Ernst Stadler: Two Translations of ‘Der Spruch’

Ernst Stadler: Two Translations of Der Spruch

[Below are Ernst Stadler’s poem Der Spruch in the original German along with my own translation and an imitation in English by Stephen Berg. This is in response to some reader comments: Mike Horvitz’ request for a more literal translation of one of his favourite poems and Jim Devin’s request for some posting of the German originals. Readers can obviously make up their own minds as to the success or adequacy of both translations. There is more information on the early 20th century Expressionist Stadler in my previous translations of two, in my view better, poems of his on this blog: Early Spring on 27/06/2011 and Journey over the Cologne Rhine Bridge at Night on 26/07/2010]

Der Spruch

In einem alten Buche stiess ich auf ein Wort,
Das traf mich wie ein Schlag und brennt durch meine Tage fort:
Und wenn ich mich an trübe Lust vergebe,
Schein, Lug und Spiel zu mir anstatt des Wesens hebe,
Wenn ich gefällig mich mit raschem Sinn belüge,
Als wäre Dunkles klar, als wenn nicht Leben tausend wild verschlossene Tore trüge,
Und Worte wieder spreche, deren Weite nie ich ausgefühlt,
Und Dinge fasse, deren Sein mich niemals aufgewühlt,
Wenn mich willkommner Traum mit Sammethänden streicht,
Und Tag und Wirklichkeit von mir entweicht,
Der Welt entfremdet, fremd dem tiefsten Ich,
Dann steht das Wort mir auf: Mensch, werde wesentlich!

Here is my own translation which sticks fairly closely to the original except for some different lineation from line 6 onwards (which ends up giving the poem one more line) but does not attempt any imitation of the original’s rhyming couplets (which, along with the rhythm, makes up most of the poem’s charm in the original):

The Saying

In an old book I came upon a saying.
It hit me like a blow and burns through my days.
And when I give myself over to dull lust,
Indulge in appearance, lies, games, not essence,
When I lie to myself in quick, comfortable judgement
As if what’s dark were transparent, life not a thousand
Locked and burning gates, mouth words whose wideness
I have never measured, grab for things whose being
Has never moved my deep, when welcome dream
Caresses me with velvet hand, day, reality withdraws
From me, cut off from the world, cut off from deepest me,
Then, within, that saying arises:
Man, become what you really are!

And here is Stephen Berg’s fairly free imitation of the poem (in Edward Hirsch’s anthology Poet’s Choice, pp. 75-76), his greatest liberties being taken in stanzas two, three and seven which make up new metaphors not contained in the original:

The Saying

In an old book
I stumbled across a saying.
It was like a stranger
punching me in the face,

it won’t stop
gnawing at me.
When I walk around at night,
looking for a beautiful girl,

when a lie or a description
of life or somebody’s fake
way of being with people
occurs instead of reality,

when I betray myself with
an easy explanation
as if what’s dark is clear,
as if life doesn’t have thousands

of locked, burning gates,
when I use words without really
having known their strict openness
and put my hands around things

that don’t excite me,
when a dream hides my face with soft hands
and the day avoids me,
cut off from the world,

cut off from who I am deeply,
I freeze where I am
and see hanging in the air in front of me


~ by Peter Lach-Newinsky on January 25, 2012.

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