9/11, a Translator’s View

Yesterday morning I wrote on The Berlin Blog – a blog I started writing when I was spending more time in Berlin than I do now – about what it felt like to be living in Berlin on September 11, 2001. Almost immediately after posting the piece, I received a query from the online journal of international literature Words without Borders asking whether I would like to write something for them on the topic. And immediately I realized that I had only begun to scratch the surface of what I had to say about that year spent on sabbatical in Berlin – about the way the sadness of that September became tied up with the works I was writing about and translating, above all in the case of Peter Szondi’s Celan Studies. This was a book Peter Szondi began writing out of grief after his beloved friend Paul Celan took his own life in 1970. Szondi, who himself suffered from depression, did not live to see the completion of this project. He died by his own hand in Berlin a year and a half later, leaving one of the book’s essays, “Eden,” unfinished. “Eden” maps out a reading steeped in despair. It is an essay about Celan’s poem “Du liegst im großen Gelausche…” – a poem that is paradoxically, between the lines, an invitation to suicide. Paradoxically: because the argument the poem makes is that one’s death will make no difference in the world, in fact it will not even be noticed. The poem concludes with the lines, “The Landwehr Canal will not murmur. / Nothing / stops.” The Landwehr Canal in Berlin is where the soldiers who murdered Rosa Luxemburg in 1919 – after holding her for several hours at the ironically named Hotel Eden – dumped her body. And the two last words of Celan’s poem come from Georg Büchner’s great play Dantons Tod (The Death of Danton) about how the French Revolution, which began in idealism and valor, devolved into murderous chaos; they are spoken by the wife of one of Danton’s slain confederates as she expresses her shock and horror that even after his death the world can go on as before. This was powerful material to be translating and writing about in the wake of the terrorist attacks that September. And my year in Berlin ended just as sadly as it began, when my friend and mentor William Weaver – the great translator of Italo Calvino, Umberto Eco, Italo Svevo and many others – suffered a massive stroke. All the sadness of that year brought together personal, professional and political concerns. Here is what I wrote for Words without Borders about this year of loss.

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