Recently, my essay on Paul Celan and the magic of banal “selfies” in the hands of a great artist was published by Easy Street Magazine, a new magazine about books and culture. Please check out the actual essay here, and please be sure to let me know your thoughts on the subject. Do you selfie? Is there a difference between the selfie and self-expression? Where do you think the modern phenomenon of the selfie comes from? Is it akin to the artistic urge?
I’d love to know what you think!
Also, if you’re fans of Celan’s most famous poem “Todesfugue”, it might interest you to know that the inspiration for it probably came from his friend,Immanuel Weissglas. However, to cut the essay down to size, we decided to cut the translation of Weissglas’s work, but I thought it was worth sharing on my blog as an English translation doesn’t exist!
In this translation, I tried to preserve the original’s sense of rhyme and meter without too many changes, but as two German friends, Julia Stratmann and Mike Schaefer, who helped me with the translation noted, Weissglas’s poem is written in a strange German dialect, adding to the difficulties. (Side note: unsurprising, since he was Romanian). For example, “nachzehrer”, a creature mentioned in the poem, are vampire-like creatures out of Romanian folklore, but not exactly vampires. Still, I had to translate them as something recognizable… The originals are worth looking up if you’re sick of actual vampires! Nachzehrer suck your soul out of the ground. Very creepy!
Be sure to check out “Todesfugue”, the other poem here, too, if you’re not familiar with it! It’s one of my favorites of all time, very haunting, rhythmic, and impossibly beautiful. In fact, in it I think Celan accomplished what some say couldn’t be done: he wrote a perfectly beautiful poem about the Holocaust.
Anyway, here’s MY first attempt at a translation. It’s definitely less than perfect, but it gives you a good sense of the original and its similarities to “Todesfugue” if that interests you. Thanks again to Julia and Mike for their help bringing this difficult subject to life!
We raise graves in the air and settle
With wife and child on the hallowed Earth.
We shovel diligently, and the others fiddle,
Some make a grave and proceed to the Mazurk’.
He demands these ditches be dug faster,
The bow is strict, sweeping across his face:
Softly he plays Death, he is a German master,
A song creeps like mist through the place.
And when the bloody twilight swells in the Evening,
I open, as a vampire does with his grim breath
His mouth a house for all in the air, digging:
Wide as a coffin, narrow as the hour of Death.
He plays in the house with serpents, writes his poetry,
In Germany it dawns like Gretchen’s hair.
In that expanse Death was a master from Germany.
A grave in the clouds is not easily closed there.