A Comparison of the Published Scholarly English Translations of Paul Celan's "Todesfuge" Open Access

Zhang, Zuoyu (Spring 2018)

Permanent URL: https://etd.library.emory.edu/concern/etds/736664496?locale=en


Paul Celan’s “Todesfuge” [“Deathfugue”] (1952) distinguishes itself as the most canonical Holocaust poem with its avant-garde modernist composition and Celan’s complex identity as a German-speaking Jew and Holocaust survivor. On one hand, its bare poetic diction and minimal rhetorical devices convey the daily nature of death in the concentration camps in a neutral and monotonous tone; on the other hand, its striking metaphor and imagery, pulsating rhythm, severe syntactical effects, and first-person narrative present the gruesome realities of the Holocaust in an accurate and poignant manner. 

Given the canonical status of “Todesfuge,” it has been of decade-long scholarly interests and importance to translate the poem from its original language, German, into various languages. Up to this date, there have been, in the English language alone, 15 published scholarly translations of “Todesfuge,” ever since its first publication in the German language in 1952. New translations have emerged every decade since the 1950s to the end of the twentieth century, with the exception of the 1980s. 

Due to the prolonged impact of “Todesfuge” and the large number of English translations, this study aims to identity the strengths and weaknesses of these 15 published scholarly English translations based on the translation strategy outlined by Sándor Hervey et al. in Thinking German Translation: A Course in Translation Method: German to English.

Table of Contents

I. Introduction                                                                                                                                   1

            a. “Todesfuge”—The Canonical Holocaust Poem                                                            1

            b. Paul Celan—German-speaking Jewish Poet and Holocaust Survivor                     2

            c. Subject of the Study                                                                                                      5

            d. Methodology of the Study                                                                                                6

II. The Cultural Filter                                                                                                                       9

III. The Formal Filter                                                                                                                     18

a.    The Formal Properties in the Original German Text                                                 18

i.              Phonic and Prosodic Features                                                                    18

a.    Phonic Features—A Hidden Pattern of Regularization and Reduction 18 

b.    A Special Prosodic Feature—the Recreation of the Fugue Form       22    

c.    The Significance of Recreating the Fugue Form                              29

d.    A Traditional Fugal Topic—Danse Macabre                                       30

e.    A Further Implication of the Fugue State in Psychiatry                  32

ii.            Grammatical and Lexical Features                                               33

iii.           Sentential and Inter-Sentential Features                                    36

b.    The Formal Properties in the Fifteen Published Scholarly English Translations     44

i.              Phonic and Prosodic Features                                                         44

ii.            Grammatical and Lexical Features                                                   48

a.    The Temporal Expressions                                                                 48

b.    Verb-Adverb Construction                                                                    53

c.    Tense                                                                                                  59

d.    “Schwarze Milch der Frühe”                                                                 60

e.    “Zum Tanz aufspielen”                                                                          63

iii.           Sentential and Inter-Sentential Features                                 67

IV. Conclusion                                                                                                 70

V. Bibliography                                                                                               71

VI. Appendix                                                                                                   74

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