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This review is taken from PN Review 178, Volume 34 Number 2, November - December 2007.

CALAMITOUS TIMES The Poems of Georg Trakl, translated by Margitt Lehbert (Anvil Press) £9.95
Poems of Paul Celan, translated by Michael Hamburger (Anvil Press) £25
PAUL CELAN, Snow Part / Schneepart and other poems, translated by Ian Fairley (Carcanet) £24.95

Both Trakl and Celan were in their different ways witnesses to their calamitous times. It has been said, with some justice, that Trakl's 'Grodek' is to the First World War what Celan's 'Todesfuge' is to the concentration camps of the Second. In both poets the price of being a witness was high: Trakl committed suicide at the age of 27 after the first major battle of the War, where he was in attendance as a pharmacist. Celan committed suicide at the riper age of 49 after a life haunted by the Holocaust in which both his parents were killed, and which he himself escaped physically but not mentally.

Of the two Trakl, for all his dependence on musical effects, is by far the easier to translate, as Margitt Lehbert admits in her introduction to this new edition. In general, Trakl's German syntax is straightforward, and his obsessive reliance on a relatively small core of central imagery eases the translator's path. Indeed, there is no shortage of Trakl translations into English: recent editions by Daniel Simko (1989) and Alexander Stillmark (2001) have the advantage of including the German originals which, sadly, are absent here. This said, Lehbert's edition is to be welcomed as including as much of Trakl as all but specialists will want, and as providing exemplary versions that read fluidly and convincingly in English.

To say that Trakl (relatively to Celan) is straightforward to translate is not to say that he is easy to ...


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