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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.

A poem that's slightly less close to my heart is 'Landshaft' which is also from the 'Atemwende' collection. This is the Hamburger translation:

Lanscape with urn creatures.
Conversations
from smoke mouth to smoke mouth.

They eat:
those madhouse truffles, a chunk
of unburied poetry,
found a tongue and a tooth.

A tear rolls back into its eye.

The left-hand, orphaned
half of the pilgrim's
shell - they gave it to you,
then they fettered you -
listening, floodlights the scene:

the clnker game against death
can begin.

Whereas this is Joris:

Landscape with urnbeings.
Conversations
from smokemouth to smokemouth.

They eat:
the bedlamite's truffle, a piece
unburied poetry,
found tongue and tooth.

A tear rolls back into its eye.

The left, orphaned
half of the pilgrim-
mussel- they gave it to you,
then they bound you-
listening it illuminates the space:

the clinkergame against death
can begin.

I want to look at some of the differences in these two poems and suggest that the meanings here might be significantly different.

Urn creatures and urnbeings. It is reasonable to argue that this particular difference is crucial when trying to get to grips with the poem, 'creature' is laden with the 'creatureliness' that was a central term in the Meridian Address whereas 'beings' is freighted with philosophy in general and the work of Martin Heidegger in particular so this difference is much more than differences of word-choice for it stands over what follows.

Madhouse and bedlamite. These have completely different meanings and connotations. a 'madhouse' is a mental hospital or what was known as a lunatic asylum whereas a bedlamite is either any mentally ill patient or a patient at the Hospital of St Mary of Bethlehem. The word 'bedlam' also another name for Bethlehem and those connotations are very far indeed from madhouse. In the Hamburger translation the truffle belongs to the madhouse whereas Joris implies that it belongs to the patient (or Christ).

Shell and mussel. Google translate tells me that the original 'muschel' can be defined as shell, mussel, seashell or clam so both versions are accurate but 'mussel' is quite specific and leads us down a specific route whilst 'shell' has (according to the OED) 33 possible definitions with many different subsidary meanings. Thankfully, both agree on 'pilgrim'.

I hope these examples show that even the best translators can put a completely different 'spin' on the poems but this doesn't detract from their quality. I think I also need to point out that there are prize-winning translation of Celan into English that do an enormous diservice to the original.

Incidentally, Pierre Joris has an informative essay on his translation of 'Todtnauberg' which illustrate some of these complexities and the care and respect with which the best translators approach their work.