It was in spring 2017 when my publishers, scaneg Verlag, sent my third poetry volume, “Woman taking Flight”, to Stuart Friebert, with whom they had been cooperating closely for many years. I didn’t know then that this would be the beginning of an intense, most wonderful partnership.
In a short time, I got an email, written in strikingly good German, with some translated poems attached. Vibrating energy, Stuart’s translations seemed like music, making transparent the essence of my poems. For me it was magic, a coup de foudre.
Only manifold experience, excellent knowledge of the German language, sensitivity and wide knowledge could have created this noble art of translating. But who was Stuart Friebert? I googled – wow! I got to know a modest person with a great sense of humour, a partner only interested in warmly supporting the other with encouraging words, generous gestures, mindful remarks, corrections which gave hints for finding other possible solutions. His translations were invitations, full of respect for an author’s creativity, skills, and art. Additionally, Stuart was a poet himself with a deep insight and loving understanding of the human soul and its conditions, no matter which nationality.
To and fro emails flew, our work was like a ping-pong match played on the huge Oceanic table.
From the year 2017 on, individual translations were published in journals or anthologies, printed or online. Stuart united a selection from my first three poetry volumes in “Between Question & Answer”, 2018, Pinyon Press. Soon he had a partner book in mind, “Shadow of Shadows” with selected poems from all four poetry volumes additionally a few new poems. Originally planned for 2019, it would only appear in June 2020, very shortly before Stuart`s death. It was reserved to Offcourse #81 to publish three single poems, Stuart’s very last translations of my work.
We not only shared our work but many of his wide-spread interests too. There was hardly any field which he hadn’t knowledge of, be it modern art and music (he loved avant-garde composers like Hindemith and Luigi Nono) or world literature and science. And I loved his humorous anecdotes sprinkled in between our literary exchange. How exciting “listening” to his stories, e.g. the one of Peter Bichsel, a well-known Swiss author: Stuart and he sat at the bar of an Italian restaurant. An old farmer next to them asked Peter what his profession was. Peter said, “Author”. The farmer hugged him and cried “Wonderful! I myself am a reader.”
We two would never sit in the Italian restaurant where Kuno Raeber wrote his famous novel. Instead, we would “sit together” at our imaginary round table. We didn’t forget to cheer with a glass of good red wine while discussing bigger or smaller translation questions, like using a phrase for one word if necessary, or the spelling of “catalog” –he preferred “catalogue” referring to Gottfried Benn’s “morgue” (“see why?” he used to ask). Stuart knew many German poems by heart. Might this explain his brilliant mind? (He would have added a “grin” to my words).
When I mentioned homemade dishes like rhubarb cake, the words often called back Stuart’s early memories, e.g. a small bottle of elderberry syrup his grandma had in her rucksack when she emigrated from her home near Minsk. (The empty bottle with a faint smell of the syrup is still cherished by the family).
I learned more and more about Stuart, his teaching German language and literature at Oberlin, his founding a centre for “Writers in residence”, important also for the students who were inspired by the writers’ presence, their lectures, their talks. Great fun for the students too when dramatists like the German Tankred Dorst co-directed their rehearsals – in this case a Berthold Brecht piece. We shared a love for theatre work with young people, my focus too, combined with writing plays for children. (Only late in 2004 I turned to writing poetry.)
I also learned that Stuart as a very young Jewish graduate student had been in post-war Germany. A real challenge for a young student, but he was able to see the chance of exploring the country’s heavily loaded atmosphere and radical change. He observed each detail with an open mind, took to making notes of his impressions and reactions to his surroundings; their echo is found in many of his works. He really was determined to study German “The Language of his Enemy”, once proudly called the language of “Poets and Philosophers”.
Later when Stuart was teaching the German language and literature at university he often travelled to Europe, sometimes with his family, e.g. Switzerland where they stayed for a longer time. He always said how thankful he was for the support of his wife, wonderful Diane Vreuls, and of his children; he knew that without their help he couldn’t have realized his many projects.
How happy he was to visit well-known German authors like Günther Eich, Ilse Aichinger, Karl Krolow, Günther Grass, and many others of a generation who named the horrors of the Nazi regime and fought against apathy and oppression. He met Hilde Domin in Heidelberg when she had returned from her long exile. After lively talk and a walk up the “Philosophensteig” with a view of Heidelberg, she even cooked her famous soup for her two young American visitors, Stuart Friebert and David Young. Some of the authors they had met were guests at Oberlin later.
I have wondered how Stuart had managed to invite writers even from East Germany to Oberlin, how they were able to get permission to travel to the USA at a time when the former DDR policy did not allow private persons, especially artists, to travel outside their enclosed region. Adventurous Stuart also succeeded in travelling behind the “Iron Curtain” to visit authors there, to give them a chance of publication, at least in translation, in America. His respect for their work and life, his devoted attitude must have been balm for their wounded souls.
Stuart stood as a bridge builder between America and Germany for a long time. His reward was to see the rich results of his engaged work, and to have experienced the deep thankfulness of those writers and readers, present and future, who have benefitted from his efforts.
The true marvel is language, the most human trait we have.
“Time is short, be quick to love” is a line of an old prayer which Stuart recited.
Ute von Funcke
(“with a name like that, what choice is there but to be a poet?”)