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Unread 08-07-2019, 08:41 PM
Andrew Szilvasy Andrew Szilvasy is online now
Join Date: May 2016
Location: Boston, MA
Posts: 1,821
Default Heine

Death and Life

Death is the frigid night,
Life the stifling day.
It’s growing dark, I’m drowsy,
The day has left me spent.

Above my bed grows a tree
where the young nightingale sings;
she sings only of love,
I hear it even in dreams.


Der Tod, das ist die kühle Nacht,
Das Leben ist der schwüle Tag.
Es dunkelt schon, mich schläfert,
Der Tag hat mich müd gemacht.

Über mein Bett erhebt sich ein Baum,
Drin singt die junge Nachtigall;
Sie singt von lauter Liebe,
Ich hör es sogar im Traum.


Death is the cool night,
life is the sultry day.
It grows dark, I am sleepy,
day has made me tired.

Over my bed there grows a tree
in which the young nightingale sings;
it sings of nothing but love,
I hear it even in my dreams.
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Unread 08-07-2019, 08:57 PM
Roger Slater Roger Slater is online now
Join Date: Jun 2001
Location: New York
Posts: 14,592

Well, it reads nicely enough, but I'm not sure it's an improvement on the crib. I think the rhymes were a major part of the original, and it leaves me wishing you had found a way to make your translation use rhymes as well.

But I'm not sure, ultimately, why frigid is a better translation of kühle than cool, or stifling is better than sultry, or why you have elevated müd into spent instead of a straightforward tired. Any of these choices could be understood as necessary and appropriate if they were solving a metrical problem, or accomplishing a rhyme, or needed to make the syntax work, but as it stands they strike me as simply an attempt not to mirror the crib.

Finally, to me the German sounds like it would be better translated into tetrameter than the trimeter you have.
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Unread 08-07-2019, 09:00 PM
John Isbell John Isbell is offline
Join Date: Mar 2017
Location: TX
Posts: 4,952

Hi Andrew,

Interesting Heine poem. He's perhaps best known to English speakers for the words to Schumann's Dichterliebe - one of the great mid-century German poets, and likely the greatest. He lived much of his life in exile and pain.
Anyway: basically I like what you've got. You've changed his usual ballad meter, which I find a bit tricky here in the German. It's a challenge to shorten the lines, and you've done that effectively to my mind. Some nits: frigid for kühl, which seems slightly tonally wrong; grows for erhebt sich - stands might be better; where for Drin (why not there?); only for lauter, which might be a lot, for instance; dreams for Traum, which is singular. You see I'm niggling at it. Anyway, them's my thoughts.

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Unread 08-08-2019, 11:08 AM
Susan McLean Susan McLean is offline
Join Date: Jul 2001
Location: Iowa City, IA, USA
Posts: 8,230

Andrew, when I see a rhyming poem translated without rhyme, it always bothers me. Here Heine has just two lines per quatrain that rhyme, so it shouldn't be impossible to replicate if you are willing to be slightly looser in your meter or your translation. You may say that you have consonant slant rhyme in the first quatrain and assonant in the second, but they are both almost imperceptible, so if you can bring them closer to true rhyme, I think they would give that little sigh of satisfaction that is the counterweight to the sadness/frustration in the poem. Note the wide separation of the rhymes. This downplays the chiming effect without canceling it entirely.

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Unread 08-08-2019, 02:53 PM
Andrew Szilvasy Andrew Szilvasy is online now
Join Date: May 2016
Location: Boston, MA
Posts: 1,821

Roger: Thanks for your notes. Yes, like you and Susan I wanted to make it rhyme. Part of the problem--and clearly part of what is going to send me back to the drawing board, I suspect, is that the piece is so filled with very simple diction. Perhaps replacing "kühle" with "frigid" is a bit of a problem (as John says), but then what do with "Nacht"? It has to be night...and then the rhyme in L4 becomes a problem.

I also would prefer the tetrameter. But the piece is so beautifully spare, and the syntax so utterly German that it's hard to make:

Der Tod, das ist die kühle Nacht,

into anything other than "Death is the cool night" without changing the tone irrevocably ("Death? That is the frigid night") or adding extra padding.

But again, I see your point and have to consider it.

John: I'm glad it reads well in the English. Do you have any suggestions for better words than the ones you put forth there?

I'm thinking of just going pure ballad stanza 4-3-4-3 (xaxa rhyme) or something, the maybe make the rhythm more consistent. Could that work?

Susan: My "fix" for the rhyme problem was exactly as you said. But I do think you're ultimately right. I'm going to rework this to try to get pure rhymes in rather than slants.
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Unread 08-08-2019, 05:53 PM
Matt Q Matt Q is online now
Join Date: May 2013
Location: England, UK
Posts: 3,445

Hi Andrew,

I didn't know this poem, and I've read hardly any Heine, so I'm pleased to read it. I think you're right that the simplicity of the language is a challenge here. That's not much leeway for alternative word choices. I had a couple of thoughts, though not on how to make it rhyme.

The first relates to 'kühl'. The day is hot and humid, as a result he's tired. The night is cool. Being both hot and tired, the night and its promise of sleep and its coolness (and lower humidity) seems to be something that's appealing, inviting -- a relief. 'kühl/cool' here can also mean distant, indifferent (he was cool towards me). But attractiveness/relief seems to be the primary sense of what's going on here, though both may be in play.

'frigid', on the other hand, is hard to see as appealing, inviting. It has sexual connotations, too, that go beyond indifference, connotations that I don't think 'cool' has and that I don't think the German has either (I'm very, very rusty, mind).

So why not stick with 'cool'? The main and secondary meanings are kept. "Death is the cool night" scans as a headless iamb followed by a double iamb and the next line is headless too. (I guess you can pronounce 'cool' as dipthong, but then it scans fine too: trochee, iamb, iamb).

"schwül" means muggy, hot and humid. 'sultry' as per your crib catches this but adds a sexual, seductive sense that I don't think is there in "schwül", and seems to suggest that the day is attractive (or trying to be). 'stifling' is a nice choice for the internal rhyme. It maybe adds a slight interpretation: suffocating, restricting, whereas the more neutral "schwül" allows the reader to make that association him or herself without leading them. 'Stifling' doesn't necessarily imply humidity, I think, though I might be wrong. 'close' might be an option somehow. It plays off the indifferent, emotionally distant night, I guess, though that would seem to over-steer the reading of the first line, it's meaning as 'near' is likely overbearing. I guess 'muggy' is a neutral option in the way that "schwül" is (again, I could be wrong), though it's a little underwhelming as a word (against which 'stifling' is maybe a little over-strong). 'humid' might another neutral option, but also seems a little weak and loses the heat. Sorry, I started this paragraph thinking I might reach a useful conclusion.

For the last line, I guess you could have

"The day has worn me out"

Which has a slightly stronger consonant rhyme with 'night' to my ear.

I think you need a comma after 'Life' to show the elision of "is".

Sie singt von lauter Liebe

can also be "she sings of pure love" (as opposed to "only" love -- she sings of love and nothing else). To make it scan, it could be something like: "she sings of perfect love" (or "purest love"). I don't know that this is better, but maybe it's an option.

Anyway, time for me to embrace the cool night.



Last edited by Matt Q; 08-08-2019 at 07:36 PM.
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Unread 08-11-2019, 10:25 PM
Jake Sheff Jake Sheff is offline
Join Date: Sep 2013
Location: Portland, OR
Posts: 265


I agree with the others regarding the loss of rhyme. I think you could maintain Heine's spirit and intent without losing the rhyme. I mean, I think you could remove "night" for an alternative or put it somewhere else in the line.

Death and night are cold, the same.
Life the stifling day.
It's growing dark, I'm drowsy,
and daytime is to blame.

The frigid night, I know, is death.
Life the stifling day.
It's growing dark, I'm drowsy,
I'm out of day and out of breath.

Above my bed, a tree branch leans
from a nightingale singing
her song about love,
I hear it even in dreams.

I don't know about other people's guiding principles with translation, but I think a successful English poem which honors the original author's spirit and intent allows for some maneuvering like this.

Hopefully it helps!

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