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Translating "that which happened"
by Ina Pfitzner ||
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Paul Celan (Translated by Nikolai Popov and Heather McHugh)
Glottal Stop: 101 Poems.

Wesleyan University Press, Hanover.

Paul Celan's "hermetic" poetry has inspired innumerable studies and interpretations as well as translations. The poet's work and life embodies post-World War Two European sensibility and addresses the question of writing after Auschwitz. It does so with a keen sense for the quandary this poses, without exempting itself from this quandary. As early as the 1950's Celan's poems struck a chord with American poets such as Jerome Rothenberg and Cid Corman, who tried their hand at translations of the famous "Todesfuge" and other early poems. It wasn't until 1971 and 1972 that Celan really became available to readers in English through volumes of translations by Michael Hamburger and Joachim Neugroschel.
     Contributing to a veritable wave of new Celan translations, poet Heather McHugh and scholar-husband Nikolai Popov have combined their efforts to produce the collection Glottal Stop. They assembled poems which had not been translated into English (although by now some of them have been) and which they deemed fit for publication. Their translations appear in chronological order and exclusively in their English state of being, as poems, without footnotes or the German original. A detailed apparatus of endnotes offers definitions and explanations. The title of the collection was taken from the ending of the poem "Frankfurt, September" and seems to echo titles of other Celan volumes such as Breathturn or Threadsuns. Unlike those, "glottal stop" is not a neologism but an existing, mainstream word. The translators choice of title is indicative of the problem of translations and of translating Celan in particular.
     The fact that McHugh and Popov started out as early as 1992 speaks for the care they applied to these translations. Their lengthy preface declares that "we often sought higher levels of fidelity than those of the word, the line, or the individual poem: Working on a fairly large body of poems allowed us to re-create, where possible in English, effects that seemed characteristic of his art as a whole, for example, Celan's frequent use of paronymy not as an embellishing but as a structuring device, or his way of wrenching a word apart so that its parts would speak as loudly as the whole." This explains minor, immediate 'infidelities' and suggests that the translators thoroughly studied the original before they thought of a strategy for translating. In this light, however, their claim that the original syntax is unmarked and straightforward is astounding. Celan's syntactic structures are contorted and jarring, and not as smoothly German as theirs are idiomatic American. The English tends to clarify, interpret and sensualize where the originals are enigmatic, ambiguous and intellectual; line breaks and enjambments were changed without apparent reasons; images were rendered faithfully but without the grammatical strain of the original. In Heather McHugh there is clearly a poet at work; a poet, though, who does not know German that well.
     Besides these flaws, which only those familiar with Celan's work will notice, Glottal Stop strikes as a handsome edition of poetry. The poems are carefully crafted and have a profound lyricism to them, using a linguistically somewhat innovative style à la Celan (evident in creations like "peony-shadow," "thought-beetle," "shadow-stoppers," etc.) As translations they reside in the middle-ground between the "domesticated" translations by Michael Hamburger and/or Joachim Neugroschel, and the formally more daring, foreignizing versions by John Felstiner or Pierre Joris. Surely to many readers' liking, these poems sound like originals themselves.
     In his famous essay The Task of the Translator Walter Benjamin argues that languages complement one another in their intentions, that only all languages taken together will achieve the "pure language," which is at the same time inherent in each one of them. I understand this to mean that only when a poem is translated into all languages will it constitute the ultimate poem with all its potential. Similarly only all possible English translations together will re-create Celan in English. This is why, although not as startling and unsettling as the originals, Nikolai Popov's and Heather McHugh's renditions are necessary and valid. Another step towards the true English Celan.


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