Intruding on Paul Celan

by Gail Holst-Warhaft 

Of the poetry of Paul Celan, George Steiner wrote, in On Difficulty and Other Essays, “At certain levels, we are not meant to understand at all, and our interpretation, indeed our reading itself, is an intrusion … But again we ask: for whom, then, is the poet writing, let alone publishing?’’ Steiner never answers that question, but he insists that, in the case of Celan’s poems “we know we are not looking at nonsense or planned obfuscation.” How we know that is another question Mr. Steiner deftly sidesteps. In his formidable new study of Celan, John Felstiner does his best to provide answers to the questions Steiner raises. The result is a book that reveals less about Celan the man than the reader might wish and more about Celan the poet than the average reader will ever digest.

Feltstiner’s Paul Celan: Poet, Survivor, Jew states its intentions in its uncompromising - one might say misleading - title. During the course of the book, Celan loses his parents in the holocaust but survives. He marries, has a child, commits himself to a hospital for the insane, and takes his own life. A line or two supplies us with the bare facts about the later events. The man who stares in dramatic half-profile from the cover of the book remains a one-dimensional character whose own survival is itself a mystery. Still, we were not promised a biography, and what we are given has its own riches. Felstiner is not only a good translator; he is the best translator of Celan I know. For anyone interested in translation, especially anyone who has struggled with the difficulties of translating, Felstiner’s book should be required reading. Every choice he makes is justified; for every difficulty he encounters, we follow his attempts and rejections of inadequate solutions. Such a study is perhaps best read in small doses. The pleasure of Felstiner’s Celan lies in the poems themselves, poems that make the shift to English with a grace that only appears effortless:

To compare this translation with, for example, Michael Hamburger’s (1980) is to see how important it is for a translator to be sensitive to the proof text (here, the second person singular address of the outdated, but thoroughly familiar English allows a rare concordance with the German original). Some might object to the homophonic pun in the opening line, not present in the original knetet; still, who but the deaf would substitute “crimson word” (Hamburger) for Felstiner’s “purpleword” (Pupurwort in the original)? Felstiner’s solutions are, thankfully, arrived at as much by ear as intellect. There is, in the end, no way even the most meticulous investigation of allusion and sources can substitute for the translator’s ability to find a poetic solution in his or her own language. In Felstiner’s case, a curious disparity exists between his ear for the musical cadences of Celan’s poems and his own prose, which wavers between the over- and the underwrought. Consider these two sentences: “If Todesfuge seems to speak straight from a Nazi camp, that is due to its first-person, on-the-spot present tense: wir trinken und trinken.”  ... and ... “Yet we can also hear the poem back toward its own state in German, hear its resistance to translation, its rude integrity.” The tone of the first sentence makes you wince with its chatty journalese; the second makes you wish he would stick to the reporting.

However, as a guide and interpreter of Celan’s most celebrated poem, Felstiner is invaluable. The Todesfuge has acquired a unique status among poems about the death camps. To many of its readers, it seemed to contradict Adorno’s famous dictum about the impossibility of writing poetry after Auschwitz. Of all Celan’s poems, the Todesfuge has been the most discussed, anthologized, and translated. Celan’s own reading of the poem, preserved on record, emphasized its relentless rhythm, an effect achieved by repetition, alliteration, and a dance-like beat that reinforces the grotesque musical imagery of a poem originally published in Romanian and called “Tango of Death.” The title recalls the Jewish musicians forced to perform by the S.S. At the Janowska camp near Lvov (not far from Celan’s birthplace in Czernowitz) Jewish musicians were ordered to play a “Death Tango” during marches, grave-digging, tortures, and executions. Before liquidating the camp, the S.S. shot all the musicians. At Auschwitz, the term “Death Tango” was used for whatever music was played when groups of prisoners were executed. Without the lilt of this macabre dance music, the poem loses much of its effect.

Again, it is instructive to compare Felstiner’s solutions for this much-translated poem with others. Todesfuge, the title Celan chose for the first German edition of the poem (the poem, was, of course, written in German, despite its first appearance in Romanian) offers the translator the first of many challenges. A genitive, it could be translated literally as “Death’s Fugue” or “Fugue of Death” in English; but how to get the tight juxtaposition of the original that already sets up a musical beat in German that reinforces the absurdity of the compound. Middleton (1980) stays with “Fugue ofDeath” and loses the rhythm; Hamburger (1980) chooses “Death Fugue” and loses any sense of the genitive compound. Felstiner’s “Deathfugue” suggests the strangeness of the original and catches at least a hint of the genitive without the awkwardness of the possessive “s.” (This was not Felstiner’s original solution. See his translation in Modern Poems on the Bible, 1994, where he retains the “s.”) His willingness to introduce German words later in the poem and to bend English for effect has produced a poem almost as striking in translation as in the original. Listen to how the opening section of the poem sings its grim music in English:

The associations of “your golden hair Margarete” are so rich in Todesfuge that by the time they are repeated a third time, Felstiner allows them to stand in the original German. He reminds us that Goethe’s famous oak near Weimar was preserved at Buchenwald, and that Gounod and Berlioz entwined Margarete’s name unforgettably with music, but above all, that the girl combing her golden hair belongs to Heine’s siren at a time when “Die Lorelei” was so integral a part of the German psyche that the Nazis purged it of its Jewish authorship and declared it a German folksong. Twice prepared in English for the phrase, we follow it into the original without pause, as Felstiner cleverly lets the “goldenes Haar” of Margarete sound against the “aschenes Haar” of Shulamith. The translation ends with three-and-a-half lines of German that we understand whether we know German or not. We have been led into comprehension by the sheer force of the rhythm, as if we have joined the end of a line of dancers and, by following their lead, have learned the steps:
  For a translator who has listened, Felstiner confesses, “a hundred times” to a recording of Celan’s own voice reading Todesfuge, the temptation to convey the sound of that voice: “…when its tension catches slightly on the a of aschenes…in almost a glottal stop…” must have been strong. It might have sounded affected. Instead it is wonderfully and terribly affecting. Compare Middleton’s solution:
  Middleton’s inversion is unnecessary, while Felstiner’s omission of a pronoun catches the precise beat of the original. Middleton and Hamburger both ignore the change in spelling from Shulamith to Sulamith on this third and final repetition. Is it significant? Is it meant to place the next name firmly in its original Hebrew by an alternative transliteration? Felstiner is at least sensitive enough to note the change. And compare the sinister beauty of the night sky, with its stars “all sparkling” in Felstiner’s version, before dogs and Jews are whistled to heel by the romantic letter-writer, with Hamburger’s flat “the stars are flashing/he whistles his pack out/he whistles his Jews out.” In “Deathfugue,” Felstiner’s long years of attention to Celan’s cadences allow the English reader to hear the music of the original, a music that recalls not only the dance macabre of the camps but the proof text from the “Song of Songs”:
  Celan himself was a masterly and inventive translator. His closest kinship was for Osip Mandelstam, but he also translated a lot of English verse, including Dickinson and Frost and, in his last years, Shakespeare. Here, again, Felstiner offers a painstaking guide to the German of Celan’s translations by providing parallel texts and literal translations of his translations. Felstiner’s book is, as I have noted, a book as much about the art of translation as anything else. Through his sensitivity to every allusion and cadence of the poems as he translates them, you familiarize yourself with a poet whose obscurity is never impenetrable. Unlike Steiner, Felstiner has no hesitancy intruding himself into Celan’s poems. In the end, he convinces the reader that Celan meant the reader to understand him. The hints are there. The odd mysterious phrase is picked up in a later poem and made more explicit. If Celan’s poems demand a wide, deep knowledge of literature for their every nuance to be felt, they are not entirely dependent on explication for their effect. How lovely is the small poem “There Stood”:
  To hear the echoes of Psalm 122 (1-2) or remember the Danes’ courage saving Jews from de portation may make the poem richer, but it stands on its own as a rare bright gem in Celan's dark repertoire.

Gail Holst-Warhaft, adjunct associate professor of comparative literature and classics at Cornell University