Translating the Untranslatable

John Felstiner is the author of "Paul Celan: Poet, Survivor, Jew." He is also the editor and translator of "Selected Poems and Prose of Paul Celan," to be published in November by W.W. Norton

Would we, if somehow this were possible, trade Anne Frank’s diary for her life, give up those salvaged pages to let her survive unscathed, in her 70s now? And would we forgo Charlotte Salomon’s “Life or Theater?”, her 1941 autobiography in 760 watercolors, if in exchange she were not to perish in Auschwitz? Would we, in effect, do without such indispensable human documents, relinquish them so as to secure the undeflected lives their creators might have lived?

Why yes! It goes without saying. But the question involves something more. We cherish these creators specifically because of the diary or the paintings that an atrocious history impelled them to create. Undo that history, rewind the reel, and Anne Frank and Charlotte Salomon would not be quite the persons we wish to redeem.

The same question holds for Paul Celan, although he did survive, in his way, the European Jewish catastrophe. Would that he had been spared affliction--the brutal loss of parents and homeland, the recrudescent neo-Nazism and anti-Semitism in postwar Germany where his poetry was destined, and a vicious plagiarism charge adding insult to injury. Yet Celan’s most compelling, inspiriting poems presuppose duress and distress. His body of writing belongs inseparably to its ground, its terrible cost. “For a poem is not timeless,” he said in 1958. “Certainly, it lays claim to infinity, it seeks to reach through time--through it [durch sie hindurch], not above and beyond it.”


Celan’s time saw him benignly situated at first, then vulnerable, wounded, unhealing. Born in 1920 to German-speaking Jewish parents in Czernowitz, the chief city of Bukovina and the eastern outpost of the Austrian empire, Celan (born Paul Antschel) grew up like so many other Jews, steeped in the songs and folk tales and classics of German culture. But Goethe and Schiller and Bach and Schubert and his German mother tongue formed no safeguard against what was to come. In 1933, not long before his bar mitzvah at age 13, the Nazis took power and Hitler’s harangues came over the radio to Czernowitz, which along with northern Bukovina had passed to Romania after the Great War.

Nonetheless Celan led his life. A comely, clever boy, an only child fervently attached to his mother, he moved from German to Hebrew to Romanian schools; and later, from a Zionist youth group to an anti-Fascist one whose magazine, “Red Student,” published Marxist texts. In 1936 he rallied to the Spanish republican cause, and always poetry possessed him: Rilke, Verlaine, Shakespeare, his own early Symbolist lyrics and efforts at translating from French, English, Romanian.

After the Hitler-Stalin pact, Soviet troops in 1940 occupied Czernowitz. Besides ridding Celan of any Communist certainties, their presence prompted him to begin learning Russian. Then on July 5, 1941, Einsatzkommando 10B entered his homeland. Avidly abetted by Romanian forces, the Germans set about destroying a centuries-old Jewish culture by plunder, burning, murder, the yellow star, ghetto, forced labor, deportation. In late June 1942, his parents were picked up in an overnight raid and sent over the Dniester and Bug rivers into Western Ukraine. Celan, away for the night, came home to find the door sealed--although friends of his underwent deportation and exile alongside their parents. He never recovered from that abrupt loss, however much his words, his voice, might probe it: “Taken off into / the terrain / with the unmistakable trace: / Grass, written asunder . . . / Read no more--look! / Look no more--go!”

From July 1942 through February 1944, Celan endured forced labor in Romanian camps. He kept a 3-inch by 4-inch leather notebook for poems, sending copies to a woman he loved back home and aiming distantly, desperately, for a book. Bit by bit he learned his parents’ fate: His father had perished from typhus, his mother was shot, some time in fall and winter 1942-’43.

Returning in the wake of the Red Army to his Soviet-occupied homeland in 1944, Celan took up life again, a raw orphan with literally nothing left but his mother tongue. Friends got him a job in a psychiatric hospital tending to Soviet airmen. In a little-known letter of July 1, 1944, he wrote to his Czernowitz boyhood friend Erich Einhorn (the word “Einhorn” appears in a later poem, “Shibboleth”), who’d fled to Russia in 1941 and not come back:

“Dear Erich,

“I’ve come to Kiev for two days (on official business) and I’m glad of the chance to write you a letter that will reach you quickly.


“Your parents are well, Erich, I talked with them before I came here. That’s saying a lot, Erich, you can’t imagine how much.

“My parents were shot by the Germans. In Krasnopolka on the Bug River.

“Erich, oh Erich.

“There’s much to tell. You’ve seen so much. I’ve experienced only humiliations and emptiness, endless emptiness. Maybe you can come home.”

More nakedly than Celan would later do, this letter expresses the unimaginable loss that grounds all his writing.

Paul’s friend Erich did not come home, and Czernowitz did not remain Celan’s home for long. Toward the war’s end he migrated to Bucharest, then in 1947 fled to Vienna. Finally in July 1948 he settled in Paris and lived the rest of his life there, marrying the graphic artist Gisele de Lestrange, having a son, Eric, in 1955, earning his livelihood as a German teacher at the Ecole Normale Superieure, a translator, a poet.

First-person lyrics such as “Black Flakes” and “Nearness of Graves,” from 1943, had attested his aching loss: “And can you bear, Mother, as once on a time, / the gentle, the German, the pain-laden rhyme?” Then in late 1944 and early ‘45, with reports filtering through to Romania and the Polish camps disgorging (or not) their victims, Celan gave a voice to the common trauma:

Black milk of daybreak we drink you at night

we drink you at morning and midday we drink you at evening

we drink and we drink

Black milk, Schwarze Milch: How to find words for “that which happened,” as Celan called what we call Holocaust or Shoah; how to speak of and through the “thousand darknesses of deathbringing speech” in a mother tongue that had suddenly turned into his mother’s murderers’ tongue? The cadence and imagery of this ballad, which he named Todesfuge (“Deathfugue”), engage atrocity with art, as Celan would go on doing during the next quarter century. Though his rhythms might later compact or rupture, his words grow strange or few, from “Deathfugue” on Celan kept up the wrestle with language that makes him Europe’s leading postwar poet.



Testimony to how crucial, how necessary, are Paul Celan and his foremost poem comes from diverse sources across Europe and America. Nobel laureates Heinrich Boll and Gunter Grass befriended and supported Celan. Philosophers Martin Heidegger, Theodor Adorno, Hans-Georg Gadamer and Jurgen Habermas acknowledged his singular importance, as did the French: Emmanuel Levinas, Maurice Blanchot, Jacques Derrida. Numerous German composers have set Todesfuge to music; its refrain Der Tod ist ein Meister aus Deutschland (“Death is a master from Germany”) has entitled various books and a major TV documentary; in 1988 on the 50th anniversary of Kristallnacht, a well-known actress recited Todesfuge in the Bundestag. Anselm Kiefer has inscribed phrases from the poem--dein goldenes Haar Margarete, dein aschenes Haar Sulamith--into some of his most unsettling canvases. The much-prized architect Daniel Libeskind built a Paul Celan Court into Berlin’s new Jewish Museum.

Fellow writers--and this is the acid test--acknowledge Celan’s vital presence for them. The brilliant Italian witness Primo Levi said about “Deathfugue”: “I carry it inside me like a graft.” And when I asked whether he’d taken Celan’s phrase “a grave in the air” for his book “If Not Now, When?”, Levi replied, “I ‘stole’ this image from Celan’s Todesfuge, which struck me deeply. . . . But, as you know, in literature the borderline between stealth and homage is blurred.”

Elie Wiesel ranks Celan among “the greatest and most moving Jewish poets of our turbulent time.” George Steiner sets him “at the summit of German (perhaps of modern European) poetry.” Among poets of the past, says Helen Vendler, Celan is our “greatest poet since Yeats,” while Harold Bloom calls him the “astonishing . . . Celan.” And no less tellingly, men and women from every walk of life, anywhere from Hurricane, West Virginia, to Thunder Bay, Ontario, have written or telephoned or e-mailed me over the years to say that Paul Celan’s writing touches them like no other: clears their vision, fires their hope, braces their pain.

Possibly the most decisive sign that Paul Celan matters essentially comes from the poets, in America and elsewhere. Former Poet Laureate Robert Hass, devoting two syndicated columns to Todesfuge and to my translation, called this “one of the most indelible poems of the 20th century.” For John Hollander, Celan is “genuinely great,” and for Denise Levertov, his work forms “at once so inward and such a quintessential artifact of history.” Poets as diverse as Adrienne Rich, Michael Palmer, Heather McHugh, Geoffrey Hill, Sharon Olds, Edward Hirsch, Eavan Boland, Rita Dove and many others all consider Celan a touchstone--for his life-and-death lyric seriousness, his uncompromising verbal honesty, and his courage in exposing his native German, driving language to the verge of unexpected revelation.

Paul Celan is both challenging and exemplary. There can have been only a few modern poets in whom the life and the work cleave so closely, so traumatically.

Just like the blood that bursts from

your eye or mouth or ear,

so your key changes,

he says to himself,

Just like the wind that rebuffs you,

packed round your word is the snow.

Je nach dem Wind der dich fortstosst,

ballt um das Wort sich der Schnee.

At one level, this stifled “word”--Celan’s Wort shut in between “packed” and “snow”--needs no biographical basis, any more than does Emily Dickinson’s mortal vision: “As freezing persons recollect the snow, / First chill, then stupor, then the letting go.” Yet what underlies those lines of Celan’s, that ars poetica, is the Ukrainian snow where his parents were murdered.



In August 1984 at Cerisy-la-Salle near the Norman coast, shortly after coming to know Gisele Celan-Lestrange, I asked her (in tentative French): “Is it not true that many of your husband’s poems arise from his own experience?” Cent pour cent, she replied instantly, “One hundred percent.” And yet at the same time, if I asked her about Paul Celan’s life, Gisele would urge me to concentrate strictly on his work. So that double focus, or call it a fusing of two lenses, forms the challenge of approaching Celan and of making his life’s work and his work’s life accessible.

To attend deeply to Paul Celan entails, as Gisele well knew, studying his own reading habits, since the world’s texts in many subjects and languages furnished realia for his writing. She let me peruse his two libraries, in Paris and Normandy. For hours on end I would pull volume after volume from the shelves, to see just what Celan had bought and read, and when and where, and whether he’d made marginal comments or underlinings. Once, for instance, I came upon a poem he’d drafted inside a physiology handbook; this, combined with his multiple markings of Gershom Scholem on the Shechinah, God’s radiant presence, guided my rendering of “Near, in the aorta’s arch.” I also found an offprint of Rene Char’s Resistance notebooks in Celan’s German translation. The Frenchman had inscribed it for his translator: A Paul Celan, a qui je pensais (“To Paul Celan, whom I was thinking of”)--an uncanny tribute!

Very late one cold night in November ’84 at the rue Montorgueil, after Gisele had gone to bed, I stayed up as long as I could, gripped by this silent private access to the poet’s mindwork. Spotting the soft chestnut covers of a frayed, hand-worn volume, I took it down: Kafka’s Erzahlungen. “A Country Doctor,” “The Hunter Gracchus,” “A Hunger Artist”: these stories had been much read. Then on looking into the book’s endpapers, I discovered that Celan had this volume with him during a months-long stay in a psychiatric clinic when nervous depression--”the doctor’s simplistic formula,” he said--was besetting him.

What took my breath away, in the back endpapers, were some terrifying pained scrawlings. Hardly daring to, I nevertheless copied them down: “early afternoon on the 8th of December 1965: It’s still quite clear in my head--Kamen Menschen, If only people would come, I could almost begin anew, ich konnte fast neu beginnen.” Along with this heart cry, on the last page I found, in Hebrew: shaddai shaddai, the ineffable name of God, and below that, in a distracted Hebrew hand, the Judaic watchword: Shema Yisrael Adonai Elohenu Adonai Echad, “Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One”--the essential profession of faith, which Jewish martyrs have recited over the centuries.

At this moment--3 a.m.? 4 a.m.?--Gisele happened to come into the living room. Seeing me with this Kafka volume, she asked me to put it back on the shelf. After seven more years of work--research, interviews, translations, conferences, essays--I doubted that I could, or rather that I should, publish those naked scrawlings, however arresting and revealing. Even when I’d finished composing my biographical account of Celan, I kept putting off asking Gisele for permission. Then, tragically and to my shock, in December 1991 she died of cancer. Fiercely serious about her own art, and loyal to her husband, she had embodied for me the presence of Paul Celan’s absence, and now her death deepened that absence.

Finally I decided that a genuine account needed to include Celan’s subjunctive Kamen Menschen, “If only people would come, I could almost begin anew,” and his Hebraic cry, “Hear, O Israel.” In 1994, 10 years after lighting upon them, I asked the Celans’ son, Eric, for permission and he kindly agreed. These utterances belong to the poet’s psychic ground, the dark behind the mirror. What’s more, in the critical languages of German and Hebrew, they speak for two core motives, the motives that--to my mind, at least--unite in driving Paul Celan’s most idiosyncratic writing: Kamen Menschen, an uncertain yet urgent hope for human addressability, humane solidarity; and Shema Yisrael, a radical imperative--”Listen!”--in the other language that remained “near and not lost,” nah und unverloren, “in the midst of the losses,” as he said in his first major speech, on receiving the Bremen literature prize in 1958.


There he spoke his hope: “A poem . . . can be a message in a bottle, sent out in the--not always greatly hopeful--belief that somewhere and sometime it could wash up on land, on heartland perhaps.” Certainly Celan’s reader, likewise his translator, can try to inhabit that heartland of intimate appeal.

“Everything is near and unforgotten,” Celan wrote in 1944 to Erich Einhorn, meaning the arc of a life, from youth into war and beyond, that might have incurred oblivion. Thus, his life’s work, the poems and prose and certain translations, form a continuum in which everything is indeed near and unforgotten. It may help to see Celan’s oeuvre evolving from early to middle to late: from 1920 until the summer of 1948, when the State of Israel came into being and when instead of moving there he settled in Paris, “one of the last who must live out to the end the destiny of the Jewish spirit in Europe”; then from 1948, when he took up his living as a poet, translator, and teacher, until late 1962, the completion of “The No-One’s-Rose” and his first bout of severe depression; and from 1962, when his poetry was turning spare and dark, until his death in 1970.

Celan closed the 1958 Bremen speech by calling himself one who “goes toward language with his very being, stricken by and seeking reality.” Though my last phrase does not quite catch the German’s ultimate stresses--wirklichkeitswund und Wirklichkeit suchend, “reality-wounded and Reality-seeking,” perhaps that closing phrase can chart Paul Celan’s poetic phases, a kind of tensile arc: “Stricken . . . Seeking . . . Reality.”

Such an arc traverses the entire body of Celan’s writing, represented in English translation more fully in my forthcoming anthology, “Selected Poems and Prose of Paul Celan,” than ever before--161 poems, plus much else that also manifests the poet’s driving concerns. This anthology opens with his youthful lyrics, scarcely translated until now. Then come chronological selections from the eight books published between 1952 and 1971, and from a further gathering issued after his death. And then follow several poems he never published, found in his private papers. My anthology also presents Celan’s major prose, setting it for the first time alongside his poems in translation. These highly unusual prose writings interact with his poetry: the whimsical “Conversation in the Mountains,” where Jew Gross and Jew Klein talk about alienation, nature, silence, God, and language itself; Celan’s speeches for the Bremen and Buchner prizes, which identify subtly and sharply the state of poetry after “that which happened”; and his half-elated, half-vulnerable words to the Hebrew Writers Association in 1969, shortly before his death.

Also included are photographic reproductions of little-known or hitherto unknown Celan manuscripts, along with Gisele Celan-Lestrange’s graphic art, which accompanied and fortified his own art. As a whole, the anthology reveals someone whose language carved “a Breathcrystal, / your unannullable / witness.”

In making these translations, I’ve consulted the multiple drafts of Celan’s poems as well as his notes for the Buchner or “Meridian” speech, all of which expose his shaping process, helping reader and translator alike to come closer to the poet’s intentions. I’ve also listened over and over to recordings of his voice, so as to absorb whatever emphases, rhythmic above all, might aid my task. Even the moments when Celan misspeaks a line (as in Todestuge and “Mit wechselndem Schlussel”), utterly rare in so exacting a poet, may possibly open an insight into something crucial happening there. And another unique window on Celan’s poetic intentions has become accessible. In 1955 two translators made French versions from his work, and he carefully revised them. Given his nuanced, exact French, these amendations help clarify obscure and enigmatic and ambiguous moments in his German verse. For instance, his poem “Shibboleth” evokes the 1934 workers’ uprisings in Vienna and Madrid as Zwillingsrote. Originally I rendered that as “twin rednesses”; but since Celan in French suggested rougeoiements, I’ve now opted for “reddenings,” which deepens the political image with a sense of dawning. Or in “Praise of Distance,” the speaker is “a heart that abode among Menschen”: the French translator heard this as hommes, “men,” but Celan made it humains, a heart among humans. In the same poem, he replaced infidele (unfaithful) with the stronger Apostat, so that the line says “Apostate only am I faithful”--which would provide, by the way, a stimulating but risky motto for translation itself.


Of course there remains one element of Paul Celan’s career that cannot figure in a Selected Poems and Prose: namely, his genius as a translator into German. From his teenage years (when he tried Apollinaire, Eluard, Shakespeare, Yeats, Housman, and Sergei Esenin), through the ghetto and forced labor, into his working life where translation also supplemented a teaching income, and up until his death, for Celan the rendering of other poets into German was an essential activity. “All these are encounters,” he said, using the word Begegnung, which to him meant spiritual recognition; “here too I have gone with my very being toward language.” Sometimes translation provided a proving ground, as when he fashioned more than 500 rhymed German alexandrines for Paul Valery’s La Jeune Parque because Rilke had said it couldn’t be done.

At his most fervent, Celan translated in order to probe the limits of postwar German and to chisel his own truths out of the refractory stone of an other tongue. “I consider translating Mandelshtam into German,” he said, “to be as important a task as my own verses.” Osip Mandelshtam, to be sure, had perished as poet and Jew--had even (Celan believed for a while) died at Nazi rather than Soviet hands. Yet it did not take that sort of blood brotherhood to evoke penetrating translations. Shakespeare’s charged language and themes of time, loss, death, regeneration, as well as of betrayal and bitterness, provoked German versions that appropriate and even sharpen the sonnets.

In Emily Dickinson, vastly removed though she was, Celan found kindred voicings of mortality and theological skepticism:

I reason, we could die--

The best Vitality

Cannot excel decay,

But, what of that?

Where Dickinson already seems compact and direct, her translator, while keeping meter and slant rhymes, compresses still more and mutates her grammar:

Ich denk: Sieh zu, man stirbt,

der Saft, der in dir wirkt,

auch ihm gilt dies: Verdirb--

ja und?

(I think: Look here, we die,

the sap that works in thee,

it too knows this: Decay--

so what?)

Conditional turns into imperative, abstract into concrete, irony into sarcasm.

Because the inquiring, illumining process of translation taught me so much in my book “Translating Neruda: The Way to Macchu Picchu” (1980), later I thought my work on Paul Celan might be entitled “Translating Celan: The Strain of Jewishness”--but that smacked a little too much of a mere sequel. Still, “Paul Celan: Poet, Survivor, Jew” (1995) took its interpretive energy partly from the translator’s point of vantage and disadvantage. Now it feels inevitable to follow that account of Celan’s life work with a gathering of his writings, in German and in English translation.

All too often, it goes without saying that any translator is indebted to those who have come before--in my case, to the pathbreaking Celan translators Christopher Middleton and especially Michael Hamburger, to Jerome Rothenberg, Cid Corman, Joachim Neugroschel. More recently, I’ve also benefited from the work of Pierre Joris, Heather McHugh and Nikolai Popov. *


For my anthology I’ve revised almost all the poems quoted fully in my biography of Celan, and completed scores of others cited there only in part; and I’ve added 50 more poems to represent him as broadly as possible. 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. Sometimes it’s true, as per Franz Rosenzweig bringing Judah Halevi from Hebrew into German: “I myself fully understand a poem only when I have translated it.” But not always. Now, with inscrutable poems or lines, I gladly pass them along to the reader within the full stream of Celan’s writing. After all, Celan himself in his recitals refrained utterly from comment, enunciating only the poem’s words and lines. His voice was intense, precise, sometimes monotone, grave yet resonant, registering nuance and emotion without excess.

Mostly Celan’s lyrics will reach readers who keep their minds peeled, without the sort of interpreting my critical biography offers. I do, though, furnish factual notes for this anthology. With a poem such as “‘Just Think,” responding to Israel’s 1967 Six-Day War, it helps to recall the Peat-Bog Soldiers from an early concentration camp protest song, and to recognize Masada, where Jewish zealots held out against Roman siege, then took their own lives rather than surrender. It would also have helped, when Celan tells this poem’s addressees du / erstarkst und / erstarkst, if I’d originally translated it (as I now do) “you / go from strength / to strength,” echoing Psalm 84.


One hears many metaphors for literary and especially poetic translation, most of them pejorative: kissing a bride through her veil; les belles infideles (women beautiful hence unfaithful); the wrong side of a Persian carpet, its design blurred by extra threads; traduttore, traditore (translator, traitor); “poetry is what gets lost in translation.” Yet some of the hopeful things Celan himself said about poetry, and about love, offer acute figures for translation: “I see no essential difference between a poem and a handshake”; “a poem can be a message in a bottle”; true poems are “making toward something . . . perhaps toward an addressable Thou”; “the poem wants to reach an Other, it needs this Other, it needs an Over-Against.” In an early love poem, Celan might also be heard to speak for idiosyncratic translation as strongly as Robert Lowell did: Ich bin du, wenn ich ich bin, “I am you when I am I” (or “when I I am”!). And a later poem lets the word for “translate,” ubersetzen, suggest that trauma will inevitably carry over into the process of translation: a ferryboat “bears / wounded readings across,” sie setzt / Wundgelesenes uber.

Celan’s poem “Everything is different” (1962) imagines an encounter with Mandelshtam in which, dismembering and remembering, the act of translation could not get much more drastic:

the name Osip comes toward you, you tell him

what he already knows, he takes it, he takes it off you with hands,

* Needless to say, because a Celan poem admits of, and indeed often calls for, variant readings, these will show up in variant translations as well. Surely some misreadings and outright mistakes have also entered my versions. I would welcome correction.

you loose the arm from his shoulder, the right one, the left,

you fasten your own in their place . . .

--what ripped apart, grows back together--

Although well shy of anything like Celan’s possessings, my own translating practice has occasionally taken small permissions from his. As a rule, I attempt to be literal yet idiomatic, faithful yet fresh--the rub coming in that word “yet.” For Celan as translator, faithful often did mean fresh. Vis-a-vis French or Russian or English verse, he was given to fracturing, contracting, omitting, specifying, intensifying, inventing, repeating where the original had no repetition, changing nouns into verbs, indicatives into imperatives or gerunds, and so on.


Now this free hand is not for lesser spirits. Sometimes, though, small touches or tunings seem right: a biblical or Buber-esque “Thou” rather than “you,” even though German Du is merely the second-person singular that English has lost; a capital letter when context dictates--”come with me to Breath / and beyond”--though German nouns take capitals regularly; an opting for neologism--”Deathfugue”--though German compounds its words habitually; and a version a la Emily Dickinson for Celan’s musing on his mother, So bist du denn geworden: “So you are turned--a Someone / As I had never known.”

Too easily, I believe, lyric poetry gets labeled untranslatable, especially in the case of someone whose personal losses rendered his German language at once precarious and privileged, inalienable yet irreplicable; someone calling himself “whitegravel stutterer”; someone speaking from his “true- / stammered mouth” about “eternity / bloodblack embabeled,” blutschwarz umbabelt. But then why not think of translation as the specific art of loss, and begin from there?

“Todtnauberg” (1967), marking his encounter with the philosopher who decided that “Being speaks German,” depicts Celan with Martin Heidegger in the Black Forest (for this anthology I provide the version Celan sent to Heidegger; later he deleted ungesaumt, “undelayed”). Signing a guest book, the poet wonders,

--wessen Namen nahms auf

vor dem meinen?--

--whose name did it receive

before mine?--

But instead of “receive” for aufnehmen, perhaps an ambiguous “take in”--given the philosopher’s unacknowledged, unrecanted Hitlerite phase--would make more sense. Such moments in the translator’s constant struggle for idiomatic equivalence indicate a possible exchange between loss and gain. For example, Celan’s Van Gogh vignette, “Below a Painting” (1955), begins,

Corn wave swarming with ravens.

Which heaven’s blue? Below? Above?

Then it ends,

Starkres Schwirren. Nah’res Gluhen. Beide Welten.

Stronger whirring. Nearer glowing. Both worlds.

This does catch Celan’s strong cadence, but then botches the last phrase, which wants the same four-syllable on-off beat as Beide Welten: not exactly “Both of these worlds,” but maybe “Two worlds touching”--or does that add too much?

A certain elation occurs now and then when a translation comes into touch with its original by finding its own rightness. Such elation, inherent to any creative effort, strikes me as slightly suspect, especially touching Paul Celan’s “pain-laden” German poems. Unless, perhaps, a la Walter Benjamin, those poems somehow require translation, because they are “making toward . . . something standing open,” as Celan put it, “toward an addressable reality.” Benjamin said: “Translation takes fire from the endless renewal of languages as they grow to the messianic end of their history.”


Paul Celan’s poems are astir, albeit thwartedly, with that messianic impulse. Having ventured to Israel in 1969 for the first time, decades later than many compatriots did and he himself possibly should have, Celan wrote a spate of “Jerusalem” lyrics, some elated, some despairing. While there he walked around the Old City, recently liberated in the 1967 Six-Day War, and saw the Temple Mount’s Western Wall. One poem speaks of a Posaunenstelle, a “trumpet place” or “shofar place / deep in the glowing / text-void,” and closes with self-admonition:

hor dich ein

mit dem Mund.

Literally, “hear yourself in / with the mouth.” That glowing “text-void,” Leertext, also puns on Lehrtext, “teaching-” or “Torah-text.” By holding onto Celan’s punctual three-beat utterance, hor dich ein, as in the shofar’s New Year blast te-ki-ah, and letting dich deepen the attentiveness called for here, possibly these lines can say

hear deep in

with your mouth.

What the poet requires of himself--namely, a voice responding to the text-void after “that which happened”--he asks of his translators and readers alike.


On April 13, 1970, Celan began a poem about the generation of poetry and its listener:

Vinegrowers dig up

the dark-houred clock,

deep upon deep,

you read,

Du liest can also mean “you glean” or “gather.” The poem ends by speaking of “Open ones,” those now free, in the open, who “carry / the stone behind their eye.” Whatever this stone embodies--a blindness or a muteness, paradoxically enabling both vision and speech--

it knows you,

on the Sabbath.

der erkennt dich,

am Sabbath.

This was Celan’s last poem. A week later, possibly suffering another depression and dreading the medical treatment for these incurable wounds, he disappeared into the Seine River late at night and drowned himself, unobserved. His closing word, “Sabbath,” bespeaks rest and refreshment, anticipating redemption. So possibly Paul Celan’s final line, am Sabbath, can take a slight spur in translation, a rousing of that stone behind the eye:

it knows you,

come the Sabbath.