Bare ruin’d choirs, where late the sweet birds sang.
In me thou see’st the twilight of such day
As after sunset fadeth in the west;
Which by and by black night doth take away,
Death’s second self, that seals up all the rest.
In me thou see’st the glowing of such fire,
That on the ashes of his youth doth lie,
As the death-bed whereon it must expire,
Consum’d with that which it was nourish’d by.
This thou perceiv’st, which makes thy love more strong,
To love that well which thou must leave ere long.
Many attempts have been made to translate this sonnet. It is centred on the autumn-evening-dying area of what I call cyclic imagery, and the progression of the first three quatrains serves to heighten and intensify the conic dramatic effect, leading up to the wonderful ‘This thou perceiv’st’ that introduces the final couplet. At the same time, as W. Nowottny once pointed out in her analysis of this poem in ‘The Language Poets Use’, there is also extensive use of metaphor in the poem. The boughs are ‘bare ruined choirs’, i.e. choir stalls in the ruined cathedral of nature when autumn comes; black night is ‘death’s second self’, already playing on the cyclic imagery mentioned above (the imminent winter-night-death); and the third stanza takes this Chinese box effect even further by taking the image of fire (sunset of the day in quatrain two), ashes of youth, death bed and making the mental leap to line 12. As Nowottny says, metaphor within metaphor pulls the carpet out from under the feet of the reader – where is reality?
In all three quatrains, the final line sums up, or makes a comment on, the preceding three lines. So I would insist that this is retained in the translation, as it is a pivotal feature of the poem. There should be no enjambement between the third and fourth line of each quatrain, and the metaphor should not be replaced by a simile.
I would also insist that everything leads up, in a vortex of increasing intensity, to the first words in line 13.
Here are lots of translations. I would like to have included French, Italian and Spanish, for example, but have only been able to find prose translations on the Internet. All contributions welcome!
Which translation do you find the most successful – and why?
Here is my opinion of the two Danish translations:
Nu kan i mig du se den Aarets Tid,
da Gren og Kvist med spredt og gulnet Blad
i Luftens Kulde skælver hid og did,
en søndret Hal, hvor fugle nylig kvad.
I mig den dunkle Skumringsstund du ser,
naar Dagen solforladt i Vesten svinder,
mens Natten sort sig breder mer og mer,
hin anden Død, der alt i Hvile binder.
I mig du ser den matte Flammeglød,
som paa sin Ungdoms Aske hviler stille
og venter halvslukt paa sin snare Død,
fortært i det, som var dens Næringskilde.
Og mere kær du faar mig mod det sidste,
fordi du ved, at du mig snart skal miste.
(Adolf Hansen, 1885)
[Now you can see in me the time of the year,/when branch and twig with spread and yellowed leaves/shiver here and there in the coldness of the air,/a fragmented hall where birds recently sang (chanted).//In me you see the dark twilight hour/when day dwindles sun-abandoned in the west/while night spreads out more and more,/that second death that binds all in rest.//In me you see the dull flame-glowing,/that rests motionless on the ashes of its youth/and waits half-extinguished for its imminent death,/consumed in what was its source of nourishment.//And I am more dear to you of late,/because you know you soon will lose me.]
This is a late-19th century translation, so it must be compared with the nature of Danish language used in the poetry of the time. It is in fact free of literary, archaic language as far as I can see, something that cannot be said of the other translation.
In Hansen’s favour, he has retained the ‘in me thou mayst behold/thou see’est’ repetition of lines 1, 5 and 9 and has refrained from changing metaphors into similes. He has also let the last line of each quatrain comment on the previous three, precisely as Shakespeare does.
He has made ‘bare ruined choirs’ into a ‘fragmented hall’, which is a pity. For the original image shows us the ravaged trees as choir stalls in the ruin of some great church or cathedral. The word ‘choirs’ need not be so difficult to translate – the Danish word ‘kor’ means ‘chorus, choir of singers’ but also ‘chancel, choir’ as part of a church. ‘Et søndret kor’ would have fitted just like that.
I am impressed by the three quatrains, although i think ‘fortært i’ ought to be ‘fortært af’.
What lets Hansen down is the final couplet. The whole poem is leading up to the ‘This thou perceiv’st...’ and the effect of the realisation on the love the other person feels of the older writer – ‘to love that (person) well which thou must leave ere long’. Hansen has lost it. It reads like polite prose rather than the poetic climax to the poem.
Den Aarstid tegner mine Træk til fulde,
Da Løvet fældes gult, der frodigt hang
Paa Grenene, som ryster nu af Kulde,
Et ribbet Hvælv, nys fyldt af Fuglesang;
Jeg er som Dagen, der er ved at blegne
I Vest ved Solfald i sin Skumringsstund
Og snarlig for den sorte Nat skal segne,
Hin Dødens Bror, som sænker alt i Blund;
Jeg er at se som Ildens Rest, som Gløden
Der ligger paa sin Ungdoms Aske lav,
Paa Lejet, hvor den kun skal vente Døden,
Fortært af det, den hented Næring af;
Det ser du, alt med kærligere Øje,
Fordi din Ven gaar fra dig inden føje.
(V. Østerberg, 1944)
[That time of year fully describes my features,/When the leaves are shed yellow that once vigorously grew/On the branches which now shiver with cold,/A stripped vault, recently full of bird song;//I am as the day that is about to fade/In the west at sunset in its twilight hour/And shortly will pine away in the face of black night/That brother of death who causes all to doze;// I am to be seen as the remains of the fire, as the glow/That lies on the lichen of its youth’s ashes,/On the (death) bed where it only waits for death,/Consumed by what used to nourish it;//This you see, with ever more-loving eye,/Because your friend is leaving you anon.]
This is a mid 20th century translation, so the language must be judged by the Danish used in poetry at that time. It contains many words that were definitely literary and archaic by that time: solfald = solnedgang; hin = denne (dem. pronoun); sænke i Blund = få til at sove; inden føje = snart. Clearly, rhyme is responsible for some of these choices. The style is very ‘retro’.
As mentioned in my translation criteria, lines 4, 8 and 12 should sum up the previous three lines. This Østerberg has done.
Since he has not kept the ‘in me thou mayst behold/thou see’st’ repetition of lines 1, 5 and 9, the force of the progression is lessened. Furthermore, he has fallen into the trap of replacing the metaphor by a simile in lines 5 and 9 (som = as). Once you introduce a comparison, the intensity of the poem is severely affected. The three-stage rocket effect is weakened. Finally, there is too much explanation in quatrain three – the second half of line 11 already starts to interpret instead of just describing.
Østerberg has captured the crucial slot at the beginning of line 13, but this should be followed by a crucial observation ‘which makes thy love more strong’ – ‘with ever more-loving eye’ is a very pale imitation of the original. And his ending is a disaster – ‘inden føje’ is completely unknown to most Danes and I had to consult a very large dictionary to find the expression, which should actually be ‘om føje’.
The first quatrain is definitely the best part of the translation. Certain turns of phrase and choice of vocabulary make me suspect Østerberg knew Hansen’s translation.
(I refer you to the file that can be downloaded from 'Aldeburgh Poetry Festival 1', 16.10.10)
EIN GLEICHES [WANDRERS NACHTLIED]
Über allen Gipfeln
In allen Wipfeln
Kaum einen Hauch;
Die Vögelein schweigen im Walde.
Warte nur, balde,
Ruhest du auch.
Goethe’s poem is technically superb. You can see how the rhythm works by disturbing it. Once you do this, sound and sense work against each other, instead of with each other:
Über allen Gipfeln
In allen Wipfeln
Kaum einen Hauch;
Die Vögelein schweigen im Wald.
Warte nur, bald,
Ruhest du auch.
The function of the masculine and feminine line-endings now becomes clear – the way the feminine endings move you on, the masculine bring you to a position of rest. Lines 4-5 are a foreshadowing of 6-7 – just add an unstressed syllable at the beginning and end of 5-6 and you have the rhythm of 6-7. The dactyls are already in place. And they are re-echoed in ‘warte nur’ and ‘ruhest du’. I have looked at all the English translations in the file and not one of them tries to capture this, which is one of the reasons why they fail to convince. There is an intense musicality about the original. Since English lacks unstressed endings (see later remarks), the lilt of the German disappears – and with it something of the message of the text. Out of all the translations, only the Swedish one has paid attention to this, though at the expense of changing the order of the text:
Över bergens kammar
Bland trädens stammar
ej du hör
I kronorna kvällsvinden somnar.
Vänta, snart domnar,
Hjärta, du ock.
[Over the mountains’ crests (ridges)/day is dying./Among the trees’ trunks/you do not hear/the flock of birds./In the tree-tops the evening wind is falling asleep./Wait, soon will subside,/Heart, you also.]
As soon as you translate the actual Swedish words, the big difference between Swedish and English is immediately apparent – Swedish has vital areas where unstressed syllables are added, while this is not the case in English. More than this: Swedish not only has stress, it has tones. It is Tone 2 (double tone) that gives Swedish (and Norwegian) that characteristic ‘sing-song’ effect. And the Swedish translation has a high proportion of Tone 2. Swedish has many different plural forms of nouns – those ending in –AR (lines 1, 2, 5, 6) have Tone 2. So does the present tense of verbs ending in –AR (lines 6-7). So do polysyllabic nouns ending in –A (lines 7, 8).
Another thing that makes it easier for an unstressed syllable to follow a stressed syllable is that the definite article is placed after the noun in Swedish (and in Danish and Norwegian). This is found in bergens, trädens, fåglarnas, kronarna, kvällsvinden (e.g. the word fåglarnas = fågel + plural + definite article + genitive ending). So the cards are stacked in Sweden’s favour. If you put the two together, Tone 2 + morphological endings, Swedish will find it easier to echo the effect of the original German than English will.
The only (faint) criticism I have of the Swedish translation, which I find very impressive, is the idea of day ‘dying’. Goethe does not mention death in any way in the poem. This is an extension the reader, perhaps, is entitled to make, but I feel it should not be explicit in the translation itself.
(I have just discovered that the translation won a competition in Svenska Dagbladet. The winner was Axel Gauffin, and his translation published on 26 September 1915)
I can't resist this one - the last religious poem for a while, I promise! The translation dates from 1849 and is by William Josiah Irons, who turns out to be the son of the brother of my great-great-great-grandfather. It's all in the genes!