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In the Midst of Losses

With its repetitive, hammering music, “Death Fugue” is as direct as verse can be in its approach to its subject. It also makes two huge implicit claims about what poetry in our time is, or should be, capable of. One is that language can measure up to any subject whatever: however unspeakable the Holocaust may be, there is a poetry that can speak it. The other is that the German language in particular, corrupted to the bone during the Nazi era by euphemism and a kind of leering doublespeak, is capable of telling the truth about Germany’s immediate past.

The first claim was dramatically rejected in Theodor Adorno’s pronouncement, issued in 1949 and reiterated in 1965, that “to write a poem after Auschwitz is barbaric.” Adorno might have added: doubly barbaric to write poems in German. (Adorno took back his words, grudgingly, in 1966, perhaps as a concession to “Death Fugue.”)

Celan avoids the word “Holocaust” in his writing, as he avoided all usages that might seem to imply that everyday language is in a position to name, and thereby limit and master, that toward which it gestures. Celan gave two major public addresses during his lifetime, both acceptance speeches for prizes, in which, with great scrupulousness of word choice, he responded to doubts about the future of poetry. In the first address, in 1958, he spoke of his halting faith that language, even the German language, had survived “that which happened” under the Nazis:

There remained in the midst of the losses this one thing: language.
It, the language, remained, not lost, yes in spite of everything. But it had to pass through its own answerlessness, pass through frightful muting, pass through the thousand darknesses of deathbringing speech. It passed through and gave back no words for that which happened; yet it passed through this happening. Passed through and could come to light again, “enriched” by all this.

Coming from a Jew, such an expression of faith in German might seem odd. Yet Celan was by no means alone: even after 1945, numbers of Jews continued to claim the German language and intellectual tradition as their own. Among them was Martin Buber. Celan paid a visit to the aged Buber to ask Buber’s counsel about continuing to write in German. Buber’s response—that it was only natural to write in one’s mother tongue, that one should take a forgiving stance toward the German—disappointed him. As Felstiner puts it, “Celan’s vital need, to hear some echo of his plight, Buber could not or would not grasp.”2 His plight was that if German was “his” language, it was his only in a complex, contested, and painful way.

In Bucharest, Celan had improved his Russian and translated Lermontov and Chekhov into Romanian. In Paris he continued to translate Russian poetry, finding in the Russian language a welcome, counter-Germanic home. In particular he read Osip Mandelstam (1891–1938) intensively. In Mandelstam he met not only a man whose life story corresponded in what he thought were uncanny ways to his own, but a ghostly interlocutor who responded to his deepest needs, who offered, in Celan’s words, “what is brotherly—in the most reverential sense I can give that word.”

Setting his own creative work aside, Celan spent most of 1958 and 1959 translating Mandelstam into German. His versions constitute an extraordinary act of inhabiting another poet, though Nadezhda Mandelstam, Mandelstam’s widow, is right to call them “a very far cry from the original text.”

Mandelstam’s notion of poem as dialogue did much to reshape Celan’s own poetic theory. Celan’s poems begin to address a Thou who may be more or less distant, more or less known. In the space between the speaking I and the Thou they find a new field of tension.

(I know you, you’re the one bent over low,
and I, the one pierced through, am in your need.
Where flames a word to witness for us both?
You—wholly real. I—wholly mad.)

(This is Felstiner’s translation. In the freer version by Heather McHugh and Nikolai Popov, the last line reads: “You’re my reality. I’m your mirage.”)


If there is one theme dominating Felstiner’s biography of Celan, it is that Celan developed from being a German poet whose fate it was to be a Jew to being a Jewish poet whose fate it was to write in German; that he outgrew kinship with Rilke and Heidegger, to find in Kafka and Mandelstam his true spiritual forebears. Though Celan continued during the 1960s to visit Germany to give readings, any hope that he might develop an emotional involvement with re-arisen Germany faded, to the point that he called it a “most tragic and indeed most childish error.” He began to read Gershom Scholem on the Jewish mystical tradition, Buber on Hasidism. Hebrew words—Ziv, the unearthly light of God’s presence; Yizkor, memory—appeared in his poetry. The theme of testifying, witnessing, came to the fore, along with the bitter personal subtheme: “No one/bears witness for the/witness.” The “Thou” of his insistently dialogical poetry became, intermittently but unmistakably, God; echoes emerged of the Kabbalistic teaching that the whole of creation is a text in the divine language.

The capture of Jerusalem by Israeli forces in the 1967 war overjoyed Celan. He wrote a celebratory poem that was widely read in Israel:

Just think: your
own hand
has held
this piece of
habitable earth,
again suffered
up into life.

In 1969 Celan visited Israel for the first time (“So many Jews, only Jews, and not in a ghetto,” he marveled ironically). He gave talks and readings, met Israeli writers, resumed a romantic relationship with a woman from his Czernowitz days.

As a child Celan had for three years gone to a Hebrew school. Though he studied the language unwillingly (he associated it with his Zionist father rather than his beloved Germanophile mother), his command of it ran surprisingly deep. Aharon Appelfeld, by then an Israeli but by origin a Czernowitzer like Celan, found Celan’s Hebrew “rather good.” When Yehuda Amichai read out his translations of Celan’s poems, Celan was able to suggest improvements.

Back in Paris, Celan wondered whether, in staying behind in Europe, he had not made the wrong choice. He toyed with the idea of accepting a teaching position in Israel. Memories of Jerusalem gave rise to a brief burst of composition, poems that are at the same time spiritual, joyful, and erotic.

Celan had long been troubled by fits of depression. In 1965 he had entered a psychiatric clinic, and later undergone electroshock therapy. At home he was, as Felstiner puts it, “sometimes violent.” He and his wife agreed to live apart. A friend visiting from Bucharest found him “profoundly altered, prematurely aged, taciturn, frowning.” “They’re doing experiments on me,” he said. To his Israeli lover he wrote, in 1970: “They’ve healed me to pieces!” Two months later he drowned himself.

To the historian Erich Kahler, with whom Celan had corresponded, Celan’s suicide proved that to be “both a great German poet and a young Central European Jew growing up in the shadow of the concentration camps” was a burden too great for one man to bear. In a profound sense this verdict on Celan’s suicide is true. But we cannot discount more mundane causes like Claire Goll’s prolonged, mad vendetta, or the nature of the psychiatric care he underwent. Felstiner does not comment directly on the treatment to which Celan’s doctors subjected him, but from Celan’s own bitter asides it is clear they have much to answer for.

Even during Celan’s lifetime there had developed a busy scholarly trade, principally in Germany, based upon him. That trade has today grown to an industry. As Kafka is to German prose, so Celan has become to German poetry.

Despite the pioneering translations of Jerome Rothenberg, Michael Hamburger, and others, Celan did not really penetrate the English-speaking world until he had been taken up in France; and in France Celan was read as a Heideggerian poet, that is to say, as if his poetic career, culminating in suicide, exemplified the end of art in our times, an end in parallel to the end of philosophy as diagnosed by Heidegger.

Though Celan is not what one would call a philosophical poet, a poet of ideas, the link with Heidegger is not fanciful. Celan read Heidegger attentively, as Heidegger read Celan; Hölderlin was a formative influence on both. Celan approved of Heidegger’s view of poetry’s special claims to truth. His own explanation of why he wrote—“so as to speak, to orient myself, to find out where I was and where I was meant to go, to sketch out reality for myself”—is fully in tune with Heidegger.

Despite Heidegger’s National Socialist past and his silence on the subject of the death camps, Heidegger was important enough to Celan for Celan, in 1967, to call on him at his retreat in the Black Forest. Afterward he wrote a poem (“Todtnauberg”) about that meeting and the “word/in the heart” he hoped to hear from Heidegger, but failed to get.

What might have been the word Celan was expecting? “Pardon,” suggests Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe in his book on Celan and Heidegger. But he soon revises his guess. “I was wrong to think…that it was enough to ask forgiveness. [The extermination] is absolutely unforgivable. That is what [Heidegger] should have said.”3

To Lacoue-Labarthe, Celan’s poetry is “in its entirety, a dialogue with Heidegger’s thought.” It is this approach to Celan, dominant in Europe, that has done most to take him out of the orbit of the ordinary educated reader. But there is another school, to which Felstiner clearly adheres, which reads Celan as a fundamentally Jewish poet whose achievement it has been to force back into German high culture (with its ambition to locate its ideal origins in classical Greece), and into the German language, the memory of a Judaic past which a line of German thinkers culminating in Heidegger had tried to obliterate. In this view Celan certainly answers Heidegger but, having answered him, leaves him behind.


Celan began his professional life as a translator and continued to do translations to the end, principally from French into German but also from English, Russian, Romanian, Italian, Portuguese, and (in collaboration) Hebrew. Two volumes of his six-volume Collected Works are given over to his translations. In English Celan devoted himself particularly to Emily Dickinson and Shakespeare. Though his German Dickinson is less rhythmically edgy than the original, he seemed to find in her a kind of compression, syntactic and metaphorical, that he could learn from. As for Shakespeare, he returned again and again to the sonnets. His versions are breathless, urgent, questioning; they do not try to copy Shakespeare’s grace. As Felstiner puts it, Celan sometimes “[edges] beyond dialogue with the English into conflict,” rewriting Shakespeare in accord with his sense of his own times.

For his own translations of Celan, Felstiner takes hints (as no translator before him has done) from Celan’s manuscript revisions and recorded readings, as well as from French versions approved by Celan. An example will show what use he makes of these researches. Celan’s longest poem, “Engführung” (“Stretto”), begins with the words “Verbracht ins/Gelände/mit der untrüglichen Spur“—literally, removed into the terrain (or territory) with the unerring (or unmistakable) track (or trace). What is the best translation of verbracht? A French translation of the poem overseen by Celan uses the word déporté. However, if we check Celan’s German version of the voice-over to Alain Resnais’s documentary film about the death camps, Night and Fog, we find French déporter translated by German deportieren. Deportieren is the word regularly used in official documents for the deportation of prisoners or populations, where it has an abstract and euphemistic color. To avoid such euphemism, Felstiner eschews the cognate English word “deported.” Instead, recalling the idiomatic use of verbracht by internees, he translates it as “taken off”: “Taken off into/the terrain….”

Many of the translations in Felstiner’s recent Selected Poems and Prose of Paul Celan already appear embedded in the text of his Paul Celan: Poet, Survivor, Jew of 1995, but for republication they have been revised and in most cases refined. Part of Felstiner’s enterprise in the 1995 book was to explain, in terms that a reader without German will understand, the nature of the problems that Celan sets for a translator, from unexplained allusions on the one hand to compressed or compounded or invented words on the other, and how he, Felstiner, has responded case by case. Inevitably this entails justifying his own strategies and word-choices, and thus to one of the more unfortunate features of the book: an element of self-promotion.

A review is not the place to go through the close textual analysis needed to compare and judge translations. But it is clear that Felstiner, Pierre Joris, and Popov and McHugh (hereafter Popov-McHugh) are all excellent translators of Celan, though in different ways. Joris’s versions may be less immediately engaging, but he has set himself a more difficult task. Whereas Felstiner and Popov-McHugh are free to select the poems they like best (and, by implication, to avoid those that frustrate them), Joris gives us the two late collections Atemwende (Breathturn, 1967) and Fadensonnen (Threadsuns, 1968) in their entirety, some two hundred poems in all. Since it is by now commonly accepted that Celan composed in sequences and cycles, with poems within a given volume referring backward and forward to other poems, his project is to be applauded. It does, however, bring problems in its train. There are plenty of incompletely achieved poems in Celan, and, more to the point, plenty of moments of near total obscurity. The temperature of Joris’s pages is, understandably, not always white hot.

Felstiner selects and translates about a hundred and sixty poems, distributed over the whole of Celan’s career, among them some moving early lyrics. Popov-McHugh’s selections come mainly from the late work. The overlap between their two volumes is slight—fewer than twenty poems. Only a handful of poems are common to all three translators.

Between Felstiner and Popov-McHugh it is hard to choose. The solutions that Popov-McHugh find to the problems set by Celan are sometimes dazzlingly creative, but Felstiner has his brilliant moments too, most notably in his “Death Fugue,” where the English is in the end drowned out by German (“Death is ein Meister aus Deutschland”). Now and again there are substantive differences on how to parse, and therefore to understand, Celan’s knotted, compacted syntax; in such cases Felstiner is usually the more dependable.

Felstiner is a redoubtable Celan scholar, but Popov-McHugh are no slouches themselves when it comes to scholarship. Felstiner’s limitations emerge when Celan calls for a light touch, for instance in the poem “Selbdritt, selbviert,” which relies on folk-song patterns and nonsense formulas. Popov-McHugh’s version is witty and lyrical, Felstiner’s too sobersided.

Celan’s is not an expansive music: he seems to compose word by word, phrase by phrase, rather than in long breath units. While giving each word and phrase its full weight, the translator has to create rhythmic momentum too:

ich ritt durch den Schnee, hörst du,
ich ritt Gott in die Ferne—die Nahe, er sang,
es war
unser letzter Ritt…

writes Celan.

I rode through the snow, do you hear,
I rode God into the distance—the nearness, he sang,
it was
our last ride…

writes Felstiner.

I rode through the snow, do you read me,
I rode God far—I rode God
near, he sang,
it was
our last ride…

write Popov and McHugh. Felstiner’s lines are rhythmically lifeless. Popov-McHugh’s “I rode God far—I rode God/near” is not there in the original, but it would be hard to argue that its forward drive is inappropriate.

There are many places, on the other hand, when the roles are reversed and Felstiner emerges as the more daring and inventive. “Wenn die Totenmuschel heranschwimmt/will es hier läuten,” writes Celan, which can be translated literally as: when the shell of the dead comes swimming up/there will be peals of bells. “When death’s shell washes up on shore,” write Popov-McHugh, merely going through the motions. “When the deadmen’s conch swims up,” writes Felstiner, leaping from shell to conch and to the conch’s trumpetlike, annunciatory function.

There are also seemingly obvious points that Popov-McHugh miss. In one poem a Wurfholz, a throwing-stick, is flung out into space and returns. Felstiner translates the word by “boomerang,” Popov-McHugh inexplicably by “flung wood.”

In another poem Celan writes of a word that falls into the pit behind his forehead and continues to grow there: he compares the word to the Siebenstern (seven-star), the flower whose learned name is Trientalis europea. In an otherwise excellent version, Popov-McHugh translate Siebenstern simply as “starflower,” failing to pick up the specifically Jewish resonances with the six-pointed Star of David and the seven-branched menorah. Felstiner expands the word to “sevenbranch starflower.”

On the other hand, the flower known in German as die Zeitlose, the timeless (Colchicum autumnale), is unimaginatively translated by Felstiner as “the meadow saffron,” while Popov-McHugh, with justifiable liberty, rename it “the immortelle.”

Sometimes, then, it is Felstiner who hits on exactly the right formulation, sometimes Popov-McHugh, to the point where one feels one could stitch together from their respective versions—with the occasional hint from Pierre Joris—a composite text that would improve on all three. Such a procedure would not be far-fetched or impracticable, given the stylistic commonality of their versions, a commonality stemming of course from Celan.

All three—Felstiner in his biography of Celan, Popov-McHugh in their notes, Joris in his two introductions—have illuminating things to say about Celan’s language. Joris is particularly telling on Celan’s agonistic relation to German:

Celan’s German is an eerie, nearly ghostly language; it is both mother-tongue, and thus firmly anchored in the realm of the dead, and a language the poet has to make up, to re-create, to re-invent, to bring back to life…. Radically dispossessed of any other reality he set about to create his own language—a language as absolutely exiled as he himself. To try to translate it as if it were current, commonly spoken or available German—i.e. to find a similarly current English or American “Umgangssprache”—would be to miss an essential aspect of the poetry.
Celan is the towering European poet of the middle decades of the twentieth century, one who, rather than transcending his times—he had no wish to transcend them—acted as a lightning rod for their most terrible discharges. His unremitting, intimate wrestlings with the German language, which form the substrate of all his later poetry, come across in translation as, at best, overheard rather than heard directly. In this sense translation of the later poetry must always fail. Nevertheless, two generations of translators have striven, with unexampled resourcefulness and devotion, to bring home in English what can be brought. For the work of the new generation we can only be grateful.

  1. 2

    A word of caution. We have only Celan’s account of the meeting. What Celan reports does not square with what Buber had written seven years earlier: “They [our persecutors] have so radically removed themselves from the human sphere…that not even hatred, much less an overcoming of hatred, was able to arise in me. And what am I that I could presume to ‘forgive’!” Quoted in Maurice Friedman, “Paul Celan and Martin Buber,” Religion and Literature, Vol. 29, No. 1 (1997), p. 46.

  2. 3

    Poetry as Experience, translated by Andrea Tarnowski (Stanford University Press, 1999), pp. 38, 122. Lacoue-Labarthe’s book was first published in French in 1986.

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