Paul Celan’s house for Osip Mandelshtam’s Russian poem
  • Subhash Jaireth

If language is the house of being of a poem, what is the house in which a translated poem comes to reside? Following Paul Ricoeur, I call that metaphoric house the house of remembering and mourning. This is because translation, Ricoeur suggests, involves both the ‘work of remembering’ and the ‘work of mourning’. The work of a translator advances the original piece by ‘salvaging’ it but is also accompanied with ‘some acceptance of loss’. This loss he notes is where the seeds of mourning begin to sprout.

In this essay I discuss translation of Osip Mandelshtam’s Russian poems into German by Paul Celan. In 1958 Celan experienced a close encounter with Mandelshtam’s poetry, an encounter he began to describe as Begegnung (encounter). Celan began working with the poems in 1958 and, in less than one and a half years, translated 45 poems by the Russian poet.

In an essay, ‘The meridian’, Celan describes poetry as Gespräch, ‘a conversation or dialogue and often a despairing dialogue.’ I can spot traces of despair in Celan’s translation of Mandelshtam and this despair, I argue, is the source of mourning translators more often than not experience.

Keywords: Translation – Paul Celan – Osip Mandelshtam – Paul Ricoeur – Walter Benjamin

I wish to open this house of a translated poem neither with the poem nor its translation but with an etching. The etching is by Gisèle Celan-Lestrange (1927–1991), Paul Celan’s wife. The reasons are many, two of which are of critical significance: the first is based on my right or wrong belief that without her support much of what Celan wrote would not have happened in the manner it did; and secondly, the love Celan had for Lestrange and their son Eric was one of the reasons he was able to keep the ever present thought of death at bay. ‘What I have loved so far,’ he wrote to her in January 1952, ‘I have loved in order to be able to love you.’ (Celan 2005: 178).

And Celan loved poetry and loved translation. In a way Lestrange provided the hospitable home where the three, Celan, the poems and their translations, lived and flourished.

Lestrange studied drawing and etching in Paris and worked for many years in the atelier Lacourièr-Frélaut in Paris. Her etchings and drawings appeared in books of several well-known French poets but with Celan she had a special creative bond that made the two respond to each other’s work with empathy and delight.

In 1958 Lestrange created an etching that left a lasting impression on Celan. This is how John Felstiner, Celan’s translator and biographer, describes the etching: ‘This gray oblong, 12 inches by 16 inches, shows a scattering of slender straw like needles oriented diagonally from the top left. V-shapes thrust their points down toward the right, and splinters move against this. The effect is a magnetic pull with fragments contrary or converging. The etching was titled (by Celan) Rencontre-Begegnung (Encounter), counterpoising the artist’s French with the poet’s German’ (Felstiner 2001: 128).

Note that by suggesting a double, hyphenated title, Celan reveals the compulsive translator living inside him. Just one word in one language isn’t enough for him. A bridge has to be built between the two to bring them face to face, and the bridge is the hyphen. Interestingly, Felstiner adds his own bit by inviting the third interlocutor in the form of the English word Encounter.

I have no doubt that for Celan translation was a compulsion and a life-long obsession. The house of language he lived in was intensely polyphonic, inhabited by German, Romanian, Yiddish, Hebrew, French, Russian, and English languages. Describing the translator in him as ‘a rower of ferries carrying words and readers from one shore to the other’, he wished to be paid not only for the lines he translated ‘but also for the oar-strokes he had to perform’ (Felstiner 2001: 94).

Two volumes of Celan’s five-volume collected works represent his translations of more than 42 poets. He also translated Picasso’s play, a six-act farce Le désire attrapé par la queue (Desire caught by the tail), conceived as a gesture of resistance, and Jean Cayrol’s French narration of Alain Resnais’ Night and fog, the first documentary on Nazi death camps.

Translation, especially of Mandelshtam’s Russian poems, was described by Celan as ‘moving from darkness to darkness, likening the translation between lovers to that between poets’ (Felstiner 2001: 136). Translation and transference for him walked hand in hand because the two words shared the same root. However, the metaphor I like most is the one that Celan mentions to describe himself as an ‘Old-Metaphors-Dealer’. He used these words in place of his signature in a letter to his friend Walter Jens, who was writing an article in his support about the ill-fated case of plagiarism brought against Celan. In signing himself like this Celan was again showing himself as a translator by playing on the age-old Jewish trade of old-clothes dealer (Felstiner 2001: 177).

The year Lestrange created her etching, also turned out be the year when Celan experienced an encounter with Mandelshtam’s Russian poetry. He described the begegnung by referring to the metaphor of ‘message in a bottle’ which Mandelshtam had used in his essay, ‘On the interlocutor’. ‘A poem,’ writes Celan, ‘as a manifestation of language and thus essentially a dialogue, can be a message in a bottle, sent out in the, not always greatly hopeful belief that somewhere and sometime it could wash up on the land, on heartland perhaps’ (Celan 2001a: 396).

Celan picked up the ‘message in a bottle’ that Mandelshtam had set afloat and it entered his heartland. He became the secret addressee of Mandelshtam’s poetry and responded to it with his whole being. Because he was so overwhelmed by the encounter he couldn’t stop looking for yet more metaphors to describe it. He called it a ‘handshake’. ‘After what happened to both humankind and language between 1933 and 1945,’ he explained, ‘poetry more than ever meant a reaching out’ (Felstiner 2001: xvi). He reached out and Mandelshtam’s poetry invited him in and he became its cherished co-inhabitant. These poems and translations became for him ‘paths on which language gets a voice’; events that make them, ‘parts of a voice to a perceiving Thou. They are the paths which one walks searching for oneself … a kind of homecoming’ (Felstiner 2001: 164).

Celan began working on Mandelshtam’s poem in 1958 and within a year and a half he had translated 45 poems. During that time, he didn’t write anything of his own. Translation became the main focus and he worked hard with the texts. The closeness with which he read the original is shown by the remarks and notes he left on the pages and in between the lines. The original is laced with German phrases, flowing in and out of it and he doesn’t forget to mention dates when he worked on the lines. Felstiner calls the space of this co-inhabitation as a ‘deeply entered text’ (Felstiner 2001: 131).

In January 1959 he wrote to Gleb Struve, Mandelshtam’s Russian editor and publisher in exile in Europe, about his translations. Celan used to buy Mandelshtam’s books from Struve’s brother in Paris. In the letter he confessed:

may I say even here, right away, that Osip Mandelshtam lies closest to my heart? … I know scarcely any other Russian poet of his generation who in time like him, thought with and out of this time, thought it through to its end, in each of its moments, in its issues and happenings, in the words that faced issues and happenings and were to stand for them, at once open and hermetic. I’m simplifying – I know. Please just see in these lines … the impressions of my encounter with Mandelshtam’s poems: an impression of inalienable truth (Felstiner 2001: 133).

Celan’s German translations of Mandelshtam poems (Ossip Mandelstamm, Gedichte) were published in 1959 in Frankfurt am Main. Celan sent the book to Struve with a letter expressing his doubts that he may not have got some of the translations quite right. He assures Struve about the sincerity of his effort, ‘I think I may say that my translations testify to my steadfast effort at philologic exactness … Of course my chief concern, staying closest to the text, to translate what’s poetic in the poem, to render the form, the timbre of speaking.’ But to add more weight to this assurance, Celan quite humbly adds, ‘may I also mention here that I myself write poems?’ (Felstiner 1995: 134).

For his book of translation Celan also compiled a brief note about Mandelshtam’s poetry. A part of the note reads: ‘… for Osip Mandelshtam, born in 1891, a poem is the place where what can be perceived and attained through language gathers around that core from which it gains form and truth: around this individual’s very being, which challenges his own hour and the world’s, his heartbeat and his aeon. All this is to say how much a Mandelshtam poem, a ruined man’s poem now brought to light again out of is ruins, concerns us today’ (Felstiner 2001: 135).

By publishing the German translation of Mandelshtam’s poem Celan wanted to bring to light poetry he considered to have truth at its core. He wanted it to endure, be remembered, celebrated and mourned.

Celan must have received a positive response from Struve because in his reply to Struve he thanks the unexpected begegnung he had experienced with Mandelshtam’s poetry, ‘rarely have I had, as with his poetry, the sense of making my way – making my way alongside the Irrefutable and the True, and it’s thanks to him’ (Felstiner 2001: 136).

A book of translations however, wasn’t quite enough for Celan. He soon prepared a radio feature in German about Mandelshtam and his poetry. The feature was structured as a dialogue between two speakers interlaced with Celan’s German translations. In the feature he calls Mandelshtam’s poems ‘sketches for existence,’ which draw the reader into a conversation where the ‘addressed constitutes itself, becomes present, gathers itself around the I that addresses and names it. But the addressed, through naming, as it were, becomes you, brings the otherness and strangeness into this present. Yet even in the here and now of the poem, even in this immediacy and nearness it lets its distance have its say too, it guards what is most its own: its time’ (Celan 2006: 4).

For Celan encountering a poem (a message in the bottle) is the initiation of a conversation where the interlocutors (poet and the chosen by chance addressee) come together to share as well as keep whatever they have brought. Celan, Felstiner remarks, loved a quote from one of Mandelshtam’s essays which said, ‘the word is flesh and bread. It shares the fate of bread and flesh: suffering’ (Mandelshtam 1991: 22). If for Mandelshtam the sharing of a poem was nothing less than a sacred communion where the substance that is partaken is each other’s suffering, Celan has no problem in accepting the invitation to contribute and share.

How were these translations received and responded to? Heidegger commenting on one of the poems thought that Celan had unnecessarily ‘Judaized’ some of them (Felstiner 2001: 133). Nazheda Mandelshtam, Mandelshtam’s wife (one of his most critical and empathetic readers and preserver of his poetry) read the translation and sent a postcard thanking Celan ‘for his work and closeness in tone,’ but she later changed her mind calling them and the English translation by Robert Lowell ‘as very free’ versions and a ‘very far cry from the original text’ (Felstiner 2001: 133).

I can imagine how hard it would have been to satisfy and please Nazheda Mandelshtam. For her each word had a special meaning, shadowed by life lived with them, often, as they emerged. She was a witness, not a mere reader or listener. And her association with them continued until she herself passed away. For her, they were truly the bread, flesh and wine she had agreed to partake with Mandelshtam.


One of the forty-five poems translated by Celan is quite dear to me. I have lived with this poem and the poem has lived in me for over 25 years. It was read to me one late afternoon in Moscow in 1993 by Leonid Vidgoff, a Russian literary critic and a lover of Mandelshtam’s poetry, in the front of the house where, he assured me, the poem was written in the second or third week in March 1931.

Mandelshtam and his wife Nazheda had returned to Moscow after spending some time in Armenia. However, to survive in Moscow wasn’t easy without work or a place to live. The two lived separately with the families of their respective brothers (Lekmanov 2009: 80). Oleg Lekmanov, one of Mandelshtam’s many biographers, notes that the first to hear the poem read by Mandelstam were his friends Vladimir Yakhantov, a well-known actor of the time, and his wife Lilya. Years later Yakhantov would recall that ‘like a poisoned wolf Mandelshtam was ready to burst into tears; no in fact he did burst into tears as he, after finishing the reading fell on the sofa.’ (Lekmanov 2009: 82).

However, Mandelshtam and Nazheda soon found a place to live in Moscow and their life, for a year or two, gained some semblance of stability and comfort. It went into turmoil after word had spread in Moscow about Mandelshtam’s rather offending poem about Stalin, (The Kremlin highlander) that he had composed in November 1933. Soon the noose tightened and on the night of 13 May 1934 Mandelshtam was arrested and sent into exile.

I am pleased to see that Celan didn’t overlook the poem I also like and love. It is often referred to as one of the four or five Wolf-cycle poems and has been frequently translated into English and many other languages. My own English translation has taken me three years and I know that my work on it is not finished. This hasn’t stopped me however, from undertaking a Hindi translation of the poem. The temptation to hear it read and sound in Hindi is too great to ignore. Moreover, a Hindi translation would not only provide a new house of hospitality for the poem but the poem by its presence would bless the house with beauty that often accompanies human suffering so honestly expressed.

Stylistically the poem is composed of four rhyming quatrains that generally follow the beat of an anapestic pentameter (two unstressed syllables followed by a stressed syllable: da da dum). This sound pattern seems to accentuate the ominous theme of the poem created by the use of images such as: ‘wolf-hound age’; ‘wolf’; ‘sickly smears’; ‘bloodied bones on the wheel’ and ‘stuffed schapka in the sleeve of an overcoat’. The poem is imagined to be set in Siberia where Mandelshtam had perhaps convinced himself he would meet his end. In Siberia, on the banks of the river Yenisei, the pines are so tall that they can reach the stars, the poet tells us, confessing at the same time that if he has to die, he wouldn’t mind losing his life at such a beautiful spot. But he has placed one condition expressed emphatically in the last two lines: ‘Potomu shto ne volk Ya po krovi sovei /[Because I’m no wolf by my own blood /] I menya tol’ko ravnyi ubiyot / [And I will be killed by someone equal to me /]’. He is no wolf, the poet says, and hence he doesn’t want to be killed by a wolf or like a wolf, but by a human who is human – like him.

For a translator the poem presents a challenge, not only because it’s so visually rich and sonically rhythmic but also because of the melancholic and tragic mood it creates. As a translator I feel that I need to work on it until I can achieve a satisfying consonance between the meaning, the mood and the soundscape of the poem.

I find Celan’s German translation far more convincing and emotionally effective than my own effort. Although none of the two translations follow the anapaestic pentameter of the original, Celan’s translation reproduces the rhyming pattern much more closely. Most other English translations of the poem I have read leave me cold because they fail to recreate the soundscape of the original poem.


In his essay The Task of the Translator, Walter Benjamin suggests that ‘languages are not strangers to one another,’ and that only translation can express the kinship of languages more clearly and profoundly (Benjamin 1992: 73). Maurice Blanchot adds an extra emphasis to the idea when he suggests that ‘each language, taken by itself, is incomplete’ (Blanchot 1997: 58).

Celan’s German translation and my effort in English discussed in this essay reveal the inherent kinship of three languages (Russian, German and English) but they also show how they offset losses and absences from each other. One can argue that two translations when read together with the Russian original augment the poetic fabric of the original by adding the poetic voices of its translators. The original poem begins to sound more polyphonic in the presence of its linguistic kith and kin. Perhaps that’s what Benjamin had in mind when he said that the main task of a translator is to ensure survival of the original to make it endure.

in his essay, ‘On translation’, adds Freudian embellishment to his reading of the task of a translator espoused by Benjamin. Translation, Ricoeur suggests involves both the ‘work of remembering’ and the ‘work of mourning’ (Ricoeur 2006: 21). The work done by a translator advances the original piece by ‘salvaging’ it for new readers, but is also associated with ‘some acceptance of loss’. This loss, he notes, is where the seeds of mourning begin to sprout.

Because translation reclaims and recoups the original piece, it adds a breath of fresh oxygen so that it can endure the ambush of time. Thus salvaged, the poem is ready to enjoy the hospitality of its linguistic kith and kin. This idea of linguistic hospitality delights me. The house in which a translated poem begins its new life, notes Ricoeur, is a place, where the pleasure of dwelling in the other’s language is balanced by the pleasure of receiving the foreign word at home, in one’s own welcoming house’ (Ricoeur 2006: 27).

Remembrance, salvaging, and survival of the original echo were what Benjamin wanted a translator to aim and hope for. It is nothing but good fortune that the original finds a translator because the encounter between the two creates the possibility for the original to live and endure. The encounter however, creates a tricky situation for the translator. The position she assumes isn’t of privilege but of precarious uncertainty, because as Jacques Derrida rather sternly notes in The ear of the other, she is ‘immediately indebted by the existence of the original,’ and hence obliged to ‘submit to its laws,’ and remain ‘duty-bound to do something for the original; the translator must assure survival, which is to say the growth, of the original’ (Derrida 1998: 72).

Hence I find some solace in the thought that it’s possible the loss in my English translation is recompensed by Celan’s much resonant translation and, perhaps, just may be, my translation returns the favour. Meanwhile I, like many other translators, have to learn to live with the feeling of loss and mourning.

In his radio feature about Mandelshtam, Celan describes begegnung with a poem as Gespräch, ‘a conversation or dialogue.’ But he also emphasises that ‘often it’s a despairing conversation.’ (Celan 2001b: 410). What is the source of this despair? Is it the poem itself or the way it is encountered?

In a letter he wrote but didn’t send to his French friend and poet Rene Char, I find words that express the despair he and other poets and readers might often experience. ‘I have always tried to understand you,’ Celan writes, ‘to respond to you, to take your work like one takes a hand; and it was, of course, my hand that took yours, there where it was certain not to miss the encounter. To that in your work which did not, or not yet, open up to my comprehension, I respond with respect and by waiting; one can never pretend to comprehend completely; that would be disrespect in the face of the unknown that inhabits or comes to inhabit the poet’ (Celan 2005: 184).

It’s the unknown inhabiting the poem and the poet and the way the two resist giving up their secrets which maps the despair Celan and much lesser poets like me feel. But what I like most in the letter is the way Celan asks me to be patient with a poem; to show it respect; to honour the way it resists, and to wait.

I find an example of this waiting for the poem to open up in Celan’s attempt to translate one of Mandelshtam’s Russian poems composed in April 1932, almost a year after the Wolf-cycle poem I have discussed earlier was written. Celan began working on the poem but gave up after translating only one line: the seventh line of a poem consisting of three rhymed quatrains. The first line of the poem: ‘O, kak my lyubim litsemerich [Oh, how we love to posture]’ expresses the mood in which the poem was most probably written. Celan only translated the seventh line of the poem, ‘I Ya odin na vsekh putyakh [And I am alone on all paths]’. The line in his translation reads: ‘Und bin allein und bins auf allen wegen [And I am alone and alone on all paths]’. The rest of the translation of the poem didn’t happen. The German abode of hospitality it was looking for remained elusive.

Why did Celan give up? Was the poem too complex or too simple? Was it too confronting?

As an inept translator I have kept with me an endless number of poems that remain partially translated. They sit in my files like refugees waiting for safe homes. My despair forces me to call my attempts as failures. But are they really failures? Wouldn’t it be a consolation to call them ‘not-yet-understood’ poems? Poems for which translators often wait for the moment when the poem and the poet will stretch their hands for a handshake with the translator?


In 1941 when the German army invaded Romania and the Ukraine, Celan was sent to a labour ghetto in Czernowitz. Felstiner mentions that during those months of forced labour Celan often recited his German translation of Shakespeare’s sonnets to other inmates. His notebook in the ghetto also provided a refuge to a German translation of Shakespeare’s sonnet 57 which begins with the words: ‘Being your slave, what should I do but tend’ (Felstiner 2001: 206).

Mandelshtam, most probably, wasn’t allowed to carry a notebook with him to Siberia in 1938. His poems and translations he did of other poems went with him in the book one calls memory. Like Celan he too loved to entertain his fellow-exiles and prisoners by reading them poems. Lovers of Mandelshtam’s poetry often cite an article by Il’ya Erenburg, a Soviet-Russian writer, published in a Moscow magazine in 1952 in which Erenburg reported what two separate witness in the Siberian camp had told him: ‘when Mandelshtam was in a good mood he used to read us sonnets of Petrarca, first in Italian followed by Russian translations by other poets including his own’ (Neller 2015: 1).

The metaphoric house in which poems translated by Celan and Mandelshtam lived hospitably and happily travelled with them; it even went to prisons and death camps. And there the poems shook hands with others, inviting them in, and making them feel joyous, albeit, for a moment. This is because the house they inhabited wasn’t of bricks and mortar but a peaceable shelter of poet-wayfarers.


I am grateful to Roger Hilman for explaining the use of a few German words in Paul Celan’s unfinished translation of Mandelshtam’s poem. Jane Healey kindly read an earlier version of the essay. I thank her for her comments.



За гремучую доблесть грядущих веков,
За высокое племя людей,--
Я лишился и чаши на пире отцов,
И веселья, и чести своей.

Мне на плечи кидается век-волкодав,
Но не волк я по крови своей:
Запихай меня лучше, как шапку, в рукав
Жаркой шубы сибирских степей...

Чтоб не видеть ни труса, ни хлипкой грязцы,
Ни кровавых костей в колесе;
Чтоб сияли всю ночь голубые песцы
Мне в своей первобытной красе.

Уведи меня в ночь, где течёт Енисей
И сосна до звезды достает
Потому что не волк я по крови своей
И меня только равный убьет.

17-18 March 1931; (Mandelshtam 1991: 162)

Paul Celan’s German translation

Den steigenden zeiten zum höheren Ruhm,
dir, Mensch, zur unsterblichen Glorie,
kam ich, als die Väter tafelten, um
den Kelch; gingen Frohsinn und Ehre verloren.

Mein Wolfshund–Jahrhundert, mich packts, mich befällts –
doch bin ich nicht wölfischen Bluts.
Mich Mütze – stopf mich in den Ärmel, den Pelz
sibirischer Steppenglut.

Daß dem Aug, das Kleinmut und Jauche geschaut,
das Rad mit den Blutknochen–Naben,
nachtlang der Sternhund am Himmel erblaut,
schön wie am Ursprungsabend.

Zum Jenissej führ mich, zur Nacht seiner Welt,
zur Tanne, die morgenhin fand.
Denn ich bin nicht von wölfischem Blut, und mich fält
nur die ebenbürtige Hand.

(Celan 1983: 153)

My English translation from Russian (unpublished)

In the name of the heroics of coming ages,
And in the name of my exalted tribe
I lost at the feast of my fathers, my cup,
My will to be merry and even my pride.

At my shoulders the wolf of an evil age leaps,
Though I’m no wolf and no such blood in my veins,
Stuff me better like a schapka in the sleeve
Of a warm fur coat from the Siberian plains.

Because I don’t wish to witness the dread
Sickly smears nor bloodied bones on the wheel,
I wish to enjoy the glow of polar foxes instead,
Gazing at me in their primal glory and steel.

Lead me in the night to the banks of the Yenisei,
Where the star is touched by the pine,
Because I’m no wolf and no such blood in my veins,
I shall be killed by someone of my own kind.


Works cited: 

Benjamin, W 1992 ‘The task of the translator’, in Illuminations (transl Harry Zohn), London: Fontana Press, 70-82

Blanchot, M 1997 ‘Translating’, in Friendship (transl Elizabeth Rottenberg), Stanford, Stanford University Press.

Celan, P 2006 ‘The poetry of Osip Mandelstam: A radio play’ (transl from German by Pierre Joris) in Jacket 2, February 5:

Celan, P 2005 Selections (ed, and introduction, by Pierre Joris), Berkeley: University of California Press, 230

Celan, P 2001a ‘Speech on the occasion of receiving the Literature Prize of the free Hanseatic city of Bremen’, in Selected poems and prose by Paul Celan (translated by John Felstiner) New York: WW Norton, 395-396

Celan, P 2001b ‘The Meridian: Speech on the occasion of the award of the Georg Büchner Prize, in Selected poems and prose by Paul Celan (transl by John Felstiner) New York: WW Norton, 401-414

Celan, P 1983 Gesammelte werke in fünf bänden fünfter band, Ubertragungen II Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp Verlag, 665.

Derrida, J 1988 The ear of the other: Otobiographies, transference, translation: texts and discussions with Jacques Derrida, (ed C McDonald, transl P Kamuf), Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press

Felstiner, J 2001 Paul Celan: Poet, survivor, jew, New Haven: Yale University, 344

Glazova, A 2008 ‘Poetry of bringing about presence: Paul Celan translates Osip Mandelshtam’, in MLN, 123, 5, 1108-1126

Lekmanov, O 2009 Osip Mandelshtam: Life of the poet (in Russian), Moscow: Molodaya Gvardiya, 387

Mandelshtam, O 1991 ‘Slova i Kul’tura’ (‘Word and culture’) in Olschner, L ‘Poetic mutations of silence: At the nexus of Paul Celan and Osip Mandelstam’, in Aris Fioretos (ed) 1994 Word traces: Readings of Paul Celan, Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 369-385

Mandelshtam, O 1991 Collected works, volume 1: Ooems, Moscow, Terra-Terra (eds GP Struve and BA Philippova; in Russian)

Neller, P 2015 ‘Petrarca, Mandelshtam and Yu Aleshkovskii (in Russian)’ in Novaya Gazeta:

Ricoeur, P 2006 On translation, Milton Park: Routledge, 53