YOKO TAWADA: CELAN READS JAPANESE
THERE ARE SOME WHO CLAIM THAT ‘GOOD’ LITERATURE IS ACTUALLY untranslatable. Before I could read German, I found this thought comforting because I was completely unable to appreciate German literature, particularly the literature of the postwar period. I thought I should just learn German and read these works in the original and then my problem with German literature would evaporate of its own accord.
There were exceptions, though, such as the poems of Paul Celan, which I found utterly fascinating even in Japanese translation. From time to time it occurred to me to wonder whether his poems might not be lacking in quality since they were translatable. When I ask about a work’s ‘translatability,’ I don’t mean whether a perfect copy of a poem can exist in a foreign language, but whether its translation can itself be a work of literature. Besides, it would be insufficient if I were to say that Celan’s poems were translatable. Rather, I had the feeling that they were peering into Japanese.
After I had learned to read German literature in the original, I realised that my impression hadn’t been illusory. I was occupied even more than before by the question of why Celan’s poems were able to reach another world that lay outside the German language. There must be a chasm between languages into which all words tumble.