Celan’s Todesfuge

A couple of years ago I translated Paul Celan’s poem Todesfuge. I’m not convinced now that the approach I adopted can be justified. I’ll describe the approach and my reservations below.

I deliberately chose to translate the poem in a way that would constitute a failure straightforwardly to transpose Celan’s German into English. I did so in part by privileging the importance of rendering patterns of sound over sense and, in part, by distorting standard English.

My reasons for doing so were twofold:

First, to acknowledge the particular status of German both as the language in which Celan wrote and as the language in which the Holocaust was conceived, organized and perpetrated. The question that arises in this regard is how to address the status of German specifically when the poem is to be translated into another language, one that is, so to speak, untainted by this particular history.

Second, I wanted to engage with what I took to be Celan’s exploration of communication: the (near?) impossibility of communicating alongside the overriding importance of doing so. The question here, then, is how successfully to communicate such an exploration in a way that does not fail to highlight its own limitations.

What troubles me about my approach, however, are the implications for the poem’s speaking voice. The voice of the poem is that of the victims of the Holocaust. German, the language of their oppressors, is, nevertheless, at the same time, their own language, a language that reaches past and beyond the Nazis and their progenitors. Celan’s distortions of the German language do not parallel the violence done to the victims of the Holocaust: their voices are heard, they are unsilenced. In which case, aren’t the words of the speaking voice to be respected? Doesn’t further linguistic distortion represent a betrayal of their witness?

For Celan’s original German and a more ‘traditional’ English version, see www.celan-projekt.de.

Deathfugue

Black milch of day’s breathk we grog her evenings
we grog her mitdays and morgings we grog her nights
we grog and grog
we shovel a ghraive in air’s breaththere lies a man not engg
A mann dwells i’th’ house who (s)plays withthe snakes who scrives
who scrives when it darkens to Deutschland thy golden hair Margarete
he scrives it and steps the house a-fore and there the stars flash he pipes his beasts a-by
he pipes his Jews a-fore makes shovel a ghraive i’th’ earth he befails us play up now a-dance

Black milch of day’s breathk we grog you nights
we grog you morgings and mitdays we grog you evenings
we grog and grog
A mann dwells i’th’ house who (s)plays withthe snakes who scrives
who scrives when it darkens to Deutschland thy golden hair Margarete
Thy ashen hair Sulamith we shovel a ghraive in air’s breaththere lies a man not engg

He calls stab deeper in t’ soilreich you ones you ozzens sing’t and play
he gribbs the iron in’s girdle he swings’t his eyen are blue
stab deeper the spades you ones you ozzens play up still a-dance to

Black milch of day’s breathk we grog you nights
we grog you mitdays and morgings we grog you evenings
we grog and grog
a mann dwells i’th’ house thy golden hair Margarete
thy ashen hair Sulamith he (s)plays withthe snakes
He calls play still sweeter death d'(eath) Death is a Maister out’s Deutschland
he calls string still darker the viols then youw rise – smoke – in the air
then youw’ve a ghraive in the clouds there lies a man not engg

Black milch of day’s breathk we grog you nights
we grog you mitdays d'(eath) Death is a Maister out’s Deutschland
we grog you evenings and morgings we grog and grog
d'(eath) Death is a Maister out’s Deutschland his eye is blue
he kills you with leaden bullet he kills you true
a mann dwells i’th’ house thy golden hair Margarete
he sets his beasts on us he gifts us a ghraive in the air
he s(plays) withthe snakes and dreams d'(eath) Death is a Maister out’s Deutschland

thy golden hair Margarete
thy ashen hair Sulamith