Translating Paul Celan

I didn’t think I liked poetry. I didn’t think I liked reading it or writing it. I was always a book person – novels, some non-fiction (always history), historical fiction, horror. However, translating some poetry in MA Literary Translation is impossible to avoid. We had to translate poetry for seminars and workshops, and I am so glad I had to, otherwise I never would have.

A few weeks ago, I had never heard of Paul Celan. I know he’s probably the single most significant German-speaking poet of the 20th century, but as I said, I ‘didn’t like poetry’. But then we looked at some of his work in one of our seminars and I was hooked. It’s keening, rhythmic, desolate and also somehow charming. He uses words to beat out a funeral march for his Jewish diaspora in the wake of the Shoah.

Since Celan has long since passed, and I have about four readers anyway, here is my rendition of Celan’s ‘Die Silbe Schmerz’:

The Syllable ‘Pain’

You were there at hand:

a you, deathless,

reviving all that is I. Wordless voices

circled, empty vessels, everything

received in them, mixed

and unmixed

and mixed


And numbers were

interwoven in the

uncountable. One and Thousand and what

before and behind

more prodigious than itself, smaller, ri-

pened and 

back- and forward-

transformed in 

the stirrings of never.

Forgotten grip

after to-be-forgotten, earth-parts, heart-parts


sank and swam. Columbus,

the time- 

loose in the eye, the Mother-


murdered masts and sails. Everything rode out,



the compass-rose faded, its petals

fell, a world-sea,

bloomed in droves and came to light, in the blacklight

of the wild compass lines. In coffins,

urns, canopic jars

the children awoke,

Jasper, Agate, Amethyst – People,

Tribes and Clans, a blind

I  t    m   a  y    b   e

knotted itself in

the snake-headed free-

ropes-: a


(and into- and contra- and but- and twin- and thou

-sand-knots), with which

the shrove-eyed brood

spelled out,

struck out,

scratched out,

the murdered star in the abyss.

Source Text: Die Silbe Schmerz by Paul Celan (1963)

Es gab sich Dir in die Hand:

ein Du, todlos,

an dem alles Ich zu sich kam. Es fuhren

wortfreie Stimmen rings, Leerformen, alles

ging in sie ein, gemischt

und entmischt

und wieder


Und Zahlen waren

mitverwoben in das

Unzählbare. Eins und Tausend und was

davor und dahinter

größer war als es selbst, kleiner, aus-

gereift und

rück- und fort-

verwandelt in

keimendes Niemals.

Vergessenes griff

nach Zu-Vergessendem, Erdteile, Herzteile


sanken und schwammen. Kolumbus,

die Zeit-

lose im Aug, die Mutter-


mordete Masten und Segel. Alles fuhr aus,



blühte die Windrose ab, blätterte

ab, ein Weltmeer

blühte zuhauf und zutag, im Schwarzlicht

der Wildsteuerstriche. In Särgen,

Urnen, Kanopen

erwachten die Kindlein

Jaspis, Achat, Amethyst – Völker,

Stämme und Sippen, ein blindes

Es sei

knüpfte sich in

die schlangenköpfigen Frei-

Taue –: ein


(und Wider- und Gegen- und Aber- und Zwillings- und Tau-

sendknoten), an dem

die fastnachtsäugige Brut

der Mardersterne im Abgrund

buch-, buch-, buch-

stabierte, stabierte.