Remembering John Felstiner

Last February, translator, author, and scholar John Felstiner passed away at the age of 80. Aviya Kushner wrote these words in his memory:

I found John Felstiner’s translations of Paul Celan’s poetry at the bottom of a bonus box of books sent to me to review. At the time, I had a wonderful editor who mailed me a monthly box containing all the new poetry books published in this country. Occasionally, he sent me a bonus—all the translations he could get his hands on, or biographies of poets, or books that made him think of me, like a coveted review copy of Nathan Englander’s For the Relief of Unbearable Urges. Slogging through dozens of those books, I learned how much dull and unreadable work there is in the world—and in that particularly challenging month, when I encountered absolutely nothing I wanted to review, I was down to the very last two books in the bonus box.

I remember fanning myself with a piece of paper in my unairconditioned apartment in Somerville, Massachusetts, and hoping for something decent. The other remaining book turned out to be a biography of Celan titled Poet, Survivor, Jew, and it was also written by Felstiner. I knew within a few pages that I would reread both books throughout my entire life.

Felstiner’s obsession with Celan was deep, dogged, personal. The two books weren’t just decent or worthy of review—they were essential. Celan’s need to witness and to scream had found a parallel spirit in Felstiner, who as both translator and biographer, did not want that scream to go quiet into the night.

With Felstiner as my guide, I read about how Celan, born in Romania and haunted by all he had seen, insisted on writing his poetry of witness in German—at a time when millions of Jews refused to speak German, hear German music, or even buy German products. Celan’s very individual decision to become a great poet in German, of all tongues, was matched by the passion of his most unique translator into English, who would stop at nothing to make Celan heard—and would even turn to including German in his English translations, if that’s what it took to translate Celan. And when Felstiner, who taught both English literature and Jewish studies, encountered Hebrew words or references to Jewish text and thought in Celan’s work or papers, he translated those elements, too.

But all this was only half of Felstiner’s project. I think it’s important to remember John Felstiner as a prose writer, not just as a translator. In the annals of great prefaces to translations, and great biographies of writers by translators, Felstiner’s lifelong commitment to Celan deserves a hefty chapter. I will never forget reading about how Felstiner befriended the poet’s wife, Gisèle, convincing her to let him look through Celan’s library. He comes across a well-read copy of the Tanach, the Hebrew Bible. But once when he’s leafing through books in the middle of the night, Gisèle comes into the room, looks at the volume in his hands, and says ‘no.’

Because Felstiner had a background in both English literature and Jewish studies, he could put Celan’s work in context for the English-speaking reader, catching references to Jewish text and thought, and translating the Hebrew words he comes across Hebrew words in the margins; he transmits that to the reader too.

Felstiner is best known for his translation of Celan’s “Todesfugue” or “Deathfugue,” arguably the most famous poem of the Holocaust. (The other contender, in my mind, is “In A Sealed Railway Car” by Dan Pagis, the great Hebrew poet and scholar of medieval Hebrew literature.) In “Deathfugue,” which begins with the unforgettable lines “Black milk of daybreak we drink it at evening / we drink it at midday and morning we drink it at night / we drink and we drink,” Felstiner leaves some words in German in his translation. This decision brings the reader in, including the reader in Celan’s experience, and when I have taught this poem, it is the elements students seem to notice most often.

But my favorite Felstiner translation is a less dramatic poem, but one that feels gentle and urgent— like Felstiner’s overall approach to both translating Celan and writing his biography. The poem is “Count Up the Almonds” and Felstiner renders its opening like this:

Count up the almonds,
count what was bitter and kept you waking,
count me in too:

I always return to those lines, especially the second line—“count what was bitter and kept you waking.” What Felstiner did, with his decades-long Celan obsession, was count English readers, in, too—letting us feel not only what kept Celan waking, but what kept his wife waking, and what it felt like to wake up in Celan’s home, in the middle of the night.

And yet it must be said: Felstiner was gracious. I received this impression from his writing, and it was exactly how he seemed in person, when I heard him speak about translation at Boston University and patiently answer dozens of student questions. He was singularly motivated to bring Celan into English, but he did not go where he was not allowed to go. When the poet’s wife said no, the translator-biographer obeyed—but he also told readers about it. In his translations and in his prose, Felstiner counted the reader in, remembering the reader always, along with the almonds.

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Aviya Kushner is the author of The Grammar of God (Spiegel & Grau) and The Forward’s language columnist. She is an associate professor at Columbia College Chicago and a Howard Foundation fellow in nonfiction.

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