Translation is a loving art. While all writers confront the fact that they'll never be entirely satisfied with the end result, translators are burdened with the sense of having failed someone other than themselves. Nicolai Popov and Heather McHugh must be dissatisfied with some aspects of their translations of Paul Celan (a near certainty supported by the fact that they jettisoned a third of their work), but for them a sense of pride in Glottal Stop would be fully justified.
Before going further I must confess that I don't read or speak German, and so am incapable of judging the linguistic accuracy of the translations in Glottal Stop, which won the first international Griffin Prize. Having attempted my own informal versions of French and Russian poets, I know that successful poetic translation seldom comes down to verbatim "accuracy," and as a reader I'm vindicated by the translators' introduction:
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, in the process of fostering an international readership's acquaintance with Paul Celan, 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. The serious scholar will have no trouble looking up the poetic originals; the serious reader will have no objection to focusing on a poem's presence and integrity. Neither the one nor the other will ever forget that, no matter how plausible a poem may sound in its target language, it remains a poem in translation, an encounter marked by surprise, ambiguity, affection, and violence.
"Violence," perhaps the most difficult aspect of translation, must occur, as elements of the original are suppressed, altered or excised. Popov/McHugh imply that Celan might almost need translation within German, so daring and original is his usage. (In one example of the compromises made to ensure the communication of his "alien" sensibility into English they refer to the need for selective translation of his many compound words¨"thought-beetle," "blood-bloom," "eyeslit-crypt" ¨if English-speaking readers are not to be reminded of Gerard Manley Hopkins.)
The poems in glottal stop are mostly from Celan's later work, many translated for the first time. Interestingly, other translations of Celan's later work share elements with this one. Both Michael Hamburger and John Felstiner (whose biography, Paul Celan: Poet, Survivor, Jew, makes excellent companion reading) have produced versions whose broken rhythms and fragmented language suggest that Celan kept reducing, concentrating and disrupting his own relationship to language itself. His poems, as he aged and developed (and as his internal suffering accrued), apparently became starker and sparer on the page. Increasingly he seems determined to express the inexpressible, or at least its inexpressibility, perhaps one reason he's so often described as "difficult".
Unique to the translations in Glottal Stop is their playfulness. McHugh's own poetry seems to indicate a natural affinity with this poet of overturned language. Her poems are rife with puns and reversals, sleight of hand that naturally takes on darker tones in Celan, and she has obviously thrilled to the challenge of his word-play. It's no coincidence that Celan should hoard double and multiple meanings. No language, after all, could be more loaded for him than his, the one he insisted on, and in the name of which his family was destroyed. With humility Popov/McHugh acknowledge that the tragic significance of his insistence cannot be replicated in English. As John Felstiner writes, the Reich
organized its genocide of European Jewry by means of language; slogans, slurs, pseudo-scientific dogma, propaganda, euphemism, and the jargon that brought about every devastating Šaction,' from the earliest racial "laws" through "special treatment in the camps to the last "resettlement" of Jewish orphans.
No writing could be less propagandistic, more stubbornly and purely communicative than Celan's poetry: "Free of dross, free of dross." It brought him into direct conflict with Theodor Adorno, whose famous comment "After Auschwitz, to write a poem is barbaric," was taken at the time to refer to Celan's best-known poem, "Death Fugue" (Todesfuge). Irrespective of this, Felstiner says, "AdornoÓprobably did not [yet] know Celan's poem." The two began a lifelong argument they were never able to resolve (despite a semi-retraction on Adorno's part in the 1960s). Adorno objected to poetry's potential to impose meaning "through the aesthetic principle of stylizationÓ" on what was meaningless, with the result that "it becomes transfigured [and] something of the horror is removed". And yet, as Felstiner shows, and Glottal Stop amply illustrates, where Celan is concerned nothing could be further from the truth. In the brokenness and jaggedness of his poems he rejects transfiguration strenuously¨some lines consist of one half or scrap of a word, split so that the rest falls onto the next line ("her im/-mortal self-sick/song") ¨and insists on his right to say exactly what he means.
Popov and McHugh provide dense, essential notes without which no reader can understand every nuance. So is Celan a poet whose biography is vital to his art? Despite the fact that the poems in Glottal Stop have undeniable force before annotation, some of their force is inextricable from our knowledge of history, both general and specific to Celan. It is this history¨including the murder of his parents, his forced labour, followed by displacement and personal anguish that ended eventually in suicide¨which necessitates his "characteristic Celanian stutter, spelling¨and stumbling at the incommensurability between pain and articulable language" (Popov/McHugh). The Celan of these poems is devoid of self-pity, of any desire to aestheticize pain. His steadfastness, his determined re-articulations are both thrilling and moving. We hear "The splintering echo, darkened/heading for/the brainstream". The final poem, quoted in full here, might be advice to himself:
Don't sign your name
the manifold of meanings,
trust the tearstain,
learn to live.
No single poem can illustrate the full range of this book. Certain poems are cool and technological, others warm and full of religious feeling, and still others are both at once. Nothing is random: puns, one-word or half-word lines, startling line-breaks¨all seem completely original and strangely familiar. The spate of Celan translation in recent years may be partly due to a quality that somehow speaks to modernity¨as if he were looking and talking ahead, and now seems to belong to us. This possibility is touched on by Popov/McHugh in their notes and enhanced by their choice of certain words and images ("ignition key," "pressurized helmet,""sleep ward 1001".)
A reader needs to be tuned to Celan's frequency¨there are moments when the poems seem impenetrable, with or without notes. At another sitting it will be as if a hatch opens, and something profound but not mysterious appears. In his biography, Felstiner says of the later poems: "If not quite wordless his verse was growing more reticent and strange." It seems to me a singular achievement that Popov/McHugh's translations evoke wordlessness yet turn strangeness into natural and direct speech. As Celan might have sounded to himself when, to quote one of McHugh's own poems on another subject: "poetry//is what he thought, but did not say." Here, he says it.
Diana Fitzgerald Bryden's first book of poetry, Learning Russian, was nominated for the Pat Lowther Award. She has just finished her second book.