Translator’s note: On Maja Haderlap’s distant transit
From distant transit
a land where it builds nests of words
to swarm out over the borders
that are not its own.
—Maja Haderlap, “dreaming language”
The poems in langer transit (distant transit) explore the interplay of language and identity and revel in the richness and hazards found in linguistic borderlands. They are not only a delight to read with their vivid, evocative imagery, the unexpected connections they make and their supple rhythms, but they also draw necessary attention to the political undertones and overtones of words and how “smaller” languages and cultures can fall prey to dominant ones. Geopolitical powers have long drawn boundaries for their own interests, carving up ethnic groups, subsuming them in separate national entities and usually prompting the attrition of minority languages. Yet, as the poems in langer transit show, these languages can prove resilient, especially when poets give voice to their dreams. Haderlap’s poems invite the reader to experience the inner world of someone who, as a member of an ethnic minority, lives on the margins both linguistically and societally, feeling at home neither in the old world of her first language and culture nor in the new world she has entered through her second language.
The Austrian writer Maja Haderlap has inhabited a linguistic no man’s land since birth. Born into the Slovenian-speaking minority of Carinthia, Austria’s southern-most province, she was educated in Slovenian and German. She established herself as an accomplished poet with several volumes of poetry written in Slovenian. Then in 2011, at the age of fifty, she burst onto the German-language literary scene with her novel, Angel of Oblivion, a work based on the experiences of her family and her community, many of whom fought as Partisans against the Nazis during the Second World War and suffered resentment and suspicion from the German-speaking majority in the decades after. It is also the story of a young girl learning to navigate the treacherous terrain between two hostile communities and two extremely burdened languages: Slovenian, a language of heroic resistance and continued humiliations suffered, and German, a way out of her stifling rural upbringing but also the language of the camps which her grandmother barely survived and many family members didn’t. In elegant, evocative prose, Angel of Oblivion deals with harrowing subjects—murder, torture, persecution and discrimination against an ethnic minority.
Haderlap’s decision to write the story of her family and her community’s experiences during the Second World War in German was a difficult, politically fraught one. However, she was determined to illuminate this almost forgotten chapter of European history and the European present and make it accessible to as wide a readership as possible. Angel of Oblivion portrays family dynamics poisoned by war and torture, and interwoven in it is an urgent reflection on storytelling: the narrator hopes to rid herself of the emotional burden of her past and to tell stories on behalf of those who cannot. She can only exorcise her community’s inherited trauma by recounting it and, in doing so, help resurrect their collective memory.
In distant transit, her first collection of poetry written in German, Haderlap returns to several of her novel’s central themes —the fate of minority communities, the burden of history and the aftereffects of conflict, the ways language can enforce borders as well as overcome them, how language shapes identity and the trials faced by intelligent, curious girls growing up in a conservative, patriarchal community—but she addresses these themes on a more intimate level. In these poems, the personal is political but not only. They also explore and celebrate the vicissitudes of love, closeness to the natural world, and a slightly ironized powerful presence of Slovenian myths and legends among the Carinthian Slovenes.
Poetry like Haderlap’s sheds light on the richness of human experience. It a poetry of transitions, charting the move from one country or language to another, from adolescence to adulthood, from trust and intimacy to distance, from rootedness to estrangement, but also from estrangement to a sense of community and home. “i, too, have emerged repeatedly / as a translation of myself, / transferred and rewritten / i appear in a new transcription / although in a similar form.”