The Romanian-born, German-speaking Paul Celan is one of the most translated poets in recent decades, and we’re still not through with him. Before receiving these latest two volumes, my shelf contained (stray things in magazines aside) substantial renderings by Ian Fairley, John Felstiner, Michael Hamburger, Pierre Joris, and the team of Katherine Washburn and Margaret Guillemin, not to mention an earlier effort by David Young or Julian Semilian and Sanda Agalidi’s versions of the poems Celan wrote in Romanian. A special gem of my collection is a rare 1969 pamphlet, unauthorized by Celan who was then still living, of eighteen poems translated by Cid Corman — I can’t even remember how I got my hands on this. I have my preferences among them, but there is not one that I have not learned from. And although, or because, my command of French is nothing special, I’ve profited as well from Jean-Pierre Lefebvre’s translation into French of Celan’s own selection of his poems; the peculiar nature of this poetry means that reading it is always akin to translating anyway, and reading it in a language that is neither the poet’s own (though it is that of his adopted country) nor mine keeps that ongoing process of reading-as-translation, translation-as-reading in the foreground.
Now come two new offerings of Celan in English: One is a selection by Susan H. Gillespie, an administrator at Bard College who has previously translated a number of other works of German literature and philosophy, including Celan’s correspondence with Ilana Shmueli, an Israeli poet who, like Celan, grew up in Czernowitz in what was then Romania. (At one time a volume of Gillespie’s translations of Shmueli’s poetry was also announced for publication, but it seems never to have been released.) The other is a complete rendering of Celan’s third major collection, often called in English Speech-Grille, under the rather surprising title Language Behind Bars. Any translation must afford what Celan calls, in Gillespie’s handling:
Invasion of the unsplit
into your language,
To what extent do these new renderings succeed in opening up to this invasion? Or do they merely reaffirm the “ILLEGIBILITY of this / world. Everything double” rather than “the wilding conviction / that this could be said otherwise than / so”?
Interpretation of Celan’s writing has been overwhelmingly dominated by a thematics that is well summed up by the subtitle of Felstiner’s 1995 critical-biographical study, still the most comprehensive treatment of the poet’s work in English: “Poet, Survivor, Jew.” He is seen as most essentially a poet of the Shoah, “an exemplary postwar poet because he insistently registered in German the catastrophe made in Germany,” as Felstiner put it.
It’s long seemed to me that this story leaves out too much of what I love about Celan’s writing; above all the particular intensity of the poems’ mode of address, which has always seemed to have more to do with desire than with mourning. Besides, the excerpts from Celan’s juvenilia quoted in Israel Chalfen’s Paul Celan: A Biography of His Youth, published in German in 1979 and in English in 1991 (with Felstiner’s introduction) make it clear how much the poetry Celan was writing as a teenager in the late 1930s — written before the poet’s experience of forced labor camps, before the murder of his parents, before any possible awareness of the Nazi death machine — prefigures the great work of his maturity.
Chalfen’s book makes it clear, too, how deeply Celan’s poetry is rooted (and how surprising can this be, really?) in his erotic relations with woman (or girls, in the period that concerns Chalfen). Celan had a complicated love life not entirely circumscribed by relations with his wife, the artist Gisèle Lestrange — which Felstiner rather plays down but of which one can get a sense from his translated correspondence with Ingeborg Bachmann (see my review in Poetry Project Newsletter 226, February/March 2011) and Shmueli. So I nodded in agreement when I read on the first page of Gillespie’s foreword, that “without ignoring the poet’s justly heralded work of memory and memorialization,” her translations “seek to open a space for a new appreciation for his love poems” as well as those on other themes.
But it’s misleading, in Celan’s case, to speak of love poetry as though this were an isolable subject or genre among others (nature poetry, political poetry, religious poetry, etc., etc.). Anything of his that might momentarily appear as “love poetry” can always be read otherwise (for instance as that poetry of memorialization that Gillespie mentioned) and many passages that might in the first instance be read as “about” something else can also be seen as expressions of desire. “Celan’s poems cannot be understood as poems by remaining on one level or another,” as Hans-Georg Gadamer has said. Is the mystic marriage in which “We are one flesh with the night” that of love or death? It would be an error not to leave the question unanswered — and no less so because we have no right to dismiss, in the first lines of “Snow Bed,” the poem of which I’ve just quoted the penultimate line, the vulgar sexual sense of the one repeated phrase:
Eyes, world-blind, in the dying abyss: I come,
fibrous growth in my heart,
The remarkable figure of the “fibrous growth in my heart” (or in David Young’s English, “hard growth forming in my heart”) conflates love and disease. That the obsession with death is wrapped up with eroticism is old news, but its incredibly bare restatement in one of Celan’s briefest and most intense poems, from Faddensonnen (Threadsuns, 1968), makes it shocking again:
YOU WERE my death:
you I could hold
while all escaped me.
The desperate self-enclosure of the sexual couple has rarely been so forcefully encapsulated. And the seductiveness of the poet’s offer, “Come with me to breath / and beyond,” never so beguiling. This poetry in which
My eye looks down on the sex of my lover:
we gaze at each other,
we speak of dark things,
we love each other like poppy and memory,
we sleep like wine in the clamshells,
like the sea in the moon’s bloody ray
allies itself wholly to the ancient tradition in which the carnal and emotional intensity of sex takes on a metaphysical tinge.
Celan once wrote of the Jewishness of his poetry as “something less thematic than, rather, pneumatic.” Perhaps the same could be said of its eroticism. As Shmueli once wrote, “Celan, in his poems, repeatedly needed a concrete ‘you,’ usually it was a female ‘you,’ a changing ‘you,’ whom he addressed and by whom he wanted to be heard.” Every reader becomes this “changing ‘you,’” and it is really the force of Celan’s need and his desire, both, that catches the reader so poignantly.
David Young is a poet who has long devoted himself to translation, and from many languages. Along with his previous Celan translation, From Threshold to Threshold (2010), he has also published translations of poets as diverse as Petrarch and Rilke, Du Fu and Miroslav Holub. His conviction is that “the best way to understand this poet is through his collections, in their entirety and in terms of the order he made for the poems rather than in the selections that are so characteristic of previous translations.” And this incredibly close-knit book certainly bears him out; from the “Voices, etched / into the green of the water’s surface” of its first lines to the “Grass, / written asunder” with which it concludes, Celan’s Sprachgitter shows a unity rare among his books, here evident in two different figures of poetry as a kind of subtraction from or splitting within a natural substrate. But this is not the book’s only recurrent thread. Perhaps even more striking is its insistence on a kind of synesthesia, especially on moments of fusion between sight and hearing—from “the polite conversation / of our languid eyes” to “eye-voices, a choir”; a fusion patent even in its failure: “The mill of the ocean turns, / ice-bright, unheard / in our eye.” Hands, too, are ever-recurrent; the book concerns touch as much as it does vision and hearing. The immersion in language is an odyssey through the sensorium.
But how apt is Young’s rendering of the unity of Sprachgitter? Judging by the English title he has chosen, Language Behind Bars, I came to his version with some suspicion. Gillespie, like most previous translators, calls this collection Speech-Grille, which has the virtue of preserving the reticence of the original German, with its essential ambiguity: Is it a grille or grid from behind which speech emerges — like that of the Catholic confessional booth, for instance — or rather a grille made of speech? Young’s title, by comparison, is almost declarative. He explains that he chose “language” rather than “speech” as “the more comprehensive of the two” terms, which would be plausible except for Celan’s consistent propensity toward concreteness rather than abstraction—he writes always of voices, eyes, hands rather than language, vision, tactility; it is up to the reader to make the implicit generalization. Young uses “bars,” he says, because the “main implication” in the poem, “seems to be that of imprisonment. In the poem that gives the book its title, language and speech are bound and confined, like a prisoner’s eye peeking out from behind a grille or grid or bars.” But that doesn’t seem quite true to the poem, in which, yes, there is a “Round eye between bars” but from it, eventually, “a glance breaks free.” It should be noted that here, in the first line of the poem, Celan uses the word “Stäben” (“bars”), which he could have also used in the title instead of “Grille” if that were the meaning he intended. Celan’s concern is not imprisonment as such but something more like the dialectic between constraint and freedom, and likewise between speechlessness and communication, as in the poem’s conclusion:
Flagstones. On them,
close together, both
mouthfuls of silence.
The silence, here, is implicitly counterposed to speech (in particular) rather than language (in general) but it is a shared silence in which two beings come into contact — indeed it might not be wrong to imagine that each one is the other’s “mouthful of silence.”
That said, Young’s overspecification of the poem’s (and book’s) title seems to be an exception in a translation that is otherwise more circumspect about imposing itself on Celan’s poetry. Comparing his versions with the handful of poems from Sprachgitter included in Gillespie’s selection, one finds different emphases that would not lead the reader to prefer one version over another. For instance, Gillespie gives the line, “Blume—ein Blindenwort” (in “Blume”) as “Flower—a blindman’s word” whereas Young has “Flower—word for the blind.” The German compound Blindenwort does not require the reader to choose whether it means a word used by the blind or of the blind; English, less welcoming of such compounds, encourages the interpreter to choose one or the other; here I prefer Young’s choice because, while it seems to be weighted toward the idea that “flower” is a word used of the blind, it does not quite foreclose the other possibility. In “Schneebett,” he translates “zeittief gegittert” as “barred deep in time,” presumably to maintain consistency with his titular rendering of “Gitter” as “bars,” but Gillespie’s “time-deep latticed” is better. But then why, in “Unten,” did she introduced a lattice where Celan has none? Young’s “crystal in the costume of your silence” is justified by Celan’s “Krystall in der Tracht deines Schweigens” whereas her “crystal lattice of your silence” is misleading.
Perhaps such details are tangential when the more important point is the translator’s sense of what Peter Szondi — borrowing, in the course of an examination of one of Celan’s translations of Shakespeare, a phrase from Walter Benjamin’s essay “The Task of the Translator” — calls the poet’s “intention toward language.” As Young points out, in translating “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” Celan translated Robert Frost’s adjective “downy” as “erdwärts,” (“earthward”) — which is either an incredible howler or a brilliant transposition, take your choice. So far, as far as I can tell with my rudimentary German, no translator has consistently managed to make Celan’s “intention toward language” his or her own, but all of them have made creditable efforts at attuning themselves to some of its resonances. For Szondi (and others), “death, the memory of the dead, lies at the origin of Celan’s entire poetic oeuvre,” but I am in accord with Gillespie that one is misunderstanding this poetry unless one understands that its intention toward language is erotic. Celan has been read one-sidedly. That’s why there is good reason to approach the poet through more than one translator, and why — although I am in agreement with Young that at this point we need more translations of whole books rather than more selections — I am grateful for both his and Gillespie’s work. If I may borrow a couple of lines from one of the poems from Celan’s 1967 book Atemwende in Gillespie’s English: “it translates /things read raw.”
Corona: Selected Poems of Paul Celan, translated by Susan H. Gillespie (Barrytown, NY: Station Hill of Barrytown), and Language Behind Bars, translated by David Young (Grosse Pointe Farms, MI: Marick Press), are available from Amazon and other online booksellers.
Subscribe to the Hyperallergic email newsletter!