Translating Der Erlkönig and such

Compare these two translations of the same Goethe ballad, Der Erlkönig: Natalia MacFerren's on Wikipedia and Hyde Flippo's on About.com.

The first one tries to reproduce Goethe's meter and rhyme scheme--and fails horribly. In trying to be true to Goethe, the translator fails to render one of the most important characteristics of the poem, its utter simplicity of language: The rhymes are not forced, the syntax is never awkward, and aside from "Knabe" (perfectly common in Goethe's times, but no longer used in daily speech) and an adjective or two, any German would speak like that today. None of this is true for the translation. Of course, it has to get away from a literal rendering of the text because the need to rhyme makes this impossible--and much is lost already there. But most disastrous is the archaic language: Why in the world did the translator decide to use outdated verb inflections like "thou hidest" or possessives like "mine"--this is more than groan-inducing, it's unbearable.

The second translator does not even try to reproduce Goethe's rhyme scheme and meters (wise choice) and concentrates instead on a faithful rendering of the text—and overdoes it, in my opinion, at times. This happens most clearly in the penultimate line:

Erreicht den Hof mit Mühe und Not

which the translator renders

He reaches the farmhouse with effort and urgency

Now, I suggest that no speaker of English would use a phrase as clumsy as "with effort and urgency", neither in daily speech nor in poetry. It's a literal translation of German mit Mühe und Not, but fails to take into account that that phrase is an idiomatic expression used when one would say in English, for example, "by the skin of his teeth"; it's understood as a block, not via its individual parts ("Not" in the sense of urgency or haste is no longer used outside phrases like this in German).

On the other hand, if I translate

He reaches the farm by the skin of his teeth

I capture Goethe's meaning, but substitute a non-metaphoric expression by one that is clearly a metaphor, and one that's far removed from what Goethe actually said. (BTW Hof encompasses more than just the farmhouse; it includes all the outlying buildings)

Here's something to consider:

He reaches the farm, desperate and spent.

One more point: the language of the second translation is still not as simple as Goethe's. I firmly believe that the (noble) attempt to be literally correct needs to be tempered when the result fails to reflect the general tone and rhythmic flow of the original. To me at least, the latter aspects are more important than absolute literalness, and I believe that they can be achieved, by and large--if one takes the time.

A generic problem of German-to/from-English translations emerges in the first stanza of Der Erlkönig:
Goethe Flippo
Wer reitet so spät durch Nacht und Wind?
Es ist der Vater mit seinem Kind;
Er hat den Knaben wohl in dem Arm,
Er faßt ihn sicher, er hält ihn warm.
Who rides so late through the night and wind?
It's the father with his child;
He has the boy safe in his arm,
He holds him secure, he holds him warm.

Take the first line: I'm sure a native speaker of English would say "Who is riding so late...", i.e. would use the continuous form (right term?) to indicate that the action started in the past and continues into the present. Standard German does not have what is called a Verlaufsform (the German term), although many German dialects do. This poses translation problems in both directions. In translations from German, lines often get too long if the continuous form is used--that's why Flippo doesn't use it in the stanza, I think. The result is awkward English, though, which I would never tolerate. So, I would translate

Who's riding so late through the night and wind?
It is the father with his child;
He cradles the boy safe in his arm,
Holding him tightly, keeping him warm.

In the opposite direction, standard German cannot render the continuous form. Translators either decide not to render it at all, or they have to work around it using sometimes awkward-sounding adverbs. The dialect forms, for this reason, start to make their way into standard German via literature, and I strongly approve of it--perhaps my threshold of resistance is lower because I grew up with a dialect that has a version of the Verlaufsform.

Here is now my currently best attempt for the whole poem, based on Flippi's, but modified when this seemed to be needed (BTW I hold the copyright). Remember: The main purpose is to render the original meaning in prose, not to produce a corresponding work of art. But I believe that this can be done in way that catches, however imperfectly, something of the original tone and flow.

Who's riding so late through the night and wind?
It is the father with his child;
He cradles the boy safe in his arm,
Holding him tightly, keeping him warm.

Son, why are you hiding your face in such fear?
Don't you see, father, the Erlking there?
The Erlking wearing crown and train?
My son, it is a strip of fog.

You lovely child, come go with me.
Such pretty games I'll play with you.
Many colorful flowers are on the beach.
My mother has many a golden dress.

Father, my father, can't you hear
What Erlking is promising under his breath?
Be quiet, stay quiet, child;
The wind whispers in dry leaves.

Won't you come along, my fair boy?
My daughters will care for you well;
My daughters lead the round dance at night
and rock, and dance, and sing you to sleep.

Father, my father, can't you see over there
the Erlking's daughters in the dark?
Son, my son, I see it for sure:
The old willows appear so grey.

I love you. I'm drawn by your beautiful shape:
And if you're not willing, I will use force.
Father, my father, he's clutching me now.
Erlking has done me harm.

The father shudders. He's riding fast.
He holds in his arms the groaning child,
Reaches the farm, desperate and spent;
In his arms, the child was dead.

[Thanks to Laraine Flemming for her steady encouragement as well as for her apt suggestions that greatly improved the translation]

Assorted comments:

Stanza 2: I couldn't resist putting "there" at the end of line 2, although Goethe doesn't have it. It gives me (almost) a rhyme like in the original and ends the line on a stress, like all of Goethe's lines do.
We need "strip" (not "wisp") of fog in line 4 b/c it picks up on the image of the trailing robe in the preceding line.

Stanza 3: I do not believe the Erlking would try to lure the boy with something as stale as a golden "garment".

Stanza 5: I do not like "round dance". I never heard it in conversation, and it doesn't follow Goethe's rhythm well, but I've found no other word for Goethe's Reihn (short for Reigen). A mere "dance" would leave completly open what kind of dance the king is talking about (solo, in pairs?). It's really important to indicate the communal nature of the promised dance: The whole group forms a circle. Which is to say that to me, a faithful rendering of meaning takes precedence over sound and rhythm.

Stanza 6: No father in this situation (line 3) would try to assure his panicking boy with a prissy "I see it most definitely".

Stanza 7: Flippo's "I'm charmed by your beautiful form" in line 1 does not adequately reflect the sexual attraction the king expresses ("form"? For heaven's sake!)


Last update: August 18, 2008

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