Übersetzung / Translation
von / by Walter A. Aue

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe:

(Wandrers Nachtlied II)

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

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe:

(Wanderer's Nightsong II)

Above, all the summits
are still.
In all the tree-tops
you will
feel but the dew.
The birds in the forest ceased talking.
Wait: after walking
you shall rest, too.

This poem is considered by some the most beautiful lyrical poem of the German language. Anacreon himself is supposed to have had a helping hand in it. But all that, I am sorry to say, does not come through in my translation. I had to go freer than I wanted, and even then I lost much of the poem's power and most of it's (seemingly) simple, floating beauty in my crusade for rhyme and rhythm.

Among the poetic jewels, this one is a diamond: brilliant, self-contained and unscratchable - but so easily broken by an errant chop!

Then why did I do it? Just the challenge, I suppose. Just the sheer impossibility of it all...

Erna Bennett in her essay Translating Poetry mentions Almansi and Merry's comment (in their 1977 book Montale: the private language of poetry), that to translate and introduce a poet "...to a foreign public is a desperate enterprise, motivated by love, passion and arrogance [italics mine]...". I couldn't have said it better myself!

Incidentally, I liked the Bennet essay for its insight in, and examples of, various translations. But I googled it out of the Net by chance, i.e. because it contained an English rendition of Goethe's poem by Thomas MacDonagh (and a much better one than my own, if you really must know).

But what about my giving it a different title, you ask? Well, "Notturno" is not so far away from "Abendlied" (another, though less common designation). And the unconventional title was to indicate, right from the start, my unfaithfulness to the original.

So, if you want to know what Goethe was really up to, there are some excellent translations to consult, as for instance those by Brian ColeAlan Crosier,  Hyde Flippo, or  John H. Lienhard   [the latter in an "inventive-mind" essay about Newton, Tyndall and Goethe's Theory of Colors (his multi-volume Farbenlehre) from the University of Houston's College of Engineering. Goethe, by the way, considered himself more important as scientist than poet - an assessment posteriority failed to share.]

But I had yet another reason for titling the poem "Notturno". The poem reminded me of Franz Schubert's Notturno (the adagio in E-flat for piano trio, D897, op. posth. 148), a piece of ethereal, aching beauty.

Oh sure, I know. Schubert set the Wandrers Nachlied II itself to music (D768, op. 96-3, with just a minor change to the text), as did several other well-known composers.

Goethe and Schubert - ah, well, that's another story. Schubert set to music some fifty-nine poems of Goethe (or so I seem to remember), some of them in multiple versions. Schubert twice dedicated and submitted Lieder to Goethe - the first time the Erlkönig! - but Goethe, who was used to writing long letters of praise to other - well, let's say, less talented - composers, never even bothered to answer.

But then, Goethe was a rich courtier, diplomat and Geheimrat, and Schubert was a poor, some-time grade-school teacher, who lived much of his short life on the generosity of his friends. And Goethe - perhaps because he was so musical in some of his poems - had little feeling for the music of others. Schubert, on the other hand, had extraordinary interest and taste in poetry (as he had to - and never mind his own poems!).

Does that all make sense? No? And the translation doesn't either? It hasn't helped you at all to appreciate the poem?

Seems you'll have to learn German, then. Which isn't such a bad thing. Certainly beats my comments. And, after all, this poem is definitely worth it...

Too much work? You might be right. Then why not listen to Schubert's Wandrers Nachtlied II (on some discs called Ein Gleiches, because of the other Wandrers Nachtlied, D224), to his Notturno, or, for that matter, to anything else he wrote...

One more story: Schubert was asked by an admirer why he wrote only "melancholy" Lieder. "Are there any others?" Schubert replied, sadly. And, you know, he wrote some six hundred songs...

Incidentally, this website offers translations for about one percent of all the poems set to music by Schubert: Der Lindenbaum, Der Wegweiser and Der Leiermann from Die Winterreise (# 5, 20 and 24 (last), respectively, from D.911, op.89) by (Johann Ludwig) Wilhelm Müller; this song Wandrers Nachtlied II (D.768, op.96-3) and Gretchen am Spinnrad (D.118, op. 2) by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe; Der Wanderer (D.493, op.4-1) by Georg Philipp Schmidt von Lübeck; An die Musik (D.547, op.88-4) by Franz (Adolf Friedrich) von Schober; and Du bist die Ruh (D.776) by Friedrich Rückert.

Seems I never got over my love for self-advertising, did I? Nor of my love for Schubert. So here are some links to photographs of Schubert's monument in the Stadtpark of Vienna, one from 2003, and one, two, and three from 2005. These are from the Vienna Tourist and the Vienna Spring image collections, respectively. Alright, enough of this visual stuff, back to really listening to Schubert...


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First posted: February 2006
Last updated: June 2010

N.B.: The frame around the poems
shows reflections in an old beaver pond.

Want to see the original photograph?

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