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Paul Celan 2000. (Review Essay).

Remnants of Song: Trauma and the Experience of Modernity in Charles Baudelaire and Paul Celan, by Ulrich Baer. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2000. 343 pp. $55.00 (c); $24.95 (p).

Glottal Stop: 101 Poems, by Paul Celan, translated by Nikolai Popov and Heather McHugh. Hanover: Wesleyan University Press / University Press of New England, 2000. 147 pp. $24.95.

Selected Poems and Prose of Paul Celan, translated by John Felstiner. Dual-language edition. New York: W. W. Norton and Co., 2000. 426 pp. $29.95.

Threadsuns, by Paul Celan, translated by Pierre Joris. Dual-language edition. Los Angeles: Sun & Moon, 2000. 272 pp. $13.95.

The year 2000 marked the eightieth anniversary of the birth of Paul Celan and the thirtieth of his death. Numerous symposia and publications marked the anniversaries. Among the books by and about this great and tragic Jewish poet that were published throughout the world are the four works being reviewed here. In each of these cases, however, the timing seems accidental. All three translations have been works in progress for some time, and the scholarly work, a revision of a Yale dissertation (1995), probably just chanced to be published in the anniversary year. Be that as it may, all four are useful additions to the corpus of literature, primary and secondary, that enables English-speaking readers to gain access to Celan's world.

The consensus choice for the most significant German-language lyric poet born in the twentieth century, and in the opinion of many the greatest European poet of the last half of the century, Celan is notoriously difficult to read, and difficult to translate. Literary critics are at long last beginning to make headway in interpreting his works, although the areas of disagreement remain immense. The importance of his Jewish heritage is now universally recognized, although there is no unanimity among interpreters on exactly how this is manifested in his poetry. This much is certain: he lost both parents in the Holocaust, and Jewish themes appear in his works with some regularity. Beyond that, little can be said that is not open to dispute.

I will turn first to Baer. The first few pages of his introduction were unsettling--and not in the sense that Holocaust literature is unsettling--beginning with the first sentence: "This is a book about the first poet, and the last poet, of our modernity ..." (p. 1). It is taken as axiomatic that this statement is accurate (the two parts of the book bear the titles "The First Modern Poet: Charles Baudelaire" and "The Last Modern Poet: Paul Celan"), without any attention to other candidates for the positions in question. As the reader soon sees, Baer's approach is in many ways that of a philosopher (or psychologist), and indeed, references in the copious notes to philosophers and psychologists (or psychiatrists, from Freud on) far outnumber those to literary critics. Celan is called a poet, and not only in the section titles, but the context typically stresses ideas, not poetic formulation. Even more unsettling is the statement: "Celan declares his poetic mission to be the task of 'thinking Mallarme through t o the end [Mallarme konsequent zu Ende zu denken]"' (p. 6). What Celan actually says, or asks, is: "should we ... be thinking Mallarme through to the end?" (Felstiner's translation, p.405). The Meridian, in which this question is posed, is enormously complicated, and it is by no means clear that Celan intends an affirmative, let alone a simple, unambiguous answer to question. Where mere art is concerned, perhaps; where poetry is concerned, no.

On the other hand, Baer has much to offer. He concentrates on a few key poems by each author, subjecting them to intensely close readings: Baudelaire's "L'Etranger," "Paysage," and "Les Aveugles," and Celan's "Weggebeizt," "Entwurf einer Landschaft," "... Auch keinerlei," and "Allerseelen." Celan's French epigram "La poesie ne s'impose plus, elle s'expose" is given an especially careful and thoughtful commentary. Other poems are discussed in less detail, most notably "Die zweite," "Welchen der Steine du hebst," "Engfuhrung," and "Todtnauberg." As the book's subtitle suggests, Baer approaches Celan from the perspective of the Holocaust, and to some extent Baudelaire as well: "... this impossibility [of lighthearted art after Auschwitz] was sensed [gespurt] by great literature, first by Baudelaire almost a century before the European catastrophe," the conclusion quotes Adorno as saying (p. 295), perhaps returning to, and answering, a question the author poses in the introduction: "Is Celan's poetic testimony to the Holocaust... not immeasurably more significant than Baudelaire's registering of small existential shocks?" (p. 7).

Baer's treatment of landscape (a word present in the titles of two of the poems he discusses) is especially fruitful. In Celan, landscape in the traditional sense has been replaced by "terrain," as in the opening lines of "Engfuhrung" ("Straightening"): "Verbracht ins / Gelande [Driven into the / terrain]" (221). "To be 'driven / into the terrain' means to be taken to a place where the landscape shatters into fragmented perceptions of the surroundings, and where experience splinters into catastrophic shock" (p. 226). This insight is rigorously and fruitfully applied to several other contexts. Each of the book's five illustrations depicts memorials at the sites of former concentration camps, and discussions of them are smoothly woven into the treatment of the post-Auschwitz terrain.

Let's turn now to the translations and the translators, all of whom approach Celan first and foremost as a poet (although Popov / McHugh once refer to him as a "poet-philosopher" [p. xvii], a term I would not use). John Felstiner, a professor of English at Stanford University, has been working with Celan for some twenty years and has in the process established a highly deserved reputation as one of the world's outstanding experts in the field. His translations, too, have been appearing for years, in numerous journals as well as in the book Paul Celan: Poet, Survivor, Jew (1995), and they, no less than his scholarship, have received the high praise they so richly deserve. Selected Poems and Prose contains 161 poems--selections ranging from the early works through the major collections of the poet's maturity and the posthumous volumes, including a sampling of recently published "Uncollected Poems"--and four prose works. A few letters would have been a nice addition, but at 426 pages the book is already apprecia bly longer than most publishers would have allowed. Also found here are a short preface, a significant introduction, brief notes on a few poems (the majority consisting of explanations of proper names and foreign words), and indexes of English and German first lines and titles. A number of illustrations--for the most part reproductions of manuscripts--are also included.

One virtually insurmountable problem facing translators of Celan--if not one that is frequently mentioned--is the rhythmical nature of his verse, especially the earlier works, but to some extent the later ones as well. Felstiner is acutely aware of this issue, and takes great pains to reproduce the rhythm as well as the meaning. That he is consciously aware of this problem is made explicit in the introduction (which, by the way, could serve as an excellent general introduction to the poet). For example, in discussing his version of "Unter ein Bild" ("Below a Painting"), he quotes the German of the concluding line and gives his initial (rather literal) English version, "Stronger whirring. Nearer glowing. Both worlds." He then goes on to comment: "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?" (p. xxxiv). We have to go to the translation of the poem to answer Felstiner's question, and the answer is no, it does not add too much (in the translator's opinion, as well as that of this reviewer); it is indeed translated "Two worlds touching" (p. 99). Not all poems that have a recognizable meter or rhythm reflect this in translation. It seems that if Felstiner is not able to find suitable phrasing that reflects the original rhythm, he abandons attempts at approximation that would be less than satisfactory, as in "Espenbaum" / "Aspen Tree," where the regular five-beat trochaic meter is not imitated in the English.

One of Felstiner's major strengths as a translator is to be found in his willingness to keep revising his work. He notes in his introduction that most of the versions in the present collection that were also present in his Paul Celan: Poet, Survivor, Jew have been revised, and spot-checking reveals that to be the case. Even "Todesfuge" "Deathfugue," Celan's most famous poem and one that has occupied Felstiner for two decades, continues to be revised, if slightly. The lines "he shouts scrape your strings darker you'll rise then as smoke to the sky / you'll have a grave then in the clouds there you won't lie too cramped" in the version in the critical study become "'ll rise up as smoke to the sky / you'll then have a grave in the clouds where..." (p. 33). A little bit smoother, a little bit better, but changes that most translators would not have thought about. The latest version of "Deathfugue" retains Felstiner's innovative retention of German at key points in the poem, most notably "Deutschland" instea d of "Germany"; the reasons are primarily formal and rhythmical: "Germany" has too many syllables, and the sound of the word lacks the "dark" quality of the alliterative "Deutschland": "er schreibt wenn es dunkelt nach Deutschland" / "he writes when it grows dark to Deutschland" (p. 31).

Is the book without flaws? Of course not. On occasion ambiguities arise in the English, as in "Which heaven's blue?" (p. 99). A reader would probably construe this as "Which heaven is blue," but the facing German tells us that the word is a genitive, "the blue of which heaven." The only major problem I noticed is that the title "Koln, Am Hof" is translated "Cologne, at the Station" (pp. 110-11), whereas "Am Hof" is the name of a little street located between the famous cathedral and the city's old Jewish quarter, a potentially important aspect of the poem. But problems of any sort are very few and far between. This is a marvelous collection and a worthy companion to Felstiner's admirable book on Celan.

Glottal Stop is the result of the collaborative effort of Nikolai Popov, a Bulgarian comparatist who wrote a dissertation on Celan, and Heather McHugh, an outstanding poet who is now Milliman Distinguished Writer in Residence at the University of Washington. I was afforded the opportunity to read an early version of the manuscript several years ago, and I still vividly recall an "aha" experience. After I had gotten a few poems into the manuscript, comparing the translations with the original, I was feeling somewhat frustrated, since the translation deviated from Celan's German in ways that seemed arbitrary. But that reaction did not last long. Suddenly I realized--aha!--that while what I was reading was a translation, it was also very fine poetry, and the deviations reflected the presence of a supremely confident and competent poet at work. I accordingly approve of the decision not to include the German texts; I found them distracting, and other readers probably would as well. As the translators note in their introduction, and as my experience corroborates, "Because first and foremost we value the experience of the poetry, we decided not to print the German texts en face. Both of us were reluctant to encourage ... too early a recourse to the kind of line-by-line comparison that fatally distracts attention from what matters first: the experience of a poem's coursing, cumulative power" (p. xiii).

The vast majority of the 101 poems included in Glottal Stop are from Celan's late period, which means they tend to be short, complex, and extremely difficult. The translations are bold, daring to the extent that a purist might vehemently attack them. But they are certainly no more daring than many of Celan's own translations, and the total effect approaches that of Celan's originals, even if a line-by-line comparison reveals differences in detail. (Another interesting--related--phenomenon: the poems do not appear in the order in which they are printed in their original collections.) The lack of literal fidelity was at the heart of the problems the translators had in gaining the rights to publish the book, and therein lies an irony. Surely the most significant professional trauma of Celan's life was the accusation of plagiarism leveled against him by Claire Goll (the painful details of which are now thoroughly documented in the 925 pages of Paul Celan: Die Goll-Affare. Dokumente zu einer "Infamie," ed. Barbara Wiedemann [Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 2000]). The "affair," which dragged on for years (indeed, the scars on Celan's psyche were permanent), began soon after the death of Claire's husband, Yvan: Claire asked Celan to translate some of Yvan's French poems into German, and Celan's versions were rejected by the publisher-they were not close enough to the literal meaning of the original, or as it is often put now, there was too much Celan and not enough Goll. With this decision the relationship between Celan and Claire turned sour, and the plagiarism charge soon followed. Fortunately Celan's publisher, Suhrkamp, later reversed itself, and Popov and McHugh were granted the rights to publish their translations; I think Celan would have approved of the decision.

The eight-page introduction (tellingly labeled "preface") is even more idiosyncratic than the translations, and readers not familiar with the arcane vocabulary of literary criticism will not be able to manage it without frequent recourse to a dictionary; whereas Felstiner in a passage quoted above eschewed even the mild technical phrase "trochaic" in favor of "four-syllable on-off beat," the Popov / McHugh introduction (and the same is true of the notes) reverberates with technical terms like paronymy and other esoteric vocabulary (mephitic), in addition, of course, to words found or invented to reflect Celan's problematic formulations. Nevertheless, the notes are both copious and extremely helpful. If the book taken as a whole is designed to be both a translation and a collection of independent English poems, the notes explain many of the complexities of the German text and will clarify the relationship between original and translation.

Threadsuns is a collection of translations of Celan poems, but has little else in common with the Felstiner and Popov / McHugh books. Joris is a noted poet, translator, and scholar, whose translation of Breathturn (1995) received a warm, if somewhat mixed reception. Unlike Felstiner or Popov / McHugh, Joris has translated a complete collection, Celan's Fadensonnen (1968). He thus renounces the right to ignore poems whose difficulty approaches incomprehensibility or whose verbal tricks seem to defy translation. (Various translators, from Michael Hamburger on, have commented that a certain poem they wanted to include turned out to defy translation and hence had to be omitted from the final collection; Popov / McHugh observe that they failed to include some fifty poems of which they completed preliminary versions.) A second major difference is to be found in the highly literal nature of the translations. In the very first poem of the book, "Augenblicke," we find the word "unentworden," not a normal German word, to be sure. Joris renders it literally, part by part: "undebecome" (pp. 31-32). At times related phenomena can become problematical. "Von hier aus" (in normal German) is straightforward: from this place, from this perspective. Joris translates it "from here on out," to some extent literal, considering the components, but adding at least an implicit temporal component not present in the German idiom.

A brief comparative examination of three versions of the same poem will illustrate how the approaches differ.
Celan's original                Felstiner

Frankfurt, September            Frankfurt, September

Blinde, licht-                  Blind, light-
bartige Stellwand.              bearded display panel.
Ein Maikafertraum               A Maybeetle dream
leuchtet sie aus.               illumines it.

Dahinter, klagegerastert,       Behind it, mourning halftone,
tut sich Freuds Stirn auf,      Freud's brow opens up,

die drau[beta]en                the outward
hartgeschwiegene Trane          hard-silenced tear
schlie[beta]t an mit dem Satz:  breaks out with a phrase:
"Zum lctzten-                   "For the last
mal Psycho-                     time psycho-
logie."                         logy."

Die Simili-                     The simulate
Dohle                           jackdaw
fruhstuckt.                     breakfasts.

Der Kehlkopfverschlu[beta]laut  The glottal stop
singt.                          sings. (285)

Joris                           Popov / McHugh

Frankfurt, September            Frankfurt, September

Blind, light-                   Blind wall-space,
bearded partition.              bearded by brilliances.
A cockchaferdream               A dream of a cockchafer

floodlights it.                 sheds light on it.

Behind it, complaint-rastered,  Behind that, raster of lamentations,
Freud's forehead opens up,      Freud's forehead opens up:

the tear, hard-                 the tear
silenced outside,               compacted of silence
links on with the sentence:     breaks out in a proposition:
"For the last                   "Psycho-
time psycho-                    logy for the last
logy."                          time."

The imitation                   The pseudo-jackdaw
jackdaw                         (cough-caw's double)
breakfasts                      is breakfasting.

The glottal stop                The glottal stop is breaking
sings. (p. 33)                  into song. (p. 37)

For the vast majority of readers in either language, the poem is at first an enigma; and so it will remain without help. Turning to Felstiner's notes, we learn that 1) the Frankfurt book fair takes place in September; 2) the quote is from Kafka; 3) kavka is the Czech word for jackdaw; 4) Freud, Kafka, and Celan shared the same German publisher; and 5) "Kafka died of tuberculosis of the larynx; his last story was 'Josephine the Singer"' (pp. 418-19). Joris omits Felstiner's points 1,4, and the last part of 5, but expands on the others. He adds the useful bit of information that "May beetles" appear in the English translation of one of Freud's dream analyses, and he quotes from a German critic's comments on the poem. The Popov / McHugh notes are by far the most extensive, amounting to a little over a page of glosses and poetic commentary.

Joris's translation is the most literal, as the hyphenated words "light-/bearded" and "hard-silenced" suggest; even the "floodlights" is probably an attempt to reflect the force of "aus," in the sense of carrying the action of the verb ("leuchtet") through to completion. Popov I McHugh take liberties, most notably adding the punning reference to Kafka, but their technique is also illustrated by the alliteration at the beginning, "Blind... I bearded by brilliances. I/Behind" and the echo "breaks out" / "is breaking." Feistiner's version is--if the phrase can be used of Celan, in the original or in translation--the most straightforward. Each is interesting, each is in its own way competent, and together they give a very good sense of the original.

Jerry Glenn is Professor of German at the University of Cincinnati. He was the managing editor of the first six volumes of the Lessing Yearbook (1969-1974), and his recent publications have focused on German-Jewish poetry. His books include Paul Celan (1973), Paul Celan: Eine Bibliographie (1989), and Paul Celan. Die zweite Bibliographie (1998; with J. Todd).
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Title Annotation:Remnants of Song: Trauma and the Experience of Modernity in Charles Baudelaire and Paul Celan, Glottal Stop: 101 Poems, Threadsuns, and Selected Poems and Prose of Paul Celan
Author:Glenn, Jerry
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jan 1, 2002
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