Thursday 21 October 2010

To -E or not to -E? Some thoughts on translating Goethe's famous poem 'Über allen Gipfeln'

(I refer you to the file that can be downloaded from 'Aldeburgh Poetry Festival 1', 16.10.10)


Über allen Gipfeln
Ist Ruh,
In allen Wipfeln
Spürest du
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
Ist Ruhe,
In allen Wipfeln
Spürest du
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
dag dör.
Bland trädens stammar
ej du hör
fåglarnas flock.
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)


John Irons said...

i would refer you to a very interesting article on poetry translation at:


John Irons said...

There are at least a dozen Swedish translations of the poem at this website:översättarlexikon/artiklar/Über_allen_Gipfeln