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Poetry Translation Workshop

You can get a long way into the whole sense of a poem by accurately observing its physical make-up. You can do this (with help) even in a language you don’t speak.

The poem below is well known and much loved among German readers of poetry. The point of our exercise, whether you know German or not, is by close reading and translation to try to understand how the poem ‘Hälfte des Lebens’ works, what constitutes the poetry of it. And through a foreign language we may see better what might work in a poem in English.

First I read the poem aloud. View video »

Hälfte des Lebens

Mit gelben Birnen hänget
Und voll mit wilden Rosen
Das Land in den See,
Ihr holden Schwäne,
Und trunken von Küssen
Tunkt ihr das Haupt
Ins heilignüchterne Wasser.

Weh mir, wo nehm’ ich, wenn
Es Winter ist, die Blumen, und wo
Den Sonnenschein,
Und Schatten der Erde?
Die Mauern stehn
Sprachlos und kalt, im Winde
Klirren die Fahnen.

German, like English, is an accented language, and in fact more heavily accented than English. You will hear where the stresses fall in a line of German verse. And you may be able to hear whether the pattern of stressed and unstressed syllables is regular or not. Also, you may pick up assonance and, if the poet uses it, rhyme.

Secondly we describe the appearance and make-up of the poem

This poem has a title.
It is composed of two stanzas, each of seven lines.
The lines vary in length (typographically, number of words, number of stresses).
Glance down the last words of each line (you may like to say them aloud or listen to the video again)View video »

There are no rhymes.Listen again View video »

You can probably hear that the stress-pattern is not regular. Look at the punctuation. The first stanza is all one sentence. The second is two: its first four lines are a question, so the last three should be the answer. You will see that most lines go over into the next to complete their sense. Enjambement: the unit of verse (the line) and the unit of grammatical sense are mostly not allowed to coincide.

Note: You can get a long way into the whole sense of a poem by accurately observing its physical make-up. You can do this (with help) even in a language you don’t speak.

Translation – word-for-word


Hälfte des Lebens
Half of the life

Mit gelben Birnen hänget

With yellow pears hangs

Und voll mit wilden Rosen

And full with wild roses

Das Land in den See,

The land into the lake

Ihr holden Schwäne,

You gracious swans

Und trunken von Küssen

And drunk of (with) kisses

Tunkt ihr das Haupt

Dip you the head

Ins heilignüchterne Wasser.

Into the holysober water.


Weh mir, wo nehm’ ich, wenn

Woe to me, where take I when

Es Winter ist, die Blumen, und wo

It winter is the flowers and where

Den Sonnenschein,

The sunshine

Und Schatten der Erde?

And shadow(s) of the earth?

Die Mauern stehn

The walls stand

Sprachlos und kalt, im Winde

Speechless and cold, in the wind

Klirren die Fahnen.

Clatter the weathervanes


Some comments on the translation

German nouns have capital letters.
Word-order: verb precedes subject if the sentence or a clause begins with something other than the subject. Thus: ‘With yellow pears … hangs the land into the lake’; ‘in the wind/ Clatter the weathervanes.’ When translating you have to judge how odd it would sound in English if you reproduce a syntax which is normal and corrrect in German.

Line 2 makes quite a stange syntax. Normal would be : ‘Mit gelben Birnen und voll mit wilden Rosen hänget das Land in den See.’
Line 4 (right in the middle of the stanza) is an entirely disconnected apostrophe (address to not yet mentioned swans).
Line 5 ‘Und’ comes, so to speak, from nowhere.
Line 6 ‘Tunkt’ is cognate with the English word ‘dunk’ – to dip.
Line 7 ‘heilignüchtern’ is a compound adjective: helig + nüchtern. German, like Greek, can do this far more readily than can English. The author of this poem, a great translator from Ancient Greek and a passionate admirer of Ancient Greek culture, readily (as here) used the resources of his native German to get closer to Greek.
Note ‘heilig’ has in it all the connotations of English ‘holy’. Consider: holy, whole, hale, hail (the greeting).

Line 8, first appearance of the first person – in sorrow and anxiety.

Note: Much of the pathos of the poem is contained in the grammatical relationship of question and answer which is the chief constituent of this stanza.

Some comments on the poem

It is a poem largely composed of images: the pears and the roses hanging into the lake, the swans dipping their heads into the water, the walls, the weathervanes. In the first stanza their composite sense is equipoise, balance, reciprocity: land and water, warmth/passion with coolness and sobriety. Also of fullness: the ripe pears, the abundant roses. And you can imagine a doubling of the image of swans as they bow into the water and are reflected. It must be late summer. So this state of abundance and equipoise will not last, it is on the point of going over into autumn and winter. The ‘going over’ is there already in the hanging down of pears and roses – and also, an instance of form conveying sense, in the frequent enjambement: the lines themselves are toppling over. You may hear it also in the nervousness of the rhythms. The uncertainty of the syntax – the sudden apostrophe – likewise contributes to a sense of precariousness.

In the second stanza, on the introduction of a human voice in the first person, comes the desolating image of walls and weathervanes. He asks where will he find flowers in winter and sunlight and shade (that is, the lovely reciprocating things seen in the first stanza) and for answer gets cold speechless walls and the meaningless clatter of weathervanes.

Note: there is no fair-copy of this poem. Its first appearance, completed, is in print. But on a very crowded manuscript page, containing drafts for other poems, the swans, the roses and flowers in winter are noted, separately. It almost seems the poem came about by the chance co-existence of certain images on one page. He saw he could make a poem of them.

Context

This poem was first published in 1805. By then its author, Friedrich Hölderlin, was in worsening mental health and the following year would be committed to a clinic. Discharged from there in the summer of 1807 with ‘at most three years’ to live, he was accommodated in a tower in the town walls of Tübingen and lived, well looked after, till his death in 1843 at the age of seventy-three. The poem was written in 1803. Its title, and the opposing two stanzas, prefigure quite closely the shape of his life: the going over into madness in an unanswering world.

Possible further exercises

Translate the poem. You might do different versions: one very close, one ‘freer’.

Move further away and write a poem in English that employs some or all of the poetic means employed by Hölderlin in German: two symmetrical stanzas; much enjambement; irregular metre; images that constitute a state of being; shift from ‘impersonal’ into the first person; question and answer. The poem might be an image of the original – same emotional tenor – or, still employing the same strategies, one having an entirely different mood and sense.

Note: strategies are imitable, they may be observed, learned, carried over (translated) into your native tongue, for your own purposes.


David Constantine, 2010

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