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REVIEW of Donald Wellman's book

by BILL LAVENDER


More than an appreciation of the two great poets, Donald Wellman’s Albiach / Celan: Reading Across Languages, is a paean to the art of translation, with an emphasis on that word “art.”

It is no coincidence that the poets he picks as the anchor points of this series of essays are two of the more difficult poets to translate from or to any language, nor is it coincidence that Celan himself was one of the more prolific translators—if not in terms of number of pages, certainly in number of languages—of the 20th century.

In “Reading Celan with Derrida in Hand” Wellman pursues the range of factors which led Derrida, in “Shibboleth,” to pronounce Celan— for his inclusion of specific dates and personal allusions, the multiple languages and dialects, his coded political references— “untranslatable.” Yet, as both Wellman and Derrida point out, these moments of untranslatability, these “incisions” which are “both unique and iterable,” are the very stuff of poetry. Reading, as Gadamer said, is already translation.

Throughout the book, Wellman chronicles the many ways his work in the art of translation has informed his own poetry over the years. The theoretical passages are often paused for personal interjections, and these liberties that he takes with the rules of genre give his work the feel of a poem, which is to say of specificity and untranslatability. If translation is a way of carrying the work across languages, then in that, it merely replicates the many crossings from self to other we must make in any language act. It is exactly the “untranslatable” that we are obliged to translate.

    

 
  ---    Bill Lavender is a poet, novelist, editor and teacher living in New Orleans. He founded Lavender Ink, a small press devoted mainly to poetry, in 1995, and he founded Diálogos, an imprint devoted to cross-cultural literatures in 2011.