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Allerseelen / Paul Celan

Where to start with Celan? A Holocaust survivor whose pulverising poetry stretched the oppressor's language into transcendental shapes, Celan killed himself in the year of my birth. Translating him is a feat. He uses neologisms in German that intensify common words in weird ways: "zer-" (a prefix that implies intensity to the point of destruction) and "schweigen" (which means to fall silent) giving us "zerschwiegenem Schwur". Which feels potent to say out loud.

Michael Hamburger goes for latinate words which give the oddness ("seminated", "nocturnal", "eclipsed") but lose the compact, stone-like quality of the German compounds.


Was hab ich

getan?

Die Nacht besamt, als könnt es

noch andere geben, nächtiger als

diese.


Vogelflug, Steinflug,

tausend beschriebene Bahnen. Blicke,

geraubt und gepflückt. Das Meer,

gekostet, vertrunken, verträumt. Eine Stunde,

seelenverfinstert. Die nächste, ein Herbstlicht,

dargebracht einem blinden Gefühl, das des Wegs kam. Andere, viele,

ortlos und schwer aus sich selbst: erblickt und umgangen.

Findlinge, Sterne,

schwarz und voll Sprache: benannt

nach zerschwiegenem Schwur.


Und einmal (wann? auch dies ist vergessen):

den Widerhaken gefühlt,

wo der Puls den Gegentakt wagte.


 

ALL SOULS


What did I

do?

Seminated the night, as though

there could be others, more nocturnal than

this one.


Bird flight, stone flight, a thousand

described routes. Glances,

purloined and plucked. The sea,

tasted, drunk away, dreamed away. An hour

soul-eclipsed. The next, an autumn light,

offered up to a blind

feeling which came that way. Others, many,

with no place but their own heavy centres: glimpsed and avoided.

Foundlings, stars,

black, full of language: named

after an oath which silence annulled.


And once (when? that too is forgotten):

felt the barb

where my pulse dared the counter-beat.


trans. Michael Hamburger



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4 Comments


Paula M
Paula M
Mar 30

I read this knowing nothing about Mr Celan. It made me feel alone and too frightened to look up. Isolated but surrounded.

I'm off to buy a book an him now, I want to know and learn more.

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Replying to

Dear Ms. M, What a powerful insightful comment.

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An impressive translation of a poem that I admire, but find impregnable, perhaps deliberately.

A fortress. Though I love "The sea, tasted, drunk away, dreamed away." That's evocative. But for me, a newcomer to Mr. Celan's poetry, I feel not quite welcome. Yes,, a fortress of cold blue steel.

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Trev
Trev
Mar 27
The translation is beautiful. I have no way of pronouncing (or understanding!) the original without it sounding either like something from 'Allo Allo' or a throat infection, so it intrigues me if the poem gives you the same emotional reaction when reading it aloud in German as it does in English. Is not the resonance very different, and so the emotional reaction? (Not having heard of Michael Hamburger before, I googled him. What a relief to find him a poet, otherwise how else to get at least somewhere close to the original resonance ... possibly?)

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