How Hans discovered Dickinson’s double language

My intention to make a considerable portion of Dickinson’s work accessible to German readers through translation was long hindered by the problem of understanding how she was able to press such exciting juices in her poems from an existence seemingly bare of all significant experience. The free play of lingual translation can hardly function at its best as long as the translator fails to understand the source of the poetic creation. For the translation of a poem must keep faith with its inner sense, its soul, not with its verbal trappings. Then there was another paradox not less hindering: in spite of beautiful, easily translatable language and simple, naturally structured events, the poems of Emily Dickinson are often obscure to the point of unintelligibility. In translation, elements of odd expressions and bizarre poetic situations emerge as senseless, even absurd.

I began to conjecture that the poems might carry a hidden esoteric freight. Wonderingly, I began to search out certain oddities I had become aware of. Above all, these were groups of words throughout the work whose meanings would appear as abstract unrealities in one instance and as highly personified concrete carriers of poetic action in another. To mention but a few: sun, heaven, earth, clouds, wind, water, flowers, grass, trees, birds, bees, night, and again and again, day, day, day! The frequent repetition of these words and several hundreds more gave rise to mental discomfort. Finally, I could not get rid of an impression that a nimbus of symbolic double meanings hovered around a great number of nouns and likewise some verbs, adverbs, and adjectives.

And so I began to prospect for possible second meanings in her usage of such words. In doing so, I had to subject Dickinson’s personality and life experiences to conjectures about any and all possible and admissible human frailties. It did not take long to find the field in which the gold veins lay. In tracing them, it appeared that I had before me a word- and sense-labyrinth created by an incredible gift for dissembling and sense for double meanings, a private language within a language. Only tenaciously probing research could work out, in the interrelated sense-alignments, sense-deductions, and sense-combinations of her poetry, the symbol meanings, their correlations in a dictionary, and the ways of their articulation.

First, then, I wrote a dictionary of 3850 terms possessing double meanings, or terms capable of being aligned with such. Of these I selected 267 which seemed to me most significant and wrote them out in the complete stanza, or stanzas, in which they appeared, according to the chronological order of the poems1. There were 6700 occurrences. This gave me 267 patterns of comparison for conjecturing and proving second meanings, and additionally 167 outlines of the path of development taken by Dickinson’s mysteriously laboring muse.

The conjectural idea usually came to me through the context of the poem’s total content, together with the correlations the new symbol-term revealed in the comparison patterns of other symbol terms in the poem. Once deciphered, each such symbol-term or word-key offered logical extensions and deductions. In addition, I would look up the word in the “Big Webster,” which had served the poet as her regular workshop2. It proved an invaluable guide to the word’s synonyms, secondary, and double meanings. Last but not least, my own general life experience enabled me to compute and assimilate the data.

I took every projected double meaning through the cross web of correlations in which the mother term appeared throughout the poetry and accepted its meaning as provisionally certain only after it revealed itself in the deviations. Obviously, progress in such exacting research could not be a triumphant quickie trip through series after series of brilliant discernings; rather, it resembled a snail walk through continuous, wearisome, and disappointing research. But it held the promise, comfort, and incitement of a translation becoming visibly less difficult.

And thus, during many years and thousands of hours of research I gained the knowledge and insights which permitted me to unravel Dickinson’s riddle work. Significant aspects of this work make it undoubtedly one of the most amazing performances of a single human being.

1 Following the chronology established by T. H. Johnson and Theodora Ward in the 1955 Variorum edition.

2 Hans owned the 1966 edition of Webster’s Third International Dictionary. Since he began his Dickinson dictionary in the 1940’s, he must have been using the Los Angeles Public Library’s reference materials. We are not yet sure which version of Webster’s nineteenth century editions were available to him.