A Translation Including History tells two interconnected stories: one about how, after the catastrophic ruptures of the first half of the twentieth century, European poetry reckons with its own belatedness through practices of translation, and one about the world market for which that poetry was itself translated. Concentrating on two of the century’s central poetic thinkers, I argue that Ezra Pound’s vision of a “poem including history” uses modernist aesthetics to rethread lines of historical transmission and linguistic transfer broken by war and commerce, but that Paul Celan, returning to this problem after Auschwitz, shows how the translation of international modernism into post-War German, far from making it possible to include this history, in fact contributes to its disavowal. Drawing on Celan’s own poems and translations, I argue that remembering Auschwitz requires translation, not because translation makes this history newly available but because, in translation, we confront the loss of the language that might satisfy the desire for restitution.
Argumentatively, the first story about transmission and the second story about markets trace two different axes that, together, open up a space for plotting Pound and Celan’s poetics in their obvious differences and surprising points of encounter. On the question of transmission, Pound and Celan represent opposing formal principles and incompatible historical horizons. This contrast is most acute in the different function that rhythm performs in each of their poetics. For Pound, rhythm produces and even guarantees transmission, making the forms of memory and historical curation that impel the Cantos not only possible but necessary. For Celan, rhythm is just the opposite: it disarticulates rather than articulates continuities, revokes rather than instates transmission. This contrast exceeds the bounds of poetic form per se: it corresponds not only to a divergence in historical attitude—an insistence on the caesura introduced by the genocide in Celan’s case; a political blindness and incapacity to acknowledge loss in Pound’s—but also to a starkly differing sense of European poetry’s cultural field in the wake of the world wars.
For both poets, that field is inevitably shaped by the incipient fact of the world market, forming a second major axis of opposition, turning explicitly on the problem of translation. Both Pound and Celan pit their practices of translation against the principle of equivalence “decreed in the market place.” For his part, Pound assails this form of exchange for its lack of relation to the true ground of value, a base or bass that the rhyming glosses and facing-page translations of the Cantos seek to make newly accessible. Like Pound, Celan rejects the version of world literature offered by the market, but, unlike Pound, he also rejects the idea that translation can recover the value that the market distorts. Indeed, from Celan’s perspective, the Cantos do not represent an actual alternative to the market; on the contrary, Pound’s dizzying exchanges of Chinese and Italian, Greek and Provençal, supply the world literary market with a useful precedent for its transactions. The timeliness of the Cantos’ example helps explain why Pound circulated through the post-War German literary field—and through the hands of some of Celan’s fiercest antagonists—not as a critic of the literary establishment but, ironically, as an underwriter of its valuations. As I show, Pound’s brand of modernism was uniquely marketable in post-War Germany: his distinction between translations of virtù and the vice of literary usury, between exact value and distorted value, was a rhetorical template with which post-War writers and critics could distance themselves from literature’s ideological appropriation by the Third Reich. Celan saw what a valuable import Pound was and what an ominous legacy he represented. Given what Celan knew, it is all the more surprising that it was exactly the critique of usura that Celan persistently took up, turning Pound’s rhetoric not only against the German market but also against the anti-Semitic stereotypes in which Pound and his German heirs trafficked. Paradoxically, I suggest, Celan both rejects and intensifies Pound’s polemic. His reception of Pound turns usury’s master tropes on their heads, laying the groundwork for what amounts to a pointedly Jewish critique of usury and the market.
A Translation Including History threads these two argumentative axes through five interconnected chapters. The first two chapters introduce the problem of historical transmission by tracing the stages of Pound’s engagement with the medieval Italian poet, Guido Cavalcanti. These two chapters follow Pound’s translations of Cavalcanti from Pound’s early Sonnets and Ballate (1912), through his Futurist “Donna mi prega” (1928) and aborted Complete Works (“pieced back together from the ruins” in 1932), before finally addressing Cavalcanti’s anachronistic appearance in Pound’s 1940 translation of a Qing-Dynasty preface to the Book of Songs. The first chapter, “The Rhythms of a Poem Including History,” explains the theoretical genesis and clarifies the historical stakes of this surprising series of translations. By analyzing the evolution of Pound’s obsession with Cavalcanti, it shows how Pound’s philological training and his innovative theory of musical rhythm combine to produce the idiosyncratic version of tradition that is instantiated by the Cantos.
My second chapter, “Perpetuale effetto,” zooms in on the form of the Cantos to discuss the relationship between poetry and ideology in Pound’s use of rhythm. I take an example from the China Cantos to show how Pound’s poem splices a wide variety of linguistic and cultural codes— ranging from ancient Chinese folksong and medieval Arab philosophy to early Italian lyric and Jesuit diplomacy—into a poetic rhythm that “keeps time” with Mussolini’s 1922 March on Rome. I then argue that the Fascist Calendar, which begins with this march, allows Pound to “keep time” in another sense, providing an ideological matrix with which Pound can redeem as a politics the losses that he would otherwise be forced to mourn.
My third chapter, “Über Wuchern: Usury in Translation,” transitions from Pound to Celan and addresses, through the importation of Pound’s notion of “usura” into the post-War German literary field, the tension between poetry and the market. It examines not only Celan’s critique of Pound but also his critique of the cosmopolite, post-War generation of German writers who, by resurrecting the poetics of early modernists like Pound, circumvented the intervening history and evaded the task of confronting the genocide. Against Pound’s example, I show how the rhythms of Celan’s poetry allow this history to reverberate in the present without the pretense of redeeming what was destroyed.
The fourth chapter “Commonplace, Common Grave” brings my analysis of the rhythms of Celan’s poetry to a discussion of his relationship to the German language. I begin with George Steiner’s provocative claim that “[a]ll of Celan’s own poetry is translated into German” and proceed to defend this description even while taking issue with certain parts of Steiner’s reasoning. Working from the personal notebooks, correspondence, as well as Celan’s major poetic statement, the Meridian, I position Celan’s use of German in relation to contemporary conceptions of linguistic transfer and literary tradition with which he was all too familiar. I find foils for Celan’s understanding of language and literature in a variety of sources, ranging from the notorious 1953 open letter in which Claire Goll claimed Celan’s German was an unacknowledged translation of her husband’s French, to the theory of a pan-European literary tradition put forward in Ernst Robert Curtius’s European Literature and the Latin Middle Ages (1948), to the so-called “world language of modern poetry” heralded in Hans Magnus Enzensberger’s anthology of international modernism, Museum of Modern Poetry (1960). Steiner’s statement allows us to measure Celan’s break with all of these contemporaries and points to how his language bears witness to the history of destruction that cleaves the shared ground of the common tongue, the common market, and the common literature.
“Testament of translation,” the final chapter of A Poem Including Translation, moves from the place of translation within Celan’s own poetry to Celan’s translations of other poets. I focus on Celan’s 1964 translation of Shakespeare’s sonnet 4 to show how Celan uses the translation of other poems as an occasion to mark a definitive rupture in transmission. Sonnet 4 is a particularly telling instance of this breakage, since, as I show, the problem of ‘translating’ “beauty’s legacy” is Shakespeare’s declared subject. Rejecting the inheritance of previous German translations as well as the legacy executed by the sonnet’s speaker, Celan’s version dismantles Shakespeare’s tropes of transmission and promises of an afterlife, retaining nothing but a dead letter, a testament to translation. This testament, as I show in the dissertation’s final turn, is ultimately inseparable from the self-conscious assumption of afterwardness that Celan calls “Nachsprechen,” a “speaking after” in which the problem of translation enters into poetry’s very definition and form.