Monday, February 11, 2008



The orange pepperwort,
stick it behind your forehead,
silence the barb out of the wire,
with which she flatters, even now,
listen to it,
for the span of an impatience.

Paul Celan, tr. Pierre Joris

This is one of the beautiful translations in Threadsuns, Pierre Joris's English rendition of Paul Celan's Fadensonnen. Here are a couple more:

On the rainsoaked spoor
silence's little juggler sermon.

It's as if you could hear,
as if I still loved you.



Give me the right of way
across the grain ladder into your sleep,
the right of way
across the sleep trail,
the right, for me to cut peat
along the heart's hillside,


Near, in the aortic arch,
in the light-blood:
the light-word.

Mother Rachel
weeps no more.
Carried over:
all the weepings.

Quiet, in the coronary arteries,
Ziv, that light.


Still, despite the quality of these translations, and of many of the others (at least in part), I find myself forced to disagree with some of the fundamental decisions Joris made when undertaking his translations of Celan.

My first criticism is really a quibble, perhaps the result of my déformation professionelle as an English teacher: all too often, Joris retains German commas that should clearly be left out in English, as in line 5 of "Irish" (see above), which surely should read "the right for me to cut peat" (with no comma between "right" and "for").

The other two problems I have really mark a difference between philosophies of translation as much as anything else: Joris's decisions are consistent, so they must be intended. The first of these two problems involves compound words: Joris generally tends to translate Celan's German compounds as English compounds (as in the book's title). This seems to me to make Celan much stranger than he actually is, as the nonce compounding of nouns is an everyday practice in German and not in English. By generally translating Celan's compounds as English compounds, Joris adds a layer of "oddity" to Celan's poems that is not really there in the German. (I had long discussions with Dieter M. Gräf about compounds when I was translating Dieter's poems.)

The second problem involves a special grammatical construction that Celan uses quite often. Here's an example (the next-to-last poem in the book):

No name, that would name:
its consonance
knots us under the
in song to be stiffened

(Note the superfluous comma in line 1 and the compound in line 5, as examples of my first two criticisms.) The phrase translated by line 4 is dense in German, but it is not hard to parse: "unters / steifzusingende / Hellzelt" is a prepositional phrase with an adjective modifying the object of the preposition. In English, Joris's phrase makes no sense at all: preposition + article + preposition + noun + passive infinitive + noun. Huh?

Over and over again, then, Joris takes such complex participial constructions positioned between an article and a noun—perfectly standard in German—and translates them as if such constructions existed in English. If I were to write the previous sentence like that, then it would say "Joris takes such between an article and a noun positioned complex participial constructions."

It turns out that I was correct to assume that Joris was doing this on purpose, as he discusses and defends his translation of this very structure in the preface to Breathturn. But the proof of the translation is in the reading, and only those who know German will be able to make sense of the phrases where Joris retains the German word order.

My approach to translation is quite different in these two cases: I use compounds much more sparingly in my English versions of German poems than they are used in the originals, because excessive compounding is weird in English, while German poets who use compounding often (such as Celan, or Gräf, or Anne Duden) are only taking an everyday gesture further.

Nor do I see the point in following German word order when it produces bizarre or even incorrect English grammar or syntax. If the German is incorrect, then of course the English should be incorrect, too, as in this passage from a poem by Brigitte Oleschinski: "I / is the sleeper that journeys."

Beyond this difference in philosophy, though, I think Joris, for all his merits as a translator of Celan who has brought so many poems into English so beautifully (such as those I quoted above), often does Celan a disservice by making Celan seem not only "difficult," but simply bizarre. Celan may push the limits of German grammar, but he does not violate its rules (or perhaps I should say "hardly ever violates," just to be safe). Instead, he takes advantage of all the correct grammatical structures the German language offers him, fully exploiting their nuances and their power. To follow German syntax in an English version is to make him into a very different poet than he actually was and risk stripping him of all that nuance and power. A poet many people consider "difficult" largely because they have been told he is "difficult" does not need to have further difficulties like this added in the process of translation.


swiss said...

interesting. i've got hamburger's peoms of paul celan and those are pretty much the only translations i've seen. i'd be interested to hear your opinion.

i like the compound words. i had to look at my celan after this post. words like weltherzdurchgluhtes or meerduchstaubt in draft of a landscape. looking back at him (it's been a while) i'd forgotten just how much i loved his language.

i'm rubbish at translating german though. most other languages i can get through with a bit of patience and dictionary time but even when, with the likes of celan, i've got a bilingual version i get stuck, like trying to get a hold of quicksand!

talking of which i'm working on a german thing just now and, as above, it's doing my head in. i may have to ask for hints!

Andrew Shields said...

I realized after reading your comment, Swiss, that I will need to be more explicit about which compounds I would not translate as compounds: it's the compound nouns, like the title "Threadsuns," that I would not translate that way. I'd go with "Thread Suns."

swiss said...

told you i didn't speak german! lol

Jane Holland said...

It's always a tough call, translating idiomatic words, phrases and syntax in such a way as to keep the spirit of the original whilst being fully creative in your own right as a poet in the new language.

I've been translating the Wanderer - endlessly, it seems! - and keep coming up against problematic decisions of the same kind.

Each poet must respond to their own instincts, of course, but there are two things that I feel are really important when translating poetry into poetry (i.e. rather than into prose). Firstly, allowing readers to get a feel for the original language and content - the spirit of the piece. Secondly, producing a piece of poetry that works as a new, original poem and doesn't instantly shout 'Translation!' at the reader.

Beyond those two considerations - surely the hardest things in the world for any poet-translator to achieve - I don't think there are any rules worth worrying about. Faced with so many complex and delicate choices, you just make up your own rules as you go along.

Andy Gricevich said...

I have to disagree on the comma quibble; the rhythmic units produced by that incorrect punctuation are so strong, so compelling, that losing them would damage the poetry pretty seriously.

As far as the other stuff is concerned: one has to (of course) decide which "levels" one is going to translate. By retaining German compounds and word orders, Joris may be sacrificing a good deal on the "sense in proper German" level, but he gets a lot in on the "what it sounds/feels like in German" level, which includes the directions the "energies" of words travel as they modify one another. This is the level that is hardly ever present in translations of poetry, so I'm glad to have an example of it in this Celan.

I do feel, though, that really trying to read Celan in English would involve a couple of translations and some examination of the German. What's untranslatable would reside somewhere in between.

Andrew Shields said...

Jane, Andy, thanks for the further comments. They emphasize what I, too, would emphasize: I am not claiming that Joris's translation decisions are wrong, but that they derive from a different approach to translation than mine.

He is far too consistent and rigorous to be dismissed as a bad or sloppy translator, and as I mentioned first, there are numerous beautiful English versions of Celan's poems in the book.

vankbrock said...

I agree with your comments on Joris' carrying over Celan's idiomatic compounds into non-idiomatic English. English is highly tolerant of compounding, from its Anglo-Saxon roots, and my own poetry likes to test the limits, but there are limits I suspect even Celan would observe in English. Anyway, an interesting discussion of Celan and of translation.

SarahJane said...

Those are lovely translations. Personally I'd be generous about the compounds except when they come off as too strange. A hyphen works well. I agree with you about the grammatical issue - that the English translation shouldn't suddenly adopt the German grammar. That doesn't work. Ditto the German commas.