Untranslatability haunts every literary translation. The rewriting that occurs in working out the particularities between each language recalls, from one inscription to the other, the impossible equivalence that the enduring task of translation seeks to carry out. Aren’t the inherent limits of historical representation, between the manifestation of truth and the evidence-based reconstruction of fact, similar to those related to the problem of translation? What to think, then, of cultural manifestations that use translation as a poetics of remembrance and a way of carrying a past event into the present? This essay argues that translation is more than the communication of meaning or the transmission of information through time, that it displays a powerful way of disclosing a future in the wake of a traumatic experience through an aesthetic ethos. The predicament of sharing a past experience can be accounted for by making a virtue out of the inevitable failure translation entails.
If translation is inevitably related to language, it goes beyond the technical transfer of content as it can embody the possibility of living through the devastating effects of trauma through a form of material recovery, as in the case of a writer like Paul Celan, or help to negotiate the possibilities of a collective memory through a form of cultural mediation, as in Konrad Wolf’s filmmaking. Whether through literature or cinema, translating actualizes a pathological need to share experiences while upholding the task of situating oneself in the present. The effects of certain events occurring in a time of war, for instance, may leave traces that can’t be archived; they imprint the subject, alter agency and radically change the way of relating to the present. In understanding translation as a task that has an ethical relevance distinct from the functional aim of transferring cultural data, I want to show how it materializes a “fidelity to an event” (Badiou 38-42) and thus embodies a form of cultural survival that renders thought. In other words, in carrying the past into the present, translation presents a way to live through – or overcome – an experience of radical disruption and displacement in order to survive utter distress or foresee the reconstruction of a socio-political bond in spite of cultural divisions and conflict. As a figure of thought, translation allows us to address these issues. [End Page 88]
I will consider Celan’s translational poetics and the figures of translation in Wolf’s film Ich war Neunzehn (1968) to think about translation as a mode of inscription of the Second World War, a “world historical trauma” (Mosès 248), that has transformed the relationship to history and, a fortiori, the ability of relating to a present situation. Is not to translate, above all, in attending to oneself and to the other, learning to be contemporary? Celan, an exiled Jew who committed suicide in Paris in 1970, and Wolf, a German-born Russian soldier turned prominent cultural mediator in the GDR, both take up the art of translation that raises issues of intergenerational transmission2 along two lines that foreground different senses of direction: vertical and horizontal, intensive and extensive. The translational approach directed by these ‘lines’ insinuates different relations to present time in the works they have shaped – one tragically bears the marks of an experience of catastrophe and the other articulates the overarching utopian narrative of communism in postwar East Germany.
Through their works and forms of translation, Celan and Wolf both display, although in very distinct ways, the possibilities and the limits of making up contemporariness after the collapse of shared values, beliefs and representations in the wake of a historical disruption. This disruption, of course, is manifested through very real hardships and violent ordeals, lingering mental and physical disorders and spatial displacements that the “gesture” of translating serves to endure and support (Agamben, Means 57). I will focus on the belated present instance of the discourse of the translator relating an experience of war, a certain ethos implied in the poetic speech and the film narrative I am drawing from. This will show how the metaphoric dimension...