Paul Celan in translation

As I’ve said before, Paul Celan’s work has been an important part of my life since adolescence. His later poems have buried their way deep under my skin and have enriched my life. I don’t care what his detractors may have to say, everything after ‘Atemwende’ is both important and inspiring to me.

Given the nature of Celan’s work, for those of us that don’t have any German, translation is crucial. I recognise that each translation produces a new poem and can accept this with most of Celan’s work (even when those ‘new’ poems aren’t very good).

There is one poem from ‘Atemwende’ that is particularly close to my heart. I first read ‘Erblinde’ at the age of 14 or 15 in Michael Hamburger’s translation for the Penguin Modern European Poets series and it has remained with me ever since as an indication of the possibilities of what a poem can do. I don’t intend to offer a detailed interpretation – what I want to do is set out the problems that can be caused when a new poem comes along.

The new poem in question is the one produced by Pierre Joris, an excellent translator, critic and poet whose judgement I trust.  I set out below both versions of the poem and then try and explain my dilemma.

Hamburger’s version reads:

Go blind now today:

eternity is also full of eyes –

in them

drowns what helped images down

the way they came,

in them

fades what took you out of language,

lifted you out with a gesture

which you allowed to happen like

the dance of words made of

autumn and silk and nothingness.

The Joris version is –

Go blind today already:

eternity too is full of eyes-

wherein

drowns, what helped the images

over the path they came,

wherein

expires, who took you out of

language with a gesture

that you let happen like

the dance of two words of just

autumn and silk and nothingness.

This isn’t a new poem, it’s radically different poem that walks all over the poem that I’ve lived with for the past forty years. If this was a Felstiner version then I wouldn’t really care because I don’t trust his work generally. Joris, on the other hand, has clearly thought long and hard about his engagement with Celan and has also produced some of the clearest prose on the poet that I’ve read. So, I clearly can’t (won’t) give up on Hamburger but I am forced to consider that my version may be flawed and this is disconcerting to say the least. It isn’t just the words but also the placing of the commas which transforms the poem into something else- something much less lyrical and poetic. I’ve done the dictionary thing and I’ve looked at the original punctuation and it does seem to me that the Joris version is more faithful to the original- but I’m not sure that I want a ‘faithful’ poem. I want my poem back.

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One response to “Paul Celan in translation

  1. Have you any news on an English translation of the Bergmann/Celan correspondence…Herzzeit?

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