Paul Celan is considered by many to be the greatest European poet of the postwar period. He is also felt to be nearly untranslatable. Yet, into English alone, the effort is continuous: Michael Hamburger, Rosmarie Waldrop, Katharine Washburn, Margaret Guillemin, and, last year, new volumes by Pierre Joris, Nikolai Popov and Heather McHugh, and John Felstiner.
Part of the difficulty in translating Celan is that, as is commonly remarked, Celan was "at war with" the very language which held, paradoxically, ground for hope. Celan lost both parents in the Nazi death camps and, as Felstiner explains "the mother tongue was what he had...to go on writing in German after 1945 meant paradoxically holding on to the thread of life." When asked why he didn't write in Rumanian or French, Celan replied "Only in the mother tongue can one speak his own truth...in a foreign tongue the poet lies." (Chalfen, Paul Celan, p. 148). In his Bremen speech Celan described the predicament thus: "...there remained in the midst of the losses this one thing: language. This, the language, was not lost but remained, yes, in spite of everything." It has "passed through the thousand darknesses of deathbringing speech." Yet Celan made, over and again, his choice. As in "Psalm" these words:
from the purple-word we sang