Celan makes for difficult reading (Glottal Stop, see above). But he justifies the obduracy of his verse by pointing out the danger inherent to any dealing with language: “It had to pass through it’s own answerlessness, pass through frightful muting, pass through the thousand darknesses of deathbringing speech.” Felstiner succeeds admirably in taking this thought seriously, and his translations give equal attention to the silences and empty spaces that haunt the exacting language of these pieces. The poetry itself begins in snow, death, and darkness; Celan’s early work interrogates the death of his parents at Nazi hands and seeks compensation in discovering what he later called “an addressable Thou . . . an addressable reality.” His final poems, which become progressively more hermetic and disjunctive, enact a minimalism that makes Dickinson look Dickensian by comparison (and Celan was an accomplished translator of Amherst’s Muse). The late series of poems that he wrote after his visit to Israel in 1969 are particularly interesting, as they stage the interaction between an intensely personal and highly oblique aesthetic with the brute political realities of a nation at war, when slogans threaten to drown out all lyrics. Though Felstiner is a scrupulous translator, he eschews the pedantry of always favoring accuracy over (his best guess at) intent. His translation of Celan’s most famous work (“Deathfugue”) is carefully experimental: taking a cue from the musical reference in the title, Felstiner intertwines his translation with the original German. A subtle progression of substitutions changes the poem’s leitmotif (“Death is a master from Deutschland”) back into Celan’s own (“der Tod ist ein Meister aus Deutschland”). The mingling of voices is a nice metaphor for translation, and also provides a standard that Felstiner, at his best, achieves.
A very clear rendering of a notoriously difficult poet.