Interview with Jerome Rothenberg
Jerome Rothenberg was a guest at this year’s Prague Writers’ Festival and the acclaimed American poet spoke to me about his experience translating German and Czech poets, giving Nezval a voice in English and not speaking Yiddish with Paul Celan.
Literalab: You’ve translated a number of German poets such as Paul Celan, and I was wondering what that experience was like and what effect it had on your own poetry.
Jerome Rothenberg: When I do translation a lot of it works into my own sense of poetry and rhythm. Particularly with Celan there was a sense of a dialogue. I came on Celan, Günter Grass and others in the mid to late 1950s. I had been in Germany with the US Army and my German when I came back was as good as it would be.
I started using it to do translation because I like translating. I had published some translations, actually rhyming translations, of an earlier German poet named Erich Kessler and got a message from Lawrence Ferlinghetti at City Lights books asking me if I’d be interested in doing a translation of some new young German poets, which was interesting.
So I think I was the first translator of Celan, the first of Grass, and I also translated Ingeborg Bachmann. It was called New Young German Poets (1959) and was the first collection I published. It came out about a year before my first book of poetry so the two things work together.
Literalab: And what was it like meeting Celan?
Rothenberg: Well, it was curious, and I’ve written about it a little. It was in 1967, so that was eight years after New Young German Poets came out. Someone had suggested for a small American press that I do a bigger book of Celan and I don’t know that I was really wanting to do that. Celan’s poetry had gotten more difficult, in some ways much more interesting, but I did want to meet Celan.
We were going to Paris and he was teaching at the École normale so I wrote him there. We went to a nearby café and we had a conversation for a few hours – and as I tell the story I don’t know how much I have elaborated it since then. My German was not too good and his English was not too good, although we had both done translations from those languages.
He was interrogating me about other people who wanted to do translations of his work. One of the things he was emphasizing was the Jewishness and not-Jewishness of the different translators. I carry away a memory of that being one of the focal points of the discussion. Then we left the café and I asked him whether he spoke Yiddish and he said yes, though he had really learnt it during the war.
So it was curious because I said I could speak Yiddish and he could speak Yiddish, and he was asking me questions about the Jewishness and so forth, and we had a language in common but never used it.