What is "world literature," and is Paul Celan part of it? With these questions as a starting point, this paper seeks to explore different interpretations of the label "world poetry" and to define the role of translation in shaping and sustaining this ambiguous concept.
The term "world literature" lacks precise definition. The attribute "world" has come to denote either power and majority, as in "world bank" or "world language," or ethnic diversity with a folkloric tinge, as in "world music." Which category do "world literature" and "world poetry" belong to? Traditionally, they are labels awarded to high quality works of the past, which have stood their ground in translation and gained their status by prevailing through eras of differing tastes. According to more recent perceptions, world literature is a category in the making, one that has really not existed before the expansion of the concept "world" to include more than Europe/America and their colonial offshoots.
Paul Celan, perhaps the best known German language poet, belongs to and at the same time eludes the ambiguous category "world literature." Celan’s texts are notoriously hard to translate and even in the original difficult to understand in their depth of imagery and breadth of intertextuality. They are paradoxically profoundly unsuited for a category which, from any vantage point, depends on translation and "translatability." A comparative analysis of Celan translations into English and French will shed some light on how strategies of translating have affected his status as a "world poet." A look at Celan’s own translations into German may provide an alternative way of approaching poetry translations for the "world" - as a dialogue rather than a soliloquy.