Friday, March 23, 2007

Meeting Paul Celan

Albrecht Durer: Melancholia I (1514)

This is the text of a paper I gave at the Poetics of Exile conference at Auckland University in July 2003. It was an attempt to contextualise the Celan translations I intended to read out to them, without including the scaffolding of the rest of the Britney Suite.

I had a curious presentiment that there would to be a German professor present who would query my translations, bona fides, etc. and denounce me as a charlatan. Sure enough, there was a German professor there (it was, after all, an international conference). Sure enough, he did try and question my translations, undercut my simplistic view of Celan's poetics, etc.

Unfortunately for him, he chose to question one of the few expressions I'd actually rendered impeccably. And his attempts to explain that the idea of silence was an old poetic trope which went back at least as far as von Hoffmansthal fell on largely deaf ears ... I mean, who cares? Either it's a compelling idea or it isn't. What does it matter who came up with it first? That seemed to be the attitude of the rest of the audience.

There were a lot of sessions running simultaneously, so people would try and drop in for one bit of the hour, then dart off to another talk somewhere else. Nevertheless, I had a fairly respectable turnout, including a learned-looking gentleman who turned out to be one of Gunter Grass's English translators.

Anyway, hopefully this will understand a bit of what is supposed to be going on in - at any rate - the Celan sections of my Suite. It sounds a bit defensive to me now, as if I needed a lot of special pleading to justify what I'd just been up to. But that's probably a consistent trait with me anyhow:

Meeting Paul Celan

… for whom is it designed, then, the earth? Not thought up for you, I can tell you, nor for me – well, then, a language without I and without You: He, rather, It. Do you understand? They, instead, and nothing else.

– “Conversation in the Mountains”
(Celan, Gesammelte, 3: 170-71)[1]

There’s a persistent theme of meeting in Paul Celan’s work, most famously embodied in his 1967 encounter with the philosopher Heidegger. He composed a short poem a week later, still anticipating a “kommendes / Wort / im Herzen” [a coming word in the heart] (Celan, Gesammelte, 2: 255; Felstiner, 1995, 244-47). It was, nevertheless, a disappointment. What words could pass across that gap: between the rationalising ideologue and innocent victim of Nazism?

There are meetings with Nelly Sachs, his fellow Holocaust survivor, who won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1966; with the members of Gruppe 47 in 1952, one of whom commented to him “You … recited in the tone of Goebbels” (Felstiner, 1995, 65); with Martin Buber in 1960 (Felstiner, 1995, 161); with the Hebrew poets of Israel in 1969. They bulk large in his mind and in his work, but are somehow never entirely satisfactory.

Then there is “Gespräch im Gebirg” [Conversation in the Mountains] (1959) – one of Celan’s few pieces of prose, and the only one which could be described as fictional. Actually, it’s more of a fable, written in the tradition of Kafka, or indeed Buber’s Tales of the Hassidim.

It was quiet, too – quiet up there in the mountains. It wasn’t quiet for long, though, because when one Jew comes along and meets another, then it’s all up with silence, even in the mountains.
(Celan, Gesammelte, 3: 169)[2]

The language is bizarrely repetitive and teasing, enshrining, again, a kind of non-communication.


Good, let them talk …
(Celan, Gesammelte, 3: 170)[3]

Paul Celan (born Antschel) was the quintessential exile. He was born in what is now Romania, incarcerated in a Nazi work camp during the war, and escaped to Vienna shortly afterwards. From Vienna he went to Paris, where he spent the rest of his life, apart from a visit to Israel and occasional excursions into Germany itself.

Germany is the point, of course. The place he is in exile from. Although he wasn’t born there, all of Celan’s poetry is written in Hochdeutsch, his mother-tongue (literally): the language of the family circle. He also spoke (of course) Romanian, Russian, Yiddish, the languages he heard around him – studied French, English, Hebrew – but German was the language in which poetry happened. Always. Even when he was spewing out endless adolescent love lyrics, pastiches of Heine, Rilke, Stefan George (see examples in Chalfen, 86-87, 128-29).

And yet,
der Tod ist ein Meister aus Deutschland
It’s the most famous line in his most famous poem, “Todesfuge” [Death-fugue] (Celan, Gesammelte, 1: 41-42). “Death is a Master from Germany.” The poem adapts the cadences of the Song of Solomon to a contrast between the golden hair of an Aryan Margarete and the ashen hair of an Israelite Shulamith. Celan was appalled by how readily this poem was adopted by post-war Germanic kultur – how it was included in anthologies, taught in secondary schools as an expression of reconciliation and forgiveness. That was far too facile for what he had in mind, what he felt about his past, the death of his parents in the camps, the horrific relationship between a totalitarian culture and a totalitarian killing machine.


So who does it talk to, the stick? It talks to the stone, and the stone – who does it talk to?
(Celan, Gesammelte, 3: 171)[4]

In 2001 (for a film project called The Britney Suite) I translated five poems from Paul Celan’s final book Schneepart [Snow-part] (1971). My German is by no means fluent, but I knew that Celan, as a writer, set himself almost deliberately at variance with the idiomatic cadences of everyday speech. He was, in fact, as much in exile from German as he was from Germany. His way of emphasising this was to use technical dictionaries, archaisms, bizarre neologisms: anything to get away from fluency and ease.

Curiously enough, this can put the outsider at an advantage. One’s sense of idiom is just as likely to send one wrong in interpreting Celan as that common translator’s trick of hunting through lexicons for double-meanings. It’s generally safe to assume that he means all the possible significations of any given word.

It still seems a presumptuous thing to attempt to appropriate and adapt another person’s words – especially such particular words, prompted by such extreme suffering – at such a distance in space and time, but Celan’s own work as a translator encouraged me to persevere. His actual encounters with Heidegger and Gruppe 47 may have been discouraging, but the process of translation offered a better model of “the marriage of true minds” [Shakespeare, Sonnet CXVI: “wo treue Geister sich vermählen” (Celan, Gesammelte, 5: 353)]. Osip Mandelstam, Emily Dickinson, Jules Supervielle kept up their sides of the conversation far more satisfactorily. In fact, two of the seven volumes of his Gesammelte Werke are devoted entirely to translation.[5]

I had help, too. After I had completed my initial versions, I showed them to Professor Dieter Riemenschneider and his wife, the poet Jan Kemp, and canvassed their views on the knottier passages. The end result is, of course, my responsibility, but I can’t say I wasn’t warned about the liberties I was taking.

More to the point, I felt that Celan offered me a precedent for non-cooperation, internal exile. His alienation from the life around him (he was a suicide as well as an exile) was not arbitrary, but prompted by the spirit of the age, our age of coercion and conformity. As with William Burroughs’ (roughly contemporary) cut-up project, Celan’s aim was to find a linguistic expression that was free of the infection of an increasingly oppressive authority. Burroughs cut up his sentences and rearranged them at random. Celan cut open his words to expose their hearts.

Whether I’ve communicated any of this in the translations themselves is for you to judge, but the experience of working on them, of meeting Paul Celan, has been a very important one for me. It’s hard to sum it up simply, but I would have to say that I see him less as a role-model than a fixed point – almost our pole-star – in the constellation of responses to the casual horrors and hedonism of modernity.


[1] Paul Celan, “Gespräch im Gebirg.” In Gesammelte Werke in fünf Bänden, herausgegeben von Beda Allemann & Stefan Reichert (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp Taschenbuch Verlag, 1986) 3: 169-73 – “… für wen ist sie denn gedacht, die Erde. Nicht für dich, sag ich, ist sie gedacht, und nicht für mich –, eine Sprache, je nun, ohne Ich und ohne Du, lauter Er, lauter Es, verstehst du, lauter Sie, und nichts als das.”

[2]Still wars also, still dort oben im Gebirg. Nicht lang wars still, denn wenn der Jud daherkommt and begegnet einem zweiten, dann its bald vorbei mit dem Schweigen, auch im Gebirg.”

[3]Gut, laß sie reden...”

[4]Denn zu wem redet er, der Stock? Er redet zum Stein, und der Stein – zu wem redet der?”

[5] Celan, Gesammelte, 4 & 5: one 885-page dual-text volume for translations from the French, and another of 665 pages for Russian, English, American, Italian, Rumanian, Portuguese and Hebrew poets.


Celan, Paul, Die Gedichte: Kommentierte gesamtausgabe in einem Band, herausgegeben und kommentiert von Barbara Wiedemann (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp Verlag, 2003)

Celan, Paul, Gesammelte Werke in fünf Bänden, herausgegeben von Beda Allemann & Stefan Reichert, 1983 (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp Taschenbuch Verlag, 1986)

Celan, Paul, Selected Poems, trans. Michael Hamburger, 1988 (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1990)

Chalfen, Israel, Paul Celan: A Biography of His Youth, trans. Maximilian Bleyleben (New York: Persea Books, 1991)

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

Felstiner, John, trans., Selected Poems and Prose of Paul Celan (New York & London: W. W. Norton, 2001)

Ross, Jack, The Britney Suite (Auckland: Perdrix Press, 2001)


Anonymous said...

to contribute to an anthology called "My poem is my knife," Celan wrote back to the editor suggesting that for him, Celan, the poem "was a handshake" — i.e. an encounter. Which buttresses your sense of the importance of the encounter in Celan's work.

Maybe I have spent too much time these last 40 years thinking about Celan & translating his work, & maybe Celan's work has been too essential for my own writing for me to have a detached view on this, but the association of PC with Britney Spears makes me shudder...

Anonymous said...

my previosu comment should have started: "asked to contribute..."

Dr Jack Ross said...

I guess, in a way, that was the point I was trying to make. What ontological manoeuvrings could ever reconcile the universe of Celan with that of Britney Spears?

It would be a completely idle question if it didn't happen to be the universe I find myself living in every time I turn on the television or the computer ... I know it seems almost blasphemous to those who revere the memory of Celan -- an attitude I sympathise with very much -- but, as a writer, I guess I also have a duty to report the world I see around me. If it weren't jarring, it wouldn't make its point.

Katherine Dolan said...

This is interesting. I don’t know anything about German or Paul Celan, but these versions obviously breathe without life-support and "Meeting Paul Celan" is a really useful introduction to them.

If Celan’s poetry articulates linguistic exile, then translation could be its ideal manifestation. Relying on a non-existent equivalence, translation tends to generate its own incidental ‘acts of non-communication’. Translating Celan must be like walking on a tightrope when you are constantly swatting the wire with your own balancing pole. Example: the word 'both-handed' only works because it sounds incompletely rendered into English. ‘Ambidextrous’ would have set completely the wrong tone and (I imagine) would have been incorrect anyway because some level of dissonance/ambiguity is the point.

I particularly like choice of ‘Manukau’ for ‘Moldau’ – the geographical swap simultaneously directs and disorients the reader, and draws attention to the translation as an alteration.

Only just noticed the Star of David around Britney’s neck in the keith partridge y yo post.

Richard said...

Pierre. Hi! (Richard Taylor.) I was about to give Jack the link to your translation (or the discussion of your translation versus -another translator ...) Jack probably has it.

But I will post (link to discussion a translation of Pierre's) it on here in commemnts shortly in case you dont have it; and or for others inteested.

I recall a comment about someone re the poetry of Allan Curnow -"He fucks with my head". Sometimes I feel that way about him myself, other times I get right into his work; it is not good stuff to read if one is a bit sad. Another young poet I know responded: "Good job!" (Hamish Dewe.)

Jack is, like Curnow and Celan and the modern culture he refers to: "fucking with our heads" (but not too viciously I hope!), and perhaps in all his works. I also sometimes shudder** at the Britney Spears of this world or the world of their world but as Jack says it is the world. I haven't heard one of her songs as far as I know. She is obviously a good singer, but she looks very ordinary to me.

I like the idea of the conjunction of the three "avatars" (Spears, Celan and Nu, which use of such is the or an idea of Alan Sondheim, and many others e.g. Berryman.. (in his (Sondheim's) huge Meditation on the Internet Project); clearly it is not an entirely new idea but it is interesting. It is good that Pierre shudders.

Silence, yes, I am just reading through and about Susan Howe's "Pythagorean Silence": a great work. I can understand Celan's position, he was exiled as a poet and a non-German and as a Jew and his mother and his father's murder by the German Nazis; his soul, his heart, were in agony. Hence his suicide.

Susan Sontag referred to the Holocaust, or in fact to "The problem of Hilter" as _the_ problem of the 20th century. It continues to strongly haunt us. It is still unresoovled.

Britney Spears (or the 'world' she is a part of) is also of the culture we now have: the same culture that produced her and Michael Jackson and any numbers of psychopaths (or perhaps very maladjusted people, however we define that) throughout the world (and I am not just talking about "The West");Nazi Germanys can happen again and again and they can happen anywhere;any where in the world or in anytime. There are no guarantees.

Celan needed to talk a lot about his feelings, poetry wasn't enough as it wasn't for Berryman or Plath or Levi; or many others; the Holocaust affected not just those directly involved. It stains our whole culture, our psyche's. And language is the terrible accomplice of this horror.

**But we have to get away from this dark eventually. The world of pop etc is not an 'evil' world per se.
Music of all kind gives joy to so many people, its value is a counterweight to that dark..that "celandark". Jack is like Ashbery and O'Hara et al in bringing the various 'worlds' (cultures and histories) together.

Richard said...

Here is the link I referred to:

Richard said...

Richard said...

I that doesn't get to it I can email it to anyone who wants it.

Kake - a good post by you - I noticed the sly Rossian use of Manukau and the Star of David also!

I imagine translating Celan is as difficult as getting a handle on his poems (which of course are "about" much more than the Holocaust) - Pierre Joris has done some good work on this and there is a lot of German and other literary exegesis but I cant read German either - I suppose we all have to do a lot more digging into Celan if we want to get more from his work.

One comparison via Scott Hamilton was to: "Cryptic and tortuous messages in bottles sent hundreds of years ago..."

Even for fluent German speakers reading Celan would itself be a work of translation.