Paul Celan


[Celan reads his work.]

über der grauschwarzen Ödnis.
Ein baum-
hoher Gedanke
greift sich den Lichtton: es sind
noch Lieder zu singen jenseits
der Menschen.


Thread suns
above the grey-black wilderness.
A tree-
high thought
tunes in to light’s pitch: there are
still songs to be sung on the other side
of mankind.

            (Trans. Michael Hamburger)

over the gray-black wasteness
A tree-
high thought
strikes the light-tone: there are
still songs to sing beyond

            (Trans. John Felstiner)


I post both translations because of the variation, at least for me, in tone between the sets of closing lines.

Sometimes, what we want or what we hope for cannot – will not – break away from where we are – from what we are – in all this living. I’m fairly certain that the poem eludes both translations.


Lisa Allender said...

I prefer the second translation, as it feels more "inclusive", and this is so lovely!

sam of the ten thousand things said...

Interesting point about Felstiner's work. Thanks for the read & listen, Lisa.

James Owens said...


I like the Felstiner better, too. (I'm not sure "inclusiveness" is an issue, though -- should one produce an "inclusive" translation of an original that excludes? I think accuracy takes precedence over playing the translation for an anachronistic ethical spin....)

"Ödnis" is such an interesting word, and Felstiner's "wasteness" is definitely better than "wilderness," I think, because Celan seems to be rethinking Genesis One, and "wasteness" recalls the "waste and void" of some popular English translations. Also, "wilderness" is just not accurate. "Öd" means "empty, chaotic desolation." Celan is offering (or coining?) "Ödnis" as a translation of the Hebrew "tohu va vohu," which shows up as "a formless void" in the KJV and "wueste," i.e., "waste" in the standard German versions (including Luther's).

(And remember in The Waste Land Eliot's quoting from Wagner's Tristan "oed und leer das Meer.")

And that is only one word, and this post is already longer than I meant it to be....

Does "A tree-/ high thought" allude to Rilke's "a high tree in the ear"? (This is clearer in German: "Ein baum-/ hoher Gedanke" and "ein hoher baum im Ohr.") This striking the light-tone ("Let there be light") becomes, then, a supreme poetic act?

How in hell does Hamburger get the passive songs "to be sung" out of "singen"?

Hamburger has for years been almost the default, standard Englisher of Celan (and Holderlin, too), but the more of his versions that I look at closely, the more he seems a leaden-eared oaf....

"jenseits / der Menschen" is impossible. I don't like either translation. It bothers me that "Menschen" (humans) -- a plural, concrete noun -- is being translated as a singlular, abstract concept, some "--kind." But I don't want to say "beyond (on the other side of) / humans." How flat and insidpid and ET-evoking that would be.

James Owens said...

See Felstiner's essay on translating Celan in American poetry Review :


sam of the ten thousand things said...

I agree with you on Hamburger, James. I do prefer Felstiner's takes on Celan. Your ideas on the poem make sense to me. I need to know the language more. D

Did you know that Pat Winship started learning Chinese when he, I think, was in his 70s? That was something.

sexy said...