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Paul Celan: Modern English Translations of Holocaust Poems

These are modern English translations of Holocaust poems written in German by Paul Celan, the pen name 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 for their executioners by singing and dancing are true; that actually happened in the extermination camps.

As Shoshana Olidort noted, Paul Celan wrote Holocaust poems in the mother tongue of his mother's murderers. He received the Bremen Prize for German Literature in 1958 and the Georg Buchner Prize in 1960. Celan suffered from depression and committed suicide in 1970.



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

Black milk of daybreak, we drink you come dusk;
we drink you come midday, come morning, come night;
we drink you and drink you.
We’re 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 composes by starlight, 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 come dusk;
we drink you come dawn, come midday, come night;
we drink you and drink you.
The man of the house plays with serpents; he writes ...
he writes as 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, “Hey you, dig there!” and “Hey you, sing and dance!”
He grabs his black nightstick, his eyes pallid blue,
screaming, “Hey you—dig deeper! You others—sing, dance!”

Black milk of daybreak, we drink you come dusk;
we drink you come midday, come morning, come night;
we drink you and drink you.
The man of the house writes, “Your golden hair Margarete ...
Your ashen hair Shulamith ...” as he cultivates snakes.
He screams, “Play Death more sweetly! Death’s the master of Germany!”
He cries, “Scrape those dark strings, soon like black smoke you’ll rise
to your graves in the skies; there’s sufficient room for Jews there!”

Black milk of daybreak, we drink you come midnight;
we drink you come midday; Death’s the master of Germany!
We drink you come dusk; we drink you and drink you ...
He’s a master of Death, his pale eyes deathly blue.
He fires leaden slugs, his aim level and true.
He writes as the night falls, “Your golden hair Margarete ...”
He unleashes his hounds, grants us graves in the skies.
He plays with his serpents; Death’s the master of Germany ...

“Your golden hair Margarete ...
your ashen hair Shulamith ...”



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

O, little root of a dream
you enmire me here;
I’m undermined by blood—
made invisible,
death's possession.

Touch the curve of my face,
that there may yet be an earthly language of ardor,
that someone else’s eyes
may somehow still see me,
though I’m blind,

here where you
deny me voice.



You Were My Death
by Paul Celan
loose translation/interpretation 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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