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Journal, Day Two

By Mark Thwaite

I read a lot of translated novels and poems. Indeed, the majority of books that I hold most dear weren’t originally written in English and so I owe a good deal of my reading pleasure to the skills of translators.

We all know what Robert Frost said: “Poetry is what gets lost in translation.” So, am I only reading pale, neutered versions of the real thing? Should I give up on foreign-language poetry? Cleave to the colloquial and local and abjure the formal and foreign? Or should I take Frost’s truism as a challenge? I would argue that poetry in our native tongue is also what gets lost in translation as the language seeks its object and as the poet attempts to discover best how to say what they are seeking to find. Walter Benjamin said, in “The Task of The Translator,” that “all translation is only a somewhat provisional way of coming to terms with the foreignness of languages”—and our own tongue is the first language that is foreign to us. If a translator’s job is nigh-on impossible (to get not only the language correctly rendered, but also all its registers and inferences and resonances), so too is the task of the poet: to make language strange and, firstly, to remember that it is already strange.

Notwithstanding this, some writers most certainly seem to pose a formidable technical challenge to any translator above and beyond these more philosophical difficulties. I always think of Georges Perec’s 1969 work La Disparition, a 300 page lipogrammatic novel, written entirely without the letter “e.” It was translated from the French into English by Gilbert Adair (as A Void). I still reel just thinking about that mammoth, staggering, impossible task.

And, then, I think of Paul Celan.

Of what does one think when one thinks of Celan? The Jewish Holocaust, of course, but then, also, the seeming impossibility to the poet himself of Germany and of writing in German. For Celan, translating his thoughts about Germany, and her history, and his life as a Jew, into (and out of) German, into his verses, was the primary challenge of his writing. He never lived in Germany, after the war settling in France whose language he spoke fluently, but “only in the mother tongue can one speak one’s own truth, in a foreign language the poet lies.” The levels of impossibility begin before Paul Celan even begins to write. And before we begin to read.

You forget you forget
The words turned flint in the fist,

flashes of punctuation
at your wrist,

out of the earth’s
cracked crests,
pauses come charging,

there, at
the sacrificial bush
where memory flares up,
you two are taken
in One breath

For Celan, one imagines that it is impossible not to fail in what he is trying to do, and perhaps he writes knowing he will fail. Because of those impossibilities, he writes; because of them we read.

One reads Pierre Joris’s translations of Celan (his Breathturn collection has just been re-released by Green Integer) knowing that Joris—an accomplished writer in his own right—knows that the definitive translation is a chimera. His versions have a truth because they understand the limits of verisimilitude. That could sound like faint praise, could be misread to imply that I mean that Joris isn’t technically up to the job. He is. These are great translations, harsher than Hamburger (Celan’s most lyrical translator to my ear), but clear, hard-lined, crisp. This is “Highgate”:

An angel walks through the room—:
you, close to the unopened book,
absolve me
once again.

Twice the heather finds nourishment.
Twice it pales.

Reading Celan in translation, one knows that one can only approach the work via its very disappearance. (Celan himself said, “Poetry is by necessity a unique instance of language.”) And one does well to read all the extant translations (John Felstiner, Michael Hamburger, Ian Fairley, Robert Kelly, Popov & McHugh as well as Joris) to underscore the impossibility of the approach. (One reads all the translations and they form a kind of parallax view: not one gets it quite right but via them all one encircles the work: the work, perhaps, being what not one of them can capture.) Moving towards Celan’s hard-surrealism, one imagines that one has a grasp of his meaning, something ineffable has been gathered in, but then it seems to unfurl, the desired-for fixed comprehending is lost. Knowing this formidable barrier, knowing the impossibility of fixing meaning, one becomes enamoured of the work, aware of its life because of its depth. Formidable and sometimes forbidding, Celan’s work deepens each time we reread it. And if we cannot read it in the original German, one can read along with some fine translators whose first task as translators has been to be readers themselves. Readers of these impossible and necessary works.

Posted in Uncategorized on Tuesday, November 28th, 2006 by Mark Thwaite.