5:01 PM Posted by James Owens


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.

Paul Celan
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).



sam of the ten thousand things said...

In particular, I like the tight music of the second stanza in your piece. Yours, I think, is a richer version that the others. I agree that "glom" is a risk, James, but my sense of translation is that tone and mood are more critical the version's success than a strict translation. I think it works.

It's such a difficult or even impossible task to recreate the richness of a poem in a different language. The piece has to be reset as a poem in another language - even into another time period in that language. That's tough.

You do a good job here.

Sorlil said...

I prefer 'wells'in your translation to 'bursts' or 'spurts' and I really like the odd syntax of your last line, it adds a real sense of tension to the poem.

anhaga said...

Sam and Sorlil: Thank you for reading and commenting. I'll admit that right now I am happy enough with this version (though I am also afraid that somebody will, or even should, give me a stiff slap and tell me to shut up, since I don't really read German).

But then again, translation equals loss, and I feel that, too. In a novel, maybe, a "Schlussel" can be a "key" -- but in a poem a "Schlussel" can only be a "Schlussel," and a "key" is inalterably a "key" ....

I can't go on. I go on.

swiss said...

i stuck up hamburger's translation of this when i'd read yours, not realising at the time it was yours.

i liked both 'changing' and 'wells' and felt there was generally less formality in your translation than hamburger's. didn't like 'gloms' tho! lol

so, even on the above grounds i can't agree that translation equals loss. on the contrary, where you've got multiple translations, and esp if you've got the people doing the translating on hand, you get right into the original and get a real insight to the choices of the translators.

well done. i wouldn;t have the nerve to have a go a celan!

anhaga said...


I wanted to ask you, but forgot to ask earlier: How does the last line sound to you?

The dictionary says the expression "gloms onto" comes into American through Scots. Is that a relationship you can hear?

A fair percentage of my own stigmatized, and nearly extinct, regional muttersprache derives from Ulster Scots, and using this expression in the translation is, for me, a reaching back through "the word" into what has been silenced. More publicly, I want it to at least glance at a problematized use of language that might evoke some distant echo of Celan's difficult relationship with German (not that I believe the two "problems" are anywhere near being on the same scale).

An awful lot of weight for two little words, I know. But Celan almost forces one to load words past what they can bear....

anhaga said...

Swiss: Thank you for reading and commenting. I agree with you that having multiple translations is really the key. If different versions can pick up different aspects and subtleties of the original, then a reader can get much closer. But no matter how many versions I read (or make, even) I still feel outside the poem in a way that a German reader would not. Celan himself was a busy translator, and maybe, in addition to everything else this poem means, we could read it as a poem about translation.

I knew "gloms onto" was going to be trouble, and you are not the only one who doesn't like it. I suspect that people object to this phrase for the same reasons I do like it: it irritates, it holds itself askew from the rest of the poem, which says something about the difficulty of language itself, always important to Celan.

I probably won't change it, and people will go on disliking it :-)

Sorlil said...

I do trip over it a little, keep wanting to pronounce it as 'gloam' - another Scottish word!
But I do like the om/on sound of 'glom onto' and I also like the attention it brings to itself.

swiss said...

oh i don't think you should change it! certainly not! lol