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  • Just Because I Like It

    Posted by David Foster on June 28th, 2009 (All posts by )

    A young lad loves a maiden
    she likes another one
    that other marries another
    whose heart and hand he won

    The maiden weds in anger
    the first man she can snare
    who comes across her pathway
    The lad is in despair

    It is an old, old story
    yet new with every start,
    and every time it happens
    it breaks a loving heart.

    –Heinrich Heine

    Poetry, of course, is notoriously difficult to translate. The Heine translations of which the above is an example (done by Max Knight and Joseph Fabry) are among the fairly rare examples in which the poem as rendered in the target language preserves much of the rhyme and rhythm of the original. This is done, though, at the sacrifice of precision of meaning: even with my mostly-forgotten high school and college German, I can tell that the line

    Dem bricht das Herz entzwei

    doesn’t say anything about “breaking a loving heart”–rather, if refers to “breaking a heart in two.” Also, the translation uses some rather strange English phrasings (new with every start?) Still, though, I think this kind of translation is a very nice supplement to the more-precise-but-drier translations which seem to be much more common.

    A few more Heine poems from the same translators:

    They made me painfully suffer,
    they hurt me, early and late,
    some did it with their loving
    and others with their hate.

    In my glass they poured their poison.
    they poisoned the bread on my plate.
    some did it with their loving
    and others with their hate.

    But she who caused most suffering,
    torture, and misery,
    she spoke no word of hatred,
    no word of love, to me.


    A spruce is standing lonely
    in the North on a barren height.
    He drowses: ice and snowflakes
    wrap him in a blanket of white.

    He dreams about a palm tree
    in a distant, eastern land,
    that languishes lonely and silent
    upon the scorching sand.


    I am not lured by Eden’s fields,
    the promised land in Paradise.
    No fairer women there than those
    on whom on earth I laid my eyes.

    No angel with the finest wings
    could substitute there for my wife.
    Sitting on clouds and singing psalms
    is not my dream of afterlife.

    O Lord! I think i would be best.
    to leave me here on earth to stay.
    Just cure my ailing body first
    and then provide some money, pray!

    I know the earth is full of sin
    and vice; but I, in many years,
    got used to walking up and down
    the pavement in this vale of tears.

    The earthly bustle I don’t mind
    because I rarely leave the house.
    In slippers and in dressing gown
    I stay home, happy with my spouse.

    Leave me with her. My soul imbibes
    the music of her voice. I do
    delight when she is chattering.
    Her look is loyal and so true.

    Just better health and some more cash
    I ask of you, O Lord. Bestow
    more happy days of bliss on me
    beside my wife in statu quo.


    The lady by the ocean
    sighed long and woebegone.
    She felt such deep emotion
    about the setting sun.

    Young lady, stop your fretting
    it’s still the same old tack.
    Up front the sun is setting
    but it rises from the back.

    Translations from Heinrich Heine: Selected Works, edited by Helen Mustard.

    Some Heine poetry in the original German, together with translations, can be found here and here; also, another approach to the the translation of the first poem.


    9 Responses to “Just Because I Like It”

    1. Lexington Green Says:

      David, very good. Thanks for sharing this.

    2. Tatyana Says:

      Russian translation (Ginsburg) goes even further: not only there is no “breaking in two”; the author appears to address a reader; approx. –
      “your heart will break
      if [this] story will happen to you”.

      Of course, “A Pine And A Palm” is a classic that was a required memorization some time in middle school, I think – in Lermontov’s translation. I could still recite it, with only limited cheating.

      There is one poem that I was very fond of (at about 14) – “I don’t believe in Heaven, not in New or Old Testament – only in your eyes I find my heavenly light…Don’t believe in evil spirit or torturous gehenna – I only believe in your eyes and your unkind heart” Something like that…very Romantic.

    3. Tatyana Says:

      Ugh, I just realized the links don’t go to separate verses. I’ll copy the “Pine..” (it’s pine, not spruce in Lermontov’s):

      На севере диком стоит одиноко
      ___На голой вершине сосна
      И дремлет, качаясь, и снегом сыпучим
      ___Одета, как ризой, она.

      И снится ей все, что в пустыне далекой,
      ___В том крае, где солнца восход,
      Одна и грустна на утесе горючем
      ___Прекрасная пальма растет.

    4. A. C. Says:

      I am reminded of a complaint about translations of poetry made by, I was told, a Russian poet, about a century ago:

      “Translations are like women:
      the beautiful are not faithful,
      the faithful are not beautiful.”

    5. david foster Says:

      I also like Heine’s remark–poetic although not poetry–about the impact of the railroads. (This was written in Paris in 1843.)

      “I feel the mountains and forests of all countries advancing towards Paris. Already, I smell the scent of German lime-trees; the North-Sea breaks on my doorstep.”

      from my post duz web mak us dumr?

    6. Jimbino Says:

      If you like contemplating the problems in translating poetry, you will love Douglas Hofstadter’s “Le Ton bon de Marot,” in which the same short French poem is translated into English in dozens of different styles, with long commentaries on the fidelity of the translations.

    7. Jimbino Says:

      And in the spirit of Hofstadter, you could invite your respondents to contribute and original translation.

      Here’s my translation, which is far better!

      A young man loved a maiden,
      Who preferred his peer instead,
      But he in turn loved another
      Taking her over the maiden to wed.

      The maiden then married in anger
      The very first man she could snare
      On Facebook or Myspace—no matter:
      The young man was drowned in despair.

      Though this story’s as old as the dickens,
      It is felt by the love-blind as new,
      And every time that it is relived
      It rends the heart in two.

    8. david foster Says:

      Following up on Jimbino’s idea….this may be a bit blasphemous, but hopefully Heine wouldn’t mind too much…

      A young dude loves a hot girl
      She likes some other guy
      When his Facebook page shows “taken”
      She hangs her head to cry

      She IMs all the evening
      Till she nabs her second-best
      When her Facebook page shows “taken,” too
      The dude is in distress

      By paper, pen, and envelope
      The news once reached the lad
      It’s now done electronically
      But the pain is just as bad

    9. Tatyana Says:

      David, your heroes are so old-fashioned; their troubles would be much more short-lived if they only used twitter, the tool of international democracy!