Poet and translator Pierre Joris has a blog, Nomadics, which he calls “A place for tracings, translations, meanderings, notings, explorations, etc. of a mainly writerly nature.” A recent post, “Celan, Kafka & the Glottal Stop,” discusses an essay by Matthew Landis “on the connection of certain themes in Paul Celan’s poetry & Jacques Derrida’s writings,” a subject that I fear does not interest me. I was, however, interested in Joris’s criticism of Landis for relying solely on the (apparently dreadful) Popov/McHugh translation of Celan and its mendacious introduction, which claims that as a boy Celan “was sent to a work camp and his family (Romanian Jews living in Germany) were sent to Auschwitz. While in Auschwitz, Celan’s mother died from a wound to the throat.” Joris follows the quote with “Note: Celan and his parents did not live in Germany, but in Czernowitz, then part of Rumania, today part of the Ukraine. They were not sent to Auschwitz, but to work camps along the Bug river, on the Romanian/Ukrainian border”; about the “wound in the throat” he says “in 40 years of reading Celan and the vast Sekundärliteratur on his work, I have never come across this bit of information.”
One result of this reliance is that Landis uses Popov/McHugh’s “The glottal stop is breaking/ into song” as a springboard for this meditation: “The glottal stop is the breaking off of sound by the pressing of the laryngeal folds (the glottis) together. In addition to this breach in voice, we have a breach in space. The break after ‘breaking’ again leaves a space into which the song emerges.” A nice point, except that Celan’s own words were “Der Kehlkopfverschlußlaut/ singt.” The glottal breach before “into” occurs only in translation. As Joris says, “when thinking through Celan (or any other foreign-language poet) via his poems it is essential to rely not only on one translation & its accompanying introduction, but to go to the original and quote it too.”
(Incidentally, Joris writes: “In the manuscripts of the Celan poem, the title was given as “Frankfurt, ע, September” and alternatively as “Frankfurt, Ayin, September” — i.e. it included the glottal stop in the title…” The letter ayin does not represent a glottal stop but a voiced pharyngeal fricative, although many Israelis now pronounce it as a glottal stop in some contexts.)
I took the title of this post from Joris’s lively essay “A Glottal Choice” (from his book A Nomad Poetics), which describes how he came to be the multilingual person he is today:
I was born between languages, I first spoke Lëtzebuergesch, a dialect of the western Rhineland and the Moselle river valley, from Middle-High-German with Frankish roots. Not a dialect, a language, a langue, a tongue, a mother tongue I was never taught how to write — and whose passage from spoken dialect into codified, standard written form happened, unknown to me, during my passage through the scholastic institutions, to flower into an irredentist yet useful tool for a local literature when I had already turned my back & gone West to write in my fourth…
At any rate, one always writes in a foreign language. Be it mother tongue or
foreign language, language is always foreign, other, second — & only therefore can one find a home therein. All writing, all poetry is a trek toward language, our other, the station, the staying on the passage through time, I am a space traveler trying to write myself into an oasis corner, an amen corner as I circumambulate the polis of my life span, stopping here and there. Yet even that station, that mawqif is never a given, but always a wrestling so as to expulse the slag, to burn the dead wood and rearrange the stones in the ruins of the old camp. For all poetry rewrites language against itself.
He talks about first learning English through falling in love with an English woman, about the hip quality of English in post-WWII Germany, about finding On the Road on a beach in Spain and Naked Lunch in the erotica section of a Luxembourg bookstore—”All of which stood me in good stead when, at nineteen, in Paris, I discovered Eliot and through him most quickly came to Ezra Pound’s Cantos in Shakespeare & Company, where I sat nightly reading and wondering if I should quit medical school… Reading Pound made me understand that poetry was a full-time, lifelong occupation, not a genteel activity for rainy weekends.”
If you’re wondering about “mawqif,” it’s Arabic; the root w-q-f means ‘stop,’ the verbal form being waqqaf in Levantine Arabic and the noun mawqef (laazem tǝnzel bǝl-mawqef ǝž-žaaye ‘you have to get off at the next stop’) or waqfe (fii عanna waqfe عasǝr daqaayeq b-ḥama ‘we have a ten-minute stop in Hama’). Wehr/Cowan defines mawqif as ‘stopping place; station; (cab, etc.) stand; (bus, train, etc.) stop; parking lot; parking place; stopover, stop; place, site; scene, scenery; position, posture; situation; attitude; stand, position, opinion’ (it seems Arabic words are as multivalent as Irish ones); I don’t know from what context Joris got the word and how exactly he is using it, but the general sense is clear.