TRANSLATING HEINRICH HEINE

translating heinrich heinePoints Illustrated

The basics of translation: some elementary rules or suggestions.

Rule One: Transcribe the Original Correctly

We have first to ensure that we're working from a correct transcript of the poem. Errors do creep in, and the texts of older poems sometimes need correction or elucidation. The text of Heinrich Heine's Ein Fichtenbaum Steht Einsam is:

Ein Fichtenbaum steht einsam
Im hohen Norden auf kahler Höh'.
Ihn schläfert, mit weisser Decke
Umhüllen ihn Eis und Schnee.

Er träumt von eine Palme,
Die, fern im Morgenland,
Einsam und schweigend trauert
Auf brennender Felsenwand.

Rule Two: Research Author and Work

Poets have their individual obsessions, preferred forms, significant words, outward personalities, etc. And any half-decent poem will also engage with some consuming interest of the time. A translation has to reflect these matters.

Ein Fichtenbaum Steht Einsam from Heinrich Heine's Buch der Lieder (1827) has long been a popular piece among anthologists, translators {1} and composers. The songs have great simplicity and rhythmic vitality.

Rule Three: Look at Other Translations

A wise preliminary is to look at previous work. Firstly to see whether another translation is really required. Then to see what we're up against. And finally to learn: previous rendering should say something on how the form can be handled, the rhymes possible, the right tone achieved, etc.

We find in this case that nineteenth century translations tended to "improve" on the original, adding rhyme to renderings that are certainly beautiful:

A pine-tree standeth lonely
In the North on an upland bare;
It standeth whitely shrouded
With snow, and sleepeth there.

It dreameth of a palm tree
Which far in the east alone,
In mournful silence standeth
On its ridge of burning stone. {2}

Twentieth century renderings were less melodious (just the first verse, to comply with fair usage under copyright law):

A spruce-tree stands alone
in the north, on the bare heights;
it slumbers; in a white blanket
it is surrounded by ice and snow. {3}

On a northern, bare crag
Stands a lonesome spruce
She feels drowsy. The sleepy one with a snowy
Blanket, the blizzard dressed. {4}

A single fir-tree, lonely,
On a northern mountain height,
Sleeps in a white blanket,
Draped in snow and ice. {5}

And could also wander a little from the sense:

A lonely pine is standing
In the North where high winds blow.
He sleeps; and the whitest blanket
Wraps him in ice and snow {6}

Rule Four: Check the Prose Meaning

We shouldn't take anything for granted, but look the words up in a good dictionary to ensure that not only do we have a full prose understanding of the piece, but appreciate how the verse required the poet to use words with certain textures, lengths and connotations. Our understanding should grow as we translate the piece, but the basic, literal rendering is the bedrock or anchor, to which we continually return during the translation process.

A literal rendering for the Heine piece is:

A spruce-tree rises/stands alone/solitary/forlorn/lonely
In the high North on a bleaker height;
It sleeps with a white/whiter blanket/cover/spread,
Enfolds/enwraps/encases it ice and snow.

It dreams of a palm tree,
Which, far/afar/remote in the orient/morning-land,
alone/solitary/forlorn/lonely in silence/muted/close-mouthed grieves/mourns
I/at/on raging/burning rockface/rockwall.

Rule Five: Analyze the Poem

Fidelity requires us to understand how all aspects of form, metre, rhyme scheme, imagery, etc. cooperate and fuse together. We should know at the end of translation why the poem took the form it has.

So, in this case:

Two stanzas of four lines each, only rhymed on lines six and eight. All lines but the second of stanza one have 3 stresses, and feminine and masculine endings alternate:

Ein Fichtenbaum steht einsam
Im hohen Norden auf kahler Höh'.
Ihn schläfert, mit weisser Decke
Umllen ihn Eis und Schnee.

Er träumt von eine Palme,
Die, fern im Morgenland,
Einsam und schweigend trauert
Auf brennender Felsenwand.

The imagery is simple and the meaning is obvious: the tree grieves for its alter ego, believing as do humans that life is pleasanter elsewhere.

Rule Six: Decide Aims

A translation can't always be both beautiful verse and a perfectly faithful rendering of the full meaning. Those who want to read the poem through the original will want a very plain rendering, the plainer the better. Those who simply want "a beautiful poem" will have to accept departures from the original meaning, rhyme schemes, word order etc., though the original should be recognizable to a bilingual speaker.

With Ein Fichtenbaum Steht Einsam we shall try to convey what these lieder are famous for: their simplicity and rhythmic grace. So:

A lone pine tree is standing
In higher north a bleaker height.
It sleeps while all around it,
Is white in snow and ice.

Its dreams are of a palm tree
Far off in morning lands
Alone and quietly grieving
At the burning wall of rock.

Not bad perhaps, with only changes of word order in lines 3 and 4 departing from a literal rendering. But lines 2 and 8 are not very graceful. Possibly Heine himself (who was not a "singer born") had trouble with line 2. He has dropped the final e in Im hohen Norden auf kahler Höh', and the line has an awkward caesura in the middle: Im hohen Norden | auf kahler Höh'. We can render that with something like: at higher northways further height, or at cold ways north a further height, or possibly at the far ways northern height when the irregularity of Heine's line is acknowledged though the metre isn't exactly captured.

A lone fir tree is standing
At the far ways a further height
It sleeps while all around it
Lies wrapped in snow and ice.

But it seems best to bring fir back to pine and make line 2 more straightforward. We can also add sands to meet the rhyme in the second stanza.

A lone pine tree is standing
On a hard, bare northern height.
It sleeps while all around it
Is white with snow and ice.

Its dreams are of a palm tree
Far off in morning lands
Alone and quietly grieving,
In rock and burning sands.

 

Departures from the original? We have added sands to make the rhyme, but that's about all. We have the alteration of masculine and feminine endings, and we're pretty close on the metre. Heine:

- x - x - x -
-x - x - - x - x
- x - - x - x-
- x - - x - x

- x - x - x -
- x - x - x
- x - x - x -
- x - - x - x

Translation

- x - x - x -
- - x - x - x
- x - x - x -
- x - x - x

- x - x - x -
- x - x - x
- x - x - x -
- x - x - x

Some of Heine's assonance is also conveyed:

Ein Fichtenbaum steht einsam
Im hohen Norden auf kahler Höh'.
Ihn schläfert, MIT weisser Decke
Umllen ihn Eis und Schnee.

Er träumt von eine Palme,
Die, fern IM Morgenland,
Einsam und schweigend trauert
Auf brennender Felsenwand.

A lone pine tree is standing
On a hard, bare, northern height.
It sleeps while all around it

Is white with snow and ice.

Its dreams are of a palm tree
Far off in morning lands
Alone and quietly grieving,
In rock and burning sands.

 

Notes and References

1. Heinrich Heine (1797- 1856) A tribute to the most translated German poet on his 200th birth anniversary by Roswitha Joshi. http://www.germanembassy-india.org/news/dec97/gn16.htm NNA.
2. James Thompson, Ein Fichtenbaum Steht Einsam. Poet's Corner. http://www.geocities.com/~bblair/010427.htm
3. Emily Ezust. The Lied and Art Song Texts Page. http://209.16.199.17/lieder/get_text.html?TextId=750 NNA. Accessed on 6 Jul 2004.
4. Hilary Teplitz. http://www.wellesley.edu/Russian/Pesnia/Pesnia3_22/english3_22.html NNA. Accessed on 6 Jul 2004.
5. Heinrich Heine Selected Poems Translated by A. S. Kline. 2004 http://www.tonykline.co.uk/Browsepages/German/Heine.htm. Accessed on 6 Jul 2004.
6. Louis Untermeyer, Heinrich Heine: Paradox and Poet: The Poems (New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1937) 84. http://www.autodidactproject.org/heine1.html.
7. Trevor Ross, "Translation and the Canonical Text," Studies in the Literary Imagination 33, no. 2 (2000): 1 Q

 

The final version is included in Diversions, a free pdf collection of translations published by Ocaso Press.

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