5: Poem, Paul Celan’s “Todesfuge” in English translation, by Christopher Middleton, 1962, and John Felstiner, 1995.

5: Poem, Paul Celan’s “Todesfuge” in English translation, by Christopher Middleton, 1962, and John Felstiner, 1995.

Paul Celan’s “Todesfuge” has been translated into many languages, and there are more than fifteen published English translations. The act of translation requires that translators get at the truth of the text by doing their best to capture a poem’s rhythms, allusions, and complex meanings as they move from one language to the next. With “Todesfuge,” this work is made even more challenging by the fact that the poem, according to Celan translator Pierre Joris, is “dismantling and rewelding” German, creating, for example, new words like “Todesfuge.” 

Here we have two translations of “Todesfuge.”  The first, a translation by Christopher Middleton, was first published in Modern German Poetry: 1910-1960 (ed. Hamburger and Middleton, 1962). The second translation, by John Felstiner, first appeared in his book about the poet, Paul Celan: Poet, Survivor, Jew (Yale University Press, 1995), and has here been reprinted from his later compilation Selected Poems and Prose of Paul Celan (W. W. Norton, 2000). Unlike Middleton’s translation, Felstiner’s incorporates some of the original German and offers a less literal translation of some of Celan’s words.

Suggested Activity: Read through each translation out loud as a class, and then have students write down all of the similarities and differences between the two. Then, discuss the following questions: How do these differences affect the rhythm and meaning of the poem? Focusing on one key difference, ask students how they feel about Felstiner’s incorporation of some of the original German into his translation. What does Felstiner accomplish by doing this? Which translation do you prefer and why?

Sources: Paul Celan, “Fugue of Death,” trans. Christopher Middleton, in Modern German Poetry, 1910-1960, ed. Michael Hamburger (New York: Grove Press, 1962).

“Deathfugue,” from SELECTED POEMS AND PROSE OF PAUL CELAN by Paul Celan, translated by John Felstiner. Copyright © 2001 by John Felstiner. Used by permission of W. W. Norton & Company, Inc. This selection may not be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means without the prior written permission of the publisher.