top of page

Original Poetry by Ernst Jandl

Translated from the German by Brody Nies ’25

Here, I present English translations of three German-language concrete sound poems by the Austrian poet Ernst Jandl. A concrete and sound poet associated with the Viennese avant-garde “Wiener Gruppe,” Jandl was regarded by many as “a master of inspired nonsense mixed with social criticism” infusing immense unwritten meaning into his spoken poetry during readings. After graduating high school amidst World War II, Jandl was drafted into the German army, an experience which left a deep trace in all of his works, contributing to his anti-war, anti-fascist radicalism. 

When I was translating Jandl, matching and reflecting Jandl’s clever wordplay and grammatical manipulations proved to be a difficult yet creative process. For instance, the poem schtzngrmm contains only consonants, yet it lends itself to many different German words: Schützengraben (trenches), Gram (grief), Graben (graves), and tot (dead) in the final line. These, mixed with dramatic performances of this poem by Jandl informed by the realities of war, form a visceral criticism of conflict. 

To encapsulate a similar vocal register, I chose to build my translation around the word “shellshocked,” which also happens to allow the word “killed,” or “k-tt” to match Jandl’s “tot.” While a heavy reliance on the “shh” sound in my translation loses the grumbling rolled “rr” sound from the original, I believe it opens a performative opportunity: The “shh” sound is much easier to filter and inflect when reading and can still contain onomatopoeic information like the sound of rockets, grenade fuses, and trains. While translating this poem, I matched the inflection of the words to those given in a performance by Jandl to preserve the expressiveness of the original. 

When translating auf dem land, I wanted to stay as true as possible to the original animals and sounds described by Jandl, which proved to be a very difficult task. The poem is composed of 12 couplets, each consisting of a two-syllable animal’s name and sound with the second syllable of each word repeated eight times. To me, the most difficult part of translating this poem was finding two-syllable animal equivalents in English, particularly for animals that don’t necessarily have the same differentiation in English. For example, both gendered forms of the word “cat” are repeated in auf dem land, which I translated as “kitties” and “tomcats.” Unfortunately, this phenomenon meant I had to break the two-syllable pattern on one occasion in service of meaning: I translated “Hummeln” directly to “bumblebees” due to a lack of a two-syllable word for bees that was not “drone bees,” which I had used earlier. I also made smaller decisions on how to translate a few of the animal noises – for instance by using “lowing” for cattle instead of “mooing” to make the inner syllable repeatable. 

In translating ottos mops, it was a challenge to maintain the meaning and wordplay of the original. The poem itself contains only the phonetic “o” sound, which I break from only with the name “Otto” to retain consistency with the original poem. Sadly, many words in the poem don’t have monosyllabic, isophonetic equivalents in English, so my translation loses a bit of meaning: “mops” couldn’t be translated directly to “pug,” so I changed it to “spot” as an equivalent dog name in English. “koks” and “obst” (coke and fruit) were changed to “pot” and “slaw” and “hofft” (hopes) to “plots.” I unfortunately had to diverge from the bluntness and shock value of “kotzt” (vomit) in the last stanza due to the lack of an equivalent word that maintains the phonetic pattern. Instead, I chose to supplement the gross humor of the situation using alliterating words, replacing “kotzt” with “hocks slop.” Although these substitutions change the meaning of the original text, I found it to be an immensely creative process to try and devise words to fit into the grammatical scheme while maintaining as much of the original story as possible.

About the author

Ernst Jandl (1925-2000), an avant-garde Austrian artist, is well known for his experimental concrete and visual poetry. In particular, Jandl plays with the sound, double-meaning, and performance of the German language.

ea56d73e6d584ed908a4330e4f0b57ae.jpg

ottos mops

ottos mops

ottos mops trotzt
otto: fort mops fort
ottos mops hopst fort
otto: soso

otto holt koks
otto holt obst
otto horcht
otto: mops mops
otto hofft

ottos mops klopft
otto: komm mops komm
ottos mops kommt
ottos mops kotzt
otto: ogottogott

otto’s dog spot

otto’s spot flops
otto: trot on spot
otto’s spot hops on
otto: draws on

 

otto got pot
otto got slaw
otto thought
otto: spot spot
otto plots

 

otto’s spot knocks
otto: on spot on
otto’s spot hops on
otto’s spot hocks slop
otto: ogodogod

auf dem land

rininininininininDER
brüllüllüllüllüllüllüllüllEN

schweineineineineineineineinE
grununununununununZEN

hununununununununDE
bellellellellellellellellEN

katatatatatatatatZEN
miauiauiauiauiauiauiauiauEN

katatatatatatatatER
schnurrurrurrurrurrurrurrurrEN

gänänänänänänänänSE
schnattattattattattattattattERN

ziegiegiegiegiegiegiegiegEN
meckeckeckeckeckeckeckeckERN

bienienienienienienienienEN
summummummummummummummummEN

grillillillillillillillillEN
ziriririririririrPEN

fröschöschöschöschöschöschöschöschE
quakakakakakakakakEN

hummummummummummummummummELN
brummummummummummummummummEN

vögögögögögögögögEL
zwitschitschitschitschitschitschitschitschERN

in the country

catatatatatatataTLE

lowowowowowowowowowowING

 

pigigigigigigigigigigLETS

grununununununununununTING

 

pupupupupupupupupupuppIES

bararararararararararKING

 

kitititititititititititititIES

meoeoeoeoeoeoeoeoeoeoWING

 

tomomomomomomomomomomCATS

purrurrurrurrurrurrurrurrurrING

 

mallallallallallallallallallallARDS

quackackackackackackackackackackING

 

billillillillillillillillillillillIES

bleateateateateateateateateateatING

 

droneoneoneoneoneoneoneoneoneoneBEES

buzzuzzuzzuzzuzzuzzuzzuzzuzzzzING

 

crickickickickickickickickickickETS

chiripiripiripiripiripiripiripiripING

 

bullullullullullullullullullullullullFROGS

croakoakoakoakoakoakoakoakoakING

 

bumumumumumumumumumumumumumumBEES

hummummummummummummummummummumING

 

songongongongongongongongongongBIRDS

twitititititititititter.

schtzngrmm

schtzngrmm
schtzngrmm
t-t-t-t
t-t-t-t
grrrmmmmm
t-t-t-t
s---------c---------h
tzngrmm
tzngrmm
tzngrmm
grrrmmmmm
schtzn
schtzn
t-t-t-t
t-t-t-t
schtzngrmm
schtzngrmm
tssssssssssssss
grrt
grrrrrt
grrrrrrrrrt
scht
scht
t-t-t-t-t-t-t-t-t-t
scht
tzngrmm
tzngrmm
t-t-t-t-t-t-t-t-t-t
scht
scht
scht
scht
scht
grrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr
t-tt

shllshckt

shllshckt
shllshckt
t-t-t-t
t-t-t-t
shhshhshhshhshh
t-t-t-t
s---------h---------l
shssshckt
shssshckt
shssshckt
shhshhshhshhshh
shckt
shckt
t-t-t-t
t-t-t-t
shllshckt
shllshckt
shhhhhhhhhhh
shll
shllll
shllllllllll
shck
shck
t-t-t-t-t-t-t-t-t-t
shck
shllshckt
shllshckt
t-t-t-t-t-t-t-t-t-t
shck
shck
shck
shck
shck
shshshshshshsh
k-tt

bottom of page