With a Changing Key
With a changing key
you unlock the house, where
the snow of what’s silenced drifts.
Tuned to the blood that wells
from your eye or mouth or ear,
it changes, your key.
Changes your key, changes the word
that may drift with the flakes.
Tuned to the wind that pushes you back,
it gloms onto the word, that snow.
Translation by James Owens
Dedicated to Roxana, who asked for it.
A provisional version, open to correction. Some general goals of the translation:
1. Get the sense right.
2. Keep the words in the original order, as much as possible. This might not always matter so much in translation, but with this poem it does, I feel. Certain essential words -- key, snow, word, wind, blood -- have an almost architectural relationship here. Other translations lose much by not maintaining the order. (Though my English may work too hard at trying to keep it, too.)
3. Translate the form as much as the sense. An important music of this poem is repetition, and phrases that Celan repeats must be repeated exactly, or as near as possible. Repetition and other kinds of doubling are always important for Celan. Otherwise, he wouldn't sound like himself.
Tuned to the blood, Tuned to the wind -- This is the best I have come up with for Je nach dem Blut / Wind. The key and the snow follow the blood and the wind as closely as instruments follow each other, or a voice, in keeping a tune. This plays in English off the musical sense of changing key, which isn't there in the German, but which is one of those happy bonuses a translator sometimes finds to make up for some of what translation destroys. I hope the suggestion of music reaches down into Celan's hope that poetry might be a way of recovering some of that which has been silenced, also related to the "word" of this poem.
wells -- Other translators say "spurts." But blood can "well," slowly and chronically, much longer than it can "spurt," which is dramatic, but over in a moment. I think Celan is thinking of a long-term sort of bleeding. Also, I think I hear the German quillt (from quellen - gush, spurt, well, etc. ) echo off of an unspoken Qualen - torment, and I'm hoping for a brief flicker of a pun on "swells" or "wails."
Changes the key, changes the word -- This is odd in English. But I think the oddness can get by. Sometimes a bit of making strange lets a translation sound like a translation.
it changes, your key / it gloms onto the word, that snow -- I am telling myself these delayed antecedents are not merely distortions to keep the words in the right order. And in fact, this is a very characteristic sylistic feature of Celan's poems (though not this one), and these lines sound Celan-like to me.
gloms onto -- A risk. The dictionary says this is an American dialect expression meaning "grab or snatch, often for a theft." Ultimately a Scots word, the dictionary says. "Gloms onto," as I hear it, has the same musical ... flavor ... as sich umballen, a similar texture of vowels and "m" and "n." It does not mean exactly the same thing, but it still means the word is taken away, made unavailable, silenced. And "gloms onto" helps distance the poem once more, keeping it sounding like a translation (even though it is an American phrase, it is an unusual one).