John Felstiner, a translation of ‘Todesfuge’ by Paul Celan

Black milk of daybreak we drink you at night/
we drink you at morning and midday we drink you at evening/
we drink and we drink/
A man lives in the house he plays with his vipers he writes/
he writes when it grows dark to Deutschland your golden hair Margareta/
Your ashen hair Shulamith we shovel a grave in the air where you won’t lie too cramped/

from  Todesfuge/ ST 2 in Paul Celan, Poet, Survivor, Jew . Author John Felstiner (Yale University Press, 2005 )

0_0_480_350The above poem is excerpted from John Felstiner’s biography of Paul Celan, Paul Celan, Poet, Survivor, Jew (published 2005, Yale University Press).  I lived with the poem for a week in Mayo recently, where I transcribed it a number of times in order to get to its music. 

During my transcriptions, I came across another rendering of the poem on YouTube, which I am adding here.  The Youtube reading is by Gerald Duffy. I am unhappy with the recording, possibly because I think it is read too fast, and maybe in this case some of the music feels lost. 

John Felstiner devotes a considerable amount of his text discussing the reasons for his choice of words in his translation of the poem. For that reason  I would recommend the book and his notes on the difficulty the poem presents to the translator. I do not know if the book is online but the relevant chapter of the book is  A Fugue After Auschwitz (1944-45 ) /your ashen hair Shulamith.

Felstiner discusses the state of the poet who had lost both parents to the camps, his MS work and Todesfuge as the Guernica of post-war European literature.

Todesfuge is immense, challenging and multi-layered as a work. The story of the Death Tango is known to many people, there are images available to us. Celan composed the work in 1944, when information was beginning to emerge about the Final Solution. Well over a decade later Sylvia Plath would struggle with those images and convert them into her tropes and archetypes. Nelly Sachs and Ingeborg Bachmann struggled with words and images to convey the horror.

Celan wrote “Todesfuge” in 1944 with immediacy and utter control. The poem was published in 1945. Felstiner admits that it took him years to render as faithfully as possible the movement and symbols within the poem. His discussion of the problems with the poem is worth the book alone. Here in this poem is encapsulated the fear and helplessness of the final solution. I have read and listened to the poem over and over but nothing quite brings it right home than its transcription (in Felstiner’s translation).

“He shouts play death more sweetly this Death is a master from Deutschland/
he shouts scrape your strings darker you’ll rise up as smoke to the sky/
you’ll then have a grave in the clouds where you won’t lie too cramped/ ”

                                                                                                             (Todesfuge /ST 5)

The entire poem is at the following link ,though I would recommend the Felstiner chapters for a discussion on the translator’s art and Paul Celan’s poetry:




2 responses to “John Felstiner, a translation of ‘Todesfuge’ by Paul Celan”

  1. Thank you for posting this article. I found and read the original poem in German. The background on where this poem is based is horrifying as we all know, however the poem itself is fascinated and very compelling written and indeed extreme difficult to translate from German into another language. Reading Felstine’s translation makes you curious how he dealt with the difficulty of this poem for a translator. Francina


  2. I brought the Felstiner book Paul Celan , Poet , Survivor, Jew to the North-West of Ireland because I felt that I needed no distraction whilst reading it.

    Felstiner devotes a considerable amount of time discussing the translation process for ‘Todesfuge’ in his chapter , A Fugue After Auschwitz 1944-45 / subtitled ‘Your ashen hair, Shulamith’. If you can borrow the book and read it , it details the process. Most interestingly Felstiner lived with the translation and word-choices for quite a period before publishing it.

    I know that I want to go back to re-read his chapter and translation again, it’s fascinating.


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