Freitag, 12. November 2010

Celan's Jabberwocky Translation

Funklös, so war's, und Glitschodeme
Rotierten und raplantschten rum,
Das Burgtier tat, als ob's sich schäme,
Ein Ratz war laut und einer stumm.
(trans. Paul Celan & Guido G. Meister, 1964)

(the original)
`Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe:
All mimsy were the borogoves,
And the mome raths outgrabe.

(For comparison with other German translations of the poem, see here.)

Although few would likely wish to call Celan's writing nonsense poetry -- there is little that is playful about his experiments with language -- it is unsurprising that he would have found the work of Carroll and Khlebnikov intriguing. (I'll see if I can find and post a sample of his Khlebnikov translations at some point, although my Russian would probably not be adequate to comment on the original).

What is particularly interesting about this translation is that, as Olschner (from whose study the poem fragment is taken) rightly observes, it is not necessarily immediately recognizable as the opening of Jabberwocky, except for the plethora of neologisms. The situation it describes does not seem to be Carroll's pseudo-pastoral landscape, but something different, particularly in the second half of the quartet.

The sense of a shift in meaning from the original is of course typical of Celan's translations. While he generally maintains the words which appear in the original, and frequently syntactical or rhetorical figures as well, there is often a sense that the poem has been taken apart and put back together in such a way that new sets of meaning come to the surface.

In relation to nonsense poetry, it is significant that this effect can still be produced even when there are few recognizable content words. Carroll provides certain cues -- eg. the "'twas" at the beginning, the inverted word order in line three -- which mimic specific literary conventions and encourage us to read the poem a certain way. Celan departs from his model partly by omitting thes cues, partly by making syntactical changes in the poem. He breaks up the simple coordination of the first line with the "so war's" and again in line three by adding a subordinate clause. In lines three and four he replaces a nonsense adjective and a nonsense verb with actual German words, and adds a contrast in line four where none exists in the original. Incidentally, neither "schämen" or "laut/stumm" are associations that seem likely to occur to an English speaker presented with "mimsy" and "outgrabe". Line two, with its motion verbs and alliteration, comes closest to the effect created in Carroll's poem. Some of the neologisms are quite clever -- "Burgtier" for "borogove", "Glitsch-" for "slithy". One is inclined to conclude that Celan here, as so often, is transforming the poem as much as translating it.

References: Olschner, Leonard Moore. Der feste Buchstab. Erläuterungen zu Paul Celans Gedichtübertragungen. Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1985.

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