Translating Celan’s poetics of silence

Jean Boase-Beier


Holocaust poetry is like all poetry in that it does not just convey events, but also triggers emotions, and has the potential to change cognitive models and challenge unconsidered views. And yet it relates to real events that must not be falsified. Silences are at the heart of Holocaust poetry. Here I examine a poem by Paul Celan and how it, and its silences, can be translated. Using the notion of conceptual blending I explain how the poem works, and how its translation can also work as a Holocaust poem.

Table of contents

Holocaust poetry, which I take to be poetry written in direct response to the events of the Holocaust, or directly influenced by these events (cf. Rowland 2005: 3), poses particular challenges for translation. Because the events that gave rise to such poetry are historically real, translation must not falsify them. But poetry never merely documents events; in a poem, said Paul Celan, “what’s real happens” (Felstiner 1995: 118). That is, rather than simply conveying information, a poem also conveys attitudes, feelings and experiences, and, crucially, gives rise to an emotional response in the reader, to “the feeling of what happens” (Damasio 2000). It thus has the potential to change the reader’s cognitive models, to challenge unconsidered views and to alter behaviour (cf. Attridge 2004: 92–93). This potential risks being lost in translation if the translated poetry cannot similarly engage the reader, because then—especially in Holocaust poetry—our sense of the importance of present engagement with past events “threatens to disappear irretrievably”, in Walter Benjamin’s words (1977: 255, cf. also Gubar 2003: 7).

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