Flashes of An Eye (Paul Celan)

Gisèle Celan-Lestrange, 1975

Ian Fairley translates Paul Celan’s Augenblicke as follows:

Instants whose eyewink
no brightness sleeps.
Increate, in every place,
gather yourself,
stay.

Whereas Pierre Joris:

Eye-glances, whose winks,
no brightness sleeps.
Undebecome, everywhere,
gather yourself,
stand.

Reading this the first few times, I thought increate a neologism, but the OED tells me it means “not created, uncreated: said of divine beings or attributes”, and quotes Milton’s Bright effluence of bright essence increate (Paradise Lost). In the original the word is unentworden. Where Fairley makes a recondite choice, Joris goes for undebecome, a neologism, presumably a literal translation of the German. In her book on Celan, Beckett and Eliot, Shira Wolosky opts for Un-dis-becoming. Fairley’s choice of ‘increate’ seems an elegant choice, especially with its Miltonian reference to uncreated Beings.

Esther Cameron, a poet who studied and was influenced by Celan: “I have seen a postcard, written in the last months of [Celan’s] life, whose message consisted of one word: ‘Standing’.”

As a poem I think I prefer Fairley’s translation (with some hesitation around eyewink), though I cannot attest to how much of Celan remains. It doesn’t seem that Michael Hamburger or David Young translated this poem. Celan’s often abstruse poems, like Montale’s, raise the question as to how much a translator needs to understand a poem to be able to retain the poet’s intention. I try to read as many translations as I am able to get a sense of what Celan intended.

Celan’s work comes unannotated, without footnotes, so reading his prose and letters is important to get something from the poems. He cared immensely about etymology and forces an attentive reader to do the same, or perhaps attracts readers with such tendencies. It is possible to spend hours pursuing a phrase or a single word, which is part of the pleasure of the encounter with this poetry.

In his Meridian speech, Celan said, “the poem holds on at the edge of itself; so as to exist, it ceaselessly calls and hauls itself from its Now-no-more back into its Ever-yet”. Celan’s frustration with language pushes him out of language, a reflection that the fundamental reality of being human is itself beyond expression.

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