Trans Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften 16. Nr. März 2006

9.4. Translation and Ideology
Herausgeberin | Editor | Éditeur: Nitsa Ben-Ari (Tel Aviv University)

Dokumentation | Documentation | Documentation

Paul Celan as a "World Poet" - the role of translation in the concept of "world literature"

Verena Kuzmany (Seattle)


What is "world literature," and is Paul Celan part of it? With this question as a starting point, I will examine different interpretations of the label "world poetry" and why Celan belongs to, and at the same time eludes this ambiguous category. Before venturing into the debate, I have to clarify that I am only going to explore the U.S. version of world literature and world poetry, or what has become known as such in the U.S. The perception of "world" depends on the origin of the gaze.

Paul Celan is undoubtedly one of the best known 20th century German language poets, who has been intrinsically linked with a redefinition of the German language in the wake of fascism. His texts have become representative, even in translation, of the trauma that WW II inflicted on a large part of the world. The amount of critical attention given to his poetry, its inclusion in anthologies, the number of available translations into many different languages, are living proof that his texts are considered "world literature." The number of translations available in English alone, offers a staggering array of choices to readers and teachers of literature. Paradoxically, his texts are profoundly unsuited for a category which, from any vantage point, depends on translation and translatability. Celan’s texts are notoriously hard to translate and even in the original notoriously difficult to understand in their depth of imagery and breadth of intertextuality. His use of German leads the readers to the boundary of language and the signifiable itself. His imagery of the inconcrete and his startling neologisms at once testify to a crippling and traumatizing experience and rise beyond it. His poetry is precisely one that could legitimately have been written "after Auschwitz," in Adorno’s famous phrase. But how much of it remains intact in translation?

One of the reasons why Celan is so hard to translate is due to the profound morphological differences between German and English. Noun compounding is far more prevalent in German than in English and Celan uses this almost endless resource for the creation of new words to his advantage. The result of this rich possibility the German language offers, is more often than not a neologism with a multiply interpretable stratification of meaning. Celan’s neologisms are strikingly unjarring in that they are recognizable as unusual but possible new combinations without halting the semantic processing of the readers’ minds or the syntactic flow of his poems.

Hence a word creation such as "schmerzende Augapfeltiefe," which is not lexical item in German, is immediately accepted as a possible compound, with a range of associations. It denotes depth of the eyeball in both clinical, literal sense - Tiefe seems to physically link the eye to the brain - and in a figurative sense: the painful process of storing/internalizing information/experinece through visual input in our memory. To approximate this facetted meaning as: achingdepth of the eyeball, in Michael Hamburger’s choice, seems inadequate (Hamburger 136). The chain of associations the German line engenders is muted by the genetive prepositional phrase. Depth of the eyeball precludes depth in and through the eyeball, both of which original contains.

In translation, two scenarios of how to deal with Celan’s ur-German tendency for noun-compounding prevail. One is to de-compound Celan’s word creations, splitting them into acceptable English phrase structure, the other is opting for neologisms. The former often leaves the English poems replete with function words that clutter Celan’s tight, telescopic style. "Rabenüberschwärmte Weizenwoge" for example, becomes "Swarming of ravens over a wheat billow" in Hamburger’s translation (109). Felstiner renders the line as "Corn wave swarming with ravens" (Felstiner 99). Both English versions lose the poetic impact the German original contains. De-componding (which usually means adding a preposition) furthermore means a loss of ambiguity. Hence, for example, Celan’s "Die Nachzustotternde Welt" becomes "world to be stuttered after" in Felstiner’s translation (337), or "world to be stuttered by heart" in Hamburger’s (333). The translators have opted for two completely different slants of meaning, both of which are inherent in the German line.

The other strategy (creating neologisms in English) often violates English rules for word composition and creates an artifice. What by Celan was intended as a slant on an existing formation - often a pleasantly surprising one in its novelty - and an economizing of space and rhythmic pattern results in an in-your-face type of neologism if rendered too "faithfully" in English. Celan’s line "die Freigeköpften / die zeitlebens hirnlos den Stamm / der Du-losen / besangen" is rendered as "the freebeheaded, who / lifelong brainlessly sang / of the tribe of the You-less" by Joris (121). Popov/McHugh turn this into "acephalic by choice / the brainless life-laureates of the Youless people of the lord" (56), attesting to the fact that the urge to innovation in rendering the more obscure Celanian compound-creations often results not only in an opacity of meaning but draws attention to the translator as a co-creator who "out-Celans" Celan.

Celan’s tendency to agglutination and compounding has been linked by critics to the dichotomy between the "language of the mother" and the "language of the murderers" (both his parents died in a concentration camp). Not only repulsed by the Nazi campaign of aryianizing and "purifying" the German language, Celan was wounded by the new global aversion to his mother tongue. Celan’s writing was intensely rooted in his first language, a true mother tongue in the sense that his mother insisted on speaking Hochdeutsch in the family’s native Czernowitz, where multiple languages coexisted and mingled, rather than the Bukovina Deutsch "filled with Yiddish expressions and spoken [...] with Austrian nonchalance and Slavic breadth" (Olschner 62f). In order to purge his linguistic identity of the association with National Socialism, Celan altered his poetic language until it ceased to resemble that of the oppressor. What is rarely recognized in its significance, however, is that Celan’s language is still an extremely "pure" German. His subliminal protest against the rape of his mother tongue is recognizable in a defiantly Germanic morphology. He thus one-ups the National Socialists attempt to the Germanification of language.

Given this weighty background to a poet’s need for word creations that goes beyond creation of a style or linguistic boredom with existing structures, translators have worried over their responsibility to reflect it. To not echo his unusual use of language would be to amputate him of his most deftly handled tool - his German is not merely a poetic German, it is immediately recognizable Celanian German that builds on familiar processes yet expands them, adds subtle layers of meaning that somehow reverberate at the core of one’s linguistic consciousness. He seems to operate from the inside of morphological structure, manipulating words on the instable seam between what is acceptable even though unforeseen and unusual, and what is acceptable only by consciously thinking about and confirming its possible existence. Celan’s word formations are astonishing only in the sense that they could have been there all along (and the native German-speaking reader wonders why they haven’t been) and not in the sense of an intellectual surprise at a poet’s artistic abilities. In English, however, as my few examples have shown, this is all but irreproducible. How is it then, that a poet whose voice in English is so hard to find, is, against all linguistic odds, an undisputed "world poet?" Before attempting an answer (or rather, raising a new series of questions) it is useful to examine what the label "world poet" actually means.

The term "world poetry" lacks precise definition. The attribute "world" has come to denote either power and majority, as in "world language" or "world bank," or ethnic diversity with a folkloric twinge, as in "world music." Which category do "world literature" and "world poetry" belong to? Are they labels awarded to high quality works of the past, which have gained their status by prevailing through eras of differing tastes? Or is world literature a category in the making, one that has really not existed before the virtual expansion of "world" to include more than Euro-America and its colonial whiplashes? In different contexts and from different points of view, both labels can denote either grandeur (the best of all global writing) or a hodge-podge of texts from around the world, with an emphasis on inclusion.

The former interpretation, which sees world literature as somehow grand and important, and makes the label a stamp of value similar to "classics," puts texts implicitly on a power level not unequal to that of "world bank." Those who control or influence education determine canon formation. One nation’s hegemony can place a language in an automatically privileged position and an author on a global literary radar. Even centuries after their downfall, the languages of empires continue to be studied, and proficiency in them serves as a mark of intellectual distinction, as the case of Latin exemplifies. Texts heralded as world literature can become examples of taste, manuals of style, models for thought, language and metaphorical thinking. In wide circulation, they may be endorsed not just by those who are qualified to judge but by those looking for pre-approved reasons for endorsement.

The definition of world literature as simply narrative and poetic texts from around the world operates with a more democratic principle in mind. Any kind of canonization, however, is subject to a hierarchy of choices and selections. The main difference is the position these interpretations put the envisioned reader in: world literature that claims to be the best and most important literary achievement to date leaves little room for judgment; world literature that is simply a selection of texts from different corners of the world and hence in different literary traditions, puts the judgment of quality and preference into the readers’ eyes and ears. Yet this, although it bestows agency on reception, implies that the mass readers are a good judge of enduring or innovative literary quality, which might be as doubtful a route to take as the sole reliance on a handful of critics.

Another interesting aspect is that so far, no genre distinction exists for the category world literature. If it did, it would soon be fraught with a war over genre sub-designations and the sub-categories would be endless. In this context, a new question arises: Perhaps a broad heading such as world literature has outlived its usefulness in a time of hyper specialization and boundary-defining of fields. (World poetry does seem to be the only widely accepted sub-category so far.). Yet for the moment at least, the continuing publication of anthologies and offering of college courses with the title "world literature" signals that the ambiguity of the term must draw readers and listeners. The ambiguity seems to be necessary, since close scrutiny of the label invariably leads to taking sides in an ideological debate.

The last decade of the 20th century - possibly in the anxiety of a global catastrophe - has seen a flurry of "world poetry" publications in the US. Editors deal in different ways with the overwhelming array of choices. Publications with titles such as "Anthology of World Poetry" are easy prey for criticism. Their "world" is by necessity smaller than promised due to the impossibility of including everything "worthwhile," available in translation or even representative of a country, language or period. Invariably, anthologies are prefaced by disclaimers to appease the unincluded and their following. A poignant example of this practice is the foreword and editors’ preface to Routledge’s Who’s Who in Twentieth Century World Poetry (2000).(1) Then poet laureate Andrew Motion writes that "reference works such as [this] exist to provoke argument, as well as to offer panoramic views. Some entries will be questioned; some omissions will be lamented; some judgments will be doubted. But these responses only serve to endorse the premise of this book, which is to illustrate the extraordinary range and vitality of poetry written round the world during the last hundred years." Broad brush stroke justifications such as these serve to stifle all further argument, subsuming critics, mourners, and doubters under one umbrella. Instead of leafing through the pages in search of unforgivable omissions, the reader should rejoice in having found a bone of contention. Motion’s apologizing tone is echoed by the editors, who continue in the vein of his disclaimer ("to compile a volume such as this may seem absurd; to do so successfully may be impossible."), begging the question. More useful, but still vague is the statement that the requirements for inclusion were "poets whose national or international reputations have drawn readers, and kept readers coming back." In an attempt to dissolve constricting boundaries of nation-states, the editors furthermore cite their decision to list poets "by the country most commonly associated with them" rather than by nationality (xi). Perplexingly, Paul Celan’s primary (or rather: sole) country of national affiliation is listed as "Germany."

Many of the anthologies proper include poetry by Paul Celan. It is interesting to note that quite often the editors provide new translations rather than relying on existing ones. After all, many poets become known through a single translation (if they become known beyond their linguistic borders at all). Paul Celan translations are still being produced at an incredible rate.

An ambitious anthology, with several poems by Celan, is Pierre Joris’s and Jerome Rothenberg’s fat two volume Poems for the Millennium (1998) published by the University of California. Their introduction to Volume Two (From Postwar to Millennium) is mercifully lacking in disclaimers and instead includes an essay on the second half of the century’s main movements and innovations in the field of poetic expression. Interestingly, in the outline of the publication’s aims, the term "world poetry" is not used at all and substituted by "a poetry from all directions." The editors also take their readership’s point of reference into account. Hence the publication "will allow a reading of U.S. poetry and poets juxtaposed with sometimes equally experimental, sometimes more experimental poetry from elsewhere. (For this reason, with America as the point of departure, the amount of American poetry is and remains disproportional)" (15). The book is structured not into chapters but "galleries," interspersed with groupings of texts from different poetry movements. Celan is included with 22 poems and an excerpt from his Meridian speech. All but "Death Fugue," (which is translated by Rothenberg), and the Meridian piece (which is prose) are translated by Joris, who is also the translator of Celan’s Threadsuns (Fadensonnen) and Lightduress (Lichtzwang).

Douglas Messerli, the editor of the PIP (Project for Innovative Poetry) Anthology of World Poetry of the 20th Century (2000), finds Joris’s and Rothenberg’s massive publication lacking (as every anthology must, in the end, be found lacking even by its most ardent readers). In the preface to the first volume Messerli predicts the publication of eight volumes(2) - by volume four this estimation has swollen to fifty volumes. "Only two factors will determine whether or not I can achieve this idealistic enterprise: finances and my death!" (A Note, v. 4). The advisory board boasts such names as Jacques Derrida, Marjorie Perloff, Aimé Cesaire, Friederike Mayröcker, Adonis, to name but a few. The books contain an eclectic mix of internationally well known poets and nationally well known poets who have remained obscure or largely uncirculated in the English speaking world. The quality and range of works make up for the at times sloppy proof reading (at least as far as the German translations are concerned) and for the editor’s flippant prefaces or "notes," which border on the narcissistic. All in all, however personal Messerli’s criteria of inclusion may have been, the resulting volumes are honest in that they do not try to obscure the subjectivity of their provenance. The fuzzy benchmark of universal appeal is of no concern to Messerli, and one hopes that his finances and health may endure. (Celan is not included - at least in Volume One, Three and Four).

In World Poetry - An Anthology of Poetry from Antiquity to Our Time (1998), co-editor John S. Major explains his guiding maxim as follows: "that [every poem] should surprise and delight the common reader" (xv). Celan is included with four poems: The inevitable "Death Fugue," in Hamburger’s translation, along with three others translated by Margaret Washburn - the publication’s other main editor - and Katherine Guillemin. Washburn describes the book as a "museum without walls," hoping that the chronological arrangement and grouping by geographical area would entice readers to "enjoy tracking the connections between one tradition, one part of the globe, one poem and another" and recognizing the "connective tissue between styles, images and formal conventions" (xx).

The interconnectivity Washburn welcomes as the unifying power of world-wide poetry through the ages, is precisely what Steven Owen rejects in an article in The New Republic, titled "What is World Poetry?" Owen expresses the worry that cultural distinction in poetry may soon be obliterated. He arrives at the conclusion that at the end of the 20th century, world poetry is poetry written for a global audience. Owen’s gloomy prediction warns of an era of indistinguishable and bland poetry that, born out of an "anxiety of global influence," will be stripped of national specificity yet replete with local color and will pander to a "cozy ethnicity" readers find appealing. In Owen’s view, today’s poets already compose with an eye towards being reproduced in different languages to broaden their reach and influence. After all, the minority of people in a "world" language suddenly becomes a major readership, when compared to the minority of people in a national language who are possible readers of poetry. The fear of living out their phase of inspiration in untranslated provinciality has supposedly created a "pressure for an increasing fungibility of words" in poets (Owen 28). What Washburn sees as poetical cross fertilization and a means of resuscitation or "fresh waves of renewal" (xxii) for individual traditions, Owen casts in a more doubtful light (c.f. 30). He uses the publication of a translation of Bei Dao’s The August Sleepwalker as a backdrop to his criticism of Modern Chinese poetry. Colonial Asian poetry, he writes, was influenced by (predominantly inadequately translated) Western poetry, especially in the Romantic tradition. Erroneously perceived as being divorced from a constraining historical framework, Romantic poetry provided an inspiration to break with traditions. The trend of influence, Owen says, has continued in China until today. "Western" poetry is assimilated, incorporated, and finally reimported in translation to a "West" for whom it invariably becomes an old hat. His deep-seated state of discomfort is described best in the following quote of fin de siècle angst: "The fate of contemporary poetry in China could easily serve as the figure for a more profound sense of cultural loss and decline, a fall from the center of the universe to an uncertainty about where and who one is in a world that no longer has either a center or a clear boundary by which to orient oneself." Rey Chow has refuted Owen’s claims as those of a traditionalist hanging on to an ideal of a China untouched by Western thought with "Orientalist melancholia" (Chow 4). While such thinking is, according to her, not unknown to contemporary sinology, Chow takes the argument further and appropriately asks "what kinds of cultural politics is in play when a professor from Harvard University accuses the men and women of the ‘third world’ of selling out to the West?" (2). It is quite all right, Owen’s thinking implies, for traditional "non-western" poetry to fuel the West’s literary inspiration; yet in the reverse, too much Western imprint would endanger precisely this fertilization. Owen’s subtitle for his query on the nature of World Poetry, The Anxiety of Global Influence, reveals the author’s own anxiety about "where and who one is in the world." "Most of these poems," he writes, "translate themselves. These could just as easily be translations from a Slovak or an Estonian or a Philippine poet." That the level of difficulty assigned to a literary work has been perceived as yet another mark and benchmark of distinction is a familiar attitude. Due to the inextricable intertwinedness of content and form, poetry translations have always been intensely problematic. What is the lesson? That truly excellent poetry will travel in spite of its difficulty, or because of its difficulty? In which category is Paul Celan?

According to David Damrosch, author of the book What is World Literature?, world literature is simply "a mode of reading." He writes that "world literature is writing that gains in translation" (281). This postulation neatly divides writing into two camps, the translatable and the untranslatable one, forestalling the latter’s possibility of ever ascending to the ranks of world literature. "Some works," Damrosch writes, "are so inextricably connected to their original language and moment that they cannot be effectively translated at all" (288). This applies as uncannily to Paul Celan, as the former (world literature gains in translation) does not. And yet, Celan is perceived as world poetry. Damrosch’s debate becomes more interesting when he elaborates on that evanescent "gain" he attributes to successfully translated works, whose "stylistic losses [are] offset by an expansion in depth as they increase their range" (289). What Damrosch seems to be saying is that an increased exposure of a literary work to a varied readership will result in an increase of the original’s value. It seems to me that he is confusing quality with quantity. Mass produced movies such as Bridget Jones do not gain in quality just because they are shown around the globe and dubbed into or subtitled with a number of languages. But Damrosch contests that "traveling abroad, (...), a text does indeed change (...). In an excellent translation, the result is not the loss of an unmediated original version but instead a heightening of the naturally creative interaction of the reader and the text" (292). This raises the question what an "excellent translation" is - one faithful to the original, one that fits smoothly into a new linguistic and cultural environment, or one walking the tightrope between both. As the example of Celan demonstrates, the reason why some texts are world literature and some not depends on more than their translatability. Damrosch cites two more reasons/conditions for what world literature is: "an elliptical refraction of national literatures," and "a mode of reading: a form of detached engagement with worlds beyond our own place and time" (281). Again, Celan eludes Damrosch’s categories, since he cannot be pinned down to any precise national affiliation. While he wrote uniquely in German, Celan is neither representative of Germany, Austria or Switzerland; while he was Jewish he does not represent Israel or Jewishness, and while he lived in France for most of his creative time span, he does not represent France or Frenchness.

Celan’s poetry flies in the face of all criteria of world poetry: difficult and hard to translate, his poetry does not gain in translation (into English), therefore does not travel well; it is hardly conceivable to produce an unannotated edition of his poetry in translation. His translators have made the multiple stratification of meaning in Celanian poetry into a postmodern labyrinth of intertextuality, to which every new translation adds another layer of interpretation. In a sense, Celan is by definition and in spite of himself a "world poet" because of his own background and biography of migration and displacement.

Austrian by citizenship, Jewish, born in a former crown-region of the Austro-Hungarian empire in the Bukovina, his itinerary of exile includes a Rumanian concentration camp, Vienna, and finally Paris, where he composed the majority of his work and lived until his suicide in 1970. No one nation can claim Celan as its own, as much as they would all like to capture the "elliptical refractions" his poetry casts on the world.

Perhaps one way to determine how to approach translating Celan is to look towards his own translations, that range from Mandelshtam to Beaudelaire, Dickinson and Shakespeare, to name but a few. All of his translations from Russian, French and English were done into German, since Celan did not believe in the possibility of literary translation into a language other than the "mother language." In his writings about translating, Celan echoes Walter Benjamin in seeing it as a "task" of entering into a dialogue with the original while not presuming any kind of given, transferable semantic reality. Rather, the reality of the language and scope of a poem needs to be newly "designed and attained" each time, with each author (c.f. Eskin 171f). Paradoxically, this stance of letting the "original rise into purer linguistic air" has freed Celan as a translator, letting him choose fleshed-out aspect over general completeness, permitting him to enter into the text and through it emerge at a dialogue with the author.

It may be that a translation of Celan into English that entered into such a liberated dialogue with him would make Celan not only a widely recognized but also widely read example of world poetry, since in a sense Celan has been made a world poet before his poetry reached the world (if by that one means reaching readers). The scenario that no such "final authority" will ever be produced is more likely. The translations of his poems will probably have to be continued to be read in juxtaposition and conjunction with each other.

Perhaps part of what made Celan into a world poet is the astonishing number of translators who were convinced they could produce a better translation of his poems than the ones already published. They thereby attest to the intensely intimate nature of entering into a dialogue with a poem. Perhaps another reason is that, at the zenith of Celan’s career, the gaze of the world was on Germany; as a Holocaust survivor, he was equipped to rehabilitate the German language and redefine its poetic possibilities. Shoshana Felman writes that one purpose of literature is to bear witness in times when "all other modes of knowledge (...) are rendered ineffectual." When events cannot be overcome anymore by bringing the perpetrators to justice, it is writers who function as chroniclers in an urgency to make "knowledge become eloquent," as Felman calls it (97). Although Celan’s writing is not "eloquent" in the sense of mellifluousness, his poetry is urgent in its fragmentary, elusive harshness. Writing about literature and trauma, Felman asks "how speech can make visible a violence whose very nature it is to blind?" (98). In German, Paul Celan has made the impact of violence audible.

And yet, in the end, one of the abiding paradoxes of Celan’s poetry is that as English translations of it multiply, as it is increasingly diffused, and included in more and more English language anthologies of world poetry, the more it seems to defy any definitive version in English. The worldliness of Celan’s poetry persistently collides with its unwielding German-ness - its brilliant encapsulations of the unique possibilities of German poetics, which, although they challenge and fascinate legions of translators, continue to get lost in translation.

After reading multiple versions of many of Celan’s poems, I sometimes think of Nabokov’s famously cranky jab at the translator’s art:

"What is translation? On a platter / a poet’s pale and glaring head, / a parrot’s speech, a monkey’s chatter, / and profanation of the dead."

© Verena Kuzmany (Seattle)


(1) The book is a reference work listing authors, not their poetry.

(2) Incidentally, Messerli is also the publisher of these books (Green Integer). Therefore, the prefaces bear an unmistakably personal imprint; it also explains why he could select " basically from random. " (A Note, v. 4)


Chow, Rey. Writing Diaspora. Tactics of Intervention in Contemporary Cultural Studies. Bloomington, Indiana UP: 1993.

Damrosch, David. What is World Literature? Princeton, Princeton UP: 2003.

Eskin, Michael. Ethics and Dialogue in the Works of Levinas, Bakhtin, Mandel’shtam

and Celan . Oxford, U of Oxford Press: 2000.

Felman, Shoshana. The Juridical Unconscious. Trials and Trauma in the Twentieth Century. Cambridge, Harvard UP: 2002.

Felstiner, John. Selected Poems and Prose of Paul Celan. New York: W. W. Norton, 2001.

Hamburger, Michael. Poems of Paul Celan. New York: Persea Books, 1989.

Joris, Pierre. Paul Celan -Threadsuns. Los Angeles: Sun & Moon Press, 2000.

Messerli, Douglas. The PIP Anthology of World Poetry v.1. Los Angeles, Green Integer: 2000.

--------- The PIP Anthology of World Poetry v.4. Los Angeles, Green Integer: 2003.

Olschner, Leonard. "Anamnesis: Paul Celan’s Translations of Poetry." Translating

Tradition . Acts 8/9, 56-89. Ed. Benjamin Hollander. San Francisco, Acts: 1988

Owen, Stephen. "What Is World Poetry?" The New Republic. November 19, 1990. 28-32.

Popov, Nikolai and Heather McHugh. glottal stop - 101 poems by paul celan.

Hanover & LondonWesleyan University Press/University Press of New England, 2000.

Rothenberg, Jerome and Pierre Joris, eds. Poems for the Millennium v.2. Berkeley, U of California P: 1998.

Washburn, Katherine and John S. Major, eds. World Poetry - An Anthology of Verse from Antiquity to Our Time. New York, QPB: 1998.

Willhardt, Mark and Alan Michael Parker, eds. Who’s Who in Twentieth Century World Poetry. London, Routledge: 2000.

9.4. Translation and Ideology

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