Paul Celan: Death Fugue (From German)

For a brief bit of thinking on this famous Holocaust poem, see the note after the translation.

Death Fugue
By Paul Celan
Translated by A.Z. Foreman

Black milk of daybreak we drink it come evening
we drink it come midday come morning we drink it come night
we drink it and drink it
we spade out a grave in the air there it won't feel so tight
A man lives at home who plays with the vipers he writes
he writes in the German-born nightfall
the gold of your hair Margarete
he writes it and steps out of doors and the stars are aglitter he whistles his hounds out
he whistles his Jews off has them spade out a grave in the ground
he orders us play up for the dance

Black milk of daybreak we drink you come night
we drink you come midday come morning we drink you come evening
we drink you and drink you
A man lives at home who plays with the vipers he writes
he writes in the German-born nightfall the gold of your hair Margarete
the ash of your hair Shulamith we spade out a grave in the air there it won't feel so tight

He yells you there dig deeper and you there sing and play
He grabs the nightstick at his belt and swings it his eyes are so blue
You there dig deeper and you there play loud for the dance

Black milk of daybreak we drink you come night
We drink you come midday come morning we drink you come evening
We drink you and drink you
a man lives at home the gold of your hair Margarete
the ash of your hair Shulamith he plays with the vipers
he yells play sweeter for death Death is a German-born master
yells scrape the strings darker you'll rise through the air like smoke
and have a grave in the clouds there it won't feel so tight

Black milk of daybreak we drink you come night
we drink you come midday Death is a German-born master
We drink you come evening come morning we drink you and drink you
Death is a German-born master his eye is so blue
He shoots with lead bullets he shoots you his aim is so true
a man lives at home the gold of your hair Margarete
he lets his hounds loose on us grants us a grave in the air
he plays with his vipers and dreams a dream Death is a German-born master

The gold of your hair Margarete
The ash of your hair Shulamith


Note:

When Theodor Adorno ceased working as a composer in 1945 he uttered a famous and oft-misunderstood maxim: "To write a poem even after Auschwitz is barbaric." He was, in truth, making a very specific argument when he wrote those words in one of his essays. In a nutshell, he was asking how any member of a civilization so morally ruinous as to have allowed the mass-horror of the Holocaust could have the audacity to claim any kind of moral high ground. Adorno mentioned poetry to make this point because was operating under the belief that art (i.e. music, poetry etc.) was a form of indirect cultural criticism which, like all criticism, was given from a position of assumed superiority.

What he failed to realize at the time, in my view anyway, is that art need not criticize, preach or engage with truth in any way. Though it certainly can do so, as evidenced by Pete Seeger's anti-war "Where have all the flowers gone" (or SSgt. Barry Sadler's pro-war "Little bird of Vietnam,") this isn't why art exists. Seeger probably didn't sing his song hoping that the lyrics would change anybody's mind about the Vietnam War. The listeners who find themselves powerfully affected by a song are usually the ones for whom it rings true. What made Seeger's song so successful wasn't that it said something new about the world, but that it took what people were already thinking, and expressed it in memorable language which one could relate to even if one had grown up under a rock and knew nothing about Vietnam. Art can speak to you by speaking for you. As such, it need not express a position or idea that anyone disagrees or is unfamiliar with. Nobody needs a poem to tell them that heartbreak hurts or that death is sad anymore than medieval kings and chieftains who commissioned panegyrics suffered from low self-esteem. Audiences often look to art as a kind of restorative because it they see in it something of themselves, of their consciousness, perhaps as a nation (as is the case with Ferdowsi's Shahnameh) a group (in the case of the Harlem renaissance) or as individuals.

And it is the consciousness of the sufferer that Paul Celan explores in Todesfuge, an impressionistic evocation of the concentration camp experience. This is not easy poetry, for it cannot be paraphrased or read like prose; but nor is it poetry for the classroom, for it needs no explication to be made intelligible. It is a poetry that embodies memory of anguish. For this, one can quote none other than Adorno again: "perennial suffering has as much right to expression as the tortured have to scream".


The Original:

Todesfuge
Paul Celan

Schwarze Milch der Frühe wir trinken sie abends
wir trinken sie mittags und morgens wir trinken sie nachts
wir trinken und trinken
wir schaufeln ein Grab in den Lüften da liegt man nicht eng
Ein Mann wohnt im Haus der spielt mit den Schlangen der schreibt
der schreibt wenn es dunkelt nach Deutschland dein goldenes Haar Margarete
er schreibt es und tritt vor das Haus und es blitzen die Sterne er pfeift seine Rüden herbei
er pfeift seine Juden hervor läßt schaufeln ein Grab in der Erde
er befiehlt uns spielt auf nun zum Tanz

Schwarze Milch der Frühe wir trinken dich nachts
wir trinken dich morgens und mittags wir trinken dich abends
wir trinken und trinken
Ein Mann wohnt im Haus der spielt mit den Schlangen der schreibt
der schreibt wenn es dunkelt nach Deutschland dein goldenes Haar Margarete
Dein aschenes Haar Sulamith wir schaufeln ein Grab in den Lüften da liegt man nicht eng

Er ruft stecht tiefer ins Erdreich ihr einen ihr andern singet und spielt
er greift nach dem Eisen im Gurt er schwingts seine Augen sind blau
stecht tiefer die Spaten ihr einen ihr andern spielt weiter zum Tanz auf

Schwarze Milch der Frühe wir trinken dich nachts
wir trinken dich mittags und morgens wir trinken dich abends
wir trinken und trinken
ein Mann wohnt im Haus dein goldenes Haar Margarete
dein aschenes Haar Sulamith er spielt mit den Schlangen
Er ruft spielt süßer den Tod der Tod ist ein Meister aus Deutschland
er ruft streicht dunkler die Geigen dann steigt ihr als Rauch in die Luft
dann habt ihr ein Grab in den Wolken da liegt man nicht eng

Schwarze Milch der Frühe wir trinken dich nachts
wir trinken dich mittags der Tod ist ein Meister aus Deutschland
wir trinken dich abends und morgens wir trinken und trinken
der Tod ist ein Meister aus Deutschland sein Auge ist blau
er trifft dich mit bleierner Kugel er trifft dich genau
ein Mann wohnt im Haus dein goldenes Haar Margarete
er hetzt seine Rüden auf uns er schenkt uns ein Grab in der Luft
er spielt mit den Schlangen und träumet der Tod ist ein Meister aus Deutschland

dein goldenes Haar Margarete
dein aschenes Haar Sulamith

11 comments:

  1. Thank you so much for this English translation. I was interested by the phrase "his eye has gone blue," my German is terrible but I think it is in present tense in the original--I was wondering why you chose this translation?

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  2. I agree with Kathleen.

    seine Augen sind blau = his eyes are blue

    its a reference to his being or Aryan race.

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  3. I know. And if I were attempting a literal prose crib, you'd have me over a barrel.

    "Has gone blue" has a somewhat ominous nuance in English that completely fits the tone of the poem. It has a semantic echo of "has gone dark" or "has gone sour." This makes the blueness of the Aryan eye seem somehow nefarious, so as to contrast with the normally positive associations of "blue" in English. (Note that, while you can say that something "has gone bad" in natural English, you can't say that it "has gone good.")

    I chose to add a slight emphasis to the terrifying aspect of the blueness.

    You could easily get literal fidelity from a dictionary or any competent bilingual speaker. I'm uninterested in that. This is a translation that aspires to art.

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  4. Thank you for your response. I certainly did not mean to imply an expectation of literal fidelity, I just figured you had a reason to choose a different tense, and I was curious as to what it was. Oddly enough, I find the present tense more nefarious, perhaps because it implies permanence. "Has gone blue" makes it seem that because the eye changed color, it could change again/go back to whatever its original shade was...that death, the German-born master, hasn't always been this way and may not always be this way.
    Thank you again and best wishes to you.

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  5. After much consideration of your comment and the point you made, I've come to the conclusion that you may be right. So I've changed the two lines in question to the present tense, and I'll leave it that way for a while to see how I like it. If, in a few days, I think it works better, I'll keep it that way and be grateful. If not, then I'll change it back and still be grateful for your time and typing-effort.

    However, I hasten to add that a translation needn't mean/imply the same thing as its purported original. One may, for example, read the English phrase "has gone blue" as an implication that the notion of Aryan purity (and obsession with blue eyes) which had seized Germany was as impermanent as it was sudden. But one can only arrive at such a reading if one considers the English version on its own terms and not in terms of, or comparison with, the German. My intent is not to create an English substitute for the German text.

    Suppose I have just heard an amazing violin quartet at a concert. I want to go tell my room mate (who isn't particularly into classical music) about this piece. However, even though I have the piece in my head, I can't exactly reproduce it for him without bringing four professional violinists into our living room.

    But still, because I really want him to understand what's so cool about it, I tell him "let me show you how it goes." I then (since I am a flute player and not a violinist) take out my flute and play for him the main melody of the quartet, trying to bring out the most important aspects of the four violins on my one flute, perhaps changing the original notes a bit to make them make sense in their new medium.

    Fundamentally, it will be a different piece and, perhaps (though not necessarily) an inferior one. But it will still be music- music which does contain something of the original and, if I do my job right, not a total travesty of it (though certain resonances will be lost, and a few will need to be added.) I will have, I hope, showed the listener "how it goes." And perhaps added a little something to his/her day.

    That's what I'm trying to do with this poem in English. I imagine myself telling the English speaker: "Hey, there's this great German poem. Let me show you how it goes."

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  6. Thank you so much for your reply and comments. I certainly fall in the position of the room mate in your example. I am very grateful to you and to other translators who generously show me "how it goes." Because of my limited knowledge of languages, I know I cannot have the same poem as the original, but it is very wonderful to be able to have some kind of access to a German melody thanks to your efforts. I will have to re-read the new translation as well, thank you for trying it out--it is very interesting to think about!

    If I may make a request, I see you have a couple Polish poems, and I would be very interested in your translation of "Under One Small Star" by Wislawa Szymborska. There is one line that particularly interests me, which I have seen translated as "May my dead be patient with the way my memories fade" and "May the dead forgive me that their memory's but a flicker." These two renderings seem quite different. I understand that neither translation can be a substitute, but I cannot help but wonder whether Szymborska is asking for patience or forgiveness. I suppose another benefit of multiple translations is the introduction and/or highlighting of such questions.

    Again, I greatly appreciate your thoughtful and careful translations! Best wishes to you.

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  7. Thank you. I do know Szymborska's poem, though I have not translated it. I'm not sure any translation I offer will be able to fully capture the nuance of the Polish, but I'll try to paraphrase and allude where I cannot translate.

    The line you're thinking of is the following in polish:

    Niech mi zapomną umarli, że ledwie tlą się w pamięci.

    Which would probably be literally rendered as

    May the dead not remember how they scarcely smoulder in my memory

    However, the polish verb zapomnieć (which normally means "forget/cease to remember") also contains certain other nuances not normally present in the English word "forget." It can also be translated, depending on context, as "omit, unlearn, neglect, leave behind, forgive."

    This word is to be understood as the kind of "forget" which is implied in English expressions like "forget about it!" (when someone apologizes to you, or when you do something that they feel the need to repay you for.) It does not, therefore, necessarily have to do with actual memory, but uses a slight extension of that notion. Considering the fact that the poem is a list of apologies, I'd think that the intended meaning was closer to "forget."

    However, what makes this line a bit more interesting in polish is the fact that it also uses the word "pamięć" which means memory pretty unambiguously. The two words zapomnieć and pamięć share the polish pom-/pam- root (kind of like words having to do with memory in English often have the mem-root) thereby making the literal "forget" meaning a bit more present than it would have been.

    Hope this helps. Feel free to email me with anymore questions.

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  8. Thanks for this translation, and the short essay. Very helpful to one who just discovered Paul Celan, through the roundabout route of staying in a house near Pont Mirabeau and having a Kafka scholar friend telling me of Celan's apparent suicide on that bridge. I am including it in a long piece of poetry I'm writing, so am learning what I can about Celan.
    This poem is stunning.

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  9. The pace and tone of your translation is very true to the original poem, but as a native German speaker I'd like to make a few suggestions:
    "Ein Mann lebt im Haus" implies that he is NOT at home. The blue-eyed man is most likely a high-ranking officer in a concentration camp in Eastern Europe.They lived on the premises in detached houses, some of them even brought their families along.
    This one however left a girl (Margarete) in his home country he writes letters to: "der schreibt wenn es dunkelt NACH Deutschland".
    This is one reason why I am not fully satisfied with "German-born master" since "Meister AUS Deutschland" again states that he is a stranger in this land where such misery was wrought.
    The other one is that "Meister" is such an intricate word. Even though it may denote some kind of command (master/servant) it is more frequently referred to in the context of art and craftsmanship.
    But this one cannot be mended, because what I consider to be the semantically most accurate translation sounds much too clumsy:
    "Death is a master-craftsman from Germany."
    Once again poetry proves to be ultimately intranslatable.
    Too bad, because "Der Tod ist ein Meister aus Deutschland" is such a great image for the barbarism that was allowed to fester in a country with such a vast cultural heritage. That's why Celan chose the name Margarete, which is none other than the name of Faust's lover. (Gretchen is an affectionate form of Margarete.)
    Keep up the good work! I had a great time on your blog rummaging through all those beautiful poems and translations!

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  10. Listen to Paul Celan read his own poem:
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UFdS5_gU_cA&feature=player_embedded

    This poem haunted me for weeks. Then by chance I came across this, the
    answer to the german's demand that the Jews play music as they dig their graves:


    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tzwWskM4hN8&feature=youtu.be




    This poem haunted me for weeks. Then by chance I came across this, the
    answer to the german's demand that the Jews play music as they dig their graves:


    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tzwWskM4hN8&feature=youtu.be

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  11. thanks for the traduction, its rhythm comes quite close to the original in my ears

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