Translation, or the Mother Tongue as your Worst Enemy (with audio file!)

While my spoken and written German isn’t nearly as good as it once was, I still can read it fairly well. If I try to speak it now*, more often than not, I’d embarrass myself, stammering on like a half-drunk auctioneer.

That doesn’t mean, however, that I can’t translate from German to English. That might seem surprising, but translation is, in a real sense, a one-way street: ideally, one only translates into his/her mother tongue; total fluency in the original language isn’t necessary. (In short, it doesn’t matter if you’re fluent in German, if your English isn’t any good, your German to English translations won’t be any good. It’s the destination language that the most important.)

That’s not to say that anyone can do it. You need to be reasonably familiar with the language and have studied it.** You need to be able to read the original on the page (and aloud), know how to conjugate the verbs, and understand the syntax. But if you have a solid grasp of how the language works, then most everything else is resolvable. All you need is a good dictionary (and perhaps some secondary materials for context) and a lot of time/effort to do your homework.

It may seem surprising that a good deal of the translator’s creative work takes place on familiar ground—in one’s own language. While the original language and form can impose any number of challenges, in my experience, the most difficult part of translating poetry is realizing how inadequate one’s mother tongue can be.

Given that I write (and think) entirely in English, I’m usually confident that English is a language that is well-suited to describe and discuss the world. Once one sets out on translating a poem from German to English, it becomes quite clear that this is a simply pleasant fantasy.

Almost immediately once you start a translation, frustration sets it. If you’ve studied the original enough, you know what the poem means, the problem is lassoing English (or whatever language) to make it work.

And that’s the thing: perfection isn’t possible. The best translations don’t get the poem perfectly right—the best translators simply get it the least wrong.

As an example, I’ve long wanted to translate a poem by Martin Opitz, a relatively obscure fifteenth-century poet who is more known for his editing (he compiled the first collection of German-language poetry) than his creative work. Still, he produced some nice poems, including some fine translations of Petrarch and this poem, which I’m including in the original, followed by a bare, bare, bare bones American idiom translation.


Ach liebste laß uns eilen

Ach liebste laß uns eilen

Wir haben Zeit

Es schadet das verweilen

Uns beyderseit.

Der Edlen Schönheit Gaben

Fliehen fuß für fuß:

Daß alles was wir haben

Verschwinden muß.

Der Wangen Ziehr verbleichet

Das Haar wird greiß

Der Augen Feuer weichet

Die Brunst wird Eiß.

Das Mündlein von Corallen

Wird umgestalt

Die Händ’ als Schnee verfallen

Und du wirst alt.

Drumb laß uns jetzt geniessen

Der Jugend Frucht

Eh’ wir folgen müssen

Der Jahre Flucht.

Wo du dich selber liebest

So liebe mich

Gieb mir das wann du giebest

Verlier auch ich.


Oh baby, let’s hurry

Oh baby, let’s hurry

we have time.

If we wait, it’ll hurt

both of us:

the noble gifts of beauty

flee foot by foot,

everything that we have

must disappear.

Your ruddy cheeks blanch

your hair grays,

your eyes lose their fire

and your breasts become ice.

Your coral lips lose their shape

Like snow, your hands fall away

and you will be old.

So let us now enjoy

the fruits of youth

before we must follow

the flood of years.

As you love yourself,

love me,

give me that, when you give it

I lose too.


The obvious problem with my translation is that it completely lacks the music of the original.

If you don’t speak German, that’s probably not apparent, but the rhyme scheme is pronounced, and when spoken in German, it’s one of the more beautiful poems you can hear. As a hasty sort of proof, I recorded an audio track of yours truly reading the poem.

As always, I read pretty quickly, and as I had a sleeping baby next to me, you may hear a bit of snoring. Still, I hope it gives you the idea of the inherent beauty of the poem and the difficulty of preserving the music of the original. You can download the audio file here.

Capturing meaning is hard enough, but capturing sound and rhyme can sometimes be impossible. German, like many European languages, has far more rhyme-words than English, so it’s pretty difficult to find words that are both accurate in terms of meaning and sound as good as the original. My very hasty translation notwithstanding, the Opitz poem is an example of this.

Therefore, one begins to make concessions and compromises almost immediately. And it’s not just a problem of sound. Unless you want to end up sounding like Longfellow, you need to put the poem in modern idiom.*** Take the word “verweilen” in the third line. That translates literally to “tarry” or “bide.” Now I don’t know about you, but every time I hear the word “tarry” I immediately say it in a British accent and frolic around the room. As far as I’m concerned, it’s an outdated word.

So in my hack-job version, I used more modern lingo. It’s true to the meaning (a carpe diem poem about lust/love), but my version is flatter than beer left open from the Bush administration.

With such a poem, I’m quite confident that no matter how much I try, I’ll never capture both the original sound and the meaning. In this respect, it’s like observing an electron—you can measure its velocity, or its position, but not both at the same time. In this respect, translations are not judged by how successful they are (the original poem was the real success), but by how much they haven’t failed.


*Ideally, translators only translate into their mother tongue. (If one has more than one, there are exceptions, of course.

**Some of the weirdest words stick with you; no, I sometimes blank on relatively simple vocabulary, but no matter what, I remember the word die Ananas—pineapples—just fine.

** I remember reading a Robert Bly quote—he’s a great translator—that went along the lines of, all poems should be retranslated every few decades, so the idiom stays fresh.



  • Shira Richman says:

    This post has me frolicking around the room and not just because I’m like a record skipping on the word “tarry.”

    Your translation is full of voice and energy. I love the way you’ve infused the modern idiom. I have a new crush on the prospect of translating. Thanks, also, for Bly’s view on translations being redone every few decades. I’d love to translate some old loves that have already been heavily handled.

    • Brett says:

      Yo Shira,

      Hooray for translation. Also, you might dig his translations, especially those of Tranströmer:

      The Half-Finished Heaven: The Best Poems of Tomas Tranströmer (Graywolf Press, 2001)

      He also wrote a book-long essay on translation, which I enjoyed a great deal: Eight Stages of Translation (1983).



  • Nancy says:

    It s true. People are much more likely to translate in their mother tongue. If you speak more than one language then that is a great advantage. Like Brett says, it depends what language you are better at; the translation will sound right! For example, I am a native Spanish speaker so I am able to speak, read and understand fluent Spanish. If someone asks me ‘What does this mean?’ I can tell them. But to translate the English text into Spanish can sometimes be challenging. The grammar is very different. I only know Spanish because my parents are Peruvian but I never studied Spanish i school so wouldn’t know the correct grammar.

  • Gary Gach says:

    it’s true, the music is what least carries over, and yet is so much of what makes poetry poetry. and yes the classics need to be translated anew, generation unto generation.

    here’s my 2 cents about literary translation, in general: there ain’t enough of it (in English):


  • Brett says:

    Gary: Agreed. Even some of the heavyweights (Goethe!) don’t get much airplay in English translation, not to mention everyone else. (And it’s a deep damn pool, especially in my favorites, German and Italian.)

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