Celan, Derrida, Joris and the witness business

A while ago I wrote about Celan’s poem which begins “Aschenglorie hinter” with specific reference to what Derrida wrote about the complexities involved in bearing witness. I’ve now read Pierre Joris’ excellent essay on the same poem and have come to the conclusion that those complexities are more important than I first thought.

Joris is a poet and translator of poetry. Along with Michael Hamburger he has produced the best translations of Celan’s work. When I say “best’ I acknowledge that I don’t speak a word of German and therefore cannot attest to the veracity of any translation but I do recognise a poem that ‘works’ well in English.

Hamburger didn’t translate ‘Ashenglorie hinter’ – it doesn’t appear in any of the three editions that I’m aware of. He took the view that some of the poems were/are untranslatable and left them alone. Joris does not share these qualms, his  translation of the ‘breathturn’ collection contains a sensitive and honest rendition of the poem whilst the essay explains how he got there. Whilst Derrida provides a very detailed analysis of the witness problem per se, Joris focuses more on the biography of the poet and rightly calls our attention to the problems posed for Celan by the success of ‘Todesfugue’ which did attempt to bear witness to those who died in the Holocaust and to Germany to account.

Despite the success of this poem Celan refused to have it anthologized throughout the sixties because of his view that its message had been hijacked by those striving to rehabilitate Germany on the world stage. The enigmatic final phrase from ‘Aschenglorie’ reads:

bears witness

for the witness.

Joris points out that this can be read in a number of different ways, reflecting survivor guilt, self-pity and the desperate compulsion to testify with all its (English) connotations even though the act of bearing witness in itself may be fundamentally flawed. Derrida goes one step further by pointing out that witnessing is an impossible task (This is a crass paraphrase of a much longer argument) and both ponder out loud on ‘testis’ which is both the latin root of testify and of testicle, throwing this generative quality into the mix of possible allusions.
What I like about the Joris essay is that it lets us readers in on the mind of the translator and the absolutely honest way that a ‘difficult’ poem can be addressed, he is describing his task without showing off and displaying complete respect for the text. Celan, like all great poets, was concerned with the choice of words in a very considered and deliberate way, Joris works with the poem in the same way and does not try to score his own points (a common fault amongst many translators) but his focused solely on rendering the depth and truth of Celan’s work.
With regard to Celan, both Derrida and Celan ask themselves if they are over-reading, if they are seeing things that aren’t really there. With most poets this could be a problem but I don’t think it is with Celan because the later work becomes more and more densely compressed to such an extent that I don’t think we’ll ever grasp the full meaning.
It’s also immensely refreshing to read two experts write on Celan without dwelling on the Heidegger connection.
Joris’ Breathturn collection is available from a variety of second hand booksellers online and his essays ‘Justifying the Margin‘ (which also contains an excellent piece on the ‘Todnauberg’) poem is available from Salt. Derrida on Celan (Sovereignties in Question) is available from the AAAARG.ORG site free of charge.

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