Translation / Übersetzung
by / von Walter A. Aue

Georg Heym:

Der Herbst

Viele Drachen stehen in dem Winde,
Tanzend in der weiten Lüfte Reich.
Kinder stehn im Feld in dünnen Kleidern,
Sommersprossig und mit Stirnen bleich.

In dem Meer der goldnen Stoppeln segeln
Kleine Schiffe, weiß und leicht erbaut;
Und in Träumen seiner leichten Weite
Sinkt der Himmel wolkenüberblaut.

Weit gerückt in unbewegter Ruhe
Steht der Wald wie eine rote Stadt.
Und des Herbstes goldne Flaggen hängen
Von den höchsten Türmen schwer und matt.

Georg Heym, ca. 1900
(in der Mitte seines Lebens)

Walter A. Aue: Der Drache

Walter A. Aue: Die rote Stadt

Walter A. Aue: Der Turm

Georg Heym:

The Fall

Many kites are standing in the breezes,
dancing in the atmospheric veil.
Children stand in fields in flimsy clothing,
bodies freckled and their foreheads pale.

In the golden stubble sea are sailing
tiny ships of whitest, lightest build;
and in dreams of effortless extension
sinks the sky, with clouds of blueness filled.

Far removed, in unperturbèd silence,
stands the forest like a scarlet town -
and the autumn's golden flags are hanging
from the towers grave and tired down.

A beautiful poem, you say? Yes, indeed. But one that leaves the reader feeling queasy. YOU didn't? Ah, yes, but that's on account of my poor translation. It's difficult to convey that bent-sinister impression, that impending-disaster atmosphere.

Why I say that? After all, there are kids flying kites; there is a beautiful sky with feather clouds; and there is a forest in all its autumnal glory of red and gold.

True enough, dear Reader. But there are also notes in that musical poem that sound a bit out of tune. And there are even images that seem to contradict one another.

In the first stanza, the kites are standing ("stehen") in the air (though dancing in the second line). And the kids stand (again the same German word, "stehen") in the field. In close succession, the same word twice! (Or thrice if we consider the forest that "stands" in the third stanza.) Very peculiar. And certainly deliberate.

The kids have but thin clothes to wear in the winds and, despite being freckled, their foreheads are pallid. Note that the German "bleich" has also strong overtones of "fearful" or "frightened". Are these kids impoverished? Are they destined for the inevitable fate of kites, i.e. to crash to earth?

In the second stanza, a lyrical adagio of sorts, it is all autumnal beauty. But even that beautiful sky is "sinking".

In the third stanza, the forest "stands" in ominous quietude - no wind here for flying kites and sailing clouds! - "wie eine rote Stadt", like a red town.

To call a town "red" is a bit unusual in Germany (unless one means a town ruled by a socialist administration, or possibly one with red brick buildings). To a German - and not only to a German - red symbolizes primarily fire or blood. Or, as in war, both.

From "the highest towers" of that town hang the golden flags of autumn. No, not happily dancing in the breeze like the kites, but "schwer und matt", heavy and spent. Is Heym referring to a world too tired to remain sane? Is he referring to a bloody war - World War I - looming on the horizon?

Now you are getting queasy, dear Reader? Please don't. You see, I have only been speculating. And, mind you, it's really just a magnificent poem - though from a precocious and, by all indications, prescient author. That's all I can tell you for now. But maybe you want to scroll further down?

Walter A. Aue: The Scarlet Forest

Walter A. Aue: The Golden Flag of Fall


Georg Heym:

Der Krieg

Aufgestanden ist er, welcher lange schlief,
Aufgestanden unten aus Gewölben tief.
In der Dämmrung steht er, groß und unerkannt,
Und den Mond zerdrückt er in der schwarzen Hand.

In den Abendlärm der Städte fällt es weit,
Frost und Schatten einer fremden Dunkelheit,
Und der Märkte runder Wirbel stockt zu Eis.
Es wird still. Sie sehn sich um. Und keiner weiß.

In den Gassen faßt es ihre Schulter leicht.
Eine Frage. Keine Antwort. Ein Gesicht erbleicht.
In der Ferne wimmert ein Geläute dünn
Und die Bärte zittern um ihr spitzes Kinn.

Auf den Bergen hebt er schon zu tanzen an
Und er schreit: Ihr Krieger alle, auf und an.
Und es schallet, wenn das schwarze Haupt er schwenkt,
Drum von tausend Schädeln laute Kette hängt.

Einem Turm gleich tritt er aus die letzte Glut,
Wo der Tag flieht, sind die Ströme schon voll Blut.
Zahllos sind die Leichen schon im Schilf gestreckt,
Von des Todes starken Vögeln weiß bedeckt.

Über runder Mauern blauem Flammenschwall
Steht er, über schwarzer Gassen Waffenschall.
Über Toren, wo die Wächter liegen quer,
Über Brücken, die von Bergen Toter schwer.

In die Nacht er jagt das Feuer querfeldein
Einen roten Hund mit wilder Mäuler Schrein.
Aus dem Dunkel springt der Nächte schwarze Welt,
Von Vulkanen furchtbar ist ihr Rand erhellt.

Und mit tausend roten Zipfelmützen weit
Sind die finstren Ebnen flackend überstreut,
Und was unten auf den Straßen wimmelt hin und her,
Fegt er in die Feuerhaufen, daß die Flamme brenne mehr.

Und die Flammen fressen brennend Wald um Wald,
Gelbe Fledermäuse zackig in das Laub gekrallt.
Seine Stange haut er wie ein Köhlerknecht
In die Bäume, daß das Feuer brause recht.

Eine große Stadt versank in gelbem Rauch,
Warf sich lautlos in des Abgrunds Bauch.
Aber riesig über glühnden Trümmern steht
Der in wilde Himmel dreimal seine Fackel dreht,

Über sturmzerfetzter Wolken Widerschein,
In des toten Dunkels kalten Wüstenein,
Daß er mit dem Brande weit die Nacht verdorr,
Pech und Feuer träufet unten auf Gomorrh.

PS: Und befruchtet die Erde, daß ein neuer Krieg aus ihren Tiefen auferstehen kann. Denn immer wieder wird der Krieg geboren...

Wie wär's, wenn Sie sich auch andere Gedichte in dieser Sammlung ansähen, die, direkt oder indirekt, mit dem Krieg zu tun haben? Zum Beispiel Hardys The Man He Killed, Helmberg-Lanners Flüchtlinge, Owens Anthem for Doomed Youth oder Yeats's The Second Coming?

Oder Bashôs natsugusa ya, Dickinsons Success is counted sweetest oder The name of it is 'Autumn', Kiesslings Das neue Wappentier, Robinsons The Dark Hills, Tennysons Ulysses oder Ungarettis Soldati?

Oder, wenn das zuviel verlangt ist, wie wär's mit ein paar alten Bildern von Francisco Goya y Lucientes?

Francisco Goya, 1746-1828:
The Colossus (detail)

Francisco Goya:
Saturn devours his children (Detail)

Francisco Goya: May 3rd, 1808
(Execution of the Defenders of Madrid, detail)

Francisco Goya:
"The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters"

Mehr (und Ärgeres) von Goya können Sie in der Web Gallery oder in Mark Harden's Artchive finden.

Georg Heym:

The War

Now he has arisen: he, who slept so long,
from the depth arisen, out of arches strong.
Huge he stands and unknown in the twilight land,
and the moon he crushes in his blackened hand.

Broad on city's evening, wide and angrily
shadows fall, and frost of strange obscurity
makes the market's bustle stop in icy scare.
Silence reigns. They turn - and no one is aware.

In the street it comes to touch her shoulders light:
Just a question. Answerless. A face goes white.
From afar the abbey bells are whining thin
and the beards are quaking round the pointed chin.

High up, on the mountains, he begins to dance,
and he cries: You fighters, rise up and advance!
Echoes sound: around his shaking, blackened head
swings a chain of skulls he wrenched from thousand dead.

Tower-like he squashes embers' dying gleam
and, where day is fleeing, fills with blood the stream.
Countless are the corpses swept into the reeds,
covered by white feathers, where the vulture feeds.

He stands over ramparts blue of flames around,
over darkened streets with heavy weapons sound,
over broken gates where gatemen lie across,
over bridges bending under human dross.

Through the night he chases fire across the world:
red-fanged hound of hell with savage scream unfurled.
Out of darkness leaps dominion of night,
frightful at its border shine volcanoes bright.

And a thousand redcaps, pointed far and wide,
litter up the dark plain, flicker up astride.
Those below in alleys, running to and fro,
he sweeps in the fire, that it hotter grow.

And the flames are leaping, burning tree by tree.
Yellow bats of fire clawing endlessly.
And he thrusts his kiln-staff, dark and charcoal-bound
deep amongst the trees to stoke the flames around.

An important city, chocked in yellow glow,
jumped without a whisper to the depths below,
while he stands, a giant, over glowing urns,
wild, in bloody heavens, thrice his torch he turns

over stormstrung clouds reflecting fiery brands,
to the deadly dark of frigid desert sands,
down he pours the fires, withering the night,
phosphorus and brimstone on Gomorrha bright.

Georg Heym drowned 1912 in a skating accident, at the age of 24, more than two years before the First World War started. Exactly when this early expressionistic poem was written I do not know - but to me it presages, and uncannily so, the two World Wars to come.

Take for instance the apocalyptic vision of the penultimate stanza, about the great city vanishing in yellow smoke and jumping into the abyss, with fire turning thrice above it. This is as good a description of a military firestorm as it gets. Firestorms can be induced by incendiary bombs using white (really: yellow) phosphorus. They were used on several cities in the Second World War. Their scientific design asked for three different, precisely timed and accurately delivered waves of bombing: the first to disrupt the water systems (used for fire-fighting); the second to maximize the firestorm, i.e. to burn and choke the city most efficiently; and the third to kill off any remaining firefighters. The people in the city would of course jump down into canals or sewers or what have you to escape the flames. I am squeamish about such things, so I won't delve any deeper into poetic analogies. But how could Heym have written something like that at the beginning of the twentieth century, when no such knowledge existed?

By the way, the military firestorm that destroyed Hamburg was code-named "Gomorrha". After Jehova's, not Heym's Gomorrha, obviously: It is hardly likely that Bomber Harris would have had any knowledge of German poetry.

Firestorms, being such elementary events, also exert a powerful influence on the literary psyche. One example that comes to mind is Kurt Vonnegut's famous novel Slaughterhouse Five. It takes place not in Hamburg but in Dresden, where Vonnegut was at the time held as an American prisoner of war. Incidentally, this collection contains a poem of his from his stunning "science" novel Cat's Cradle. Ah, of course you know that one...

My translation of Heym takes, as usual, a few liberties. For this poem, which to me is one of the most powerful statements on war, I wanted the translation to convey that sense of apocalyptic terror, those dramatic colors only to be had in a burning landscape, that grandiose sweep of violence across a dying world. And I wanted to keep the rhymes, those structural elements of this ferocious tapestry. So, when I had to, I fudged a bit. After all, I am no Bosch of the pen...

Why not check out what I did with the help of an excellent translation?

PS: This is not just about the past. War arose again from the depths.

Why not prepare yourself by reading some other poems in this collection that, directly or indirectly, deal with war? For instance Hardy's The Man He Killed, Helmberg-Lanner's Flüchtlinge, Owen's Anthem for Doomed Youth or Yeats's The Second Coming?

Or Bashô's natsugusa ya, Dickinson's Success is counted sweetest or The name of it is 'Autumn', Kiessling's Das neue Wappentier, Robinson's The Dark Hills, Tennyson's Ulysses or Ungaretti's Soldati?

Or, if that is too much, how about just a visual from the good old times?

Hieronymous Bosch ca. 1450-1516:
(Haywain Triptych, right panel, detail; Prado)

By the way, if you want to see paintings by Bosch - most of them just as inscrutable to me as the reasons for war - visit the Web Gallery or Mark Harden's Artchive.



Source/Quelle: Wikipedia/Deutsche Fotothek


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First posted ("Der Krieg" only): December 2003
Last updated March 2011
("Der Herbst" added: December 2008)

N.B.: The frame around the poems shows
ATV tracks on the trail behind our house.

Want to see the original photograph?