Song of a Wanderer at Night (2)

I entered my translation of this poem by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832) for the 2015 Stephen Spender Prize. The entry includes my commentary on the translation.


Over hilltops,
In treetops,
Hardly a sigh.
No birdsong in the forest,
Your place of rest
Is nigh.

German original

Wandrers Nachtlied 2
(Ein Gleiches)
Über allen Gipfeln
Ist Ruh.
In allen Wipfeln
Spürest du
Kaum einen Hauch;
Die Vögelein schweigen im Walde.
Warte nur, balde
Ruhest du auch.


According to Nicholas Boyle’s biography of Goethe, this ‘has become in the German-speaking world—for it is untranslatable—the best known of all poems, by anyone’.  I could not resist such a challenge.

What makes this poem so difficult to translate is the extreme economy of expression. Goethe used short sentences, and split them into very short lines.  I decided that this would make it impossible to find natural rhymes for every line.  My solution was radical: I removed four of the five verbs that appear in the original, using only a single verb in the last line.  This allowed me to eliminate lines 2 and 4 of the original entirely, so avoiding the need to find rhymes for both the middle and end of such short sentences.    

I find one aspect of this poem particularly appealing.  The cadence of the first sentence is very peaceful.  Then the enjambement from line 4 to line 5 quickens the tempo, which continues in line 6, the longest line in the poem.  The poem resumes a calmer pace for the last two lines, in keeping with the theme of rest at the end of the day (or perhaps at the end of life).  Although eliminating most of the verbs also removes the enjambement, my translation achieves a similar acceleration in the middle two lines, before reverting to the slower tempo. 

Even the title caused some difficulty.   The poem is often known by either of two titles, or just by its first line.  The title I opted to translate (Wandrers Nachtlied 2) is probably, in isolation, more understandable than the other title (‘Ein Gleiches’ – another one the same).  The latter title is often used in collections where the poem is printed immediately after another on a similar topic (Wandrers Nachtlied [1]).     


Returning to Goethe’s poem for the 2022 Stephen Spender prize, I entered my translation of a translation of the poem. The translation of Goethe’s poem was by the Russian poet Mikhail Lermontov (1814-1841). Translating Lermontov’s translation of Goethe – Language Miscellany

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