Paul Celan

Remembering The Man Who Translated The Holocaust’s Most Haunting Poem

John Felstiner, the distinguished translator and literary scholar who brought Paul Celan into English and who also translated Pablo Neruda, will be remembered at a memorial at Stanford University today. Felstiner taught at Stanford for nearly fifty years, in English, Jewish Studies and Comparative Literature. He is the author of an essential biography of Celan, titled “Paul Celan: Poet, Survivor, Jew.” Felstiner died February 24th from complications of aphasia, a condition that leads to a loss of ability to understand and express language. He was 80.

Felstiner movingly wrote about staying in Celan’s home after the poet died, courtesy of his wife’s hospitality, and thumbing through Celan’s personal library. He writes of finding Jewish books, including the Tanach in that library, as well as discovering margin notes written in Hebrew. Celan’s most famous poem, in English translation, is titled “Todesfuge” in German or “Deathfugue” in English. It was written in 1944 and first published in 1948, and is arguably the most haunting poem written about the Holocaust.

Here is the first stanza of Felstiner’s unforgettable translation:

Black milk of daybreak we drink it at evening

we drink it at midday and morning we drink it at night

we drink and we drink

we shovel a grave in the air there you won’t lie too cramped

A man lives in the house he plays with his vipers he writes

he writes when it grows dark to Deutschland your golden hair Marguerite

he writes it and steps out of doors and the stars are all sparkling

he whistles his hounds to come close

he whistles his Jews into rows has them shovel a grave in the ground

he orders us strike up and play for the dance

The memorial will be held at the Stanford Faculty Club, Gold Room, at 2 p.m. on Friday April 14th. Readers who wish to post their appreciation of Felstiner’s work or other memories can do so at the guestbook on Felstiner’s website:

Aviya Kushner is The Forward’s language columnist and the author of The Grammar of God (Spiegel & Grau). Follow her on Twitter at @AviyaKushnerein

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Remembering The Man Who Translated The Holocaust’s Most Haunting Poem

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