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The Problem and the Genius: Mary Rakow on John Felstiner’s translation of Paul Celan’s “Todesfuge”

February 22, 2012

The novel The Memory Room (shortlisted for the 2003 William Saroyan International Prize for Writing) written by Mary Rakow (winner of the Lannan Literary Fellowship for the book) is just incredible enough.  But Rakow offers more.  At the end of her novel, she provides readers with two sets of notes:   A. explanations of the “names of the four parts of the novel” … “from the poems of Paul Celan” and short translations of the chapter titles all given in Latin; and B. a discussion of Celan’s best known poem, “Todesfuge,” or “Deathfuge,” which readers may have already recognized bits of appearing in the novel as early as chapter 2.

I don’t want to give anything away.  I do want to post here to say that I found myself reading Rakow’s sets of notes at the end while I was reading the text of The Memory Room.  You may want to know that this gave me a readerly sense, then, of struggling along, of going back and forth, with the protagonist to remember, to try to keep track of, important and significant details.

For this post, I’m mainly interested in sharing with you the last bit that Rakow shares with her readers, her final paragraph before she goes even further to share with us Paul Celan‘s “Todesfuge” in the particular English translation she chose.  What is noteworthy is the attention that novelist Rakow gives to the decisions of translator John Felstiner.  (The translation first appeared in Felstiner’s, Paul Celan: Poet, Survivor, Jew [Yale UP 1995], winner of the Truman Capote Prize for Literary Criticism, and finalist for the National Book Critics Circle award and the MLA’s James Russell Lowell prize.).

[By the way, Seth notes this update, which at his suggestion I happily include in this post:  Rakow has her own website, and a blog linked from it, here:]

So, without further ado, here is what Rakow offers at the end of her novel:


The problem, and the genius of this translation, is that the words Felstiner leaves untranslated are words a person may not wish to know.  One feels a sense of having one’s own speech defiled.  One feels repulsion at what one has just learned rather innocently.  It is even possible to feel one’s innocence, itself, robbed, i.e. the innocence with which one came to the poem.  In this minute experience, one comes perhaps a little closer to understanding Celan’s deepest predicament, feeling in some sense his profound ambivalence toward the language that was his true and only home, the German language, his mother tongue, which was, due to the recent events, both a murderous and a murdered language, a defiling and defiled language.  Felstiner’s most recent translation, found in Selected Poems and Prose of Paul Celan [Norton, 2001, winner of the MLA’s biennial Lois Roth Award for Translation of a Literary Work, the American Translators Association’s biennial award for German translation, PEN West’s prize for literary translation, and runner-up for American PEN’s translation award, the Helen and Kurt Wolff Prize, and the British Society of Authors’ Schlegel-Tieck prize], is as follows:


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 where 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 Margareta
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

Black milk of daybreak we drink you at night
we drink you at morning and midday we drink you at evening
we drink and we drink
A man lives in the house he plays with his vipers he writes
he writes when it grows dark to Deutschland your golden hair Margareta
your ashen hair Shulamith we shovel a grave in the air
……..where you won’t lie too cramped

He shouts dig this earth deeper you lot there you others sing up and play
he grabs for the rod in his belt he swings it his eyes are blue
jab your spades deeper you lot there you others play on for the dancing

Black milk of daybreak we drink you at night
we drink you at midday and morning we drink you at evening
we drink and we drink
a man lives in the house your goldenes Haar Margareta
your aschenes Haar Shulamith he plays with his vipers

He shouts play death more sweetly Death is a master from Deutschland
he shouts scrape your strings darker you’ll rise then in smoke to the sky
you’ll have a grave then in the clouds there you won’t lie too cramped

Black milk of daybreak we drink you at night
we drink you at midday Death is a master aus Deutschland
we drink you at evening and morning we drink and we drink
this Death is ein Meister aus Deutschland his eye it is blue
he shoots you with shot made of lead shoots you level and true
a man lives in the house your goldenes Haar Margarete
he looses his hounds on us grants us a grave in the air
he plays with his vipers and daydreams der Tod is ein Meister aus

dein goldenes Haar Margarete
dein aschenes Haar Shulamith

15 Comments leave one →
  1. February 23, 2012 2:46 am

    Thanks for pointing out Rakow’s and Felstiner’s books– I’m looking forward to reading them.

  2. February 23, 2012 5:29 pm

    Thanks for reading the post. I would love to hear what you think when reading Rakow’s and Felstiner’s works! Hope you’ll comment on them sometime. (My eldest daughter recommended Rakow’s novel to me because she absolutely loves it but didn’t yet know anyone else who’d read it. We’ve been talking about it for some time now; it’s so very rich. And Rakow, as the post tried to show, is such a good reader herself!)

  3. February 24, 2012 4:06 am

    Wonderful–that is a conversation I would love to have! I don’t know how I managed to miss those books, so I was very glad to hear about them. It seems that the concept of translation and the inadequacy of language is at the heart of Celan’s work, so that a translation OF Celan has to be even more conscious of itself as translation than is typical even for good “translations” (insofar as they exist as such) of poetry.

    (I experiment with that idea in “Notes on Some Sculptures by Paul Celan,” a little poem from my first book. Happy to post it here, if you like.)

  4. February 24, 2012 6:23 am

    Oh, please do post your “Notes on Some Sculptures by Paul Celan.” Would you mind making that into a guest post, in which you provide both your poem and also some commentary on and around it? That certainly shouldn’t just be a comment at this blog but should be a post to itself. Please feel free to email me jkgayle at gmail dot com what you’d like to guest post here, and we would be honored to publish that here.

    Your comment here on Celan and on translation OF Celan reminds me of something Sherry Simon has commented about translation OF Hélène Cixous:

    Only one paragraph [in Cixious’ own English translation of Cixious’s own French] seems to depart radically from this system of strict equivalences and coincidences. This is a paragraph where the question of Cixous’ Jewish identity is broached in a kind of paroxysm of anguished jubilation. What is the relation between women demonstrating in Iran against the veil and the “Jewish question”?

    La question des juifs. La question des femmes. La question des juifemmes. La questione della donnarance. A questāo das laranjas. The question: Juis-je juive ou fuis-je femme? Jouis-je judia ou suis-je mulher? Joy I donna? ou fruo filha? Fuis-je femme ou est-ce je me ré-juive?

    The question of the Jews. The question of women. The question of jewomen. A questāo das laranjudias. Della arancebrea. Am I enjewing myself? Or woe I woman? Win I woman, or wont I jew-ich? Joy I donna? Gioia jew? Or gioi am femme? Fruo. (Cixous 1979)

    Here we see Cixous writing across languages, moving from jubilation to lament, moving through English, French, Spanish, Portuguese and Italian [and dare we see German and transliterated classical Greek?], between Clarice Lispector and Joyce, in an outburst of ambivalent self-accusation. Here, the absence of any mechanical idea of equivalence between languages reinforces the dynamic of Cixous’ writing which is to create meaning in the spaces between words, in the interplay between them.

    The careful, restrained linguistic shadowing which prevails elsewhere in the text collapses entirely as the plurality of codes is equally produced in all languages. We are reminded here of Derrida’s question: can the process of transfer between texts already written in a plurality of tongues still be called translation? How to translate a text which is already infected by the multiplicity of language (Graham 1985:215)? In this passage, Cixous brings to the surface the tensions among identities through which her text is constructed. The unity of the speaking subject’s identity explodes, as does the unity of language. [pages 97 – 98, Gender in Translation: Cultural Identity and the Politics of Transmission]

  5. February 24, 2012 7:43 am

    Thank you for the generous invitation; I’d be honored to post here. I’ll email you.

    There’s a lot to think about in that Cixous quote and discussion—the wordplay reminds me of a poem I’ve just been driving myself crazy trying to dig up for you, but whose title and author I unfortunately can’t recall. It is by an African-American poet, and plays on language that comes close to a well-known racial slur without ever saying it.

  6. February 24, 2012 6:01 pm


    If you remember the poem, I’d love to read it! I remember “Aesthete in Harlem” by Langston Hughes makes a play of a slur.

    Look forward to reading what you email, and will post it!

  7. February 25, 2012 2:45 pm

    Got the poem! It’s “Denigration” by Harryette Mullen.
    Here’s a link:

  8. February 25, 2012 7:40 pm

    That’s an amazing poem, Courtney. Thanks for bringing it our attention. I have to say it made me incredibly uneasy.

  9. February 26, 2012 7:03 am

    Courtney, Thanks!

    Harryette Rommel Mullen is such an amazing poet. Her afrafeminist poetry provides important social commentary and powerful wordplay. (She grew up here in Fort Worth, where I work and live, and early in her career contributed to Texas poetry writing and even teaching.) Her social-critical work, as you may know, gets into the “Indelicate subjects” of “African-American women’s subjugated subjectivity” and “Gender and the subjugated body” and “race” – the titles and subtitles of some of her prose works.

    “Denigration” was first published in Mullen’s Sleeping with the Dictionary in 2002. None of us is surprised how that plays on “sleeping with the devil,” and the publisher’s blurb makes it clear how the hierarchies of the thesaurus and the dictionary play into this. There’s acknowledgment of how the latter “was compiled with the assistance of a democratic usage panel that included black poets Langston Hughes and Arna Bontemps, as well as feminist author and editor Gloria Steinem.” ( The book is reminiscent of Trey Ellis’s play on the PSAT (on the dominant culture language in the Preliminary Scholastic Aptitude Test) in his 1994 Platitudes. The poem’s reference to “the Ibo, the Hausa, and the Yoruba” reminds me some of what Ishmael Reed stresses as explicitly important in his American ebonics translation from D. O. Fagunwa’s Nigerian èdè Yorùbá called “Snake Wars.” The roots of denigration are also a passing reference (no pun intended) in the 2008 film, “The Great Debaters” (; Mullen’s poem, as you point out, is important because it plays on racial slurs without having to get us saying them aloud. The effect is the echo of the whispers of the words that still figure loudly in our time and our all-too-recent histories, unfortunately. The roots of words, the connections to histories and to horrors and responses, seem very important in the deconstruction of racism and of sexism. Thank you again for remembering the poem and for finding and linking to it here!

    PS – On “Aesthete in Harlem” by Langston Hughes, Noah Levin and Brian Mechanick offer some helpful annotations. The individual adjectival use of the slur by Hughes in his poem really stresses place and life and how inseparable these are in the life of the individual, I think.

  10. Seth permalink
    June 11, 2012 11:50 am

    Hello J.K. ,

    Mary Rakow recently launched her new website in May, 2012. I wonder if you could link to it from your article?



  11. June 11, 2012 5:58 pm

    Many thanks, Seth! I had missed Mary Rakow’s website and, at your suggestion, have linked to it from the post above now. I can’t wait to show my daughter, who introduced me to The Memory Room and who herself is writing fiction.


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