Paul Celan: a new translation



Paul Celan was born in 1920 in Romania and committed suicide in Paris in 1970. He was a slave labourer under the Nazis and wrote one of the most famous poems about the death camps, "Todesfuge". Here is Clive James' description:

"It courts philistinism to say that Celan's best poem, "Todesfuge", is also his most accessible, but there is no way around the risk. Celan's usual hermeticism, his obliquity that amounts to an insoluble encryption, was a necessity for the poet, not the poetry: there was never any reason poetry written in the dark light of the Holocaust should be indecipherable, and he wrote at least one poem to prove it. In "Todesfuge" you can tell exactly what is going on. He is titrating the language of the visione amorosa against the imagery of the giudizio universal. The poem is an amorous vision of the Last Judgement. To put it more simply, it is a love song from Hell. When we pick its entwined melodies apart, which the poem demands that we do, we find that there are two kinds of amorous vision: one the exultant vision of the perpetrator, the other the anguished vision of the slave."


Death Fugue


Black early morning milk we drink it in the evening

we drink it at midday and we drink it in the morning at night

we drink and drink

we dig a grave in the sky where there's room enough to lie

A man lives in the house who plays with snakes and writes

he writes when night falls over Germany

your golden hair Margarete

he writes this and steps outside the house and the stars flash

he whistles his hounds to heel

he whistles his Jews to approach and has a grave dug in the earth

he orders us to play dance music now

Black early morning milk we drink you at night

we drink you in the morning and at midday we drink you in the evening

we drink and drink

A man lives in the house who plays with snakes and writes

he writes when night falls over Germany

your golden hair Margarete

Your ashen hair Sulamith

we dig a grave in the sky where there's room enough to lie

He calls out stick it deeper into the earth you one and all sing and play

he pulls on the sword in his belt and swings it his eyes are blue

stick your shovels in deeper you one and all and keep playing dance music

Black early morning milk we drink you at night

we drink you at midday and in the morning we drink you in the evening

we drink and drink

a man lives in the house your golden hair Margarete

your ashen hair Sulamith he plays with snakes

He calls out play death more sweetly death is a master from Germany

he calls out play the violin strings more darkly then rise like smoke into the sky

then you'll have a grave in the sky where there's room enough to lie

Black early morning milk we drink you at night

we drink you at midday death is a master from Germany

we drink you in the evening and in the morning we drink and drink

death is a master from Germany with blue eyes

he shoots you with bullets of lead he shoots true

a man lives in the house your golden hair Margarete

he sets his hounds on us he gives us a grave in the sky

he plays with snakes and dreams death is a master from Germany

your golden hair Margarete

your ashen hair Sulamith


Translation by Robin Harskin



Robin Harskin is a lifelong teacher and student. He has lived and taught in France, Germany and the UK and has a doctorate in French poetry and a masters in political science. His heroes are Itzhak Perlman, John Locke and F Scott Fitzgerald, and his favourite novel is Anna Karenina.