John Felstiner, Paul Celan: Poet, Survivor, Jew. New Haven and London: Yale
University Press, 1995. xix + 344 pp.
This unusual and impressive study focuses on the art of translating poetry. It is not primarily a philological or interpretative study of Celan, though it demonstrates a thorough knowledge of Celan scholarship. Rather, it centers on new translations by Felstiner of a number of Celan poems, followed by his detailed commentary on the translations, on the features of the original he was obliged to sacrifice, and on the compensations he has found. These discussions are framed in a biographical narrative, emphasizing Celan's Jewish identity, and copiously illustrated by partial or complete translations of further poems. For readers without knowledge of German, this is an invaluable introduction to the greatest poet to have written in German in the past halfcentury; and readers who know Celan's poetry in the original are sure to have their appreciation enhanced.
Felstiner's translations are mostly excellent. They can certainly stand alongside those of Michael Hamburger, who has done most to present Celan to the anglophone public. Felstiner has often tried harder than Hamburger to keep the original cadences and, sometimes, assonances. As he admits, many word-plays defy translation, like the pun on “Wein” and “Geweintes” in “Die Winzer”. Very occasionally his equivalents jar: “die ihren Ursprung beseelte” (in “Nächtlich geschürzt”) becomes “that sparked their origin, ” with grotesque reminiscences of starting a motor; and “polygoddedness” for “Vielgötterei” (in “Die Schleuse”) seems merely odd. Mostly, however, Felstiner's explanations not only justify his boldness but make one admire how deftly he has solved linguistic problems. Thus in “Psalm” the ambiguity of “Dir / entgegen” (both “toward” and “against”) is conveyed by “In thy spite” which neatly parallels the earlier “In thy sight” for “Dir zuliebe. ” And as a bonus, we find the haunting poem “So bist du denn geworden” translated into the style of Emily Dickinson, a remarkable tour de force (p. 61).
The only serious error of judgement Felstiner makes as a translator, in my view, occurs in “Todesfuge. ” Not only does he retain the name “Deutschland” (“Death is a master from Deutschland”), but he lets the poem's language gradually revert to German, so that the last two and a half lines of his translation are verbally identical with the original. Their implications, however, have been changed drastically. To the reader ignorant of German who reads “Deathfugue” as a poem in English, the German words will seem an alien intrusion from the language of the oppressors, like the scraps of German conversation in British or American war films. They will support the common association of the word “Deutschland” with tyranny, illustrated by Felstiner's