Translating Paul Celan

How can one translate something that is untranslatable?  Paul Celan has often been accused of being hermetic in his poetry.  He himself said that was not the case.  His writing is pregnant with incomprehensible grief and longing.  One who reads Celan is left feeling the pain of Celan’s experience living through the Holocaust, his survivor’s guilt, and his anger toward Germany for her silence over the atrocities that occurred during the war.

Many people have translated Celan’s poetry successfully; some more so than others.  He is one of the most influential poets of the second half of the twentieth century. How can that be when his work is nearly impenetrable? His writing is cryptic, full of idioms and manipulations of the German language.  Celan’s poetry reflects his ambivalence toward Germany because of her impotence in dealing with the aftermath of the Holocaust.

Almost impenetrable yes, but not quite.  His writing is filled with his desire to find a way out of his pain, which one gets on a visceral level immediately. The next step, however, is more difficult.  Celan alludes to his experiences in every poem he writes, but one must carefully read his work to understand it.

In Celan’s speech when he won the Breman literature prize, he said, “A poem, being an instance of language, hence essentially dialogue, may be a letter in a bottle thrown out to sea with the––surely not always strong––hope that it may somehow wash up somewhere, perhaps on a shoreline of the heart.” This statement reflects Celan’s belief that his poetry was universal and that everyone reading his work could, in fact, break through that seal and find that message in the bottle.

Michael Hamburger’s translations are by far my favorite because he gets to the meaning while keeping the language beautiful; he also keeps the structure whole.  I especially like the beginnings and endings of his translations. However, John Felstiner is remarkable as well. I don’t however; find his translations quite as good, though Poet Survivor Jew is a remarkable book.

Such a small thing as;
“Count the almonds,
“…count what was bitter and kept you awake,
count me in:”

Felstiner’s translation;
“Count up the almonds,
count what was bitter and kept you waking,
count me in too:”

The ending of each––

Hamburger’s version;
“Make me bitter.
Count me among the almonds.” (77)

Felstiner’s:
“Render me bitter.
Number me among the almonds.” (49)

Hamburger’s translation brings pain to the surface in the first three lines.  Also the use of the universal “I” comes across clearly.

Felstiner’s translation doesn’t have the same impact in the beginning because waking and awake have such different meanings. Awake gives the connotation of being alive.  Since this poem is filled with death, this is an important word.

The endings are similar but the Hamburger’s repetition of the word count gives an entirely different meaning than Felstiner’s usage of render. By repeating count, Hamburger hammers in the force of death and responsibility.  Yet, render is a word that hones in the atrocity of war. It’s nauseating, to think about.

“Alchemical” is another good example of understanding different translations.

Hamburger’s beginning is powerful:
“Silence, cooked like gold, in
charred
hands.” (183)

One cannot miss the meaning here of those in the Holocaust being shoved into ovens, yet the beauty of the words is overwhelming.

Pierre Joris’ version:
“Silence, cooked like gold, in
carbonized
hands” (81)

Carbonized and charred are synonyms but their meanings are subtly different. Carbonized has a direct relation is charcoal which refers to ash; nothing left while charred connotes being set on fire. Charred is not as harsh a word in this case because Celan is referring to those stuffed into ovens during the Holocaust.

“Corona” is a poem worth examining because Celan borrows from Rilke’s poem “Autumn Day” by making extreme and quiet changes.

Rilke’s “Autumn Day” translated by Edward Snow

Autumn Day
Lord: it is time. The summer was immense.
Lay your long shadows on the sundials,
and on the meadows let the winds go free.
Command the last fruits to be full;
give them just two more southern days,
urge them on to completion and chase
the last sweetness into the heavy wine.
Who has no house now, will never build one.
Who is alone now, will long remain so,
will stay awake, read, write long letters
and will wander restlessly up and down
the tree-lines streets, when the leaves are drifting.

Hamburger’s translation of the first lines of “Corona”;
“Autumn eats its leaf out of my hand: we are friends.
From the nuts we shell time and we teach it to walk:
then time returns to the shell.”

In the mirror it’s Sunday,
in dream there is room for sleeping,
our mouths speak the truth.” (61)

And Felstiner’s version:

“Autumn nibbles its leaf from my hand: we are friends.
We shell time from the nuts and teach it to walk:
time returns into its shell.

In the mirror is Sunday,
in dream comes sleeping,
the mouth speaks the truth.” (29)

The first stanza is similar while the second is not.  Hamburger’s translation says “our,” while Felstiner’s uses “the.”  I would argue that Celan meant the universal not the singular, thus, Hamburger’s translation works better.  Also in dream there is room for sleeping connotes our place to escape. While in dream comes sleeping presents the idea that sleeping approaches the singular. The idea of the time returning to it’s shell could be seen as summer turning into autumn; life into death.  Summer reflects growth whereas autumn refers to harvesting which means (death).

Hamburger’s translation of the ending of “Corona:”

“We stand by the window embracing, and people look up from
the street:
it is time they knew!
It is time the stone made an effort to flower,
time unrest had a beating heart.
It is time it were time.

It is time.”

And Felstiner’s version:

“We stand at the window embracing, they watch from the street:
it’s time people knew!
It’s time the stone consented to bloom,
a heart beat for the unrest.
It time it came time.

It is time.”

The words effort and consent again imply different meaning.  Effort gives forth the idea of application and accomplishment, while consent means give permission to.  Hamburger, therefore is saying that the collective our, is working toward, while Felstiner’s version gives forth the notion that we are acquiescing.
I would argue with those that say his work is hermetic because his poetry though difficult and seemingly written for himself, I see it as written for humankind.  That is what makes him a unique, powerful and influential writer.  He writes for the dead who have no voice, he writes of the horror of the death camps, he writes about a universal experience.  His, is poetry of witness.

The mistake some translators make, is that because they see his work about the I and not the You, they don’t take into account Celan’s reaching out toward others.  Celan was a lonely man.  Poetry was his way of communicating with others. Even those who have been successful at translating Celan have said that some of the poems were too difficult to attempt.  John Felstiner says in preface of Selected Poems And Prose Of Paul Celan,“Several poems that I’d bypassed as too enigmatic or elusive for discussion, such as “Streak”, “Dew”, “Black”, and “King’s rage,” I’ve now translated anyway.” (xxxi)  He goes on to say that he is willing to translate what he felt he could not before because he trusts the reader to decipher Celan.

The silence in Celan’s poetry is important to note.  Perhaps he uses silence as a device to make one stop and think, perhaps it’s because the work is so intense, one needs a moment of pause.  Or perhaps, Celan, entangled with his own words, needed the silence.  It can be seen throughout his poetry; the hyphens, the awkward structure of wording, the music of the words themselves.  This is another reason his work is difficult to translate.

As I fell in love with Celan, I wished that I knew German––that I had listened to my grandparents as a child.  I become entranced in his words more each time I read them. I’ve read several translations of his work, and of course, I have my favorites, though I have begun a journal in which I combine translations together.

Yes, some translations are better than others, but for one to take on the task, the hope is that one does so because of a devotion to the work.  Then it is up to the reader to decode the meaning.

–Erika Lutzner

For more:

Rainier, Rilke, Marie, Translated by Snow, Edward (1994).  The Book of Images: Poems/Revised Bilingual Edition. North Point Press 1994

Celan, Paul, Translated by Felstiner, John. (2001). Selected Poems And Prose Of Paul Celan. W.W. Norton New York 2001

Felstiner, John (1995). Paul Celan Poet Survivor Jew. Yale University Press, New Haven 1995

Celan, Paul Translated by Hamburger, Michael (1988). Paul Celan Selected Poems. Penguin Book Group, London (1988)

Celan, Paul Translated by Joris, Pierre (2005). Paul Celan Selections.University of California Press, Berkley 2005

In addition:

Please note David Young’s recent translations of Paul Celan can be found in Poetry International 13/14.

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One comment

  1. It is a thoughtful piece Erika, and appreciate your attentiveness to details, your close readings. But I don’t think I agree with your comparison of Hamburger’s versions with Felstiner’s. I think both have their very special moments. Felstiner’s translation of Deathfugue is one of the best translations of any poem we have in English language. Felstiner’s biography of Celan is also very moving, challenging, attentive. Yes, Hamburger does beautiful translations. But great poets deserve many translators. In English, every generation has its own version of Dante, Homer, Vergil, etc. We have very different, almost opposing versions of poets like Vallejo or Akhmatova. So, it is no surprise that versions of Celan can also be so different. Although I do love Hamburger’s versions, I recognize some readers’ complaint that his Celan is a bit too British to their ear. That is why David Young wanted to find out what would happen if one tried to fit Celan into “American English” — what if he wrote in the language of James Wright? And so on.

    Your piece here is beautiful and passionate, and I appreciate it a great deal. Thank you. Ilya

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