" Of Strangeness That Wakes Us "
Poetry Magazine, Dec 2012
" Celan, however, chose to protest from inside German, in "deathrattling", "quarreling" words. Though he spoke numerous other languages (Romanian, Russian, French) and though he had written previously in Romanian, he nevertheless decided to remain in German which he broke and reclaimed. German, for Celan, was the language that had to "pass through its own answerlessness, pass through frightful muting, pass through the thousand darknesses of death-fringing speech."
Why break a language? To wake it up. "We sleep in language," writes Robert Kelly, "if language does not come to wake us with its strangeness."
"Writing to his wife from Germany, the poet hiumself commented: " I am not sure the German I write in is spoken here, or anywhere."
Yes: Celan's strangeness is rooted in his inward, almost cryptogrammic relationship with German. A stranger in his mother tongue, Celan, write Anne Carson, was "a poet who uses language as if he were always translating."
" But how can anyone translate the language that is not spoken anywhere? How does one translate estrangement, this "otherness" of Celan into English?"
This translation [ "Deathfugue"P Celan. trans. John Felstiner] (or any great translation, for that matter0 is not a mirror. While one appreciates Felstiner's haunting use of German words interspersed with English, this striking and powerful juxtaposition of languages does not happen in Celan's poem.
Translation, however faithful, is fiction. So why is Felstiner's use of German a good decision? Because Felstiner's version is only made more striking as we wake to the actual tragic meaning of the strange foreign words - it gives English readers the experience of being other, a voice alienated from language. To realize this is to see slearly that a successful translation, even a very "faithful" one, has no need to mimic the original. It is the poet's process, writes Eavan Bolan, that needs to be translated.