Uljana Wolf's False Friends

Review by: 
Erica Mena

False Friends book coverFalse Friends by Uljana Wolf, translated by Susan Bernofsky, is a delightful foray into language and poetry. Even for someone who has no knowledge of German, the playful shifts between the English translation and the German hinted at behind it are enlightening: both Bernofsky and Wolf clearly delight in the slipperiness of language and sound.

Cognates and homonyms suffuse the poem, toying with seemingly straightforward sentences and twisting them around against themselves. Bernofsky sustains this density of sound against the lightness of the tone, a balance she creates through deft rhythmic and rhyming patterns. The rhythmic quality of the prose poems is striking. In much of the book, Bernofsky hits regular iambic meter, and the poems are stuffed with internal rhyme with equally surprising (because non-lineated) sentence-end rhymes. The bouncy rhythm and dense sounds drive the reader forward through sometimes nonsensical phrases, foregrounding the absurdity of language.

Many of these prose poems read as though they could be nursery rhymes for precocious, hyper-literate children:

he who has a hat has what? i ask. broad-brimmed, you say, a roof above one's head, cornered, crushed, and most likely of felt—so you'll feel sheltered till a gust comes blustering by.

But there is exquisite darkness in the images:

still, it would be sinful, you say, not to speak of swans: six is silence, seven love, and in the end there's a one-wing surplus. seems silly perhaps, but fairy tales save us many a swan song. so i say: consider the woodpecker's third eyelid sliding supportively across its pupil. with its help, you can strike home any point without eyes popping from sockets. and after that first flutter of hard knocks, the silence cannot hurt you at all.

This book moves deceptively quickly, thanks to all its brilliant poetics and puns. It’s worth a second, third, even a fourth read. It demands to be read out loud, in the way that good poetry does. The book is organized alphabetically (“a DICHTonary of false friends true cognates and other cousins” reads the text on the title page). Each letter gets a short, 6­–12 line block of prose full of alliteration and punning. The alphabet runs the gamut in English, then the second section of the book begins (on noticeably different paper, and printed differently, to accentuate the shift) in German. The original German poems have one obvious difference from the English: they are titled with words rather than listed under the letter of the alphabet. So “A” is, in German, “art / apart.” What especially stands out is that almost all the words in the German section that function as a title are English words—or at least, cognates to English words.

There are English quotes and phrases peppered throughout the German section as well. In “bad / bald / bet-t / brief” Wolf writes, “stattdessen morgens zu berg (take a bet?) und nachts out of bed (siehe ad).” The corresponding line in Bernofsky’s English reads, “standing on end instead (fake a bet?) and at night out of hand (see the ad).” Bernofsky takes the English embedded in the German and re-appropriates it to fit the rhythmic and sonic requirements of her line. “Fake a bet” is similar enough to “take a bet” at least in terms of sound, but it means something stranger, more open-ended. The same goes for “at night out of hand” rather than “out of bed.” The English that Wolf originally used would have made clear sense as a phrase in Bernofsky’s translation (though to a German reader in the original may have been somewhat more unclear). Bernofsky tweaks the phrases with inspiration to unsettle the poems. The project of the book is to toy with language and meaning, with things that sound similar and even the same across languages but mean strange, funny, unusual, and odd things. This is the joy of cognates, as any language learner will tell you—the surprise they can bring to the familiar. By defamiliarizing these phrases, Bernofsky brilliantly constructs an unfamiliar reading experience in English.

At the very end of the book are variations, translations of some of these poems by other translators, reproduced from a project coordinated by the literary journal Telephone. These add another level to reading through the poems; after reading some of the alternate translations, I went back to Berknofsky’s, and then back and forth between them. Insecure translators who believe that their reading is the only reading, the right reading, the superior reading, do readers a great disservice by jealously guarding the foreign original. With False Friends, Bernofsky celebrates multiple approaches, thereby adding richness to her work—a counterpoint—without inviting any value-laden comparison. Because, after all, at least in the wide pool of false cognates, there’s enough room for everyone.

False Friends is a fantastically fun, creative book that celebrates the excesses of meaning in translation, the slips and gains that happen between languages.

Erica Mena is a poet, translator, and printer. Her poetry has appeared with the Dos Passos Review, Pressed Wafer, and Arrowsmith Press. Her translations have been published in Words Without Borders, PEN America, Asymptote, and others. She has published reviews with Zoland, Three Percent, and The Quarterly Conversation. She is the founding editor of Anomalous Press, and she coordinates and co-hosts the Reading the World Podcast.

False Friends
Uljana Wolf, translated by Susan Bernofsky
Ugly Duckling Presse, 2011
$12 paperback