On Discovering the Poetry of Georg Trakl
Updated: May 3
I first encountered the poetry of Georg Trakl in The Penguin Book of First World War Poetry. Then, in about 1985, I came across an edition of Die Dichtungen in a second-hand bookshop on the Bristol Road in Birmingham. This book, in its blue cloth binding and printed on lovely cream-coloured paper, was published by the Otto Müller Verlag in Salzburg. It was formerly the property of Saltley School library. Given its pristine condition, I couldn’t imagine it having been borrowed very often.
At the time Saltley brought to mind the miners’ strike of 1972 during which Arthur Scargill’s flying pickets had successfully blockaded the entrance to the coke works. Today Saltley School is an academy. As for the bookshop, I suspect it’s no longer in business.
Using my copy of Die Dichtungen I made a number of translations which I submitted to Stand and other literary magazines. They were all rejected. At about the same time I applied to Warwick University to study for an MPhil in Translation Studies. Doctor Susan Bassnett-McGuire interviewed me. (She is now Susan Bassnett, Professor Emerita of Comparative Literature at the same institution.) I’d recently read her book Translation Studies which was published in 1980 by Methuen in their New Accents series and felt that translation studies was an academic discipline for which I was ideally suited. Sadly, although I was accepted for the degree, I was unable to secure any funding, so that was the end of that. The Conservative government was happy for me to languish on the dole instead because that was cheaper. How dare a working-class oik like me dream of becoming a postgraduate.
Twenty years later my mother was going on holiday to a small town in Germany called Freudenstadt, so I asked her to pay a visit to the local bookshop and order me a copy of the two-volume edition of Trakl entitled Dichtungen und Briefe, also published by the Otto Müller Verlag. It cost in the region of 50 euros and it’s been my Trakl bible ever since. Although it has now been superseded by the Innsbruck edition, with a price tag of several hundred euros the latter is out of reach of a poor, working-class writer like myself. Maybe one day I’ll be able to afford it.
With the authoritative text at my disposal I began work on my translation of Trakl’s poetry and over the years added a lengthy introduction together with full explanatory notes. Strictly speaking, this was the first time that someone in the UK had attempted to make available to the reading public a complete edition of Trakl’s poetry, given that the three previous translations all originated in the USA.
I pitched Autumnal Elegies to the crowd-funding publisher Unbound. They took an age to get back to me – eight months to be precise. It was, of course, the usual rejection. They said the book would struggle to raise the money, so I opted to self publish as is my wont. What mystified me, though, was the fact that Pushkin Press was due to publish an edition of Trakl in translation with a release date of 4 April, 2019. If Autumnal Elegies was so uncommercial, why was another publisher going ahead with an identical project?
I therefore had a deadline to beat, since there was no way that I was going to let someone else steal my thunder, especially when I had been working on my edition for such a long time. Setting yourself a deadline is one of the best writing tools there is, and so it was that Autumnal Elegies appeared on 10 March 2019. Four years later, at the end of April 2023, Amazon sold copy number 400 to someone living in the USA.