Poetry reading

Tuesday, March 6th, 2007

In a German documentary I recently subtitled (a fairly new line of work for me, and one which I’m loving), I was suddenly faced with a dire situation: in the middle of the film, there is a performance of an early 19th-century German poem for which there appeared to be no “official” (i.e., published) English translation. This meant that it was up to me to translate the thing.

I found this very intimidating, not least because to be a good poetry translator, you essentially have to be a poet. The last time I wrote any poetry, I was about 16 and—well, you can imagine what a moody 16-year-old girl’s poetry is like.

I lucked out, though. The poem—actually more of a folk song—was quite short and very simple. I knocked it out in about ten minutes and I’m publishing it here not because I think it’s a brilliant specimen of literary translation, but because someone somewhere down the line might stumble across a poem entitled “An den Meistbiethenden gegen gleich baare Bezahlung” from Des Knaben Wunderhorn (The Boy’s Magic Horn, a collection of German folk ballads published by Clemens Brentano and Achim von Arnim between 1805 and 1808) and need to know what it says. And I want to spare that person the fruitless search that I experienced.

This is a shortened version of the poem, by the way. The full German text, which has a lot more verses, can be found here at the German version of Project Gutenberg.

“To the highest bidder against immediate cash payment”

“My love, I wish never
to part with thee.

Can you spin silken threads
from your hair for me?

If I spin silken threads
from my hair for thee,

you must sew me a dress
out of linden leaves.

If I sew you a dress
out of linden leaves,

from water and wine
a whip you must weave.

If from water and wine
a whip I must weave,

you must cross the ocean
and yet stay by me.

If I must cross the ocean,
and yet stay by thee,

you must give your mother
as a virgin to me.

If I must give my mother
as a virgin to thee,

I would fain give you a child
and no more a virgin be.”

Cheeky, huh?

Actually, for good measure, here’s a translation of another poem that cropped up in the film. This one is by a post-war Polish poet named Tadeusz Rózewicz. An English version of this poem has actually been published by Adam Czerniawski, but I couldn’t get my hands on it, so I had a go myself. I’d be interested to read the “official” translation someday. The original poem is in Polish, but this English translation is based on the German translation of the poem—not an ideal situation, but I don’t know Polish, so…

“Upon the departure of a poet
and a passenger train”

He does not know
what his last poem will be like,
or what the first day will be like
in a world without poetry.

It will surely rain.
Shakespeare will play in the theatre,
there’ll be tomato soup for lunch,

or for lunch there’ll be chicken broth with noodles.
Shakespeare will play in the theatre.
It will rain.



Well done, Jessica.

Posted by Mutti


Yeah! I particularly like the part where one’s mother can still be a virgin.

Jessica, due to English and German being close cousins, were the end of the lines (thee, weave, leaves) very similar or did the words in German lend themselves to that translation?


Both poems are beautiful. Nicely done!


That’s lovely - I must remember those "silken threads" lines - could be a good cheeky chat-up lines ;)


Thank you all for your kind words!

Jen, in the German poem, every other line ends with a long "i" sound rather than a long "e" sound, and the German verses generally end with an infinitive verb ("scheiden" - to part, "schneiden" - to cut, "bleiben" - to stay).

In some cases, the translation was very straightforward; the German "Lindenlaub", for example, does just mean "linden leaves". In other cases, I had to tweak things slightly more to get the general sense of the German across while still working in the rhyme and assonance.

For example, the lines about the whip—"Musst du mir eine Peitsche drehen/Von Wasser und von Weine"—could literally be translated as "You must twist a whip for me from water and from wine". But the "water and wine" phrase wouldn’t work at the end of the couplet because it didn’t rhyme right, so I took poetic license with English syntax and put it first. Then the verb "twist" didn’t work, either rhythmically or as regards rhyme. But luckily we have the beautiful word "weave", which is not only visually evocative but also rhymes with "leaves", is assonant with the long "e" sound at the end of the other lines, and alliterates with "water", "wine" and "whip".

So, thank goodness for "weave"—and for the fact that it’s an archaic poem, so I could use the word "thee", which made things much much easier all around… :-)

brothercake, the "silken threads" are quite romantic alright—but I’d avoid the whole "I want to take your virginal mother as my wife" thing… ;-)

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