Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Still ist die Nacht, es ruhen die Gassen

Nathanael at Rhine River posted some thoughts on poet Heinrich Heine. In following up some links, the poem "Still ist die Nacht" from Die Heimkehr caught my attention. (Schubert fans may know this as Der Doppelgänger.) I don't like any of the several translations I've seen, so I thought I'd offer one of my own.

Still ist die Nacht, es ruhen die Gassen,

In diesem Hause wohnte mein Schatz;

Sie hat schon längst die Stadt verlassen,

Doch steht noch das Haus auf demselben Platz.

Da steht auch ein Mensch und starrt in die Höhe,

Und ringt die Hände, vor Schmerzensgewalt;

Mir graust es, wenn ich sein Antlitz sehe —

Der Mond zeigt mir meine eigne Gestalt.

Du Doppelgänger! du bleicher Geselle!

Was äffst du nach mein Liebesleid,

das mich gequält auf dieser Stelle,

So manche Nacht, in alter Zeit?

The night is still, the avenues are quiet,

This is the house where my dear heart lived.

She left the city long ago,

but the house still stands in the same place.

There's also a person standing there, staring aloft,

Wringing his hands in violent agony;

I'm horrified when I see his face—

The moon is showing me my own figure.

You Doppelgänger! You ghastly fellow!

Why are you aping the pangs of love

That tormented me on this spot

So many a night, in a time gone by.

I'm not fully satisfied with my translation. I sacrificed meter and rhyme, and perhaps my word choice is too pedestrian. The syntagmatic structure of the poem largely survives, but I made some flips and grammatical changes to render it more like ordinary American English. My sense of the poem is that Heine is taking up romantic themes, with echoes of courtly poetry, in rather plain language. I read it as having a bourgeois sensibility, by which I mean the setting, tone, and what I'll call the construction of desire speak to a kind of middle class urban existence. There's also an embeddedness in a literary world that may be described as bourgeois, but I won't be going there.

Some particulars

In many ways reading and writing seem to be aspects of the same activity. If there is an essential difference, can we understand it in a way that doesn't do violence to the integral connectedness of the two? And what does translation reveal about the connectedness/disjuncture? I'm not adept enough at translation to speak authoratitively on the matter, but from my vantage point, it seems impossible to translate poetry in all of its fullness and resonance without substantially rewriting it. If the tranlatability of langauge is a given--and I don't believe that's an unreasonable premise--then it must be understood as grounded in the power of speech (parole), not language, but not divorced from language, announcing language.

If translation is a kind of address, skopic, enunciatory, a report on the current state of intelligibilities, what then is poetry?

As with all things l'écriture Yak, cum grano salis, yada yada yada.

posted by Fido the Yak at 5:41 AM.


Blogger Kyle said...

I am always fascinated by the rationales behind the translation process. Thanks for sharing some of them!

February 22, 2006 10:35 AM  
Blogger Fido the Yak said...

You're most welcome.

February 23, 2006 4:23 AM  

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