Translating work by acclaimed German poet Paul Celan – famous for his Holocaust poem “Death Fugue” and generally considered one of the greatest post-war European poets – has been a 10-year literary mission for Albany-based Massey University English lecturer, editor and poet Dr Jack Ross.
His project has culminated in the launch of Celanie: Poems & Drawings after Paul Celan, which contains 90 “gem-like” poems by the Romanian-born Jewish poet and World War II Nazi labour-camp survivor, translated from German and French into English. The book of poems includes two portfolios of drawings by Auckland artist Emma Smith. It was the word ‘Celanie’, the description Celan himself used for the little set of Parisian streets and suburbs which constituted the heart of his world-in-exile, that inspired them.
Ross, from the School of English and Media Studies (which contributed to the production costs), says that the poems, taken from a two-volume edition of his correspondence with his French wife Gisèle Celan-Lestrange, represent only a fraction of Celan’s body of work. They were composed in German, and translated into French by Celan in the letters he wrote to his wife each time he left their home in Paris to travel to Germany.
Celan, born Paul Antschel, survived 18 months in a Nazi forced-labour camp during World War II. His parents were deported to a concentration camp, where they died. Celan, who had gone to France to study medicine in 1938, returned there after the war to work as a translator and teacher of German language and literature.
Although he was fluent in Russian, French and Romanian, and was strongly influenced by the international Surrealist movement, German was the language of his poetry, which often led to the false claim that his poetry was principally about reconciliation, says Ross.
A fervent reader and occasional translator of Celan’s work, Ross heard about the new editions in French of Celan’s letters and poems to his wife when he was presenting a paper on Celan’s work at the “Poetics of Exile” conference in Auckland in 2003.
He hopes Celanie (Pania Press) will offer the ideal starting-place “for readers who have a sincere desire to come to terms with one of the most fascinating and controversial poets of the twentieth century”.
The short poems are complemented by Smith’s intense and haunting imagery. She was inspired by the shape of a horse’s skull to create her visual interpretations of Paul Celan’s lyric poetry, which she describes as “deeply bleak” in its terrifying evocation of his Holocaust experiences.
Ross says Celan’s poetic style was at times “anti-grammatical” and open to multiple interpretations. His poems, although they look simple and stark on the page, are multi-layered in meaning. Celan, who was awarded the Bremen Prize for German Literature in 1958 and the Georg Büchner Prize in 1960, suffered from depression and committed suicide in 1970.
“It’s hard to find a rival among post-war poets,” Ross says of Celan, who once wryly quipped: “There is nothing in the world for which a poet will give up writing, not even when he is a Jew and the language of his poems is German”.
Ross teaches creative writing, has published several books of poetry and prose, and co-edited a trilogy of anthologies; Classic, Contemporary and New New Zealand Poets in Performance with CD recordings.