Notes on Paul Celan and translating

from a lecture on Saturday by Mihaela Moscaliuc

Paul Celan was a Jewish writer and Holocaust survivor whose family was killed as first the Soviets and then the Germans occupied his land. He grew up in what was then Romania, speaking German at home, later Russian and Romanian in school. His parents were deported in 1942, and later he was sent to a labor camp. After he was liberated from the camp, he ended up in Paris, trying to use writing to reflect the horror and the loss, and, I think, to save himself. He wrote poems still very highly regarded by critics, that have been translated in to many languages. But, like so many other survivors, the crushing weight of the violence was unbearable, and he eventually took his own life. Celan wrote in German, even though he spoke 8 languages, because it was, he said, the only language that he could write poetry in, but German haunted him at the same time.

All of which is background to what really interested me – the discussion about languages, history, trauma, and meaning. Mihaela described Celan’s German as “a language informed by history.” That is, Celan could not write in German without simultaneously knowing that his mother’s killers spoke to her in German before her murder. In Celan, she said, we have intra-lingual translation — two different Germans, the formal, literary German he learned as a child, and the traumatized German he wrote in as an adult, and that in profound ways these are different languages. Consequently, his poems are really tricky to translate, because he stretches and warps the language, trying to make meaning from the horror and emptiness. She described one critic who said of Celan, “words are inscribed into his poems like wounds.”

Words inscribed like wounds — this is such an accurate description of so many other writers, too. I’m thinking of Gloria Anzuldua, Sylvia Plath, some of Adrienne Rich, so many lesbian poets and so much writing about violence against women. And having to stretch and warp our own language because it cannot convey what has happened to us.

One of my poet cohorts, Monica, says of herself that English is her second language, but she hasn’t yet remembered her first. Which is the point of the saying, made trite as it became a t-shirt slogan, “I speak patriarchy, but it isn’t my mother tongue.”

I have only one language — what are the ways it can’t convey what my life has meant?

Celan had 8 languages, and still struggled with a horror too big for all of them.

This is where poetry is the revolution, because we shape language, and ride it when we can’t grasp it enough to shape it.

Paul Celan

Paul Celan


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