• Books
  • Essayist and poet Uljana Wolf on life “between languages”


Essayist and poet Uljana Wolf on life “between languages”

We spoke with award-winning translator, essayist and poet Uljana Wolf ahead of the publication of her debut poetry collection.

Photo: Alberto Novelli

One of Germany’s most respected and original poets, Uljana Wolf is also a masterful writer of prose. Born in East Berlin in 1979, she lived and worked between the Hauptstadt and New York City before settling back in Berlin in 2018. Her literary career, even more border-crossing, has included collaborative translations from English, Polish and Belorussian alongside several acclaimed collections of her own innovative, multilingual work. For etymologischer gossip – a witty, wide-ranging series of essays about poetry and language, mostly in German – Wolf won the prestigious nonfiction prize of the Leipziger Buchmesse in 2021.

This October, her debut poetry collection kochanie, today i bought bread (World Poetry Books) will finally be available in English thanks to Greg Nissan’s translation, 18 years after it first captivated readers. We caught up with Wolf to talk about false friends, women in boxes and a literary life between languages.

You’ve said that you wrote your first poem under a tree – a fun fact, given that there wasn’t much green space in 1980s Berlin-Hellersdorf. What initially inspired you to write poetry?

This network between languages is always part of my writing. I just can’t think without it.

I can’t tell you why I started to write. It just drew me. I started writing rhymed poetry as a child, then I wrote little stories. And then there was a moment where I realised that I wasn’t all that interested in plot. What I was much more interested in was playing with words, and delving into all of the movements, all the resonances that exist between them. So then I started only writing poetry, and I was lucky to find a poetry workshop for teenagers in Berlin, which I went to every week from the age of 14. From then, I was tied to poetry.

You’re both a writer and a translator. Are these two separate pursuits, or are they part of one project?

I think I’m always a writer-translator, with the dash [laughs]. In the act of translating, there’s a building of relationships between languages. And it’s not just a one-way street – it’s an intricate network that involves the two languages but also many more, because each language holds residue from other languages. This network between languages is always part of my writing. I just can’t think without it. And that has a lot of implications for how I write. I draw a lot of inspiration from moments of proximity between different words, languages and concepts – also from the experience of foreignness. Translation, mistranslation, the failure of translation: all this has been there since my very first book, kochanie.

Does being a writer-translator give you more creative distance from your mother tongue, German? Or do we need to move past the whole idea of “mother tongues”…

I have been very careful with the concept of a “mother tongue” – it is an invention that ties together identity, nation-state and linguistic ideology. Still, the experience of existing between languages definitely has given me a strong creative sense of estrangement from my own language. But I also remember feeling that estrangement even before I started writing or translating.

I have one specific memory of myself as a child really stumbling over my own language, having a very estranged moment with it. Some people experience this, others don’t: where if you utter a word fast too many times, you become completely absorbed by a word’s physical, material or sonic quality, and you lose all touch with their meaning. Maybe I had this all along! Maybe we all have it, and we just each realise it to a greater or lesser degree.

That disconnection between word and meaning opens up the space of all the other things that words can be: word-objects, sonic objects, babble-language. It’s very rich.

One of the recurring themes in etymologischer gossip is multilinguality, especially in poems. What does that mean to you, and what is its power?

At first, I thought a multilingual poem was one in which there are multiple languages, or maybe the title is in another language – I have a few like this in my first book, with a title in Polish then German for the poems. But after thinking more and more, I realised that there is a difference between the presence of languages in a text and the use of that language.

When I started to think about translingual writing, I meant a writing where the languages destabilise and question each other – where they create a third thing that is built from the tension between the two, and sometimes out of a translation or a failure of translation. And that means, ultimately, that it is a kind of thinking through language.

The example I give in my book is a Paul Celan poem, which the brilliant Japanese-German writer Yoko Tawada has written about. And there are other poets that I translate, like Eugene Ostashevsky, who writes with multiple languages in a way that you can’t untangle them and define each part. The meaning is created from the overlaps.

Photo: Alberto Novelli

You have a collection named falsche freunde, a linguistic term for foreign words that sound similar but have different meanings. This is a very relatable phenomenon for international Berliners: sometimes I see a sign for Notarzt (emergency doctor) and think, wait, not a doctor?!

[laughs] Yes, I love what you just described. The misreading of the word Notarzt prompted you to see the world in another way for a moment, because it prompted you to ask the world another question. These slips open up new windows. It can become a game, one that changes our perception of the world.

When I started living in the US, with another language all around me, I started noticing all these false friends, and I made mistakes because of how close German and English are. In school, we’re taught to be careful of false friends – we’re taught to raise walls and boundaries that keep different languages separate. But in real life, those borders prevent us from seeing interesting things when they do overlap. False friends are openings between the languages where new meanings get created.

So the English word gift looks and sounds like the German word Gift [poison]: what could that mean? What sort of perceptions can we create from the overlap? Once you get into that mode, you don’t stop. You walk around the streets, misreading signs in a creative way. The joy of it gives us back some agency over language.

Is there a political power to all of that in an era – and a city – where multilingualism is so common but conservatives use language politics to exclude?

I think poetry’s potential is to raise questions about the status of languages, which can maybe help people to perceive their own dominance, or their own exclusive mechanisms in language. I can’t change Berlin language politics with my poetry, and I don’t attempt to. But I am very aware of what’s going on. I think poets who do multilingual work are operating within a space that is getting ever more fragile, as the idea of a multilingual or multicultural identity is being threatened by ever-growing nationalistic views of the world, wherever you look. What poets can do is slowly, step by step, maybe change the idea of what ‘national’ literature is – how we read it, how we translate it, and how we can question what it includes and excludes.

Your debut collection kochanie, today i bought bread is coming out for the first time in English. What’s it like seeing a book you published in 2005 take on a new life?

It’s wonderful. It has been extremely enjoyable to go back to these early poems alongside Greg Nissan’s translation. I helped with a few translation questions, but really I’ve trusted the intuition of Greg, who I know is also a poet. I was really interested to see how the poems take on a new, distinct voice outside of my original understanding. The translation is a second original.

There’s a line where your speaker says: “my name is little murmur / i grew up / with this border trade / on my tongue”. Is that true of you?

Well, I didn’t really grow up with much from my Polish-German Silesian heritage, except for the tradition of Schlesische Weißwurst for Christmas. I meant this more as a metaphor. In another poem I use the German term kleiner Grenzverkehr, which refers to small-scale border-crossing by farmers and workers. Even when a border is closed or uncrossable, that sort of thing is allowed. So, for me, this was a metaphor for the possibilities of opening up space in your linguistic identity; even if you are monolingual or prevented from moving for some reason, the linguistic imagination always has the possibility of crossing the border and going to your neighbour or visiting this other language.

I was also interested in all the fathers in the collection…

False friends are openings between the languages where new meanings get created.

For this book, the father figure merged two different experiences. Firstly, it became a symbol for non-speech and for the non-transmission of history and memory. The father became an example for how many post-war German families just closed up, and how trauma and experience and being implicated in history was not talked about, both in East and West.

And secondly, I read fairy tales obsessively as a child, and even as a teenager: the Grimm stories but also Alexander Afanasyev’s Russian fairy tales. So the father figure merged this sort of mythical, magical way of displaying constellations between generations with the specifically German experience of non-speech.

That makes me think of your poem ‘literaturachiv marbach’, which describes “boxes” that “hold women / who could not be processed / hibernating in documents / contradiction sans diction”.

They do go together! That’s a brilliant observation. Women’s speech and women’s memory have also been silenced by fathers, and by patriarchy in general. That poem looks at the boxes in the archive, which I worked at when I was in university. And it finds an image for the suppressed female poets, or for the women whose experiences and memories have not been foregrounded in the transmission of knowledge.

  • kochanie, today i bought bread (World Poetry Books, trans. Greg Nissan), out in a bilingual edition on Oct 11