I went to an event on 28 March at the Grolier Club about hi-tech library work at Cambridge University Library. The talk was held in the same room as the exhibition “Alphabet Magic: A Centennial Exhibition of the Work of Hermann and Gudrun Zapf”. The exhibition remains open till 27 April.

I had a brief look round the Zapf show after the Librarian’s talk. Hermann Zapf was the creator of well known typefaces such as Optima and Palatino (used in the transcribed poem below). One of the more amazing survivals are pencil-sketched layouts and paste-up rough designs: who keeps those things? Both Zapfs were born in 2018: Hermann died in 2015. Gudrun, a type designer, calligrapher and artist in her own right, is still living.

This poem was one of the items on display and I thought I’d transcribe it and even try to translate it.

What’s the point of those red caps down the sides  — they just seem to be there as a Zapfian design element, with a bit of an indexing function? Is there any significance in the omission of C, D, J, Q, V, and X from the poem? Y isn’t really a member of the German alphabet: it figures in German only as part of a loan word. I cannot discern any sort of anagram hiding in those red letters.

Transcribing the poem is a breeze, but this is a hard translation nut to crack. So much of the ode’s point is to use the letter being held up for attention in the words used to exemplify it. “Tot”, death, is a good example, that “terrifying word, ringing out like a tuba tone, formed of that double T, most striking, deepest word: death”. Maybe we could say “tomb” but that kind of changes things, and certainly makes nonsense of the “double T” point. Next Mr Weinheber assures us of God’s good will to us as evidenced in his giving us the soft letter W. We Anglos must be specially favored: after all the W in English is even softer than its German cousin/ancestor.

Here’s a preliminary go at the start:

Dark, grave-dark U, like a velvet June night!/ Bell sounding O, swinging like red bronze:/ Greatness and weightiness you represent:/ Sleep and sleeper, need and death/ Higher-goal driven I, heaven in noon light./ quivering tirili pouring from the lark:/ Love, ah love, your sound thunders with flaming tongue./ E as in woe and snow 

“E as in woe and snow” just about sums it up. Maybe woe could become weeping and snow change to sleet which isn’t quite the same thing, but insofar as Mr Weinheber has brought any wit to his ode, it’s clobbered over the head by this sort of English. Ode an die Buchstaben may not be great poetry, but it may be untranslatable.