Tag Archives: pierre joris

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-


drowns, what helped the images

over the path they came,


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.

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.