The Unsettledness

Snow Part/ Schneepart
, Paul Celan
(£14.95, 195pp, Carcanet)

The back cover says 'Snow Part is the first translation of Schneepart to be published in English.' This is not quite true. I take the publisher to be saying this is the first complete translation; to my knowledge 24 of the 70 poems are translated in Katherine Washburn's and Margaret Guillemin's bilingual 'Paul Celan Last Poems', 1986; John Felstiner included 10 of them in his bilingual 'Selected Poems and Prose' of 2001. Michael Hamburger had translated 12 in 1980 and one more in 1998 (3rd Anvil ed.2007, bilingual). To have these and probably more translations is a very good thing, and they must be difficult to translate, but Paul Fairley's have not come out of nowhere.
I have next to no German and am curious to think, if I had, what choices I would make. The varieties of them in the above make me wonder if, even for German speakers, Celan's poems can ever come to rest as settled in one's understanding.
Which perhaps is as good a way as any into spending time with him:  the unsettledness.
Looking at one of the shorter poems, the variety of translation seems both to show and to confuse the meaning. The German:
     mit dem modernden Kanten

     aus meinen Mund.

There is agreement that the second part of this translates as 'Drink / from my mouth' and it isn't difficult to see that this is relatively straightforward. The first three lines, though, come through as:

     with its mouldering crusts
     of delusion bread.                     (Hamburger)

     with its rotting crust of
     madnessbread.                         (Felstiner)

     with its mouldering crust
     of lunebread.                             (Fairley)

The third line's German complex noun makes for the most difference in translation, difference in nuance and more, and if three respected translators arrive at these differences, I wonder what happens in the mind of a German reader. The same possibilities of meaning perhaps.
Another short poem (I am choosing the shorter as examples, the poems are more usually half a page to a page in length):

     SCHLUDERE, Schmerz,
     schlag ihr nicht ins Gesicht,
     erpfusch dir
     die Sandknubbe im
ben Daneben.

     FOUL UP, pain,
     spare her face,
     make your mess
     the sandknot in the
     white amiss.                             (Fairley)

     BE CARELESS, pain,
     don't strike her in the face,
     scheme to get
     the sand-knot in
     the white Beside.                     (Washburn & Guillemin)

Comparing these and other translations, one can see that sometimes word order and meaning come through in a relatively simple way, which does not mean the meaning overall is simple; nor that what is conveyed by the sounds of the words, subtleties of image and so on can readily be carried over.
Even the examples of two short poems above show the difficulties, not least in the originals. I doubt that for German speakers the poems are clear, for all that Celan said he wanted and expected them to be.
The wonder might be that he wrote at all. It is well nigh impossible to read the poems and keep not only in mind
but in one's guts the death of his parents in concentration camps, his writing in the language of the people who caused their deaths, writing exiled in Paris, accused of plagiarism, living outwardly a normal married life. What does the reader expect, why read him, how does poetry for him connect with what it is for us?
Ian Fairley does not gloss each poem or try to tell us the variables for the purpose of translation, and he tells us in his helpful fourteen page introduction he has decided not to do that. And if any reader feels they are uniquely at something of a loss, they will be helped by Fairley saying this:
     Perhaps each poem, like the sea-coast of Bohemia, is an
     horizon which effects a standstill? To read Celan's poetry
     is to wonder what to make of it. Asked after, our
     understanding may stall in its answer, but the possibility,
     like the necessity, of reading and translating nonetheless
And the rest of that passage is significant both in allowing the difficulty and in opening a window on to it.
He wasn't in good health all those years in Paris, not balanced in himself, and he ended by drowning himself in the Seine. There is not much from behind the scenes, as it were, by way of talks, letters, diaries. His exchange of letters with Nelly Sachs, both of them in exile, is an opening on to his life and to hers, which does and does not give us much really about either of them, that necessitates the poems. [Perhaps more letters, to others, have yet to be translated]. It is perhaps more to the point to receive the poems as secrets shared and impossible to share.
Having begun by saying there have been other translations of some of these poems, to be able to compare translations is a blessing, and to have the whole of 'Schneepart' translated is no small thing. Included in the book there is more, listed as 'Other poems (1968-69)'; the whole of the book represents Celan's last work, published after his death in 1970.
He was living out a history so disrupted, how could 'making sense' even be thought possible, more like obscene even. At the same time he was in possession of that long history by way of the Bible and of rabbinic literature and tradition, ambivalent, too, about this very tradition; of the grappling with hard questions.
I know Celan is important to me and I cannot say coherently why. A short poem (as from Fairley):

     in which I'll have
     been guest, a name,
     sweated down from the wall
     up which a wound licks.

Felstiner's translation is not very different; Hamburger's, too, but with an opening line differently nuanced ('WORLD TO BE STUTTERED BY HEART'). The poem is in the first person, maybe Celan's, maybe taking on a voice. 'Guest' - the 'I' has been a visitor (why Felstiner and Hamburger have 'a guest' and Fairley has simply 'guest' I don't know). Does the world cause the stammer/the stutter? The final two lines can be guessed at as conveying terror, nightmare; but how can I know what it was for Celan to find and write them?
This 'How can I know?' if I meant it absolutely, would say poetry must be ordinarily comprehensible, in image routine, in language everyday, without discovery.
In her book, 'Economy of the Unlost, Reading Simonides of Keos with Paul Celan', 1999, Anne Carson [quoted in a review by Mark Glanville in The Jewish Quarterly online] says,

     For a poetÕs despair is not just personal; he despairs of
     the word and that implicates all our hopes. Every time a
     poet writes a poem he is asking the question, Do words
     hold good? And the answer has to be yes: it is the
     contrafactual condition upon which a poetÕs life depends.

Perhaps in Fairley's introduction I have read and forgotten, in Felstiner's other book, on Celan's life and work ('Paul Celan: Poet, Survivor, Jew', 1995); elsewhere in the 'Celan literature' I can find interpretive material for this poem; and as part of the discovery, so much the better. BUT the poem as naked poem gets a hold on one's imagination or it doesn't. I would be very surprised to find (and how could I?) that Celan himself was in total conscious control of what he was writing; surely he was discovering, risking, as we as readers discover and risk: the habit of informed imagination is what is vital to it.

Missed it again.

          © David Hart 2008