Thursday, November 4, 2010

Couldn’t Stop Myself

In his blog (here) for November 4, 2010, Gilleland published a brief Goethe poem, the Wanderer’s Night-Song, with eight translations into English. Many of these are quite superb, but none attempts a strict translation matching the tiny poem’s meter and rhyme scheme. This sort of thing is irresistible for me—especially if the item is short. Thus I will here reproduce the original German and my translation. It too lacks in some ways. Peaks and leaves? Not quite the rhyme I’d like—if you can even speak of rhyme. In the next to the last line, could is used for rhyme, but Goethe’s meaning is can.

This sort of thing will be pleasing, alas, only to those who speak both languages well. German is in many ways closer to its ancient origins and uses fewer Latin-rooted words. This makes the language, in the hands of poets, more crisp and parsimonious. Goethe’s poem uses 24 words and a mere 116 characters. Mine uses 33 words and 136 characters. All the translators use more words and characters than Goethe. Longfellow beats me—31 words and 135 letters. But there goes a poet of first rank. And he does not follow Goethe’s meter—and rhymes breath with rest. Believe me, I know how that must have irritated him.

The link above is not exact because Gilleland does not make it easy to access individual posts. Nor does he permit comments, or I might have sent this to him as a comment. So, instead…

Goethe’s Poem:

Über allen Gipfeln
Ist Ruh,
In allen Wipfeln
Spürest du
Kaum einen Hauch,
Die Vögelein schweigen im Walde.
Warte nur, balde
Ruhest du auch.

My Translation:

Above all mountain peaks
It’s still,
In all the trees’ leaves
You feel nil,
Nary a sigh.
Silent the little birds in the wood.
Wait! Soon you too could
Rest for a while.


  1. Thank you for this poem. Wonderful Goethe. We tend to leave him in a literary museum, but he was a poet, philosopher, and scientist - to name a few of his endeavors.

    This reminds a great deal of Robert Frost's Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening.

  2. Good point on Frost, there, Montag. Both poems have that peculiar power of suggesting both silence and physical presence in a natural landscape.

  3. Baldy said,
    You are caught up in the technical of verse and rhyme. For me your work is a masterpiece, regardless of the number of words and letters. I really enjoyed your concoction.

  4. Right, Baldy. Restaurant guests should not be taken into the kitchen...


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