the snow of what's silenced

1:50 PM Posted by James Owens

Mit Wechselndem Schlüssel

Mit wechselndem Schlüssel
schliesst du das Haus auf, darin
der Schnee des Verschwiegenen treibt.
Je nach dem Blut, das dir quillt
aus Aug oder Mund oder Ohr,
wechselt dein Schlüssel.

Wechselt dein Schlüssel, wechselt das Wort,
das treiben darf mit den Flocken.
Je nach dem Wind, der dich fortstösst,
ballt um das Wort sich der Schnee.

Paul Celan


With a Changing Key

With a changing key
you unlock the house where
the snow of what's silenced drifts.
Just like the blood that bursts from
your eye or mouth or ear,
so your key changes.

Changing your key changes the word
that may drift with the flakes.
Just like the wind that rebuffs you,
packed round your word is the snow.

Trans. John Felstiner


With a Variable Key

With a variable key
you unlock the house in which
drifts the snow of that left unspoken.
Always what key you choose
depends on the blood that spurts
from your eye or your mouth or your ear.

You vary the key, you vary the word
that is free to drift with the flakes.
What snowball will form round the word
depends on the wind that rebuffs you.

Trans. Michael Hamburger


Both translations of this (small but central) Celan poem are unsatisfying, though the Felstiner is a little better, I think. Hamburger's "the snow of what's left unspoken" seems obviously wrong for "der Schnee des Verschwiegenen." If I'm hearing des Verschwiegenen rightly (and Roxana or anyone else who knows can correct me here and elsewhere), the preposition suggests something that has been made silent, not just "left unspoken" as Hamburger puts it. This phrase is important to the poem, since for Celan that which has been silenced is a great deal indeed, and unlocking this door speaks to poetry's hope to recover even that which has been lost to memory. Missing this seems to call Hamburger's understanding of the entire poem into question.

Felstiner follows Celan in bringing the poem to rest on "snow," which also seems an important feature to carry over from the German, leaving a reader with the blank and static image of what has been silenced, rather than in the midst of the struggle called up by Hamburger's "the wind that rebuffs you." But neither translator manages to end the first section on "key," muting a contrast that Celan has established between the two words ("Schlüssel / Schnee" -- assisted in the original by an alliteration that English can't reproduce).

On the other hand, Felstiner gets "snow" to the end of the section by changing the active "ballt um das Wort sich der Schnee" -- literally something like "the snow balls itself up around the word" -- into a rather vague and passive phrase. How does the snow become "packed around" the word in Felstiner's version?

Neither translator quite catches the force of "Je nach dem Blut" and "Je nach dem Wind," though both try. Neither "depends on" or "just like" expresses how closely the key changes according to the blood that bursts from eye or mouth or ear, or how the snow balls itself around the word, following and according to the wind -- important for the "changing" or "variable" nature of the key.

Of course reading the two translations side by side will give a fuller sense of Celan's poem than any one version. And I have to admit, I can't do any better than either of these translators....



sam of the ten thousand things said...

I agree that Felstiner's version has the darker beauty in the language, James. I especially like his closing stanza. Much stronger.

Roxana said...

I've been so busy lately, that's why I couldn't concentrate on reading. I will come back to this one soon, hopefully this weekend. and james, please, do try your hand at it also! I am very curious to read your version. how can I challenge you to try? :-) or have you done it already and you are not at all pleased with it?

anhaga said...


Now you've done it. I just might try!

My version of Celan -- what a thing to be released upon the world.