- The Meridian: Paul Celan by Pierre Joris
Paul Celan is one of relatively few German-language authors who have attained international prominence. The untranslatability of his opaque texts, notably his poetry, has been pointed out probably as often as these texts have been translated and taught in languages other than in their German original. Translating Celan is validated by the author’s own extensive work as a translator of complex, impossible-to-translate texts by authors such as Apollinaire, [End Page 167] Dickinson, Rimbaud, Valéry, Ungaretti, and Mandelstam. Alongside Michael Hamburger, Ian Fairley, John Felstiner, and Joachim Neugroschel, Pierre Joris figures as a Celan translator of note. The continued engagement on the part of first-rate translators and scholars of Celan’s writings has placed this path-breaking transcultural poet on the global map. The book at hand, based on Werke. Tübinger Ausgabe: Der Meridian. Endfassung-Entwürfe—Materialien (1996), edited by Böschenstein and Schnull, presents Joris’s critical translations of the final version of the “Der Meridian,” Celan’s speech occasioned by his acceptance of the prestigious Georg Büchner Prize in Darmstadt, West Germany, in 1960. As is the case with challenging texts such as “Der Meridian,” they appeal to different translators and elicit different readings. In the case of this speech, an alternative translation is included in Rosemarie Waldrop’s Paul Celan: Collected Prose (2003).
The volume at hand also features Joris’s critical translations of the numerous draft versions of the speech that reflect changes and different textual phases as well as related materials such as notes that reveal Celan’s creative process, his research, and his references to discursive traditions in which he positions his statements. These notes and observations pertain to such complexes as “Darkness,” different aspects of “The Poem,” for example “Opacity of the Poem,” “The Poem as Speech-Grille,” and “Poem and Language” as well as the topics of “Breath,” “Breathturn,” “Encounters,” and “Hostility to Art” and “Time Critique.” Also included are Joris’s translation of Celan’s radio essay “The Poetry of Osip Mandelstam” and Celan’s letter to Hermann Kasack of May 16, 1960. What seems to be missing are original German texts. Including the text of the translated final version of “The Meridian” and other completed texts would make this extraordinary critical translation more accessible. However, the Tübinger Ausgabe is readily available. It must be consulted for the purpose of any critical, comparative reading.
In his preface, Joris emphasizes his attention to minute details in his translation work as well as his efforts to render faithfully the apparatus of the critical edition. He points out the difficulties in rendering in English translations idiosyncrasies in the German text, for example in the case of a corrected spelling or added initial caps by Celan for which the English language offers no clean solution due to the differences in grammatical and orthographic structure. Otherwise, Joris retained the symbols, typographical labels, and special characters present in the German version. This translation of a critical edition represents, as Joris himself notes, an epic work. In minute detail it traces the origins and evolution of Celan’s “Meridian” speech for an Anglo-phone [End Page 168] readership, thus making Celan’s text as close as possible to an “original” work in a language other than the one in which it was conceived and published. The volume represents an important step in “naturalizing” Celan into the English language and (almost) opening his creative process and universe to non-native speakers of German.