I entered my translation of this poem by Heinrich Heine for the 2015 Stephen Spender prize. Like all entries for this prize, it includes my commentary on the translation
While sipping scented tea,
About love they spoke a great deal.
The lords were cognoscenti.
The ladies were quite genteel.
“Love must be platonic”
The crusty noble declares.
His lady gives a smile most ironic,
Yet sighing she despairs.
The canon opened his thick throat:
“Love must be not too wild,
Or you will need a sicknote”
”Why so?” the young lady smiled.
The countess her sad wisdom proffers:
“Love is a passion”
And graciously she offers
The teacup to the baron.
One place remained at the table,
You were missing there, my dove.
How daintily you would have been able
To talk about your love.
Sie saßen und tranken am Teetisch
Und sprachen von Liebe viel.
Die Herren, die waren ästhetisch,
Die Damen von zartem Gefühl.
„Die Liebe muß sein platonisch“,
Der dürre Hofrat sprach.
Die Hofrätin lächelt ironisch.
Und dennoch seufzet sie: „Ach!“
Der Domherr öffnet den Mund weit:
„Die Liebe sei nicht zu roh,
Sie schadet sonst der Gesundheit.“
Das Fräulein lispelt: „Wieso?“
Die Gräfin spricht wehmütig:
„Die Liebe ist eine Passion!“
Und präsentieret gütig
Die Tasse dem Herren Baron.
Am Tische war noch ein Plätzchen;
Mein Liebchen, da hast du gefehlt.
Du hättest so hübsch, mein Schätzchen,
Von deiner Liebe erzählt.
The most distinctive formal feature of this poem is the ingenious use of rhyme. I decided to concentrate on this feature. The very first rhyme occurs in lines 1 and 3, between ‘Teetisch’ and ‘ästhetisch’. This absurdly full rhyme sets the tone for the whole poem, so I felt it essential to find something just as absurd. I settled on a pairing of ‘cognoscenti’ and ‘scented tea’. Although the rhyme is slightly imperfect, it does capture the other effects I looked for: a strong whiff of pretentiousness, and an exaggeratedly full rhyme.
Another ludicrous rhyme in the third stanza couples ‘öffnete den Mund weit’ (opens his mouth wide) with ‘Gesundheit’ (health). I translated these with the equally ridiculous pair ‘thick throat’ and ‘sicknote’.
The fourth stanza rhymes ‘passion’ with ‘baron’. This rhyme works better in German, because both words carry an end stress, than in English, where the first syllable carries the stress. I kept them, though, for the content.
Having concentrated so much on seeking rhymes that would achieve a similar effect to those Heine uses, I had to compromise on other aspects of his style. I could not in every case keep his strict alternation between male and female rhymes. Nor could I maintain quite such an insistently regular metre. In addition, the demands of the rhymes I found pushed me to switch between the past tense and the present tense at slightly different places.
Finally, the translation needs to capture the significant shift in tone for the final stanza. At this point, Heine drops the extravagant rhymes to adopt a plain style. He uses this extremely effectively to imply that the lady he addresses is just as incapable of expressing genuine emotions as the high society people satirised in this poem.