Home Poetry Interviews Commentary Reviews Links Contact
Commentary
 
The Turfcutter's Spade: Celan, Heaney, Translation
by Tom Muir

Paul Celan

 

 

At the opening of the fourth stanza of Celan's poem "There was earth inside them" come two lines on which the entire poem pivots. They are lines of such force that it is possible to think of them as being a poem in themselves:

There came a stillness, and there came a storm,
And all the oceans came.
These lines signal a shift, first of all, in tenses: from "they dug" to "I dig"; and, simultaneously, there is a shift in the voice of the poem, from the third to the first person. With this movement, an addressee is revealed, a second person, a "you" whose presence formalises the poem as a lyric. But this "you" also digs, and is as abject as the narrator, and as the worm which digs beside them. The question is, what is it about the shift in the poem's terms of address that is so huge, so overwhelming that it must be signalled by this hypnotic psalm of inundation?

The German word Grabbeigabe is a technical archaeological term for a burial object the trappings of a life, a history, an identity ceremonially sealed up in the grave with the cadaver. Which means, of course, that someone else is having the last word. What goes into the grave may not be what the deceased would have used to sum up his or her life. This abbreviated biography may take the form of a single noose. The definition could perhaps be extended to the contents of the cadaver's stomach. Like Celan's poem, the Grabbeigabe exists in multiple tenses. It is darkly, lushly ambiguous, both yielded by the grave, and collapsing back into it. Formed on Grab, grave, it is immediately contradicted by its own root: Grab formed on graben, to dig. So which digging does it refer to - that of the gravedigger, or the archaeologist? One who conceals, or one who brings to light? Simultaneously, the final two phonemes of the word, gabe, also retreat and advance. - gabe, gift, from geben, to give. Is the Grabbeigaben, therefore, what is given to the grave, or what the grave gives back? Is it what is buried, covered over and forgotten, or what is yielded up?

The idea of the Grabbeigabe seems to offer an alternative way of thinking about translating Celan - an alternative to the impossibility of translating Celan. No English translation can echo "grave" in the word "dig", as German echoes "Grab" in "graben"; but the English verb dig might echo the idea of an archaeological dig, and what is thus consigned to the earth, for amnesia or recovery. A dig might resonate both with what the grave gives, and what was given to it. Resounds in the word the striking of the gravedigger's shovel, even while it is simultaneously combed by the fingertips of the archaeologist.

But there is a randomness here, as well - the idea that the grave or sepulchre, tumulus or burial chamber, may be stumbled upon accidentally. A different spade may breach it, centuries later - calling to mind, perhaps, the words of Celan's Bremen address:
A poem, being an instance of language, hence essentially dialogue, may be a letter in bottle thrown out into the sea with the - surely not strong - hope that it may somehow wash up somewhere, perhaps on a shoreline of the heart. In this way, too, poems are en route: they are headed towards.
What to make of this caveat - the hope that is "surely not strong"? No bottle reaches a shoreline of the heart; no archaeologist's fingers sift the dust; no turfcutter's spade breaks the soil. There is no addressee, no recipient. What is given to the grave may never be given back; what the grave returns may not be the same as what was placed within it. What should be simple - the direct address to a "you" that characterises the lyric - becomes tortured, desperate, haunted by anticipated failure.

Pierre Joris has suggested that Celan intended to invert Adorno's remark on poetry to mean that only poetry was possible after Auschwitz. But Adorno later specified lyric poetry - and this, perhaps, is what Celan's poetry has to grapple with.

The final lines of "There was earth inside them" are translated by Michael Hamburger as "and on our finger the ring awakes." Jerry Glenn renders the line as "and on our fingers our rings awaken." In another translation, Clarisse Samuels hears the line as "and on our finger the ring rouses us." All of these versions, or variations (in the musical sense) are powerful, remarkable and fascinating. It would be possible to meditate endlessly on their differences: whether "our" should give "finger" or "fingers"; whether the ring is simply "the ring", isolated, or "our ring", possessed, close to the body (or bodies); whether the ring awakens itself, or awakens us.

In German, the line is "und am Finger erwacht uns der Ring." It is the "uns" - us - that breaks open the "our" of the translation. "Am Finger" can mean simply "on the finger" - no person need be specified by this part of the sentence. There is an affirmation here, as "you dig and I dig and I dig towards you"; but even this affirmation is riven with doubt: the fear that the "you" of the lyric's address may not be dug towards. The ring will only awaken, impossibly, on a finger that is part of no body - hence, no finger at all. And Samuels digs toward the sense of this with the impossibility of a finger in the singular belonging to us, "our", in the plural. The ring rouses us, but in no place accessible by grammar or language.

And this, perhaps, is why the modes of narration and address change following the poem's central section, the opening of the fourth stanza: the monumental shift occurs in the possibility of the lyric's address, in the possibility of ever again saying "you." Henceforth, there will always be the threat that any "you" is detached (even from "your"self), isolated, unreachable.

Walter Benjamin discusses translation in messianic terms: that all languages are moving towards a single, pure language in which intention would be transparent - which would mean that this "pure language" was no language at all. The translator's imperative is not fidelity to the content of the original - although this might be a side-effect - but to break the boundaries of his or her mother tongue. The translator's object is not the work translated, but his or her language itself. And if this is the case, then even the "you" of the lyric must be sundered by the act of translation: forcibly ripped to such an extent that it finds itself in an entirely different poem.

Curiously, there seems to be some correspondence between the German "Grab" and the English "grab." Both appear to be formed on the Middle Low German verb grabben, which seems to bleed into the modern German graben. Somewhere there is a divergence between the German to dig and the English to seize. But some sense of the grave, that which is dug, persists in the obsolete English noun "a grab", meaning a body-snatcher or resurrectionist. And there seems to be a further complication of the apparent absolutes of life and death - OED records a sense of "to grab on" meaning to get by, live, survive; and a "resurrection" may be something pulled from the grave, not necessarily returned to life.

Heaney refers to these resurrections, of a sort - bodies pulled from the peat and mud, "barbered / and stripped / by a turfcutter's spade" ["Bog Queen"]. These bog poems - "Bog Queen", "Punishment", "The Grauballe Man", "The Tollund Man" amongst them, are maybe the translations sought by "Es war Erde in ihnen." Poems pulled from an untranslatable peat - the peat of "Todtnauberg", the "Waldwasen." It is not only the digging that frames this translation; it is the doubt, as well, in the lines of "The Tollund Man." Hesitation infuses, deftly contorts, the opening phrase of the poem: "Some day I will go." The speaker declares an intention - he will go to Aarhus. He will see for himself the body, the "peat-brown head, / The mild pods of his eye-lids." But the decisiveness of this "I will go" is undercut by the vagueness of "Some day" - it might happen, it is possible, it is not entirely impossible. Some day I will go. Some day I might go. And the conditionality implied here is reiterated at the beginning of each of the poem's following sections: so that at the beginning of section two, the speaker "could risk blasphemy"; and in section three, "something of [the Tollund Man's] sad freedom / Should come to me ..." It should come, as the speaker drives, thinking of the Tollund Man, "as he rode the tumbril". But it might not. And although the speaker imagines this taking place in Aarhus, he may never arrive there himself.

This, perhaps, could be thought of as the re-enactment of the doubt in Celan's poem - doubting transmission, anniversary, memory, even poetry. Heaney's poem imagines a similar commemoration, a bitter mapping of the "man-killing parishes" of Holland and Ireland. Neither, perhaps, is possible. But in precisely this impossibility, a ring awakes, a commemoration occurs. If Heaney's poem is a translation of Celan's, then, even as he digs towards the Tollund Man, on his finger the ring awakes.



© Tom Muir 2004