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Paul Celan: Modern English Translations

These are modern English translations of Holocaust poems written in German by Paul Celan, the penname of Paul Antschel (1920-1970). Celan was born in Romania to German-speaking Jewish parents. His mother and father died in Nazi death camps and Celan was a concentration camp prisoner himself for eighteen months before escaping to join the Red Army. The first poem below, "Death Fugue" ("Todesfuge" in the original German) is one of the most famous Holocaust poems, with its haunting refrain of a German "master of death" who kills Jews by day but writes "Your golden hair Margarete" poetically by starlight. The poem demonstrates how terrible things can become when one human being is granted absolute power over other human beings. Perhaps even more horribly, the poem demonstrates how mass murderers can carry on "ordinary" lives and even compose love poems amid the mayhem. The parts of the poem about Jews being forced to perform by singing and dancing are true; this actually happened in the extermination camps.



Death Fugue
by Paul Celan
loose translation by Michael R. Burch

Black milk of daybreak, we drink it come morning;
we drink it come midday; we drink it, come night;
we drink it and drink it.
We are digging a grave like a hole in the sky; there’s sufficient room to lie there.
The man of the house plays with vipers; he writes
in the Teutonic darkness, "Your golden hair Margarete ..."
He writes poems by the stars, whistles hounds to stand by,
whistles Jews to dig graves, where together they’ll lie.
He commands us to strike up bright tunes for the dance!

Black milk of daybreak, we drink you each morning;
we drink you at midday; we drink you at night;
we drink you and drink you.
The man of the house plays with serpents, he writes ...
he writes when the night falls, "Your golden hair Margarete ...
Your ashen hair Shulamith ..."
We are digging dark graves where there’s more room, on high.
His screams, "You dig there!" and "Hey you, dance and sing!"
He grabs his black nightstick, his eyes pallid blue,
cries, "Hey you, dig more deeply! You others, keep dancing!"

Black milk of daybreak, we drink you each morning;
we drink you at midday, we drink you at night;
we drink you and drink you.
The man of the house writes, "Your golden hair Margarete ...
Your ashen hair Shulamith." He toys with our lives.
He screams, "Play for me! Death’s a master of Germany!"
His screams, "Stroke dark strings, soon like black smoke you’ll rise
to a grave in the clouds; there’s sufficient room for Jews there!"

Black milk of daybreak, we drink you at midnight;
we drink you at noon; Death’s the master of Germany!
We drink you come evening; we drink you and drink you.
A master of Deutschland, with eyes deathly blue,
with dull bullets of lead our pale master will murder you!
He writes when the night falls, "Your golden hair Margarete ..."
He unleashes his hounds, grants us graves in the skies.
He plays with his serpents; he’s a master of Germany ...

your golden hair Margarete ...
your ashen hair Shulamith.


 
O, Little Root of a Dream
by Paul Celan
loose translation by Michael R. Burch

O, little root of a dream
you enmire me here;
I’m undermined by blood —
no longer seen,
enslaved by death.

Touch the curve of my face,
that there may yet be an earthly language of ardor,
that someone’s eyes
may see yet see me,
though I’m blind,
here where you
deny me voice.



You Were My Death
by Paul Celan
loose translation by Michael R. Burch

You were my death;
I could hold you
when everything abandoned me —
even breath.



The following are links to other translations by Michael R. Burch:

Wulf and Eadwacer
Sweet Rose of Virtue
How Long the Night
Caedmon's Hymn
The Wife's Lament
Deor's Lament
Lament for the Makaris
Ancient Greek Epigrams and Epitaphs
Basho
Oriental Masters/Haiku
Sappho
Miklós Radnóti
Rainer Maria Rilke
Marina Tsvetaeva
Renée Vivien
Ono no Komachi
Allama Iqbal
Bertolt Brecht
Ber Horvitz
Paul Celan
Primo Levi
Tegner's Drapa

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