-Paul Celan’s Todesfuge
In a footnote to his book On Whitman, C. K. Williams says with some confidence that Paul Celan’s Todesfuge is ‘almost universally acclaimed as the greatest poem to come out of the Holocaust.’ Celan’s poem lingered in Williams’ imagination, prompting the meditation ‘Jew on Bridge’, surely the standout piece in Wait, Williams’ latest collection. An anonymous character in Crime and Punishment (not ‘short, tall, thin or fat Jew: just Jew’) is transmogrified into the figure of Celan, who shares a first name with Williams’ father, prompting a sustained examination of identities and common destinies:
‘you know already by heart: the searing through you you realise is your grief.’Greatness is a description which attaches itself easily to Todesfuge. It’s a heavy poem: after all, it has the weight of thousands of lives behind it. Strangely, as Williams points out, that heaviness makes it more, not less, ‘accessible’ than the rest of Celan’s work, which can be elaborate and experimental, sometimes evasive where Todesfuge is unnervingly direct. In the poet’s mind, the poem ultimately became a victim of its own accessibility. As Williams writes in ‘Jew on Bridge’, Celan’s attitude towards the poem that would define him veered into outright loathing:
‘Celan was so sick of the Deathfugue he’d no longer let it be printed.
In the tape of him reading, his voice is songful and fervent, like a cantor’s.
When he presented the poem to some artists, they hated the way he read.’
Thanks to Youtube, the ‘songful and fervent’ recording is readily available, and with a single click it’s possible to hear the urgency of the opening line lifting into a ponderous lilt. Much of that initial urgency is dictated by the harshness of the German consonants — even a reader like me, with only a few scattered words of German, can hear the quiet fury which underscores each word:
‘Schwarze Milch der Frühe wir trinken sie abends
wir trinken sie mittags und morgens wir trinken sie nachts
wir trinken und trinken…’
But how does the same passage sound in English? Anyone at all interested in hauling words over the boundaries between languages will be familiar with poets pontificating on the difficulty — even the impossibility — of translating another poet’s work. Robert Frost’s ‘poetry is what gets lost in translation’ has been repeated so often that it has become almost meaningless, while R.S. Thomas’ ‘A poem in translation is like kissing through a handkerchief’ is approaching the same exhausted status.
For obvious reasons, poets who make more use of sound in their work are harder to translate. Celan eludes English in a way that a more anecdotal poet like Hans Magnus Enzensberger can never do. See how the first lines of Todesfuge/Death Fugue shed those spitting ‘t’s in John Felstiner’s translation:
‘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…’
Fortunately, the similarity between ‘trinken’ and ‘drink’ allows the English translator to hold on to the harsh ‘k’/’ch’ of the original. Take a language slightly further removed from the original German and you hear the poem soften:
‘Leche negra de la madrugada la bebemos de tarde
la bebemos al mediodía de mañana la bebemos
de noche la bebemos y bebemos…’
Is this Spanish translation still recognisably Celan’s poem? Certainly, some of the wordplay is lost. I’ve read a very plausible argument that the capitalized ‘Frühe’ (which the always helpful WordReference translates very specifically as ‘at the crack of dawn’) was selected as a near-anagram of ‘Führer’, with the implied suggestion that the Jews in the poem are forced to drink ‘black milk’ from Hitler as they ‘shovel a grave in the ground’. How can that bitter pun be replicated in any other language?
Interestingly, John Felstiner (later a biographer of Celan) runs German phrases into his translation, as if to acknowledge that English cannot adequately convey the power of the original lines. One of the poem’s best-known phrases ‘Der Tod ist ein meister aus Deutschland’ appears four times in the English translation, progressively returning to German:
‘He shouts play death more sweetly this Death is a master from Deutschland…
we drink you at midday Death is a master aus Deutschland…
this Death is ein meister aus Deuschland…
he plays with his vipers and daydreams der Tod ist ein meister aus Deutschland.’
‘Meister’ is itself problematic. ‘Master’ is perhaps the obvious translation, but possesses little of the power of its German original. As well as plain ‘master’, ‘meister’ can also mean a foreman (as in ‘Werkmeister’ — in the poem, the ‘meister… whistles his Jews into rows has them shovel a grave) or a champion (in German, a World Cup winner is a ‘weltmeister’, and World Cup is ‘weltmeisterschaft’).
All this suggests that the German version of the poem has a concentrated power we can only get the smallest glimpse of in English. I’d argue that the smallest glimpse is better than no glimpse at all, and it would be a travesty to deny English-speaking readers access to ‘the greatest poem to come out of the Holocaust’ (a rather discomforting superlative) purely because that poem is difficult to translate.
Perhaps I could go further and argue that the poem has to be beyond understanding in order to be successful. If any poem attempts to represent the events of the Holocaust, surely that poem has to be ‘difficult’, occasionally ugly — hard or impossible to understand.
As with all masterpieces, Todesfuge deepens with each reading. If I can find a better way of articulating my thoughts on the poem, I’ll come back to it at some stage on this blog. For now, back to Williams and to the story of Celan, a story that becomes hard to separate from the poem which may be the greatest of the twentieth-century:
‘His parents had died in the camps. Of typhus the father. Mama probably gun.
Celan-Antschel , had escaped. He’d tried to convince them to come, too.
Was that part of it, on the bridge? Was that he wrote in German part, too?
He stood on the bridge over the Seine, looked into the black milk of the dying,
Jew on bridge, and hauled himself over the rail…’