Letter to Anne Carson: Work of Remembrance and Mourning

By | 1 February 2019

In 1958, the year Gisele created her etching, Celan experienced an encounter with Osip Mandelshtam’s Russian poetry. He described the encounter by referring to the metaphor of a ‘message in a bottle’, which Mandelshtam had used in his essay, On the Interlocutor. ‘A poem,’ writes Celan, ‘as a manifestation of language and thus essentially a dialogue, can be a message in a bottle, sent out in the, not always greatly hopeful, belief that somewhere and sometime it could wash up on the land, on heartland perhaps.’

Celan picked up the ‘message in a bottle’ that Mandelshtam had let afloat, and it entered his heartland. He became the secret addressee of Mandelshtam’s poetry and responded to it with his whole being.

Celan began working on Mandelshtam’s poem in 1958 and within a year and a half he had translated forty-five poems. The translations were published in 1959 and were praised by Gleb Struve, the editor and compiler of Mandelshtam’s collected works. A year later Celan used these translations to produce a radio feature on Mandelshtam’s poetry.

However what intrigues me most about Celan’s encounter with Mandelshtam is a poem that Celan began working on but gave up after translating only one line: the seventh line of a poem consisting of three rhymed quatrains. Mandelshtam wrote the untitled poem in Moscow in April 1932. The first line of the poem: ‘O, kak my lyubim litsemerich’ (Oh, how we love to posture) expresses the poem’s mood of foreboding, although at that time he had no idea that just two years later (in May 1934) he would be arrested and exiled from Moscow. Celan’s translation of the seventh line of the poem, ‘I Ya odin na vsekh putyakh’ (And I am alone on all paths) reads: ‘Und bin allein und bins auf allen wegen’ (And I am alone and alone on all paths).

Why did Celan give up? Was the poem too complex or too simple? Was it too confronting? Why didn’t he respond to it ‘… with respect and waiting’? I am unable to find a reasonable explanation.

Celan’s German translations of Mandelshtam’s poems very accurately capture both rhyme and rhythmic pattern of Russian poems, a task not easy to accomplish. Recently I asked one of my German-speaking friends to read some of Celan’s translations aloud for me. His reading convinced me that Celan’s translations have achieved a delicate consonance between meaning, mood and the soundscape of the Russian poems.

I also don’t believe that Celan found the poem confronting because he has successfully translated much more confronting and tragic Mandelshtam poems. One such poem comes from Mandelshtam’s so-called Wolf-Cycle that Mandelshtam had composed in March 1931.

Felstiner notes that in the line, ‘And I am alone on all paths’, Celan ‘… found a rueful cadence and idiom …’ of the ‘alienation he shared with Mandelshtam and Kafka.’ Is it possible that for Celan this one line expressed the full emotional impact of the poem? The other lines didn’t matter. They were just a repetition and elaboration of the same poetic idea.

I don’t know if I am right. What do you think?

But as an inept translator myself, I have an endless number of poems that remain partially translated. I wonder if you too have a similar folder holding failed examples of your effort. But is it correct to call them failures? Wouldn’t it be a consolation to call them ‘not-yet-understood’ poems; poems for which translators often wait for the moment when the poem and the poet will stretch their hands out for a handshake?

I think this is the fate of every translator that he or she needs to learn how to live with the feeling of loss created by the act of translation; to mourn the loss but to celebrate as well the good fortune that they have the opportunity to become the ‘dealers of metaphors’, to use Celan’s words, in more than one language. The solace can come from the knowledge that the house their translation is going to live in is not a house of bricks and mortar but the sonorous shelter of a wayfarer.

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