When we read poetry of the Holocaust in English, it has almost always been translated. The project examines what it means to read this poetry in translation. How can poetry about historical events be translated creatively, so the result is a new poem in English, without falsifying or obscuring the link to the events themselves? How can the trauma and suffering embodied in such poetry still be felt by new readers in a new language?
The following example, Paul Celan’s ‘Totenhemd’, illustrates the sort of issues a translator needs to deal with. Paul Celan was a German-Romanian poet, often considered one of the most important modern poets in Europe, whose parents were murdered by the Nazis. He himself survived the Holocaust but committed suicide in Paris in 1970. Traumatised by the Holocaust and especially his mother’s death, he often addresses her in his poems.
This poem is typical of Celan’s poetry: complex, multi-layered, with references not only to the Holocaust itself but to the way one’s mind works in its aftermath. Below I give the poem first in my English translation. This is followed by the German original with an English gloss, so that you don’t need German to get a sense of what the original said. The numbers in the German original refer to the notes below the poem texts. I have put the numbers in the original rather than in my translation, because there are many possible ways of translating every poem (and, indeed, this poem has also been translated by others, such as Michael Hamburger), and because what I want to illustrate here is how a translator reads the original and considers what a new poem in English might do. It is important to remember that the translation is not Celan’s poem, but my interpretation of Celan’s poem. Such interpretation is crucial to the further existence of the poem in English.
That which you wove of lightest yarn
I wear to honour stone.
When in the dark I waken
the screams, it wafts above them.
Often when I ought to stammer
it throws out forgotten folds
and who I am forgives
the one I once was.
But the god of the rubbleheaps
strikes his dullest drum,
and just as the fold fell out
the Dark One wrinkles his brow.
Was du aus Leichtem wobst,
what you of something-light wove
trag ich dem Stein zu Ehren.
wear I the stone to honour
Wenn ich im Dunkel die Schreie
when/if I in-the dark the screams
wecke, weht es sie an.
wake wafts it them at
Oft, wenn ich stammeln soll,
often when/if I stammer should
wirft es vergessene Falten,
throws-up it forgotten folds
und der ich bin, verzeiht
and the-one I am forgives
dem, der ich war.
the-one who I was
Aber der Haldengott
but the rubble-heap-god
rührt seine dumpfeste Trommel
hits his dullest drum
und wie die Falte fiel,
and as the fold fell
runzelt der Finstre die Stirn.
wrinkles the ark-one the brow
 Totenhemd is a shroud, but the word shroud is opaque: it doesn’t directly refer to death, or a garment, whereas the German is a corpse-shirt or death-shirt.
 Leichtem is something light (in weight, as opposed to the stone it honours) but the word echoesLeiche, a corpse. And another word for Leiche is Leichnam, which originally meant corpse-shirt(Totenhemd).
 wobst is the past tense of weben, to weave.
weave in English is related to:
warp, the lengthwise threads in a weaving loom; warp is from Old English weorpan (to throw, to hit, from which we get weapon)
weft, the crosswise threads in the weaving loom
Hence I used waft (line 4 of the English) which is not related to weave, warp or weft, but sounds as though it is.
4] Note the assonance of Leichtem, Stein, Schreie
 Note the alliteration of wecke, weht
 weht is the present singular of wehen, to blow (as a wind); wehen is in fact etymologically closely related to Wind. And also to weben and weave.
wehen suggests Weh (pain) and was a word much used by Celan.
German Wind, a word not present, but there in echo in weht, is picked up in the English title Winding Sheet. There is at most a very distant etymological connection between winding in English (winden in German) and the wind; the connection is more of a visual one. But there is a closer connection betweenwinding and weave (and weben in German).
And the past participle of German winden (to wind or encircle) is gewunden, which recalls Wunde, a wound. See note .
 stammeln, to stammer, is related to stumm, dumb, a word much used by Celan. So in German to stammer is to be almost dumb.
 wirft is from werfen, to throw, related to Old English weorpan and Modern English warp, weft andweapon (see above).
werfen is from Old High German werfan, to throw, but also to hit, and possibly related to Indogermanic *uen from which we get German Wunde and English wound. One of Celan’s most-used words, Wunde, thus lurks behind the poem, echoed in screams and strikes in the English.
 Haldengott is a compound coined by Celan. Halde is a rubble-heap, and suggests theTrümmerhaufen, the heaps of rubble and stones left in German cities after the war, and theTrümmerfrauen who worked to clear them; it recalls stone in line 2. Trümmer is from Trumm (piece), originally from Old High German drum, as Old English thrum, a very small piece. The etymology of a word that is not present (Trümmer) links it to a word that is (Trommel ) via the English for Trommel, a drum.Thrum in modern English, related to drum in Old High German, is also the unwoven end of a warpthread.
 Trommel, a drum, from Middle High German trumme. Etymologically related to Trümmer; see .
 Note the alliteration of vergessene, Falten, (v is pronounced ‘f’ in German) verzeiht, Falte, fiel, Finstre
On first reading, the poem seems to be about waking in fear, about memory, about the attempt both to forgive oneself for past insensitivities and to find comfort, and about the persistence of horror. Through the engagement with its language that reading for translation requires, it comes to suggest the obsessiveness of finding meaning everywhere. The troubled mind (Celan’s, and also, perhaps, the translator’s) makes links both where they are and where they are not, like threads that are woven into a tight web. And the words and their connotations are like drums that beat in the mind, an impression underlined by alliteration and assonance.
What I want to illustrate here is the importance of working out what drives the original poetry. Who but a translator (and Celan was himself a translator) reads each word so obsessively and across languages (as you have to if you want to understand Celan’s obsession with the roots of words)? It is as though, if you go far back into the roots of words, you can try to save them from careless or malevolent use. But then even the etymology of innocent words links them by history, or sound, or appearance, to other words, with sinister connotations, and so language cannot escape.
What the translator needs to do is to enter this tight web of words, not because the poem is simply words, but because this is the only way to experience some of the obsessiveness of Celan’s traumatised thinking. If it is possible to weave the English language into a poem which will re-create this obsessiveness, and give a sense of foreboding and of the inescapable nature of memory, then the English version will translate more than just words.
This piece of translation was undertaken as part of the Translating the Poetry of the Holocaust project. The project is run by Professor Jean Boase-Beier of the School of Literature, Drama and Creative Writing at the University of East Anglia, in collaboration with Writers’ Centre Norwich, and is funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council.
As part of the project, an exhibition about Holocaust poetry and its translation will be held on Monday and Tuesday 4th and 5th November in the Forum. There are also two poetry and translation workshops (on 4th from 2-4 pm and on 5th from 3-5 pm). There is a reading of Holocaust poetry on 5th at 1.30 pm. All 4 events are free. Just drop in to see the exhibition or to hear the reading, but you must register for workshop participation.
To register for a workshop, send an email to email@example.com