Ottilie Mulzet reviews L’étranger intime by Evelyn Dueck

(De Gruyter, 2014)

L’étranger intime, by Evelyn Dueck—currently a postdoctoral fellow in comparative literature and literary theory at the University of Pennsylvania—is an ambitious work documenting and analysing French approaches to the translations of Paul Celan’s writing from the early 1970s up to the present day. At 465 pages, it is a hefty tome with an equally hefty price tag (€110); but for anyone seriously interested in the arts of translation, it is certain to assume the status of an essential work in the field. Bearing in mind the exceptional degree of nuance and precision in the author’s dissection of the problematics of poetry translation, and of course Celan’s own standing as perhaps the most important European poet of the later twentieth century, L’étranger intime is an indispensable map for the practice of the translator’s art, as well as a valuable inspiration for future volumes in translation studies. Moreover, Dueck expresses herself in prose that is serious and insightful, but delightfully free of the wooden jargon that characterizes much academic writing about translation in the Anglo-Saxon sphere.

L’étranger intime of the title refers to translation itself, and to “translation reading” (la lecture traductive), the “intimate stranger” at once close to the text at hand and distant from it, conjoining a “distant regard” with the intimacy of the poetic letter (p. 8). Dueck considers that an examination of the French translations of the poetry of Paul Celan can, given its problematization of the act of translation itself, lead to a pensée de la translation poétique—a way of thinking about poetic translation.

Even the linguistic presentation of the book makes a statement. Celan’s paradoxical “German outside German,” from his childhood in Romanian-administered Cernauţi/Czernowitz up through his mature years in Paris, is a visible presence in its pages. All the citations from German sources are left in the original, though with their French translations provided in footnotes. (The footnotes are also helpfully located at the bottom of the page, a practice which seems to have fallen out of use in the Anglophone world, necessitating an endless paging back and forth between the front and back part of a book, or the use of whatever object is nearest to hand as a bookmark.) The presence of so many German citations may remind those of us without a deep knowledge of that language of our linguistic inadequacy. It makes, nonetheless, the language in which Celan chose to write almost palpable; the German of his German-Jewish dispossession is a felt presence on the page, not just a distant original—an original, which, paradoxically, is all too often fetishized in the English-speaking context as a distant paragon, the “purity” of which must forever remain unmatched by the efforts of mere translation. In fact, as Dueck points out, despite the inherent difficulty, Celan himself is one of the most translated poets of the twentieth century (as well as one of its most important translators: of Mandelstam, Blok, Rimbaud, and others).

If anything, it is Dueck’s complete faith in the act of translation, conveyed with that kind of self-evidence completely unfrayed by doubt about the security of her literary culture, which is most striking for the Anglophone reader. The dismaying tendency in the Anglophone world (strangely coupled with the well-known relative paucity of translated works) to call into question the so-called desirability of the act of translation itself is refreshingly absent here. The necessity of translation is accepted as a given, an integral part of the life of literature; what is examined is the how of translation and the theories that lie behind a set of methodologies.

The first part of the book is comprised not only of a theoretical introduction to the problematics of translating Celan’s poetry, but also of an overview of three European thinkers on translation: Wilhelm von Humboldt, Friedrich Schleiermacher, and Friedrich Hölderlin. Dueck’s choice of these three lies in the fact that “in posing the question of what can be translated, they were the first ones who sought to study translation as pertaining to the problematics of language and literature” (p. 18). In addition, she examines the theoretical approaches to translation of figures such as Roman Jakobson, Ernst-Norbert Kurth, Paul de Man, Martin Buber, Emmanuel Levinas, and Gilles Deleuze. Jakobson, for example, felt that translation was possible only if the content of a given text could somehow be “removed” from its form, since he envisioned translation more or less as a semiotic transfer (p. 44). Gillies Deleuze and Félix Guattari, for their part, evoked literature as a “minor” use of language. They felt that literary translation should challenge norms in the target language, even to the point of disturbing its equilibrium. (Of course, as anyone who has ever edited a literary translation knows, this can be tricky.) Deleuze and Guattari never developed a theory of translation per se, but their reflections on minor literature and the rhizome can be developed in reference to a poetics of translation, as Dueck shows. She writes:

Through the inspiration of the idea of the rhizome, the translation and the original work may therefore be thought of as a continuity of movements which do not end with the publication of the book. The connection between the source text and the translation becomes not only a mutual connection, but a dynamic one (p. 91, my translation).

After this intriguing—and for this reader, at least, extremely helpful—theoretical detour, the book turns to analyse the work of four different French translators of Celan’s oeuvre since the early 1970s: André du Bouchet, Michel Deguy, Marthine Broda, and Jean-Pierre Lefebvre. Each translator gets his or her own designation—du Bouchet translates “poetically,” the work of Michel Deguy is characterized as “manuscript translation,” Marthine Broda engages in “symbolic translation,” and Jean-Pierre Lefebvre creates “philological translation”—as well as an in-depth, sensitive analysis of least thirty to forty pages.

One of the most valuable aspects of this volume is the way Dueck shows how the work of each translator is inextricably linked to his or her theories or modus operandi of translation: each one has published on these topics rather extensively. She also establishes their lineages of intellectual inheritance and influence. The formulation by each translator of what is important in Celan’s work, the question of the life in relation to the work, and so on—all of these have influenced and continue to influence the reception of Celan’s work in the French literary context.

The length she accords to each translator allows Dueck to dig deeply into specific intra-linguistic challenges. In doing so, she sheds valuable light on how even the seemingly most inconsequential decisions can have a major impact on how a translation reads in the target language. One compelling example occurs in the discussion of the first “case study,” André du Bouchet, in which Dueck discusses the problem of rendering the title, Sprachgitter, in French. Du Bouchet translates it as “La parole, la grille.” The inclusion of two definite articles places the two nouns in a different kind of linguistic space, sanitizing the strangeness of the German compound. Dueck notes that there are many kinds of compounds in German: one of the most important is known as determinative (Determinativkomposita, in which the first element qualifies the second); and the other is known as copulative (Kopulativkomposita) (p. 268). Sprachgitter would fall into the second category, and yet surely the translator’s elision of the copula or of the grammatical element signifying “addition” is significant. In German, the two nouns are placed in nearly violent juxtaposition with each other with no intermediary. (Pierre Joris’s version in English, Speechgrille, seems to render this beautifully.) As Dueck notes, the creation of compound words is one of the most important elements of Celan’s poetics, with its particular dynamic of “conceptual blending” (to employ a term coined by Fauconnier and Turner).

Take, for example, the word Ginsterlicht, from the poem “Matière de Bretagne” (Michael Hamburger translates it as “Gorselight”): it seems to refer to light traveling through the twigs of the genista plant, and all the translators whose work is examined in this volume use “lumière de genet” or “lumière du genet” (p. 269). However, Jean-Pierre Lefebvre underlines the importance of landscape to this poem, and Dueck herself explores the associations between the genista plant and the location of Saarbrücken on the German-French border, where Neue Bremm, the Nazi torture camp, was located, in 1943-1944. Bremm issues from Old High German, and signifies “thorn.” In Lorraine, a language spoken in the area, bremm refers to a species of genista or broom plant very widespread in the region. Celan refers to the thorn (Dorn in modern German) twice in the poem. In Dueck’s (to my mind, correct) reading, the word Ginsterlicht should therefore

be read as a transposed invocation (with multiple reprises) of the given historical facts . . . The poem, however, does not make direct reference to these facts and the informed reader can therefore only employ interpretive keys. It is, nonetheless, possible to introduce them into the reading as constituent semantic fields which link the invocations of landscape to those of suffering and memory (p. 271, my translation).

Dueck shows how the translation of Ginsterlicht as “lumière de genet” is therefore problematic. The difficulty, though, lies in the fact that Celan himself often suppressed direct historical reference in his poetry. A poem such as this both “avoids and authorizes” such references, as Dueck aptly puts it (p. 272), and does not makes the translator’s task an easy one.

The question of the presentation of Celan’s work in translation is also addressed. Among the translators under discussion in Dueck’s volume, Michel Deguy makes the interesting choice of presenting the original poems in typescript versions with the translation appearing as a handwritten interlinear “word for word” version. (The choice of handwriting for a translation is in and of itself interesting, as if somehow implying that all translations have an inherent provisional quality.) Questions of eyestrain aside, the presentation of the French version as an interlinear translation immediately gives rise to many questions. For one, such a presentation could be seen as suggesting that translation can be a simple one-to-one correspondence. Although this version appears to sacrifice the conventions of French syntax while privileging German word order, it often does make concessions to French convention. And, of course, the supposed “word for word” approach ignores Celan’s frequent polysemy, in which one word in Celan’s German text will correspond to many words in the target language (or even many other words in German as well). Perhaps only an interactive presentation, in which all the various threads of each word could be teased out via hyperlinks, could be adequate, if the process of jumping all around the internet would not seem so antithetical to the kind of quiet state ideally needed to absorb these poems.

Dueck’s next subject, Marthine Broda, makes no such visual experiments. Dueck characterizes Broda’s translations and approach using Dirk Weissmann’s term la lecture juive. (Dirk Weissmann wrote the first, pioneering study on Celan’s reception in France.) Broda, herself of Polish-Jewish origin, was the first French translator to emphasize Celan’s Jewishness, which might come as no small surprise to many readers. According to Dueck, she was the most important translator of Celan in the French language from the late 1970s to the early 1990s. Moreover, Broda, who was close friends with the poet’s widow and an author in her own right, wrote poetry that at times incorporated phrases from Celan’s work (p. 316), thus taking his intertextuality one step further. Broda’s most important theoretical approaches came from critics such as Walter Benjamin and Antoine Berman.

Broda’s translations emphasize the value of resistance in the face of the Shoah. Confronted with the poet’s extensive wordplay, she arrives at some very interesting solutions. The extremes of paronomasia present a not inconsiderable challenge to the translator, as for example in the case of the poem Eine Gauner und Ganovanweise, which is an anagram of the word Mandelbaum (almond tree), which then becomes Mandeltraum (almond dream), and undergoes further transformations into Trandelbaum, Machandelbaum, and Chandelbaum. For all intents and purposes, Broda creates a bilingual translation (p. 324). Broda’s explicit aim was to “Celanize” the French language but in Dueck’s judgment, she doesn’t always succeed. Her own emphasis on the immediate historical circumstances of Celan’s life possibly blinds her to other interpretive possibilities, as for example in the poem Hinausgekrönt (rendered in French as Couronné dehors), where Celan uses the phrase bei Huren und Dirnen. Broda translates this as “chez les catins et les filles” (roughly something like: “with the trollops and the girls,” but, as Dueck points out, in the Middle Ages the German word “Dirne” was used to refer to the Virgin Mary, and only later acquired the meaning of prostitute).

Dueck most favours the work of Jean-Pierre Lefebvre, whose translations she characterizes as “philological” (p. 357). Dueck considers Lefebvre to be Celan’s most important French translator since the early 1990s, and emphasizes the extensive research he undertook in preparation for the act of translation. Lefebvre speaks of the “considerable cultural encyclopedia” of Celan’s work; his translations seek to engage with the rhizomatic character of Celan’s oeuvre. In Lefebvre’s thinking, Celan seeks to confront not only the lyrical German tradition, but all twentieth century Western poetry; while its extreme auto-referentiality puts into question its own ontological status as writing (p. 360). Celan is not only writing “after Auschwitz,” but “according to Auschwitz” (p. 360). 

The recently deceased Hungarian author Imre Kertész comes to mind at this juncture as one of Celan’s contemporaries who most closely adhered in his lifetime—albeit in prose—to Celan’s project as formulated by Lefebvre. Kertész’s language often stuns in its sheer ungainliness, its seemingly deliberate ugliness. In his books of essays Exiled Language, there is a definite unnaturalness to Kertész’s use of Hungarian, which mirrors the unnaturalness of the situation the boy narrator finds himself in (deported to Birkenau-Auschwitz during World War II). The fact that the boy himself continues to find these events to be perfectly “natural” merely reinforces the reader’s unease. The boy’s psychological integration of the unassimilable is mirrored in the language in which he narrates the book, a language comprised of seemingly incompatible registers of Hungarian: his own boyish thoughts and speculations running alongside the bureaucratic language of the regime—a bureaucratese which disappears the objects of its murderous intent well before the deportations begin. This is not unlike some of Celan’s disconcerting compound formulations. In this sense, Kertész was clearly one of Celan’s most assiduous students, truly a practitioner of writing “according to Auschwitz.”

To return to the volume at hand, for Lefebvre, Celan’s work moves “toward silence and death”: it is an interruption of the fluidity of reading (p. 361). Rather than the perhaps more straightforwardly tragic interpretation of Celan’s life posited in the work of Marthine Broda, Lefebvre defines Celan’s oeuvre as un espace-temps verbal radical et individu alourdi par l’histoire (“a verbal and radical individual space-time weighed down by history,” p. 363). In writing after/according to Auschwitz, the performative aspect of language employed by Celan demonstrates that language creates realities, “possibly good, possibly bad” (p. 364). Celan opposes himself to poetry “that hides behind the supposed inoffensiveness of simple ‘representation’” (p. 364). (The parallels with the poetic reflections on language of, for example, Szilárd Borbély, are very clear.)

Lefebvre’s translations make ample use of annotations, which is interesting in light of the well-known Anglophone resistance to footnotes in translations. Footnotes, introductions, afterwords, translator’s notes, and so on, all form what Dueck terms the paratext of the translation, following Gérard Genette. In effect, almost every translation entails its own “vast paratext” (p. 200), which Gérard Genette defines as an “indecisive zone between the inside and outside” (p. 210). Genette further distinguishes peritext and epitext, the first designating the material elements of a book, whereas epitext designates “all paratextual elements not annexed to the book in a material way, but circulating freely and virtually circulating freely.” (They are all part of one trinity, though: “paratext = peritext + epitext” [p. 213].)

Genette distinguishes both a translative and translated epitext: they both are external to the book but the first is generated in the target language, whereas the second is translated into it. A truly vast epitext worth mentioning—and one that is expanding rapidly—is formed by the existence of numerous online translators’ forums and groups devoted to the problems of translation into specific languages. To cite just one example of the increasing visibility (and legitimation) of this paratext, a recent translation into Hungarian acknowledged the assistance of a closed Facebook group dealing with literary translation into and from that language. In fact, as part of the ensuing discussion beneath this post, some members of the group revealed that they had credited the group for its valuable insights even before this “official” acknowledgment (respectively for a university thesis and a professional presentation given in a target language). The existence of such fora form a polyphonic paratext which is completely open-ended (as any member of the group can go back and comment on a given post at any time, although, understandably, most of the posts seek to solve problems under a translator’s deadline). Dueck doesn’t write about this kind of epitext, but it deserves further research and investigation.

Dueck seems to find Lefebvre’s method the most fruitful of all the translators whose work she analyses, for the way in which he seeks to immerse himself in “the encyclopedic culture of Celan.” Lefebvre sees the difficulties in his work as “an incitement to research and (re)reading” (p. 372). He also frequently employs what translator Susan Bernofsky has famously termed the “stealth gloss,” (Dueck terms it a “double translation”) although in some cases it does not seem so stealthy. Dueck approves of this approach although to my mind when the original text is exceedingly concise, it’s good to try to preserve that quality in the translation. For example, Lefebvre renders Celan’s use of the verb stehen (“to stand, to be upright, to rise”) in the poem “Mandorla” by using two different verbs in French:

Dans l’amande —qu’est-ce-qui est dans l’amande?
Le néant.
C’est le néant qui est et se tient dans l’amande.
Il est là et continue d’être 
(my emphasis, p. 365).

In the almond — what dwells in the almond?
What dwells in the almond is Nothing.
There it dwells and dwells (Translation by Michael Hamburger).

In Hamburger’s translation, the verb stehen is rendered as “dwells,” which seems convincing. The verb “dwell” in English has its own rich polysemy, if not completely overlapping with that of German stehen. But the double verb employed by Lefebvre (something akin to “It is nothingness that is and that arises in the almond,” my emphasis) seems wordy, almost as if unwilling to zero in on the sheer horrifying starkness of Celan’s German words:

In der Mandel—was steht in der Mandel?
Das Nichts.
Es steht das nichts in der Mandel.
Da steht es und steht.

Dueck demonstrates Lefebvre’s development as a translator over time, as his annotations increase in volume. Lefebvre endeavours to present the poems’ intertextual links, a mighty travail, as they are truly encyclopaedic in their breadth and depth. Lefebvre’s definition of his own work as a translator is marked by open-endedness: for him, translation is a “faithful unfolding” (un cheminement fidèle) along the “length” of the original which never produces a definitive result (p. 371).

There is a decidedly vicarious gratification in reading, as a translator, about the dilemmas of other translators writing in languages you will never translate into: what could be a more welcome break from stressing and fretting about one’s own translation decisions? More seriously, though, Dueck’s book more than lives up to her self-stated aspiration of writing translation criticism that deepens our understanding of the source work, easily avoiding the translation-critique pitfall of merely lexically qualitative analysis. Each of the translators in this volume emerges as his or her own personality, the protagonist of his or her own Celanian textual world, each one engaged in an individual struggle—across decades, across a lifetime—with the work of this towering, hermetic poetic figure. The depth and quality of attention paid to the act of translation itself—echoing the devotion of the translators—is what makes this volume stellar in every respect.