To delve deeper into the ideas of translation and perspective, I must first share my own perspective, which includes both how I view the world and how I perceive the world to view me in return. I am young, able-bodied, and a citizen of the United States. I grew up in a middle-class, religious home, with two college educated parents. I am also young, and queer, and Black, and a woman. I am both deeply privileged and deeply unprivileged, and these intersections of my life have shaped my perspective. So when I read Celan’s poem, the manner in which I understood it was rooted in personal experience.
I know nothing of starvation, of grueling work, of being mercilessly beaten and imprisoned like those who experienced the Holocaust and their ancestors. I have never gone hungry in my life. I’m in college and working a part time job. By the world standard, my life is cushy to say the least. Simultaneously, I think of my ancestors who were dragged from their home and enslaved on another continent. Like the Jewish prisoners who did not know German, my ancestors did not know English, and suffered similar consequences. I think of the prison industrial complex and the school to prison pipeline, and how young Black people who look just like me are imprisoned at a staggering rate due to the color of their skin. I think of racist housing policies that created urban ‘ghettos’ and trapped Black people in the hood for generation upon generation. I think of discriminatory hiring policies that keep economic power out of the hands of Black Americans. I think of how the United States government and the rest of the world have been created using the building blocks of white supremacy. And I do not feel what Celan feels, I cannot feel what he feels. Still, my understanding is rooted in my experience. Death and grief are not foreign concepts to me, I am a Black American. While I cannot empathize, I sympathize.
I viewed Celan’s poem from the perspective of a Black American who understands the dark history of racial terror in the United States. I viewed it as a queer woman, because gay people were in concentration camps, too. While the exact words may not have been translatable to English, the pain of which he spoke was certainly felt. This may just be the sociologist in me, but I also started to think more critically of how the ways in which I’m not privileged allow me to further understand both the poems in this anthology as well as the world around me. I care about LGBT issues, womanism, and racial justice because these areas of social justice personally affect me and many of the people I know and love. But I also care about islamophobia and xenophobia and gender politics and many more issues inside of the social justice realm. Maybe this is because, although I can’t truly understand issues that I don’t have personal experience with, I understand my own experiences and history and can use these to relate to other less privileged people as well. For example, I will never understand what it feels like for Ayesha to wear a hijab on this campus and in the world. Although being a woman of color allows me to translate her experiences into something I can more tangibly understand, all I can actively do is listen and sympathize. And I am able to listen to people who are less privileged in ways that are different from me because I know what it is like to be silenced both personally and politically.
I’m grateful that the ways in which I am not privileged have allowed me more than a mere glimpse into the lives of others who also lack privilege in different ways. Although marginalized people will never completely understand the struggles of other marginalized peoples, we can attempt translation. Some words may be lost, but the pain will be felt.