The Twenty-Year Masterclass (2012)

Jack Ross & Emma Smith: Celanie (2012)

The Twenty-Year Masterclass

Michael Henry Heim (1943-2012)

In July 2003, at the “Poetics of Exile” conference at Auckland University, I gave a paper on some translations I’d made from Paul Celan’s last, posthumous book of poems Schneepart (1971). It was a large conference, with a number of parallel sessions, and I happened to be sitting beside a scholarly looking gentleman who mentioned to me that he was weighing up attending the Celan paper with another equally attractive one in another room.

His name, he said, was Michael Henry Heim, a translator from German and various other European languages (in fact he told me that he was fresh from a multi-lingual bootcamp held by Günter Grass for prospective translators of his work). When I confessed to him that the Celan paper in question was in fact by me, he asked me if I was familiar with the new edition of Celan’s letters to his wife which had just appeared.

“No,” I admitted. “Actually my German’s not that great.”

Snorting slightly at the hubris of someone who dared to essay a translation of Celan without complete fluency in the language, Heim replied, “Well, you can read French, can’t you? It’s all in French. That’s the language they wrote to each other in ...”

That was the end of our conversation, and so far as I know he was wise enough to avoid my paper in favour of the other one. I do owe him a considerable debt, though, for putting me onto the Paul Celan / Gisèle Celan-Lestrange correspondence.

Without having actually seen and consulted these two lovingly edited volumes (assembled by the poet’s widow over years, then collated and annotated by his son Eric and scholar-translator Bertrand Badiou) , I don’t think I’d ever have grasped just how important a event this was for Celaniens. There are, to be sure, other collections and editions of Celan’s correspondence with various people: Nelly Sachs, Ingeborg Bachmann, Ilana Shmueli, and a number of others not yet available in English. Each of them has its points of interest, as a writer’s letters generally do.

The letters to Gisèle are vital for two reasons, though. First, because he was forced to write to her in French, given the rudimentary nature of her German. Secondly, because she was the person he was most desperate to have understand him: to grasp as thoroughly as possible what he was about both as a man and an artist – not I think that he would have drawn much of a distinction between the two.

“Read! Just keep reading. Understanding comes of itself,” was Celan’s answer to those critics who found his work excessively obscure or “hermetisch” [hermetic] during his lifetime (Coetzee, 2008, p.116). But how was Gisèle to “keep reading” if her linguistic skills weren’t even up to parsing Goethe or Heine, let alone their far more difficult heir? From an early stage, almost from the beginning of their twenty-year relationship, Celan would include drafts of poems in his letters. Crucially, though, he was careful to accompany them with little mini-lexicons and vocabulary lists – often with complete literal French translations.

The fact that all of the 90-odd poems included in the correspondence are in German, with non-poetic, verbatim French translations supplied by Celan implies that for him poetry could only exist in one language, his mother tongue, despite his great fluency in and love for a number of others – despite, too, the early set of surrealist prose-poems composed by him in Romanian in the mid to late 40s. The fact that he didn’t continue to write in that language implies that he found the experience in some way unrewarding.

The way in which he annotates and “explains” the poems included in these letters – with linguistic precision but no other general or thematic aids to meaning – also tells us a good deal about how he meant readers of other languages to approach his poetry: through the detail, rather than metaphoric conveniences such as context and atmosphere – a poet’s poems, rather than a survivor’s.

That’s not to say that these letters aren’t revealing on a personal level. For the most part, though, one’s struck by the charm and openness of Gisèle’s letters (many of which have had to be omitted from the Badiou edition, given their length and frequency), and the intense reticence and refusal to poeticise in Paul’s. It’s only in expounding the poems that he allows himself much licence for emotion (or size, for that matter).

Ninety poems is only a fraction of his work as a whole, of course, but it’s hard to imagine how any future translator can overlook these authorised literal versions when considering even such major poems as “Matière de Bretagne.”

The couple only corresponded while they were apart, which leads to certain distortions of chronology: but Celan’s increasingly frequent visits to Germany each sparked a number of letters.

Nor did their increasing estrangement, as a result of his violent breakdowns and hospitalisations in the 1960s, cut off the supply of poems. If anything, it made them more crucial to him as a means of communication. Long sequences continued to be sent to Gisèle (mostly, admittedly, for collaborative artistic projects), but also as if he hoped that by understanding them she could somehow get to the core of her husband, and thus, in some sense – who knows? – help to heal him. Or perhaps it was even more basic than that: a hand reaching out in the darkness.

I’ve been reading in and around these letters for almost ten years now, since Michael Heim passed on that invaluable tip. Recently I’ve undertaken another translation project, going through each of the 90 poems included among the letters, and turning them into English through the medium of these French bilingual versions.

Perhaps this will never be enough to convince those determined to convict Celan of needless obscurity and obscurantism – “You sounded like Goebbels” as one young German poet remarked to him when he gave a reading at Gruppe 47 in 1952 ((Felstiner, 1995, 65). But it’s hard to imagine any better starting-place for readers who have a sincere desire to come to terms with one of the most fascinating and controversial poets of the twentieth century.

Of course it helps to have some French. While the letters themselves could of course be translated into English (and no doubt someday will be), it’s hard to see how this will really benefit students of Celan’s poetry. The point of the commentaries and glossaries he included in these letters to Gisèle lies in his refusal (or inability) to engage creatively with French, the everyday language of his domesticity, business and familial love.[1]

Bertrand Badiou is at pains to point out the inevitable limitations of his work as the editor of these letters, the impenetrable nature of Celan's inner life. It's something even to obtain access in this way to his family life, though – an aspect of Celan only really on display here.

Badiou also remarks in his introduction:
Lire ces lettres doublées de poèmes, c'est aussi mesurer l'espace ou Celan pratique habituellement sa langue et qu'il appelait parfois, non sans humour, sa «Celanie»: la rue des Ecoles, la rue de Lota, la rue de Montevideo, la rue de Longchamp, la rue d’Ulm, la rue Cabanis (Clinique de la Faculté, Sainte-Anne), la rue Tournefort et l’avenue Emile Zola. Autour de cet espace en existe un autre, a peine plus vaste, incluant Moisville, Epinay-sur-Seine, Le Vésinet, Suresnes et Epinay-sur-Orge. Celan a choisi de faire figurer presque tous ces noms de lieu sur les manuscrits de ses poèmes, comme des prolongements de leur premières version datée et «inaltérée», ainsi que sur nombre de ses livres annotés, les annexant de la sorte a son écriture. (Badiou, 2001, 2: 10).

[Reading these letters doubled with poems is also to delimit the space where Celan habitually deployed his language, and which he referred to – not entirely seriously – as his “Celanie”: the Rue des Ecoles, the Rue de Lota, the Rue de Montevideo, the Rue de Longchamp, the Rue d’Ulm, the Rue Cabanis (Faculty Clinic, Saint-Anne), the Rue Tournefort and Emile Zola Avenue. Around this space exists another one, not much larger, which included the towns of Moisville, Epinay-sur-Seine, Le Vésinet, Suresnes and Epinay-sur-Orge. Celan chose to include almost all of these place-names on the manuscripts of his poems, like guarantees on their first dated and “unalterable” versions, as well as on quite a number of his own annotated books, thus – in a sense – annexing them to the world of his writing.]

When the artist Emma Smith and I came up with the idea of this book: an amalgam of images and poems, both “translated” from our own understanding of Paul Celan’s work, it was this idea of a “Celanie”, the little set of Parisian streets and suburbs which constituted the heart of Celan's world, which inspired us, and which ended up giving us the title for this book.

We, too, would like to think of these images, accompanied by English versions from his German-French dual-text poems, as a kind of “Celanie” – our own take on that particular region of the imagination which can only be accessed through Celan's strange, bleak, wintry words: a place which, once visited, can never be forgotten.

It's not that we mean to usurp or claim the rich particularity of Paul Celan's work – simply to do tribute to it in our own way, and (hopefully) to inspire others to put on record their own “Celanie”: their own individual understandings of the world of one of our age's most individual and troubling poets.


1. The German edition, translated by Eugen Helmlé and Barbara Wiedemann, which appeared at the same time as the French one, can also claim a certain linguistic authority - but still has to cede to the French in this respect.

Works Cited:
  • Celan, Paul, & Gisèle Celan-Lestrange. (2001). Correspondance (1951-1970), avec un choix de letters de Paul Celan à son fils Eric. Ed. Bertrand Badiou & Eric Celan. 2 vols. La Librairie du XXIe siècle. Paris: Éditions du Seuil.
  • Coetzee, J. M. (2008). “Paul Celan and his Translators.” Inner Workings: Literary Essays 2000-2005. 2007. A Vintage Book. Sydney: Random House Australia. 114-31.
  • Felstiner, John. (1995). Paul Celan: Poet, Survivor, Jew. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Further Reading:
  • Celan, Paul. Gesammelte Werke in fünf Bänden. Ed. Beda Allemann & Stefan Reichert. 1983. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp Taschenbuch Verlag, 1986.
  • Joris, Pierre, ed. Paul Celan: Selections. Trans. Pierre Joris & Jerome Rothenberg. Poets for the Millennium, 3. Berkeley & Los Angeles: University of California Press / London: University of California Press, Ltd., 2005.
  • Ross, Jack. “Meeting Paul Celan”, paper delivered at the Poetics of Exile conference at Auckland University in July 2003. [Available online at:]
  • Ross, Jack. “Poems from Schneepart: Five Translations from Paul Celan.” Percutio 1 (2006). [Available online at:]
  • Ross, Jack. “Channelling Paul Celan.” Rabbit 5 (2012).
  • Ross, Jack. “Interpreting Paul Celan.” brief 46 (2012).
  • Waldrop, Rosmarie, trans. Paul Celan: Collected Prose. 1986. Fyfield Books. Manchester: Carcanet Press Limited, 2003.
  • Weidemann, Barbara, ed. Paul Celan: Die Gedichte. Kommentierte Gesamtausgabe in einem Band. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 2003.


Celanie: Poems & Drawings after Paul Celan. Poems by Jack Ross, Drawings by Emma Smith, with an Afterword by Bronwyn Lloyd. ISBN 978-0-473-22484-4. Pania Samplers, 3. 168 pp. (Auckland: Pania Press, 2012): 11-16.

[1871 wds]

Celanie (2012)

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