Mandelstam via Celan

Toward the end of the Meridian Variorum edition the editors reprint a radio play Paul Celan wrote the same year he composed the acceptance speech for the Büchner prize. It is made up of two alternating voices telling an abbreviated version of Mandelstam’s life and a number of Mandelstam poems in Celan’s German translation. I have no Russian & have retranslated these poems directly from Celan’s German versions, without referring to any extent English translations from the Russian (unless some of the Englished versions I read over the years still ghost my memory, a possibility I cannot exclude). Here, a few extracts: first, the speakers discussing Mandelstam’s poetics, and then, one — rather well-known — poem:

1. Speaker: These poems are the poems of someone who is perceptive and attentive, someone turned toward what becomes visible, someone addressing and questioning; these poems are a conversation. In the space of this conversation the addressed constitutes itself, becomes present, gathers itself around the I that addresses and names it.But the addressed, through naming, as it were, becomes a you, brings its otherness and strangeness into this present. Yet even in the here and now of the poem, even in this immediacy and nearness it lets its distance have its say too, it guards what is most its own: its time.

2. Speaker: It is this tension of the times, between its own and the foreign, which lends that pained-mute vibrato to a Mandelstam poem by which we recognize it.(This vibrato is everywhere: in the interval between the words and the stanza, in the „courtyards” where rhymes and assonances stand, in the punctuation.All this has semantic relevance.) Things come together, yet even in this togetherness the question of their Wherefrom and Whereto resounds – a question that “remains open,” that “does not come to any conclusion,” and points to the open and cathexable, into the empty and the free.

1. Speaker: This question is realized not only in the “thematics” of the poems; it also – and that’s why it becomes a “theme” – takes on shape in the language: the word – the name! – shows a preference for noun-forms, the adjective becomes rare, the “infinitives,” the nominal forms of the verb dominate: the poem remains open to time, time can join in, time participates.

2. Speaker: A poem from the year 1915:

Insomnia. Homer. Sails, taut.
I read the catalog of ships, did not get far:
The flight of cranes, the young brood’s trail
high above Hellas, once, before time and time again.

Like that crane wedge, driven into the most foreign –
The heads, imperial, God’s foam on top, humid –
You hover, you swim – whereto? If Helen wasn’t there,
Acheans, I ask you, what would Troy be worth to you?

Homer, the seas, both: love moves it all.
Who do I listen to, who do I hear? See – Homer falls silent.
The sea, with black eloquence beats this shore,
ahead I hear it roar, it found its way here.

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  1. Andrew Shields says:

    I love the idea of translating the whole variorum edition! I did the radio bit about Mandelstam for Grand Street a while back, but they ended up not publishing it because Suhrkamp did not want them to. I hope you find them more amenable to your version!

    (I also did the Mandelstam from the German without consulting anything. That was the closest I’ll ever get to actually translating Mandelstam, which was a heady experience!)

  2. Dustin says:

    Ah, I’ve been looking for an English version of Celan’s rendering of Mandelstam forever.

    More please.

  1. May 20, 2009

    […] I posted the opening of Paul Celan’s radio-essay on Osip Mandelstam — which you can read here — and earlier still some the notes Celan wrote when composing the radio-essay — which you can […]

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