“The One and Only Circle”: Translating Celan

Felstiner, John

His poems were “the efforts of someone who goes with his very being to language, stricken by and seeking reality.” Paul Celan spoke these words in German to a German audience in 1958, on receiving the literature prize of the Free Hanseatic City of Bremen. And what of that language, his mother tongue though he was not born in Germany but in Czernowitz, Bukovina in 1920, the eastern outpost of the late Austrian empire? His mother tongue, turned overnight into his mother’s murderers’ tongue in 1941, was literally all he had left after the war: no parents, no possessions, no homeland, no cultural or Jewish ambience. “It, the language,” Celan said in 1958 -but since die Sprache is feminine, he might have been saying “She, the language”-“remained, not lost, yes in spite of everything. Yet it had to pass through its own answerlessness, pass through frightful muting, pass through the thousand darknesses of deathbringing speech.”

And those darknesses? Judenfrage (the Jewish Question), Rassenschande (racial defilement), Die Juden sind unser Ungluck (The Jews are our misfortune), Kauft nicht bei Juden! (Don’t buy from Jews), Umseidlung (resettlement), Sonderbehandlung (special treatment), Juden raus! (Jews out), Endlosung (Final Solution), judenfrei (Jew-free).

After merely alluding to the “thousand darknesses of deathbringing speech” that Luther’s and Goethe’s, Holderlin’s and Rilke’s German passed through, Celan in his next breath says: “In this language I have sought… to write poems: so as to speak, to orient myself, to find out where I was and where I was meant to go, to sketch out reality for myself.” The point is, he persisted in a barbarously abused language: “Only in the mother tongue can one speak one’s own truth.”

So when it comes to the phrases closing Celan’s Bremen speech, we listen closely, because they hold the key to his poetry: “someone who goes with his very being to language, stricken by and seeking reality,” wirklichkeitswund and Wirklichkeit suchend. Rendered more exactly, Celan’s severe parallel would say “reality-wounded and reality-seeking,” which drives home a hard paradox: the same reality that wounded him yields a new reality in seeking it. This imperative, exposed through syntax, pervades the eight poems chosen here to represent Paul Celan’s twenty-five-year arc of work.

Stricken by and seeking reality: you can grasp that tensile arc in poem after poem speaking from Celan’s “true-/ stammered mouth,” poems where a wound takes the touch of a word: a “vulture’s nail” voiced by “stitchery” in “The Lonely One,” “heart’s blood” met by “Thou” in the Eluard elegy, “snow” packing “your word” in “With a Changing Key,” “rhymes in the night house” in “Where the word,” “wasteness” but “still songs to sing” in “Threadsuns,” “motley gossip” purged by a “Breathcrystal” in “Etched away,” “a shardstrewn craze” allayed by drawing “the one and only circle.”

And because Celan’s poems deal strongly with loss in the very language that effected loss, any act of translation turns questionable, further alienating the poet’s voice from the tongue he could hold fast to. Unless, perhaps, we recognize translation as the specific art of loss and work from there.

The Lonely One (1944)

Composed by a raw orphan back home in Soviet– occupied Czernowitz after nineteen months at forced labor, this was not Celan’s earliest lyric to bend nature onto grief. What strikes me are those textiles, art figuring reality: an embroidered veil giving way to coarse cloth. I sense here a Yeatsian motive (Celan as a teenager had tried translating Yeats), and by that same token, Celan’s verse demands meter plus rhyme in English. His two dosing lines can find a strong enough cadence, and with a little ingenuity, “veil” gainsaid by “vulture’s nail” and then “seam” by “scream” will expose lyric decorum to savagery.

In Memoriam Paul guard (1952)

By 1952, self-exiled in Paris, Celan had begun teaching at the Ecole Normale Superieure, seen his first collection appear in.Germany, and married Gisele de Lestrange, a graphic artist. About the Paul Elaurd elegy, it helps to know that in 1950 a Czech Stalinist tribunal had condemned Zavis Kalandra, a surrealist poet and survivor of Hitler’s camps. Andre Breton urged Eluard to intercede, Luard declined, Kalandra was hanged. Thus Celan, though no longer steeped in surrealism, responded vehemently to the death of a fellow poet who’d once defended liberty and “the power of words.”

Penciled into an edition of Gerard Manley Hopkins in Celan’s library I found an angry draft, using words such as “gallows” and “guilt” that he later removed from the more tempered final version. Tone, idiom, and the rhythms that carry them seem to me vital in translating his caustic yet understated sentences. Luckily the telling play on “tongues” and “tongs” is a set-up, English being cognate with Zungen and Zangen. And occasionally, “Thou” can respond to the familiar second– person singular du. But where German word order differs markedly, English line breaks need extra care to deliver Celan’s tentative, chastening lines: “a second,/ stranger blue will enter,/ and the one who said Thou to him/ will dream with him: We.” Uith a Changing Key (1953)

Everything Paul Celan ever wrote was an ars poetica, a proving of poetry after “that which happened,” as he called what we call Holocaust or Shoah. Yet some poems come closer to the bone than others. In this one he’s musing to himself, testing the reflex of words to pain. In 1969 Celan spoke his poem aloud to a Jerusalem audience anxious to know what had become of a survivor who remained in Europe writing in German rather than emigrate to Israel and Hebrew. On a rare recording, he can be heard to stumble on the next-to-last line-something unheard-of for one who enunciated so exactingly.

je nach dern Wind der dich fortstosst,

balit urn das Wort sich der Schnee.

just like the wind that rebuffs you,

the snow packs around the word.

For some unknowable reason he balks after je nach dem Wind (just like the wind), then speaks the line again. Nevertheless his final line comes out firm and cadenced.

Celan worried about metaphor, and here der Schnee presents hard fact, Ukrainian snow where his parents perished. So the syntax shaping his fine, stifling “word” between “packed” and “snow,” matters vitally: ballt uns das Wort sich der Schnee, he stresses it. For years I said “the snow packs around the word,” but now that sounds feeble and faltering to me. Rhythmically we need something like this, “packed round your word is the snow,” to shape the poet’s plight.

Where the uvrd (1962)

In 1960 Claire Goll, widow of the Alsatian Jewish poet Yvan Goll, groundlessly charged Celan with plagiarizing her husband, whom he’d befriended and translated in 1949. Plagiarism-an intolerable accusation for “someone who goes with his very being to language,” someone whose word, unlocking what’s silenced, felt like bloodburst. Added to this, German anti-Semitism in the early 1960s agonized Celan. In 1962 he felt “abolished by neoNazi ‘human beings,”‘ and wrote to an old friend calling himself “the one who doesn’t exist,” like Heinrich Heine whose Lorelei the Nazis decreed anonymous. On August 15th he composed “Where the word,” then a few weeks later wrote another friend about “very unsettling things-and that’s only a euphemism,” and about “unbearable psychological pressure”: “The thing I should have been able to do was hang it all up; but you know what it means for a German-language author who has lived through the Nazi terror to be cut off a second time from his language.”

If das Wort really was unsterblich-immortal, imperishable, undying-then Celan’s anguish must press on the words themselves in “Where the word.” He even tests this by minting a term, Siebenstern, seven-star flower, suggesting that maybe he intends the Pleiades, or better, their lost seventh star. But knowing how a seven-branched candelabrum or menorah appears in his poetry, and having seen two that he bought on the Seine in the 1950s, I venture to say that a “seven– branch star,” akin to the Star of David, lives with him.

Lives, that is, amid spittle and dreck and muck. Meanwhile a surer venture has turned up. Although Celan doesn’t use the German term Dreck, Yiddish dreck has migrated into the American grain if not into the OED. It is good, now and then, to harbor such stowaways in translation. As for “muck,” Celan’s Kot (dirt, mud, mire) can also mean “excrement,” so this poem’s French version cannily uses merle.

Against degradation, against being “cut off a second time from his language,” the poet ends up declaring ein aufrechtes Schweigen. Calling this un silence loyal, Celan’s French translator goes just a bit figurative, missing the chance that English has for a bracing cognate: “an upright silence.”

Threadsuns (1963)

For nine months in 1963, suffering what he called a “rather severe depression,” Celan seems to have written perhaps one poem, “Tabernacle Window,” which forefronts Menschen-und-Juden, “humans– and-Jews,/ the Cloud Crowd.” Then four days after his birthday in November he wrote “Fadensonnen and another poem that opens bluntly:





Even there, in draft he added “un-” to what had been “silenced” covenant. The gaping question was allegiance, solidarity-with whom? Mostly with people who could grasp or share his predicament: the poet Ingeborg Bachmann in Vienna in 1948; in Paris in 1949 the Dutch music student Diet Kloos, who’d worked in the Resistance and whose husband the Nazis shot. To a German-Jewish.acquaintance Celan once spoke of our common “threads to the past: invisible threads leading into the depth. . . where bits of them appear in words.”

“Threadsuns” draws strength as well from his wife Gisele’s haunting etchings, alongside which it first appeared in a bibliophile edition, Atemkristall (Breathcrystal, 1965). White and gray and black filaments, fragments, enigmatic forms and vectors mark her work from 1963, much like Celan’s image of tenuous light hovering over the face of the deep as at Creation. In fact the poem felt so essential that he entitled his next collection Fadensonnen. This also illumines a presence behind Celan’s “tree-high thought,” for Rilke begins the elegiac Sonnets to Orpheus “Oh Orpheus sings! Oh high tree in the ear!” Clearly what binds Celan to Rilke and later poets to them both is how radically they sound their own craft. “Your question– your answer,” Celan writes shortly after “Threadsuns”: “Your song, what does it know?”-a cry that resonates with the Psalm of exile, “How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?”

Most translators of “Fadensonnen” more or less agree until the last word. Yes, possibly “there are-still songs to sing,” but what is the drift of jenseits der Menschen? Even without knowing that, we keep coming back to Menschen. Translators invariably make it “mankind,” but not only gender makes me try for more. Celan habitually gave Mensch the sense that Yiddish does: a decent person, someone with grit, a real human being. Are these Mensen?, he asked Nelly Sachs about the German literature industry in 1960. “These men, they even write poems!”

Beyond that, he knew that in Nazi camps Jews were not Menschen but “dogs,” “vermin.” Whence his phrase Menschen-undJuden, also from 1963. So “mankind” sounds too pat, not vulnerable enough. In Europe, the more Jewish, the more vulnerable, the more vulnerable the more hu.man. I would say “humankind,” which ofter all has a livelier cadence-as ever in writing, expedient jibes with essential. EcW away (1963)

Two days before writing “Etched away,” in the aftermath of depression, Celan tendered a quatrain to his wife Gisele with this question: “Where flames a word to witness for us both?” He would hit on that talismanic word, Atemkristall, in a late draft of this multilayered poem.

Psychic affliction, conjugal solidarity, engraving, geology, Kristallnacht, Heidegger, puns, compounds, coinages, revisions: in extending just a little this poem’s half-life, the process of translation at its fullest would take in all these elements, while pursuing a face-to-face, moment-by-moment, to-and-fro German-English colloquy. For instance, Celan’s very first word Weggebeizt (etched away) already poses problems. The verb beizen, dose to our “bite,” means to “mordant” or corrode as in etching. But this is done by a Strahlenwind (radiant wind), which calls up geologic or even cosmic erosion. And what is mordanted anyway? Gerede (gossip), Heidegger’s term for blab cut off from true Being. Possibly Gisele’s caustic art is helping cure her husband’s language.

As if to prove as much, Celan commits a double double-meaning: Mein-/ gedicht, das Genicht (My-/ poem, the Lie-noem). Mein means “my” and Gedicht, “poem”-but Mein can also negate, as in Meineid (Eid = “oath”), meaning “perjury.” Then in das Genicht, nicht (not) turns “poem” into what my colleague Jerry Glenn calls “Lie-noem.” Puns often have a desperate quality about them. Celan once wrote down the word Sch(m)erz, making Scherz (joke) contain Schmerz (pain). Behind the somewhat hectic wordplay in “Etched away” lies his bitterness at Germany’s “economic miracle” during the Adenauer years. “Something is rotten in the state of D-Mark,” he quipped.

The poem’s middle section breaks into cleansing terrain, stressing “human-/ shaped snow,” through scientific terminology: spike– ice resembling. a penitent’s cowl, and glacial tectonics. This kind of dean usage purged Celan’s German of the thousand darknesses, pressing a Nordic tongue “north of the future,” as he put it in 1963. Finally, discovering the technical name of something hard yet lifegiving, “honeycomb-ice,” he goes on to forge his own compound, again hard yet life-giving: Atemkristall, and here I borrow from regular German orthography to irregularly capitalize this astonishing “Breathcrystal.” Taking the breath that inspirits Adam, plus human inspiration, utterance, and sudden breathtaking revelation, Celan binds it all to crystal’s purity over against Hitler’s Kristalnacht, the 1938 “Night of Broken Glass” when Jewish shops and synagogues were destroyed.

Atemkristall, that “word to witness for us both,” so answered a need that with it Celan titled the joint edition of his poems and Gisele’s art. “Atemkristall opened the paths of poetry for me,” he told her, “it was born from your etchings.” The rhythmic heft this word receives, toward the close of “Etched away,” seems a gift if we let German syntax shape the English:


in der Zeitenschrunde,



wartet, ein Atemkristall,

dein unumstossliches



in the time crevasse,



there waits, a Breathcrystal,

your unannullable


In draft Celan first tried “your true [wahres] witness,” but then changed wahres to unumstossliches, five obstinate syllables balanced by “unannullable.”

Several years later, for a thousand listeners at Freiburg in 1967, Celan closed his recital with this poem, with Martin Heidegger sitting in the front row. Germany has long styled itself the nation of Dichter and Denker, poets and philosophers. Somehow it girds the heart to imagine that thinker, who paid Nazi party dues until 1945, hearing this destitute poet reclaim for himself “a Breathcrystal,/ your unannullable/ witness.”

Where? (1964)

Although a kind of hope-struck radiance lightens Celan’s lines at times-“THE BRIGHT/ STONEs ride through the air, bright/ white, the light- / bringers”-yet a terrible cost grounded his writing. This agelong paradox colors the translator (-biographer)’s task, the setting of pain-ridden intensity to rich music. “Crumbling… trouble. … rubble… tumult”: whether this goes too far is really a question of tact and ear. The same holds for Celan’s last phrasings in “Where,” a tight– drawn bow on the page:

Water needles

stitch up the split

shadow-it fights its way

deeper down,


All that assonance and alliteration, though not perfectly obvious, come to hand fairly readily. And isn’t there some point to it, here where Celan has dared a presentiment of his suicidal drowning in April 1970?

There will (1969)

In the summer of 1948, having just reached Paris, Celan wrote to relatives in the new state of Israel then fighting for its existence. Should his family have emigrated to Palestine before the war, or he himself after? It could hang on the question of language. “There’s nothing in the world for which a poet will give up writing, not even when he is a Jew and the language of his poems is German,” he wrote them. “Perhaps I am one of the last who must live out to the end the destiny of the Jewish spirit in Europe;” But why “must”? Why “to the end”? Portentous words for a young man.

For two decades Celan did not journey to Israel, though the Six-Day War acutely stirred him. At last in September 1969 he visited the Promised Land: its green growth and regained language elated him, he circled the walls of Jerusalem, gave two readings, and had a fraught, passionate encounter with a friend from his Czernowitz youth. He might have stayed for good, but could not-too much promise, perhaps. Back in “this cold city Paris,” a spate of brief “Jerusalem”.lyrics emerged, among them “THERE WILL be something, later” (Es WIRD etwas sein, spatter).

That perennial word “later” signals messianic deferral, redemption ever to be fulfilled. Once for our 25th anniversary, to promise better times, I translated this lyric and made spater “soon now” rather than “later”: same syllables and accents, but a lift, a not-quite-permissible spur. What has felt permissible, given this poem’s tense shift from future to present, its messianic timing, is an English version uttering just as many syllables per line as Celan did.

Aus dem zerscherbten


steh ich auf

and seh meiner Hand zu,

wie sie den einen


Kreis zieht

Out of a shardstrewn


I stand up

and took upon my hand,

how it draws the one

and only


Shortly before the Six-Day War broke out,, Celan had written a poem coming Notscherben, “Troubleshard,” Scherben being Gershom Scholem’s term in Kabbalah for the fragments of Creation!s shattered vessel, to be mended in the Ulness of time. Now in 1969 Celan speaks of madness, of rising from a zerscherbten Wahn, the tocsin word, of his last decade. “Out of a shardstrewn/ craze”: maybe this will do, as the poet’s hand moves back round where it must, meridian-wise, regaining an origin atrociously lost.


Paul Celan, “Der Einsame,” Fadensonnen,” Weggebeizt,” “Wo?,’ “Es wird,” from Das Fruhwerk (1989), Atemwende (1967), Zeitgehoft (1976), (Suhrkamp Verlag, Frankfurt am Main). “In Memoriam Paul Eluard,” “Mit Wechseldem Schlussel,” from Von Schwulle zu Schwelle (1955), (Deutsche Verlag-Anstalt, Stuttgart). “Wohin mir,” from Die Niemandsrose (1963), (S. Fischer Verlag, Frankfurt am Main).

JOHN FELSTINER’S Selected Poems and Prose of Paul Celan (W. W. Norton) is coming out this fall. He teaches in the English department at Stanford.

Copyright World Poetry, Incorporated Nov/Dec 2000

Provided by ProQuest Information and Learning Company. All rights Reserved

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