The German poet and translator Uljana Wolf was born in East Berlin, and studied German literature, English, and Cultural Studies, in Berlin and Krakow. Her poems have appeared in journals and anthologies in Germany and all over Europe. Given the ease with which Uljana Wolf’s poems appear to be written – with her playful use of language and sense of rhythm – one might think that writing poetry comes easily to her. Yet, with only two published volumes, she is certainly not one of the most prolific writers of her trade. Actually, the author seeks to avoid putting words into the world that don’t really need to be there, which is why it is assumed that she will have discarded any number of them on her way.
Being on the road plays an essential role in the life of Uljana Wolf. Not only does she live seasonally between Berlin and New York, but the experience and possible interpretations of linguistic, social, and political boundaries appear to be the central theme and intellectual concern of her writing.
In her first poetry collection, kochanie, ich habe brot gekauft (kookbooks, 2005), the motif is already being explored – specifically, the German-Polish border and its historical dimensions and connotations. In her second book, falsche freunde (kookbooks, 2009), a variety of other border phenomena are linguistically examined. For example, the poems in the section entitled ‘Aliens’ are based on a checklist of diseases and disorders that American inspectors used at Ellis Island for the evaluation of immigrants. In turn, present-day border control is reflected on in a series of erasures – government texts and instructions for security technology are critically exposed and converted into poetry by means of deletion.
Borders define; they denote countries and other stationary entities. At the same time, they are also the sites where friction and movement occur: border traffic, trade, migration, deportation, smuggling, as well as all of the violations and experiments done to overcome and infiltrate those boundaries. Uljana Wolf’s poems are themselves sites of continuous transfer, always in motion and prepared to subvert any preconceived notions. According to the poet, a poem should not be static, but “a language-citizen of a state of being, a state of becoming, that itself is still moving . . . and is open to outside influences”.* This poetic motion and external influence often result in hybrid forms, which are particularly suited to crossing genre and language barriers because they are less clearly defined and consumable.
With one of such hybrid forms, Wolf approaches a different type of border phenomenon in the namesake cycle of her second book: “false friends,” or words in two languages that orthographically or phonetically resemble each other, which sound or look the same, but have different meanings. In another section, ‘Subsisters’, she investigates the transformative influence of subtitles, which are used to enable language border crossings. In this section, there are two versions of each poem – the original and a new version, as it would be perceived with subtitles.
Borders are often also language barriers, and yet, Wolf says, “languages don’t abide by borders, or paper. Nor do they stop at other languages”.** In her poems, she is much more interested in how languages meet and blend, thus showing that linguistic identities are often more complex than we think. This also shows translation as a linguistic border experience with its own charms. Since, for Uljana Wolf, each language has its own characteristics, putting poems into the target language is often an act of reinventing, of poetic reconstruction. Therefore, for her, translation is a creative form of writing.
This very free and flexible understanding of translation includes the possibility of misunderstanding, which is ultimately just another type of understanding. The concept of “translation as poetic practice” encompasses the idea that translations of one’s own “untranslatable” poems are considered as authentic to the original work, even when they were made by fellow authors who do not have a strong command of the source language and when the poems are in part rewritten.
Uljana Wolf is herself a translator, particularly of English-language and Eastern European poetry. Among others, kookbooks published her and Steffen Popp’s translation of a collection of Christian Hawkey’s poetry, as well as her translations of the prose poetry of Matthea Harvey. Furthermore, she and Hawkey have also collaborated on erasures of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s sonnets (in English and from Rilke’s German translation).
Uljana Wolf is nationally and internationally in continuous conversation with other poets. She admires authors like Ilse Aichinger for her commitment against turning a blind eye to one’s history and for her relentless poetics. Or the contemporary poet Caroline Bergvall, whose “Meddle English” and language mixing are concerned with forms of linguistic, social and gendered violence or estrangement. Wolf sees this as a suitable method for poetry to take part in the social discourse on power: to try to develop a poetic practice through an engagement with social issues and counter-movements. She lists elements of this method as “research, forming relationships, awareness of forms as sediments of past or present functions and discourse, difference, illegal crossings, etc. ”** It quickly becomes clear that these elements can easily be found in the writing and writing process of Uljana Wolf herself.
The quotations are English translations of excerpts from:
* Uljana Wolf in: Limen. Mehrsprachige Zeitschrift für zeitgenössische Dichtung. No. 1: Dichtung und Politik? Wehrhahn Verlag, 2012 (p. 106)
** Uljana Wolf’s contribution to the collective poetics TIMBER!
kochanie ich habe brot gekauft. Gedichte, kookbooks, Berlin, 2005
falsche freunde. Gedichte, kookbooks, Berlin, 2009
BOX OFFICE, Münchner Rede zur Poesie, Stiftung Lyrikkabinett, Munich, 2009
Las fronteras del lenguaje, translated by Vladimir García Morales, La Bella Varsovia / Cosmopoética, Córdoba, Spain, 2011
Aliens: An Island, translated by Monika Zobel, Belladonna*, Brooklyn, 2011
False Friends, translated by Susan Bernofsky, Ugly Duckling Presse, New York, 2011
My Cadastre, translated by Nathaniel Otting, Nor By Press, Northampton, MA, 2009
Translations (from English into German)
Christian Hawkey, Reisen in Ziegengeschwindigkeit, kookbooks, Idstein, 2008 (with Steffen Popp)
Eugene Ostashevsky, Auf tritt Morris Imposternak, verfolgt von Ironien, SuKuLTuR, Berlin, 2010
Matthea Harvey, Du kennst das auch, kookbooks, Berlin, 2011
2008 Medienpreis des RAI-Senders Bozen
2008 Arbeitsstipendium des Deutschen Literaturfonds
2006 Mercator-Berghaus-Stipendium in Krzyzowa, Poland
2006 Dresdner Lyrikpreis
2004 Wiener Werkstattpreis
2004 Mercator-Berghaus-Stipendium, Krzyzowa
2000 Autoren-Stipendium der Dubliner Autorenvereinigung "dubcit"
1997 Thüringer Schreibwettbewerb
Recordings of Uljana Wolf reading her poems on lyrikline.org
TIMBER! Essay by Uljana Wolf on Poetry and Politics (in German)
Listen to 12 English translations of an Uljana Wolf poem from issue no. 1 of Telephone, featured here on BOMBlog's Phoned-In series.