Just Because I Like It

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 thoughts on “Just Because I Like It”

  1. 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.

  2. 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.

  3. 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.”

  4. 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?

  5. 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.

  6. 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.

  7. 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

  8. 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!

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