Paul Celan, Breathturn into Timestead: the Collected Later Poetry, translated by Pierre Joris (Farrar, Straus and Giroux 2014)
In reading Paul Celan, more so than other poets with the possible exception of Louis Zukofsky, the reader is confronted by the slipperiness of individual words. Unnaming undercuts naming. Reading requires the burrowing form of patience associated with translation. Celan’s poetry demolishes borders. Individual words and phrases layer densities of private meanings. Whose? His or yours or mine? Individual verses consume swathes of literary history. With the publication of Pierre Joris’s translation of Paul Celan, Breathturn into Timestead: the Collected Later Poetry (Farrar, Straus and Giroux 2014), a new appraisal of the work of the translator has become necessary. A new thesis offers itself, survival maps a translingual consciousness that is integral to poetry in all of its guises.
In Celan’s late poetry, multivalent noun phrases serve as nodes where the breath is able to unravel complex meanings. “Schwermutsschnelllen” (6) is one such marker, translated by Joris as “melancholy’s rapids.” The difficult challenge of translation resolves itself when the poem and its prosody become identified with breathing, as if rhythm and perception were inborn. Breath poetics like those of Celan and Charles Olson activate innate capacities. Joris’s deep feel for both German and English underlie the extraordinary felicity of his translation. Another example of both Celan's and his translator’s wordart is “metaphergestöber,” rendered “metaphor-flurry,” a sense rhyme with “snow flurry.” (“Ein Dröhnen” 86-89).
The rush of conceptual images being channeled through short compact lines is the distinctive mark of Celan’s late poetry. The concentrated packets of kenning-like neologisms underscore momentary glints of meaning. The lyric “Wer herscht?”, [Who rules?] concludes:
Der erkämpfte Umlaut in Unwort:
die Abglanz; die Grabschild
eines der Denkschatten
[The hard-won umlaut in the unword:
your reflection: the tombshield
of one of the wordshadows
Translation, it is said, enriches the receiving language. Here, in the fact of translation, are several compound nouns new to English. Equally important is a necessary melding of semantics and syntax. The concept of a vowel nesting within a row of consonants (the unword) is a deeply studied aspect of Jewish mysticism. And yet, it is the translator’s almost transparent understanding of the connective tissue within these lines that mark Joris’s English text.
Celan’s poems are energy-gems of a complex array. “…Auch keinerlei” [… Though no kind of peace] is one of the final poems in Threadsuns [Fadensonnen], the second of the five books collected and translated here. It enacts “gray nights” of unbearable stimulus coursing through the “gravel” of “memory-vesicles.” To a psychoanalytical understanding the subject is “repetition-compulsion.” “Eine halblust” [half pleasure] is stirred, “cathexed.” The German reads “Bewegtes, Besetztes.” The ordinary literal translation is “stirred, occupied or preoccupied.” The reading that Joris offers “cathexed” is brilliant. In “Tenebrae’d” [Eingedunkelt], the title poem of the third book, the word choice may it first seem infelicitous. “Tenebrae” is the evening service on Maundy Thursday of Easter Week. Simply, “cast into darkness” might have served better and allowed the light of a large number of allusions to filter in upon the stone cited in the poem (228-231). That stone is identified as the stone before the tomb in which Jesus was buried but it is also a “contested stone” embedded within references to the huckstering in the market. Words resonant with the many appellations of the oft cited abyss appear, “memory fissures” [Gedächtnisschlüchen], for instance. Lines near the conclusion of Tenebrae’d read:
FÜLL DIE ÖDNIS in die Augensäcke,
den Opferruf, die Salzflut,
komm mit mir zu Atem
und früber hinaus.
[SHOVEL THE VOID into the eyebags,
the sacrificecall, the saltflood,
come with me to breathe
out and beyond. (230-31).
Joris’s language, like Celan’s, registers of concretions of implicate meanings, very unlike sentences or even poetic lines. Language comes to exist that did not previously exist. This language is riddled with memory bits, cathexed agony-pangs that derive from suppressed and re-enkindled trauma located in what we can now call the timecrevasse [Zeitenschrunde] cited in “WEGGEBEIST (18-19).
Both Joris and Celan are deeply translingual figures, writing in languages other than their first languages and invoking translation practices that draw on experience with multiple languages. Celan with Romanian heritage, translated from Russian and English but chose to write in German, the language of a people that embraced fascism and whose history remains fearsome to contemplate. Joris, a native of Luxemburg, spoke French in elementary school and chose to undertake doctoral studies in English, writing a dissertation of the work of Charles Olson. Celan and Olson, and the semantics of breath poetics, core to each, are here melded by the art of the translator.