This is a translation I did for the Stephen Spender Prize 2014 for poetry in translation. I decided to translate the poem Lorelei by Heinrich Heine after spending a year living by the Rhein. I also wrote a commentary down below.
Lorelei von Heinrich Heine
Ich weiß nicht, was soll es bedeuten,
Daß ich so traurig bin;
Ein Märchen aus alten Zeiten,
Das kommt mir nicht aus dem Sinn.
Die Luft ist kühl, und es dunkelt,
Und ruhig fließt der Rhein;
Der Gipfel des Berges funkelt
Die schönste Jungfrau sitzet
Dort oben wunderbar,
Ihr goldenes Geschmeide blitzet,
Sie kämmt ihr goldenes Haar.
Sie kämmt es mit goldenem Kamme
Und singt ein Lied dabei;
Das hat eine wundersame,
Den Schiffer im kleinen Schiffe
Ergreift es mit wildem Weh;
Er schaut nicht die Felsenriffe,
Er schaut nur hinauf in die Höh’.
Ich glaube, die Wellen verschlingen
Am Ende Schiffer und Kahn;
Und das hat mit ihrem Singen
Die Lorelei getan.
The Lorelei (translation)
I do not understand the signs,
Of why I feel such sadness;
A tale from olden times,
Drives me close to madness.
The air is cool, the light dwindles,
And tranquil flows the Rhine;
The mountain’s pinnacle twinkles
In evening’s light divine.
The fairest maiden sitteth
So wonderfully up there,
Her golden pendant glitters,
She brushes her golden hair.
Brushing it with a golden brush,
She sings a song aloud;
A melody so wondrous,
A monumental sound.
The sailor with his humble sail
Lets out a desperate cry;
He does not spot the rocky shale,
He stares only at the sky.
I feel the waves devour
Sailors and their craft;
And this fateful spell of power,
The Loreley does cast.
I chose to translate ‘Die Lorelei’ after it captivated me during a year along the Rhine in Germany, where the poem originates. Heinrich Heine wrote the poem in 1824 after being inspired by a ballad by German author Clemens Brentano about an enchanting maiden associated with the rock. In the ballad, the maiden ‘Lore Lay’ is consigned to a nunnery for cursing men and causing their death. She asks for permission to climb the Lorelei rock to view the Rhine once more, and in doing so falls to her death.
Whilst being fairly similar structurally to English, German did present some difficulties as a source language. For example, the adjectival, plural and verbal endings in German give it an edge over English in terms of rhyme, as many words end in ‘e’, ‘n’, ‘en’ etc. Similarly, word order posed problems in some places, such as in the final stanza, where the poem ends on the past participle ‘getan’, straight after ‘Lorelei’. This proved impossible in English, and resulted in me changing the tense.
The main difficulty the poem presented was the ‘ABAB’ rhyme scheme used in each stanza. I wanted to preserve this regularity throughout the entire poem, whilst sticking as close to the original meaning as possible. This proved challenging yet rewarding. To achieve it, I started each stanza by finding two pairs of rhyming words that expressed roughly the same meaning as the original rhyming pairs and worked from there. This sometimes meant using synonyms, for example changing ‘comb’ (Kamme) to ‘brush’, and ‘ship’ (Schiffe) to ‘sail’. Sometimes I was unable to preserve both the meaning and rhyme scheme, and so compromised by changing the meaning slightly, most notably where I added ‘fateful spell of power’ in the penultimate line, where the German simply refers to singing (Singen).