It is September, which means—inevitably—that I find myself thinking about Paul Celan’s “Todesfugue,” this time (the first time) as a teacher. It is hardly easy, in subject matter or in style—it is credited for being the target of Adorno’s, “Poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric,” and the exception that made him back away, ever so slightly, from this rule. Discussion inevitably turns toward the fact that Celan writes his poetry in German, the language of the Nazis. What sticks in my mind, however, is the curious act of reading his German in English translation.
John Felstiner—whose translation is the only one that “feels” right to me—has also written an essay on the process of bringing the poem into English, “Translating Paul Celan’s ‘Todesfugue’: Rhythm and Repetition as Metaphor.” (Despite the academic title and its home in an academic text, it’s a fascinating piece worth reading for anyone interested in questions of translation.) The essay itself is sometimes described as a commentary to Felstiner’s translation, but what has become clearer to me is that Felstiner approaches the translation itself as, perhaps unconsciously, a kind of commentary.
Via Charles Tiayon