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Translating the Untranslatable

The Wounded Readings of Paul Celan

October 15, 2000|JOHN FELSTINER | 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

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.

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