By Felstiner, John
Midstream , Vol. 48, No. 3
Black milk of daybreak we drink it at evening we drink it at midday and morning we drink it at night we drink and we drink we shovel a grave in the air where we won't lie too cramped
Schwarze Milch der Fruhe wir trinken sie abends wir trinken sie mittags und morgens wir trinken sie nachts wir trinken und trinken wir schaufeln ein Grab in den Luften da liegt man nicht eng
To catch in English the opening cadence of Paul Celan's "Todesfuge" (Deathfugue, 1944-45), the Guernica of postwar poetry and a European cultural icon, involves knowing he had just lost his adored mother and come back from 19 months at forced labor, which he had only one word for: "Shoveling!"
When I came upon "Deathfugue" in 1977 and began realizing I must find out just who Celan was, I had no idea what sort of task this meant, what capacities it asked. If I'd known then that over two decades would go into creating a study (1995) and then an anthology (2001) of this poet --well, it's good we can't know such things in advance. Certainly a full sense of Celan would require translating him along the way, translating my way into his life. But I couldn't have guessed how exceedingly close to his presence the practice of translation might carry me.
Whether it has been an occupational hazard or a fringe benefit, to be translating Celan while also attempting his literary biography, I don't know for sure. Probably, as the rabbi's wife says, they can't both be right--but I wonder. Lending my voice to such a poet at the same time as lending my ear, for so long, has forged an intimacy with his writing that vivifies my sense of him but may have skewed critical discernment. I really do wonder, but in any case what's done is not to be undone.
My awareness of the Romanian-born, German-speaking Paul Celan (1920-1970), who lost everything but his mother tongue and then settled in Paris to become Europe's most admired and challenging poet, came late by some measures, early by others. In 1977, on first encountering Celan's work and life, I was in full career towards a book called Translating Neruda: The Way to Macchu Picchu (1980), an approach to the Chilean Nobel poet Pablo Neruda's epic Alturas de Macchu Picchu by way of exposing the whole translation process--the attention to everything from myth, geography, history, and biography to rhythm, syntax, diction, and imagery that yields an English version, Heights of Macchu Picchu. So there was no way I could come to grips with Celan without trying my hand at his poetry.
Unlike Spanish, however, which I'd deeply imbibed while teaching in Chile during 1967-68, the German language lay dormant in me. I'd left the Navy in June 1961 at Rhodes, after a longish stint in the Mediterranean, and gone to Munich for a month's Goethe-Institute total immersion. Then my new VW took me to Berlin and the just-built Wall--Sie sind unsere Bruder!, I heard (and understood!) them saying: "You are our brothers!"
But why German? For three years there'd been plenty of French and Italian ashore, a little Spanish, plus Dubrovnik, Athens, Istanbul, and one brimming week's leave that included nearly kissing Archbishop Makarios's ringed hand on Cyprus, falling for a Lebanese stewardess who took me to Baalbek, and idolizing the beautiful sabra just out of the Army who whirlwinded me around Israel. Why German? Because I knew that my father, born by chance in Lemberg in the Austrian empire, had come to the Lower East Side in 1901 as an infant and absorbed the language at home. I can still hear the tonal lift in his voice when he'd say Wie geht's? ("How goes it?") And I've still got a visual, physical memory from Munich, of proudly writing him my first postcard in his parental tongue.
Having kept up German only sporadically after that, I felt hesitant and tentative about the steep task of reading Paul Celan, much less translating him. …