A Taste of Words

With the novella cycle Grönland (Greenland), the Russian poet Angelina Polonskaja published her first book of prose for Edition Solitude. The book was translated into German by her translator Erich Ahrndt, who she has worked with for several years. In a short interview, they talk about the difference between writing and translating poems and prose, and about writing in exile. – Find an extract of the book in German language here.

CH: The novella cycle Grönland (Greenland) was recently published for Edition Solitude. It’s your first volume of prose after several books of poetry. How did it start?

Angelina Polonskaja: It was in September 2013 when I got the Jack Kerouac Grant whilst working on a book of poetry. At some point, the first chapter of the story Greenland came into my head. During a flight from Moscow to Orlando, my plane flew over Greenland and I was fascinated by the landscape. Before 2013, I had had two very difficult years; I lost two people very dear to me. I understood that in poetry I couldn’t express everything I wanted to. But I had never had an experience of writing prose before and had no idea how it would be.


»On seeing the first ten poems she had sent me, I knew that I had met an extraordinary poet.« –Erich Ahrndt

CH: You have been working together for several years. How did your collaboration start?

Erich Ahrndt: In April 2014, Angelina Polonskaja contacted me on the recommendation of a Berlin-based translator colleague, asking me if I would translate her poems. On seeing the first ten poems she had sent me, I knew that I had met an extraordinary poet. I started translating all the poems of her book Schwärzer als Weiß and in the course of the year obtained my Leipzig editor’s agreement. Early in 2015, the book was published.

CH: Angelina, you once said about your poems that you focus on »images like a painter« whilst writing and that you have »a taste of words« on your tongue. Is this the same when you write essays?

AP: Honestly, they are different sensations. But I always have a picture in my mind before I start writing. I’m more or less a visual artist (just kidding). The prose takes time and demands a very clear mind (I can’t write prose at night like I can do with poetry). But it is a universe without borders and it is very interesting when you are working on a story – you never know what the next step will be.

CH: Mr. Ahrndt, how did you find a »language« for Angelina’s poetry? What was special about translating Greenland compared to her other works?

EA: I didn’t need to find a special language for her verses. I only had to approach them as closely as possible, naming things exactly as she had done, alluding to things by metaphors where she had done, expressing grief and anger as she had done. And I tried to make every translated poem sound like the original in its rhythm.

Compared to translating Angelina poems, working on Greenland was different because it meant translating prose (though I sometimes discovered the poet behind the prose writer). In translating prose, I was allowed to widen my focus from the word and the verse to the sentence, the passage, the text. She seemed to refer to her own biography in the novellas, so I got to know her better. Looking at the novellas as a whole, I found it interesting to see that Angelina’s life philosophy is to regard life as a sequence of losses and unfulfilled hopes.


»Looking at the novellas as a whole, I found it interesting to see that Angelina’s life philosophy is to regard life as a sequence of losses and unfulfilled hopes.« –Erich Ahrndt

CH: Most of the works cycle around topics such as home, childhood, truth, memories, and, as you just mentioned, loss and unfulfilled hopes. What is the novella cycle Greenland about?

AP: My characters are more or less the same from story to story: Even if they have no names, all of them are real people. And all the stories are connected to each other. On the other hand, you can read a story as an independent text, not as a chapter. Many of them have been published in leading American magazines (in English translation) and the editors are always confused as to what is fiction and what is not. I can’t tell either for certain.

CH: You escaped from Russia because of the political climate and now live in Frankfurt am Main. What does writing abroad mean to you?

AP: Yes, I left my country because the climate is no longer safe for liberal people. You can be captured and jailed for a simple »like« in a social network. Because of your own point of view, just if you wear a white ribbon – it does mean liberty, democracy, and freedom of expression. It’s clear that a writer is not able to work in these conditions. It’s dangerous, not only for you but also for your family. I see Frankfurt as a second home. I have a very nice apartment, thanks to my coordinators. The only pain is my elderly mother who lives alone in the Moscow area. I still have to resolve this problem, but right now I have no idea how. I’m working on the second part of Greenland. The title is To be an Angel and I still don’t know if it is a new book or the second part to the previous one.

Reading with the author: Stadtbibliothek Stuttgart, May 9, 7.30 pm.