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This article is taken from PN Review 14, Volume 6 Number 6, July - August 1980.

Paul Celan: Notes Towards a Translation Michael Hamburger

MUCH of Celan's later poetry is very nearly untranslatable. As a translator, I insist on the essential difficulty and paradox of his poetry which can be illumined, but not resolved, by scholarly research. Every time I reread his poems, with or without the help offered by his interpreters, this or that poem, left untranslated before, suddenly becomes translatable. This has to do with the authenticity and precision of Celan's later poems; despite their "darkness", nothing in them is arbitrary or vague, nothing is meaningless, nothing has been left to chance or merely emotive gestures. What makes them difficult is the terrain itself, not the quality of its charting.

Admittedly, Paul Celan's work becomes most rewarding when read in its entirety; but my own experience is that this reading calls for an application and effort so intense that it may have to be broken off and resumed over the years. The German texts in his two-volume Gedichte, together with those in his last posthumous collection (which appeared after the two-volume edition) take up more than 760 pages, and these volumes do not include poems that Celan left out of his books. Even if I were capable of translating all those poems, as I am not, I doubt very much that many English-speaking readers would have been able to take in such a large body of unfamiliar work. In the absence of the critical and annotated edition of Celan's poems that is being prepared, I have picked out a ...


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