Paul Celan Speaks Japanese

Back in 2009 the Stanford University based journal Mantis asked me to translate one of my very favorite essays by Yoko Tawada, “Celan Reads Japanese,” for their special feature “Remembering Celan.” Tawada, author of The Naked Eye, Where Europe Begins and other wonderful books, has always been interested in the intersections of different cultures, and this is perfect material for her. In her essay, she reads the Japanese translations done by Mitsuo Iiyoshi of Paul Celan’s book of poems Von Schwelle zu Schwelle (From threshold to threshold) and discusses the particular constellation of subtexts specific to the Japanese  translation that Iiyoshi establishes over the course of the book. These poems place heavy emphasis on ideograms based on the radical 門 (meaning ‘gate’ or ‘gateway’), including ideograms that would translate into English as “to hear” (聞) “to gleam” (閃), “darkness” (闇) and, yes, “threshold” (閾) – all concepts fundamental to Celan’s poetic universe. I won’t repeat Tawada’s entire argument here – her essay is short and very much worth reading – but suffice it to say that I think her analysis of these Japanese-language poems is not only exceptionally insightful as an instance of close reading but illuminates something crucial to remember about literary translation: It invariably creates a new text of its own in the target language, and that gives the translator opportunity to play with linguistic constructions that build on and enrich the text. I’ve done some of this quite consciously in the past, e.g. by adding English-language intertextuality that helps to situate a work in its new linguistic context. And now Tawada’s essay has appeared in a new linguistic context as well: The London-based journal The White Journal has just reprinted the essay on its website, and you can read it there in its entirety. I hope you will, and do let me know what you think.

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  1. It’s a shame that Borges is no longer with us, because he would have loved this. I’ve always enjoyed Celan’s poetry, but when it comes to puzzling out a “meaning” to it, I’m sometimes at a loss. I tend to read it as pure surrealism, and so it doesn’t matter if it doesn’t always make sense. Tawada’s gateways are downright mind-blowing. I especially like the image of the gateways placed one behind the other to form an arcade. It’s as if she’s taking the glittering surface of Celan’s poetry (a gateway, let’s say) and opening it up to reveal a long corridor behind it. It’s like a compacted telescope being stretched out to its full length. Thank you for translating this piece and for translating in general.

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