Tracing Bachmann’s Shadow: One Writer’s Notebook on Translation

Hanna Mangold writes fiction, poetry, and essays. She is the Fiction Editor for Folio Magazine, and teaches College Writing at American University where she is also a third-year MFA candidate. Her work has been featured in Sans Merci, and at literary conferences in Shepherdstown, WV. She has two cats and two stories forthcoming at Hobart.

Tracing Bachmann’s Shadow: One Writer’s Notebook on Translation

………Ingeborg Bachmann’s legacy is one of shadows, as these notes on the late poet consider. During her brief life, cut short in an accidental death at age 47, the hauntingly philosophical and polemical nature of her poems was overlooked in favor of her metaphorical lyricism and imagery. Only after her death did critical reception of Bachmann’s work come to recognize her as a foremost German-language poet on the subject of “the subtle, everyday fascism that has become so commonplace as to be almost undetectable” (Achberger 1). She worried that in the post-WWII/Cold War period, when “murder is no longer … demanded and supported by the awarding of medals,” evil would persist as a shadow (Bachmann qtd. in Achberger 1). Although Octavio Paz defines learning to speak as “learn[ing] to translate” (184), the etymological definition of to translate is to carry across.   To me, “carry across” always sounds like “carry a cross,” and for Ingeborg Bachmann, the effort to translate between her own consciousness and her readers’ was indeed an inspired kind of burden.

………Bachmann’s burden is what spoke to me in her poetry, and what inspired me to fill a notebook with my own venture through translation. In one of her most powerful poems “To Speak of Darkness,” Bachmann invokes the concentration camp, “wet with dew.” She draws upon recognized WWII imagery like blue eyes and burning hair, with a solemn heaviness juxtaposed against the inspired beauty of her language. Her poetry is urgent, but it hangs suspended “on the strings of life/ and in the beauty of the earth,” where she must “play to death” because she “know[s] only how to speak of darkness.” Bachmann is reaching across a void, trying to translate darkness, the “flakes of black darkness/ that fell on your face like snow/ in the shadow of the night,” by casting a shadow across beauty.


            My papa’s family comes from Lochau, a small Austrian town on the Bodensee, or Lake Constance, in the mountainous, western province of Voralberg. I was born there, in the same hospital where my papa and opa were born. I was baptized in a gown my oma sewed from her wedding dress, in the church where she had married my opawhere my father had been an alter boy, where my opa is now buried. As a child visiting, I would run down the stairs of the funky, art deco apartment building, where various members of the Mangold clan occupied each unit, to the bakery on the ground floor. “The American Mangolds,” the shop keepers and old ladies in town called my sister and me. In the bakery, a family business appropriately called Bäckerei Mangold, we had free reign running behind our oma at the counter to grab fresh semmel, laugenstange, krapfen and ducking around our opa in the back, near the ovens. Everywhere in the building the air smelled like flour and sugar with the hot breath of baking bread. My cousins, whom I see every year or so, are now working at the bakery like our parents did, poised to take over operations.

………Austria, and being Austrian, is a huge, but shadowy, half of my identity. It is why my name is not “Hannah.” It is wiener schnitzel and goulash, and it is lederhosen and edelweiss. Austria also a source of deep absence. When my parents decided to move back to Northern Virginia, where my mother is from, I was just weeks old. My first passport picture is my entire body, swaddled and pink. Here, my papa was learning English, speaking English; I was growing up American. Do not get me wrong about America—I love it here, I love my mom’s family too. But I can connect with America. I can criticize America because I know it. And because I speak English and study writing. My life as a writer demands that I translate feelings and ideas into words. I cannot do that in German.


            I learned about World War II at school here in the United States. I fell in love with the sardonic and disenchanted post-modern literature (in English) of the mid-twentieth century. The world was fragmented, economic colonialism was harder to paint on a map, families were changing shape, old ways of understanding the world seemed no longer to fit. And yet, when my schoolmates talked proudly about their military grandfathers, I hid a secret shame. Had some of my ancestors been nazis? The epitome of evil? And had Austrians not only produced Hitler, but rolled over quite easily during the anschluss? Even understanding that the Allies were not quite the angels of altruism that our history books like to paint, I have never quite figured out how to balance my pride for my homeland with my disgust and tragic awe at how weak the human spirit can be of those in power versus how resilient the will to survive can be in those who suffer.

            My oma once told me the story of how she moved to Lochau. I cringed because she referred to WWII without first apologizing for all Austrians, without qualifying her own struggle against those who had been brutally persecuted. She told me this story because “soon my generation will be dead and all that will be remembered is the history of the war, but not of the other struggles, of the people. I want you to know the history of your oma as a story not as a textbook.” She held my hand in the way old people do, urging the seriousness of her intentions. We mixed German and English and hand gestures to get the story out. I am very skilled at unofficial translating.

  ………Oma was born in 1943 to ethnically Austrian parents living in Czechoslovakia—the Sudetenland. Her father and grandfather, likely nazis, had left home and never returned, so in 1945, when the expulsion of Germans from Third Reich holdings began, my Oma, together with her young brother, mother, and grandmother, boarded a train heading West. They stopped briefly in Vienna before allied bombing pushed them further west—all the way to Voralberg, in the mountains near the Swiss border. The war had largely left this area alone; the people were farmers and herders. As two women traveling alone with two young children, the group faced numerous hardships, especially the danger of rape (from axis and allied soldiers), and the difficulty of finding work to support themselves once they settled. My great-grandmother set up a shop in their little apartment where she cut hair. My great-great-grandmother showed my oma how to forage for wild mushrooms, make medicinal salves, card and knit sheep’s wool. In Lochau, my oma met and married the eldest son of a prominent local businessman and town mayor who had lost his political positions during nazi rule. Although it is hard to divorce myself from thoughts that the Sudetendeutsche were expelled from their homes in all fairness, I am fascinated by my oma’s story. Of course, even in a war like WWII where we are taught to enjoy the clearness of the lines between right and wrong, there are nuances. And shadows.

            Bachmann’s poetry reaches out and into these shadows. In “Early Noon” she searches “where Germany’s sky blackens the earth … for a place to bury hate.” “Already it is noon,” she continues as if the morning crept by too quickly, as if time is running out. Bachmann locates a kind of loneliness in the spaces between consciousness—she is trying to call out and name all the humanity that has been lost in the shadows of war. “War is no longer explained,/ only continued,” she writes in “All Days.” Somehow, in poetry so laden with imagery, Bachmann’s words echo; there is a loud kind of silence, an emptiness that refuses to follow orders.


            During her life, Bachmann receded into the numbing support of drugs and alcohol, which undoubtedly played a role in her death. Karen Achberger, who wrote the first comprehensive biographical introduction of Bachmann in English, credits a fair amount of Bachmann’s depression and dependency to her critical “misreception” (1) in which “the urgency of her message” was “overshadowed by her striking metaphors” (12), and to the mythification of her personal life into an image that itself overshadowed her literary output (3). Although Achberger is probably on point with this interpretation, I wonder if she oversimplified the answer. Surely to be misunderstood, or not taken for the full urgency of her critique against postwar Germany, was frustrating. But the unbearable weight Bachmann’s poetry carries is something born prior to its reception. It is her own unbearably heavy, impossibly hopeful, and terribly urgent world view that Bachmann wanted to translate unto her readers.

………Sara Lennox draws connections between Bachmann’s poetic endeavors to translate, or carry across complex ideas about the nature of humankind, and the philosophy Bachmann studied in school. Critical of Heidegger, she came to a great appreciation for Wittgenstein, a fellow Austrian from the previous generation who struggled with the paradoxical understanding that “because one must use language to speak about language … one could not speak meaningfully about language at all” (Bachmann paraphrased in Lennox 243). I think this paradox also applies to Bachmann’s poetry in that talking about war, one must find the language and metaphors with which to describe war. Bachmann’s insistent message that war extends beyond official borders and treaties, but rather seeps into the shadows of everyday, is lost within the metaphorical beauty of her language. Bachmann knew she had to question the philosophical circles of early modern, WWI era Vienna in order to make poetry in the darkness of the post-WWII world.

………Of course, I can understand the draw of interpreting Bachmann’s personal life as the stuff of literature itself. Bachmann was a breakout young poet, a woman in a mostly male circle of philosophers and artists emerging in Austria after the war (O’Donnell 77). She wrote a highly critical Ph.D. thesis on Heidegger and refused to ignore his fascism and allegiance to the Nazi Party even though many of her contemporaries chose to do so (Lennox 246). She was awarded the 1953 Gruppe 47 prize following her first book of poetry, Die gestundete Ziet, while still in her twenties (Achberger 2-3). She traveled, lived with male writers like Max Frisch (Achberger), and wrote about the evils of fascism “springing from her experience of the occupation of Austria … when she was twelve … the horrors of the war and the holocaust” (O’Donnell 77-8). When she died at 47 in Rome after taking “some tranquillisers … determined to sleep …. got into bed and lit a cigarette” (O’Donnell 77), her legend was only perpetuated as though she had “written and staged” it herself (Achberger 3). Although “forty percent of her skin had been burned,” Bachmann did not call for help until after attempting to put out the flames herself, and died in the hospital a couple weeks later (O’Donnell 77). That Bachmann’s death began alone, in the semi-conscious shadows of barbiturate use, before roaring into flame seems like a fitting appendix to her quiet but screaming oeuvre.


            The Modernist tradition from which Bachmann arose, demanded attention to individual consciousness and the way one responds personally/interpersonally/intrapersonally to an increasingly impersonal world. Bachmann’s bellicose metaphors held side-by-side with her often rural imagery and evocation of a “schatten” or “shadow” serve as the fulcrum for this effort to carry across something of the space Bachmann tried to create between the darkness she saw everywhere in the world, and the light, or hopefulness, she continued to believe in despite “questioning its infeasibility” (Achberger 13).  Her shadow, then, may constitute the subtle detachment between the body and the consciousness, the intention and the reception.

………In “All Days,” one of the most famous poems from Die gestundete Ziet, Bachmann writes, “Patience is today’s uniform,/ the prize, a sad little star/ of hope pinned onto hearts.” She is calling to mind a militaristic “Uniform” in a play on the idea that life is still regimented, that the impersonal regalia of wartime, the enforced conformity of a uniform informs even “patience.” She trivializes the “star” that decorates the uniform. Bachmann is asking her readers to think about the way we distinguish murder. She continues, “Awarded/ when nothing happens,/ when the machine guns are quieted,/ when the enemy becomes invisible/ and the sky is clouded by the shadow of endless war.” Here we must see Bachmann’s “shadow,” in the quiet of the “endless war,” lingering despite supposed or declared peace. Bachmann is refusing to ignore the spaces in between (capital W)ar and (capital P)eace, between self and other. She is softly screaming that the “shadow,” the quiet, is perhaps more insidious than the “machine guns” precisely because it has become “invisible.” She is asking us not to forget.


            Lennox argues that both Wittgenstein and Bachmann were missing “the practice which would enable their thoughts and images to guide an almost inconceivable transformation of the world” (255). Bachmann, says Lennox, understood something about literature that Pitkin understood about Wittgenstein’s philosophy: that “to change these concepts [of the system as it now exists] our forms of life would have to change; and that is not accomplished through philosophizing” (Pitkin qtd. in Lennox 256). What Lennox is explaining is that Bachmann’s poetry was necessarily incapable of effecting the change she knew the world needed. Her poetry reflected the concepts and realities of the postwar, modern era, it explored the concepts people did not want to admit, but it could not change that which it reflected. Bachmann is at once running toward and away from an idealistic fantasy of hope she is not sure exists but wishes for, writing in the flickering spaces between light and dark, noting the shadows and the limitations of time. And here is where I find Bachmann’s shadow: hovering between despair and hope, bringing beauty to despair and shadow to hope.

Works Cited

Achberger, Karen. Understanding Ingeborg Bachmann. Columbia, S.C.: University of South Carolina Press, 1995. eBook Collection (EBSCOhost). Web. 6 Oct. 2014.

Bachmann, Ingeborg. “Alle Tage.” Sämtliche Gedichte. München: R. Piper, 1982. Print.

Bachmann, Ingeborg. “Dunkles zu Sagen.” Sämtliche Gedichte. München: R. Piper, 1982. Print.

Bachmann, Ingeborg. “Früher Mittag.” Sämtliche Gedichte. München: R. Piper, 1982. Print.

Bachmann, Ingeborg. “Im Zwielicht.” Sämtliche Gedichte. München: R. Piper, 1982. Print.

Lennox, Sara. “Bachmann And Wittgenstein.” Modern Austrian Literature 18.3/4 (1985): 239-259. Academic Search Premier. Web. 6 Oct. 2014.

O’Donnell, Mary. “Reflections on Ingeborg Bachmann.” The Poetry Ireland Review. No. 82 (2005), 77-9. Poetry Ireland. Jstor. Sept. 15, 2014. Web.

Pajevic, Marko. Rev. of Ingeborg Bachmann’s Utopia and Disillusionment by Leena Eilitta. The    Modern Language Review, 104:3 (2009), 918-19. Modern Humanities Research Association. Jstor. Sept. 15, 2014. Web.

Paz, Octavio. “Literature and Literalness.” Convergences.Supplementary Packet page 30.

**My own translations.

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