Monday, 25 October 2010

Collage of the English translations of Goethe's poem 'Über allen Gipfeln'

In 1983, the Dutch poet Gerrit Komrij invited readers of a Dutch newspaper to send in translations of Hölderlin's 'Hälfte des Lebens'. The response was overwhelming. in a book entitled 'De Muze in het Kolenhok' [The Muse in the Gloryhole], he discussed the translations and came up with a final collage translation.

You can see my workshop session on the poem by going to here.
My own translation into English can be seen on the blog for 14.06.10.

If you look at all the English translations in the file posted on 16.10.10 and do a similar collage of Goethe's poem, what do you get?

Here is a suggestion. All comments are welcome!

Über allen Gipfeln
Ist Ruh.
In allen Wipfeln
Spürest du
Kaum einen Hauch;
Die Vögelein schweigen im Walde,
Warte nur, – balde
Ruhest du auch.

Over all the hill-tops
Is rest.
In all the tree-tops
Ever less
Breeze leaves a sign.
The wood’s birds no longer are calling.
Quiet now, – dusk’s falling,
Rest will be thine.


This is a typical cor inquietum poem. And the contrast between nature and dusk and the restless human heart has become a cliché, so it is difficult now not to translate pathos into bathos. This is more than apparent in the last line of the collage translation.

So what have been the priorities? Firstly, not to mention death, sleep or the heart. Secondly, to make sure that the Ruh/ruhest repetition is retained. Preferably the du/du, although this I could not manage. The stress patterns must be adhered to – which also involves observing the same number of syllables in each line. If possible, the rhyme. If not, assonances or suggestions of rhyme. And also the order of events, i.e. try to retain 1, 2, 3 + exhortation (the Swedish had 1, 3, 2).

What was tricky? Everything. Lines ending in unstressed syllables. Rhymes. The meaning of ‘Warte nur’ – the French translation had ‘Patience!’, which gets the sense, but sticks out a bit in the translation. The enjambement of 3-5 is retained, but that of 7-8 has been sacrificed.

Question (from a friend and poet) – How usual, folksy or literary was ‘balde’ rather than ‘bald’ in 1780? Wahrig says AHD (Old High German) bald. According to Deutsche Grammatik, oder Lehrbuch der deutschen Sprache, written by Johann Christian August Heyse (1764-1829):

‘Man spreche und schreibe also nicht balde, dicke, dünne (...), obwohl das deutsche Lied mit Recht die Verlängerungen zurücke, balde sich nicht wird nehmen lassen.’ He then quotes precisely these lines of Goethe’s poem as an example.

And, oh dear!, writes Vöglein and not Vögelein! So what did Goethe actually write on the wall of that hut?

Über allen Gipfeln ist Ruh,
In allen Wipfeln spürest du
Kaum einen Hauch.
Es schweigen die Vöglein im Walde;
Warte nur, balde
Ruhest du auch.

7. September 1780

If you want to know more, go to here. Here the whole story is told, with liberal illustrations.

(PS Why did Goethe absolutely have to change things? His 'Mir schlug das Herz, geschwind zu Pferde/Und fort, wild wie ein Held zur Schlacht...' is much better than his later 'smoothie'.)

(PPS It struck me today, Tuesday, that Herder published 'Von deutscher Art und Kunst' in 1773. This might help explain the reference to 'das deutsche Lied' in Heyse. And also why I feel there is more punch in Goethe's original line. It has more of a 'Sturm und Drang' intensity about it and is stronger in terms of rhythm. 'Vögelein' is a bit too 'pretty, pretty' for me.)


Anonymous said...

Hello John,
I like your translation.


Ken Moore said...

Probably my favourite poem. Your translation is a masterpiece. A version B for the last line could be: "Your turn to rest". The pulse is somewhat the same and "auch" gets a hearing. I like repeating this softly to myself.

John Irons said...

dear ken,

what, though, are we going to make rhyme with 'rest'? at present there is the 'sign'/'thine' rhyme.