Resistance and Resistancy in the Poetry of Paul Celan

In this paper I will discuss Lawrence Venuti’s notions of “fluent discourse” and “resistancy” in relation to a close reading of two translations of Paul Celan’s poem Du liegst, one of which is reasonably recent (Ian Fairley’s, of 2007), while the other (Michael Hamburger’s, of 1988) lies nearly halfway between Celan’s death in 1970 and the present day. I will also discuss what I perceive to be an inaccuracy in Venuti‘s theory of resistancy. Using his own line of argument in conjunction with examples from Du liegst, I will suggest that rather than viewing what Venuti calls resistancy as a strategy which the translator may choose over other possible strategies, it should, in fact, be seen as an implicit function of a certain poetry which subverts fluency discourse by virtue of its construction alone. This construction relies so much on idiosyncrasy, deliberate opacity and dislodged signifiers that it forces the translator into adopting its implicit resistancy as strategy because it leaves insufficient room for alternative strategies. I have chosen Paul Celan because Venuti describes the challenges posed by his poetry as “quite similar” to those posed by the poetry of Milo De Angelis, which prompted Venuti to formulate his notion of resistancy (Venuti 2007:263). I have, in turn, chosen Du liegst, because Michael Hamburger offers some helpful information on the process of translating this poem in his essay On Translating Celan, which is appended to the latest edition of Poems of Paul Celan.

Lawrence Venuti begins his critique of the current state of English language translation with the observation that

A translated text, whether prose or poetry… is judged acceptable by most publishers… when it reads fluently, when the absence of any linguistic or stylistic peculiarities makes it seem transparent, giving the appearance that it reflects the foreign writer’s personality or intention.” (Ibid.:1)

In this, the second edition of The Translator’s Invisibility, Venuti traces the idea of fluency in translation (predominantly of poetry) from the seventeenth century to the experimentalism of the post-Second World War European poets. He builds his ideological framework around the dividing line between “domesticating” and “foreignizing” translations, and initially appears to regard all English language poetry translation as governed by what he identifies as “the regime of fluency” (Ibid.), under which the translator is forced by publishers and critics to “domesticate” or familiarise the language of a given text until it is so easily digestible that the reader can forget she is reading a translation at all, and continue to consume the text under the illusion of reading the original. As Venuti demonstrates in a string of examples from epic and lyric poetry, this misguided bid for transparency most often results in the complete annihilation of the poet’s individual timbre, rhythm and stylistic idiosyncrasies.

Venuti acknowledges a certain element of intransigence to fluent translation in a particular type of modernist poetry (Ibid.: 164-236), but it is not until he considers the post-Second World War poems of Milo De Angelis in the book’s penultimate chapter that he presents a poetry that is constructed in such a way as to pass completely under the radar of the fluency regime (Ibid.:251).

In Venuti’s genealogy of English language translation, romantic seventeenth century notions of the exalted poet’s noble spirit; of the valiant poetic ‘I’, of a narrative structure and clearly traceable references continue to govern the English and American reception of poetry. It is this “valorization of the poet’s ‘voice’” (Ibid.) which enables a fluent strategy of translation with transparency as its ultimate goal – transparency in the sense that the translation appears to offer the reader a clear “window” onto the personality of the author. But with their “opacity that undermines any sense of a coherent speaking voice”, De Angelis’s poems “issue a decisive challenge to a poet-centered aesthetic” (Ibid.: 248). It seems to be this death of the author in the true Barthesian sense, then, that allows a poetry to avoid the drive for fluency. Consequently, such poetry, frequently labelled “hermetic”, is rarely commissioned for translation in the UK and the US, as Venuti points out. (Ibid.)

The poetry of Paul Celan, available in several English translations, becomes progressively less clear and was at the time of its publication – like that of De Angelis – described as “hermetic” by critics. (see Hamburger, 2007:411, and Venuti, 2007:251)

Michael Hamburger writes of Celan’s later work that “a translator of it has to know as much as there is to be known about Celan’s range of reference” in order to translate it, and that “the help of experts … becomes a prerequisite” for its comprehension (Hamburger 2007:410).

On comparing the first line of Du liegst with its two translations, several points can be made in relation to fluent discourse and resistancy.

DU LIEGST im großen Gelausche,

(Celan, in Hamburger 2007:360)

IN THE GREAT listening you lie,

(Hamburger 2007:361)

YOU LIE in the great auricle,

(Fairley 2007:6)

Ian Fairley’s rendering appears to adopt a fluent strategy. It remains faithful to the original syntax and, like Hamburger’s, matches Celan’s metre, but rejects the idiosyncrasy of Celan’s neologism Gelausche and instead uses the anatomical term auricle, which – albeit obscure – is actually part of the English language. In doing so, Fairley offers the reader the comparatively clear mental image of somebody lying curled up in a gigantic ear. A reading of the original line has no such effect, because one has no idea what a Gelausche is. Instead, its effect – though vague – is one of polysemy, and this may have been Celan’s intention. One begins to ponder the word Gelausche and attempts to construct different mental images where Fairley offers only one (reasonably distinct one), at which he may have arrived via the German word Lauscher, a slang-term meaning ear. (The German for auricle is the etymologically unrelated Ohrmuschel.)

Michael Hamburger refuses such violent elucidation, remains faithful to Celan’s polysemy, and so can indeed be said to adopt the strategy which Venuti calls resistancy. Interestingly, in his attempt at fluency, Fairley forfeits one of the few chances the poem offers to let the reader know its subject matter. The historical phenomena the poem refers to, the murders of revolutionaries Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht, can be guessed at most readily from the images that constitute the fourth and fifth stanzas: a man who becomes a sieve and a woman who had to swim in the Landwehrkanal (the machine-gun execution of Liebknecht and the disposal of Luxemburg’s body in the canal are reasonably well-known facts in Germany), but they could have been greatly supplemented by a reader’s interpretation of the great listening as referring to the elaborately orchestrated eaves-dropping (German: belauschen) operation that eventually led to the two revolutionaries’ arrest and murder. So, paradoxically, Fairley obscures the poem’s overall meaning by moving it out of the reader’s reach with one forcefully elucidated image, while Michael Hamburger’s resistant reproduction of Celan’s neologism, although initially obscure, leaves the poem’s signified intact. In this way, Hamburger’s rendering remains equivalent to the original measure of semiotic fluency offered by Celan, while Fairley can be seen as resisting semiotic fluency. This instance illustrates the importance of different types of equivalence

both in the making of a translation, and in its critical evaluation.

Hamburger’s syntactical inversion of the first line could in turn be viewed as unnecessarily violent, since it changes what has become the title of Celan’s untitled poem.

Remarkably, Hamburger also appears to “foreignize” the target language – presumably to fortify the sense of resistancy by offering a syntax unfamiliar to the Anglophone, but he does so somewhat fraudulently, since such syntactical defamiliarisation does not occur in the original, nor is the syntax chosen by Hamburger any more German or Celanian than its opposite, which makes it impossible to see his effort as a true foreignisation. It is also not more English or American, and thus not a true domestication, but represents only a transposition into Hamburger’s own idiosyncrasy, and can thus be seen as the translator’s deliberate assertion of authorial authority; as a negation of the translator’s invisibility so deplored by Venuti; as an act of rebellion that subverts what Venuti calls transparent discourse. Sadly, this rebellion remains as much an illusion as transparency itself, because it becomes visible only if we know German and have Celan’s original to compare it with.

In On Translating Celan, Michael Hamburger reveals that Du liegst for a long time remained untranslatable for him because “the poem turns on the axis of its triple rhyme, only two of whose components could be retained in English” (Hamburger 2007:420). Hamburger’s idea that a translation of Du liegst should stand and fall with this axis, consisting of Schweden, Eden, and jeden, in lines six, eight, and eleven, respectively, demonstrates his awareness that the integrity of a poetry which seems altogether to withhold an authorial presence

and is so deliberately obscure in meaning,

rests in its stylistic features. Fairley seems to take the same view, but reacts differently. His version is almost equivalent to Hamburger’s version in its treatment of the triple-axis, providing Sweden and Eden but succumbing to everyone for jeden – a crushing defeat also in terms of metric equivalence – but where Hamburger eliminates Celan’s dash after the third rhyme and replaces it with a full stop, thereby acknowledging his defeat in punctuation, Fairley keeps the dash in place, perhaps in an effort to leave the axis as intact as possible. Fairly does not salvage Celan’s somewhat plump couplet of lines four and five, while Hamburger does.

geh zu den Fleischerhaken,

zu den roten Äppelstaken

In Fairley, the Äppelstaken become impaled apples, thereby losing rhyme but preserving meaning,

while Hamburger couples the English word stooks with the hooks of line four, thereby doing the exact opposite: rhyme is preserved, while the insertion of stooks is a severe semiotic misdirection.

In this instance, formvpn takes precedence over meaning for Hamburger, while Fairley, whose auricle seemed obscurantist, stays close to the original by reinforcing the sense of Christmas Celan invokes with his Tisch mit den Gaben in line seven. Here, Hamburger can be seen as pandering to fluency while Fairley resists it in order to honour the original.

Finally, a rhyme which encases the original and “completes” its “rotation” (Hamburger 2007:420), is tended to by both translators, but with varying success. Line one, two, twelve and fourteen of the original, ending in Gelausche, umflockt, rauschen, and stockt, respectively are converted from an ABAB structure to an ABBA structure by Fairley, whose choice of auricle finally becomes clear: it is set up to be a half-rhyme with still in the last line, while round in the second line rhymes fully with sound in line twelve. Now it is Fairley who chooses form over meaning while Hamburger forfeits the rhyme of line one in order to preserve Celan’s effect of polysemy, and decides to settle for a half-rhyme by coupling up in line two with stop in line fourteen, preserving a mere echo of Celan’s ABAB.

The conclusion one can draw from this first inspection of the poem and its two translations is twofold.

Firstly, determining which translator adopted which strategy depends on the category of equivalence one applies to each reading.   In his introduction to the second edition of The Translation Studies Reader, Venuti locates the historical trend of analysing translations according to such categories of equivalence in the 1960s and 1970s, where

linguistics-oriented theorists emphasized the description and analysis of translation operations, producing typologies of equivalence that act as normative principles to guide translator training. (Venuti 2004:5)

In the present evaluation of Du liegst, these categories (or typologies) are semantic and stylistic equivalence.

A reading for semantic equivalence in Du liegst will lead to a different impression of the translator’s modus operandi, for example, than a reading for stylistic equivalence. This leads to a somewhat unsatisfactory resolution. Both Fairley and Hamburger seem committed to keeping a balance between form and meaning, and are sometimes forced to abandon one for the other. Both can be seen to make different choices at different points, but these choices amount to the same overall effect. Unsatisfactory though this apparent “stalemate” may be, it seems to be in accordance with the way the two translators feel about their work. Hamburger’s On Translating Celan ends with the sentence

As it is, my selective translations are attempts, however incomplete or provisional, to keep faith with his texts. (Hamburger 2007:422)

Hamburger’s acknowledgement of the incomplete or provisional nature of his translations echoes the inability of a critical evaluation (like the one attempted in this essay) to identify a bias towards stylistic equivalence

in favour of semantic equivalence or vice versa. It would seem that the overall objective of “keeping faith” with the original necessitates a translation process during which the translator must decide anew at every juncture, whether to preserve style or meaning, and aim for an overall balance which becomes apparent only when the translation is viewed in its entirety. Ian Fairley, too, attests to this ongoing struggle in the concluding lines of Iceland, his introduction to Snow Part/Schneepart:

To conclude, I should like to observe how stopping to listen to Celan is responsive both to the translatable and to the untranslatable intendedness of his verse. (Fairley 2007:xxiii)

Fairley’s mention of the untranslatable “intendedness” in Celan’s verse sheds light on the problem which prompts Hamburger’s admission of incompleteness. It is this alternation between translatability and untranslatability in the poetry of Paul Celan which forces the translator into adopting a similar pattern of alternation in the translation process. What Fairley characterises as “stopping to listen,” and Hamburger calls “keeping faith” is in fact the admission that Celan forces his translators to act on their own discretion by alternating between categories of equivalence for every segment of the poem at hand in order to produce an overall impression of equivalence when the translation is read in its entirety.

The second part of the conclusion that can be drawn from the critical evaluation of Du liegst attempted in this essay, has to do with Lawrence Venuti’s notion of resistancy in relation to what he identifies as the “regime of fluency” or “fluent discourse” throughout The Invisibility of the Translator.

Neither Fairley nor Hamburger extract from Celan’s original any sense of lucidity that is “superior” either to the original or to the competing translation – neither in meaning, nor in rhythmic flow – even though both translators make occasional attempts at fluency. Neither translator extracts from the depths of the obscure text the “voice” of the author, or anything that would allow a reader to identify with any part of the text – a state of affairs which, according to Venuti, locates even the translated Celan outside the scope of a mainstream English and American poetics, which “privileges the poet” over the poetry. (Venuti 2007:242) It is my contention that even if Hamburger and Fairley had tried their utmost to extract the author from the text and thrust him firmly in the reader’s face, they would have failed or else transposed the poem beyond recognition. What Venuti identifies as resistancy, then, – a term occasionally used in the studies of anatomy, biology, chemistry and physics, which describes a natural law – and not as the human activity of “resistance,” is not, in fact, a matter in which the translator has a choice. It is not a strategy, but an unalterable function of the original text, based on the interplay of form and meaning, and on the absence of what the prevailing romantic notion of the poet characterises as the poet’s “personality.” The difficult art of Paul Celan necessarily subverts fluent discourse, in the original as in translation.

In the paragraphs preceding the introduction of the term resistancy, Venuti sets out to show that in the specific case of Milo De Angelis’s poem L’idea centrale, which he chooses as the prime example for his sub-chapter 2 Translating with resistancy (Ibid.: 248), there is room to manoeuvre between total obscurity and some degree of syntactical clarity, leaving a translator the possibility of choosing between strategies.

What theory would inform my translaion strategy and govern my choices?

Certainly, I could defer to the prevailing cult of the author and make my translation of “L’idea centrale” as fluent as possible, perhaps with the vain hope of edging the poem closer to transparency. Some progress in this direction can be achieved if in line 12 of the translation the verb “were” is inserted before “hissing.” (Ibid.: 251)

Venuti goes on to offer more, very similar examples of a possible fluent strategy, but finally appears to admit that there is not, as he initially set out to show, sufficient room to choose between strategies, when he concedes that even the forcible addition of explanatory words

would not go very far towards making the text transparent, but they woul at least mitigate the grammatical uneasiness usually provoked by the omission of a subject or verb in an English sentence. (Ibid.)

If these devices “would not go very far,” and their implementation is only a “vain hope of edging the poem closer to transparency,” then Venuti commits a philosophical error in proposing that a real choice of strategy presents itself, because a strategy can only be thought of as having been employed if the results prove it to have suceeded to a significant degree. And while it is a valid point to say that to “at least mitigate the grammatical uneasiness” is a concession to fluent discourse, this insight does nothing more than to give us an idea of the translator’s ideological leanings. Fluency or domestication is aspired to, but not achieved. Thus, it would only be possible to say that the translator who opts for the addition of words in order to domesticate De Angelis’s grammar, would have employed a fluent strategy, had the structure of the poem permitted it.

Even in the case of Venuti’s own example, then, resistancy remains the translator’s only option, rendering the possibility of strategic choice an illusion. This conclusion is a necessary addition to my argument that Du liegst is of the type of poetry which bears an inherent resistancy, because it shows that Venuti’s own example – the very example which he uses to introduce the notion of resistancy as a strategy – is also of this type of poetry.

With the present argument in mind, my final conclusion takes the form of a humble suggestion. Venuti’s polemic against the regime of fluency remains highly relevant,

and it would benefit from a small distinction between resistancy, an inherent property found within a certain type of text which exhibits a high degree of idiosyncrasy, deliberate opacity, dislodged signifiers and the absence of a clearly adumbrated authorial voice, and resistance, a translation strategy which derives its modus operandi from resistancy, but can be applied to texts which do not exhibit these inherent properties and could otherwise fall prey to a fluent strategy. It is important to realise that this distinction exists, and that there are those in the industry who support it, like the publishers of the present edition of Hamburger’s Poems of Paul Celan, Anvil Press, for whom “financial viability is secondary” (Yee Wong, 20/11/09). Translators who want to resist fluency and have to argue their case with a publishing house should be able to point with confidence to those texts which resist fluency by default, like Celan’s Du liegst, and continue to persevere in translation despite their lack of fluency. Venuti’s battle cry is powerful, and it deserves to be heard in higher definition.


Fairley, I. (2007). Paul Celan: Snow Part/Schneepart: and other poems (1968-1969): Translated by Ian Fairley, Manchester: Carcanet Press.

Hamburger, M. (2007). Poems of Paul Celan: Third Edition: translated and introduced by Michael Hamburger, London: Anvil Press Poetry.

Hutchinson, Ben (2010). “Rhythm of Ideas,” Times Literary Supplement No. 5576, p. 13.

Venuti, L. (Ed.) (2004). The Translation Studies Reader: Second Edition, London and New York: Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group.

Venuti, L. (2007). The Translator’s Invisibility: A History of Translation: Second Edition, London and New York: Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group.

Yee Wong, Kit (20/11/2009), Personal Email Communication.

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