaetze, Teil 11, Pfullingen 1954, p. 26.