Translation as Commentary (or, Commentary as Translation?)
It is September, which means—inevitably—that I find myself thinking about Paul Celan’s “Todesfugue,” this time (the first time) as a teacher. It is hardly easy, in subject matter or in style—it is credited for being the target of Adorno’s, “Poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric,” and the exception that made him back away, ever so slightly, from this rule. Discussion inevitably turns toward the fact that Celan writes his poetry in German, the language of the Nazis. What sticks in my mind, however, is the curious act of reading his German in English translation.
John Felstiner—whose translation is the only one that “feels” right to me—has also written an essay on the process of bringing the poem into English, “Translating Paul Celan’s ‘Todesfugue’: Rhythm and Repetition as Metaphor.” (Despite the academic title and its home in an academic text, it’s a fascinating piece worth reading for anyone interested in questions of translation.) The essay itself is sometimes described as a commentary to Felstiner’s translation, but what has become clearer to me is that Felstiner approaches the translation itself as, perhaps unconsciously, a kind of commentary.
By this I don’t mean that it is an interpretive or creative translation. Felstiner’s incorporation of German and ultimate abandonment of English in the final lines of a translation point outward, away from the poem, toward external referents. They raise questions, some of them Celan’s own, of language and violence, language and history, and the representation of traumatic rupture.
I doubt this is intentional or that he views it as within the translator’s prerogative. Anne Carson, on the other hand, gladly takes up the task of translation-as-commentary. I made the (rather naive) mistake of attending a performance/reading of her Antigonick thinking that I would be listening to a new translation of Sophokles’ Antigone. Silly me. Instead, from the opening lines—from her introduction to the reading—Carson brought Sophokles into contact with the long line of Western philosophy, German particularly. When she has Ismene and Antigone discuss Hegel, Heidegger, and Kant it isn’t meant so much to tell the audience, “Look at this parallels! Look at these connections!” but to say, “If you read Antigone with an eye toward these thinkers and these texts—so what if they came much later?—you’ll start to get the point.” Footnotes and margin glosses become the translation; watching a performance becomes akin to sitting at the back of a classroom as the characters themselves argue, close read, and trot out their German lexicons.
I bring this up not because I think that Felstiner or Carson are exemplars of this model (though the latter may well be), or to endorse or criticize it—but because I didn’t suspect its existence until walking to class last week. And because, at least in the case of Celan’s poem, I suspect that I, too, would fall into it unwittingly. When I read “Todesfugue” aloud, whether in translation or sounding my way through Celan’s German, the poem progressively builds speed, so that by the end—where Felstiner slips from English to German—it feels as if the wheels are about to fall off. This is not Celan’s reading, or, one supposes, the sound he heard (and, perhaps, I ought to hear). He is slower, rhythmic, mournful—the ride creaks to a stop, rather than smashing into a wall. How I hear his poem is tied up in how I instinctively read the camps themselves; when I read it, I force its sounds to point outward toward that referent, to act as a commentary bridging a reading of the poem and a reading of the event.