Sibyl Ruth: Eight Poems from Heine’s ‘Buch der Lieder’

heinrich heine

heine sig

*****

Heinrich Heine (13 December 1797 – 17 February 1856) was a German poet, writer and literary critic. The eldest of four children, he was born into a Jewish family and, during his childhood, was called ‘Harry’ until after his conversion to Lutheranism in 1825. Heine’s father, Samson Heine (1764–1828), was a textile merchant. His mother Peira (known as ‘Betty’), née van Geldern (1771–1859), was the daughter of a physician.

He is best known outside Germany for his early lyric poetry, which was set to music in the form of lieder (art songs) by composers such as Robert Schumann and Franz Schubert. Heine’s later verse and prose are distinguished by their satirical wit and irony. He is considered a member of the Young Germany movement. His radical political views led to many of his works being banned by German authorities — which, however, only added to his fame. He spent the last 25 years of his life as an expatriate in Paris.

N.B. You can hear musical settings for some of these poems by clicking on the German links below. [Ed.}

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In   The High Window published a selection of Heine’s poems in English versions by Terese Coe. Shortly thereafter Sibyl Ruth submitted the following versions of poems taken from Heine’s Buch der Lieder.

Sibyl Ruth Writes:

I spent much of lockdown finding out about my German-Jewish ancestry and – more generally – about Jewish contributions to German cultural life. This could have been a solitary pursuit if not for the Leo Baeck Institute in New York. I’ve been participating in the Zoom meetings of their excellent Book Club. Earlier this year we spent a couple of sessions on Heine, including one looking at poems from the Buch der Lieder. I was so frustrated by the English versions provided I decided that a better way of understanding Heine’s work would be to come up with translations of my own.

*****

Heinrich Heine: Eight poems from Das Buch der Lieder translated by Sibyl Ruth

Wir haben viel füreinander gefühlt

We have truly fallen in love
and yet we got on so  well
that we played at being married
without giving each other hell.
We have jested and boasted
and snuggled and cuddled….
From sheer desire for pleasure
we played hide and seek in the park,
each of us hiding so well
we now must stay locked in the dark.

*

Wir haben viel füreinander gefühlt,
Und dennoch uns gar vortrefflich vertragen.
Wir haben oft ‘Mann und Frau’ gespielt
Und dennoch uns nicht gerauft und geschlagen.
Wir haben zusaamen gejauchzt und gescherzt,
Und zärtlich uns geküsst und geherzt.
Wir haben am Ende, aus kindischer Lust.
‘Verstecken’ gespielt in Wäldern und Gründen,
Und haben uns so vu verstecken gewusst,
Dass wir uns nimmermehr wiederfinden.

*

Still ist die Nacht, es ruhen die Gassen

A quiet night, the streets without sound.
In this house my darling spent her days.
Many years ago she left this town
but the house still stands in its place.

But now there’s a man who looks at the sky
wringing his hands in such agony
and I cannot move when I meet his eye
– because this moonlit figure is me

My old companion! My shadow!
Why do you mock the way I behaved
– crazy with love, beneath her window –
night after night, in bygone days?

*

Still ist die Nacht, es ruhen die Gassen,
In diesem Hause, wohnte mein Schatz:
Sie hat schon lângst die Stadt verlassen,
Doch steht noch das Haus auf demselben Platz

Da steht auch ein Mensch und starrt in die Höhe,
Und ringt die Hânde, vor Schmerzensgewalt
Mir graust es, wenn ich sein Antlitz sehe, –
Der Mond zeigt mir meine eigne Gestalt

Du Doppeltgänger! du bleicher Geselle!
Was äffst du nach mein Liebesleid.
Das mich gequâlt auf dieser Stelle,
So manche Nacht, in alter Zeit?

*

Wie kannst do ruhig schlafen

If you knew I was still alive
would you sleep so peacefully?
The old anger has come back.
It allows me to break free.

At midnight, in the graveyard –
you do remember the old song?
– a dead man took his love
and he held her all night long
.
Trust me, my darling child,
my dearest little one.
I shall be a good deal stronger
when all of you have gone.

*

Wie kannst do ruhig schlafen,
Und wiesst, ich lebe noch?
Der alte Zorn kommmt wieder,
Und dann zerbrech ich mein Joch.

Kennst du das alte Liedchen:
Wie einst ein toter Knab
Um Mitternachte die Geliebte
Zu sich geholt ins Grab?

Glaub mir, du wunderschönes,
Du wunderholdes Kind,
Ich lebe und bin noch stärker
Als alle Tote sind!

*

Ein Fichtebaum steht einsam

A pine tree stands by itself
in the North, on a bleak plateau
It sleeps under spotless blankets
cradled by ice and snow.

It’s dreaming of a palm tree
from the far-off Arabian Nights
that laments by itself in silence
on blazing rocky heights.

*

Ein Fichtebaum steht einsam
In Norden auf kahler Höh.
Ihn schläfert; mit weisser Decke
Umhüllen ihn Eis und Schnee.

Er traümt von einer Palme,
Die, fern im Morgenland,
Einsam und schwiegend trauert
Auf brennender Felsenwand

*

Sie haben mich gequälet

They hounded and tormented me
till I grew desperate
Some of them with their love;
others with their hate.

They added venom to my glass
They poisoned the food I ate.
Some of them with their love;
Others with their hate

Yet she who hounded and tormented me,
who haunted me long enough.
She showed me no hate at all;
nor did she give me love.

*

Sie haben mich gequälet,
Geärgert blau und blass,
Die einen mit ihrer Liebe,
Die andern mit ihrem Hass.

Sie haben das Brot mir vergiftet,
Sie gossen mir Gift ins Glas,
Die einen mit ihrer Liebe,
Die andern mit ihrem Hass.

Doch sie, die mich am meisten
Gequälet, geärgert, betrübt,
Die hat mich nie gehasset,
Und hat mich nie geliebt.

*

Vergiftet sind meine Lieder

My songs are bitter now.
How could it be any other way
since you have spilled your poison
across my youthful days?

My songs are bitter now.
How could it be any other way
when my heart is full of serpents
and you, my love, always?

*

Vergiftet sind meine Lieder;-
Wie konnt es anders sein?
Du hast mir ja Gift gegossen
Ins blühende Leben hinein.

Vergiftet sind meine Lieder;-
Wie konnt es anders sein?
Ich trage im Herzen viel Schlangen,
Und dich, Geliebte mein.

*

Liebste, sollst mir heute sagen

Darling, admit to me now
you sprang from imagination.
a plant in a warm summer’s garden,
a purely poetic creation.

But that little mouth of yours,
those eyes with their magical light,
that oh so pretty childishness,
are nothing a poet could write.

Basilisks and vampires,
ogres, dragons without wings,
such evil mythical creatures,
a poet can work with these things.

But you and your false heart,
your face that is open and bright,
your pious, virtuous gaze –
are nothing a poet could write.

Liebste, sollst mir heute sagen:
Bist du nicht ein Traumgebild,
Wie’s in schwülen Sommergarten
Aus dem Hirn des Dichters quillt?

*

Aber nein, ein solches Mündchen,
Solcher Augen Zauberlicht,
Solch ein liebes, süsses Kindchen,
Das erschafft der Dichter nicht.

Basilisken und Vampire
Lindenwürm und Ungeheur,
Solche schlimme Fabeltiere,
Die ershafft des Dichters Feur.

Aber dich und deine Tücke,
Und dein holdes Angesicht,
Und die falschen frommen Blicke –
Das erschafft der Dichter nicht.

*

Sie haben dir viel erzählet

They’ve told you many stories
and complained to you as well.
Not once did they care to mention
what put me through such Hell.

With sighing and headshaking
they caused a great to-do,
making out I was the bad guy.
You believed all this was true.

Yet if it comes to real wrongdoing
no one knows what I have done;
the worst, the stupidest of things
– about this I hold my tongue.

*

Sie haben dir viel erzählet,
Und haben viel geklagt;
Doch was meine Seele gequälet,
Das haben sie nicht gesagt.

Sie machten ein grosses Wesen,
Und schüttelten kläglich das Haupt;
Sie nannten mich den Bösen,
Und du hast alles geglaubt.

Jedoch das Allerschlimmste,
Das haben sie nicht gewusst;
Das Schlimmste und das Dümmste,
Das trug ich geheim in der Brust.

*****

Sibyl Ruth has published two small press collections of poetry and is a former winner of the Mslexia Poetry Competition. She’s from a German-Jewish background and became interested in poetic translation after discovering an MS of poems written by her great-aunt Rose Scooler during her time in the Terezin Ghetto. Sibyl’s poetry has featured in a number of anthologies, while her translations have appeared in Poetry Review and Modern Poetry in Translation.

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