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The Unforgotten: A Tribute to John Felstiner (1936–2017)

“Set your flag at half mast, memory.”
—Paul Celan, “Shibboleth,” translated by John Felstiner

If not for John Felstiner, there would be no Two Lines. Decades ago, John established a kind of translation oasis with his legendary spring translation workshop at Stanford, and as a graduate student in Italian, I enrolled as often as my department would allow. When the other co-founders of Two Lines and I proposed starting a translation magazine at the university, John immediately began to advocate for us, even using his position as keynote speaker at the American Literary Translators Association conference that year to introduce (and endorse) the brand new Two Lines. He contributed an essay about Paul Celan to our very first issue, Battlefields (1994), and we published seven more essays by him over the years on a wide range of subjects: from Rilke and Celan’s translations of Valéry, to Denise Levertov’s misremembrance of a Neruda poem (spawning a new Felstiner translation), to singer Victor Jara’s execution after the 1973 coup in Chile. John served as Vice President of our board for many, many years, offering us continual guidance and support.

As I said, John’s workshop was a refuge for translators, a place to gather outside our respective language departments where translation was rarely encouraged. His office at the center of campus was literally a place translators could come to feel less marginalized after the Loma Prieta earthquake relocated the foreign-language departments to the edge of campus. In the wider world, John is of course well-known for his award-winning translations and literary biographies, his many awards and honors (suffice it to say that he received nearly all of them), and for his general advocacy of translation. Underlying these accomplishments, though, was a driving force evident already in 1980 with his groundbreaking work, Translating Neruda: The Way to Macchu Picchu: translation was intensely personal for John. He began translating Pablo Neruda after living in Chile, and he was drawn to Paul Celan after immersing himself in poetry that dealt with the Holocaust while living in Israel.

His office at the center of campus was literally a place
translators could come to feel less marginalized…


Olivia Sears and John Felstiner, 2002

He came to know these poets’ work intimately, but his work was fueled by more than a passion for their writing. He was fascinated by the lives of poets, the meandering journeys of words through their different poems, and his own experiences shepherding poems on their migration into English. He made the translator more visible.

And for me, John’s career is distinguished by something even broader: I think of him as the translator most devoted to remembering—to chronicling the process of translation and recalling the nuances that need to be honored in the new version. Of course, translations generally help to ensure that poets are not forgotten, and John’s two primary authors in particular—Neruda and Celan—are notable for their dedication to witnessing and recording the human struggles and tragedies that unfolded around them. But more specifically, the way John translated, the way he spoke of translation, and the way he presented the methodology of his translations were all about remembering the journey.

Most translators deliver literature to the reader like a postcard: here’s a picture of the poem I arrived at in English, isn’t it beautiful? You can’t see behind the image, you can’t look at it from a different perspective, you can’t enter the scene. John always preferred to show his students, his readers, and his audiences how he got there, to take us on his translation road trip, allowing us to experience the bumpy road, all the wrong turns and dead ends and joyous surprises along the way, and the little roadside café where he asked for directions.

One of John’s favorite translation strategies was a kind of compensation (though I’m sure he had a better word for it). He suggested that when a translator was confronting some potential loss—the loss of a poetic device, an alliteration, an internal rhyme, or a play on words—in one line of a poem, she should make an effort to find another line in which to use that same device, to recover that experience for the reader. He believed that in a good translation the losses and gains could be balanced, and he shared all his skills and secrets openly.

He also shared with his students and audiences, at every opportunity, rare audio recordings of his poets so you could encounter the translations alongside the poet’s own words, with the poet’s singular voice still ringing in your head. Paul Celan’s haunting voice reading his “Todesfuge” still accompanies John’s translation of “Death Fugue” in my mind, all the more given John’s choice to allow some of the original German gradually to seep into his translation:

Black milk of daybreak we drink you at night
we drink you at midday Death is a master aus Deutschland
we drink you at evening and morning we drink and we drink
this Death is ein Meister aus Deutschland his eye it is blue
he shoots you with shot made of lead shoots you level and true
a man lives in the house your goldenes Haar Margarete
he looses his hounds on us grants us a grave in the air
he plays with his vipers and daydreams
der Tod is ein Meister aus Deutschland
dein goldenes Haar Margarete
dein aschenes Haar Shulamith.

John used to tell a story when he spoke of his years translating Celan about his toddler son playing with a plastic telephone. At one point, his son picked up the receiver and said “Hello?” and then held it out to his father, saying: “It’s for you, Dad. It’s Paul Celan.” John couldn’t help himself; he had to take the receiver and listen, just in case. All the years that John brought recordings of Neruda and Celan’s voices to his classes and readings, keeping their voices alive both in print and in sound, makes me feel fortunate to still have a tape of my mother interviewing him about Translating Neruda on KPFK public radio so I can keep John’s voice alive. And of course, as with one’s first mentor in any subject, I still hold his voice in my head, moments from his lessons and lectures, little bits of advice, and his laughter, clear as day.

You can read more about John Felstiner here.