Song of the Fates

This was my entry for the Stephen Spender prize in 2020. It is of a poem by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832). The entry includes my commentary on the translation.


The human race
Shall fear the Gods.
Their immortal hands hold
The reigns of power
And they can use their power
To feed their whims.

Their proteges, though on a pedestal,
Shall fear them twice as much!
On cliffs and clouds
Stand chairs, prepared
Around golden tables.

Should a quarrel erupt,
The guests then plummet,
Despised and disgraced,
Into the depths of night
And wait in vain
For justice to prevail.

But the Gods, they keep
Feasting eternally
At golden tables.
They stride from mountain
Across to mountain:
From the yawning abyss
The steaming breath
Of suffocated titans
Rises in a light haze
Of sacrificial smoke.

These rulers turn their eyes
Away from whole lineages
And withhold their blessing
And refuse to see in the offspring
The features they once loved,
Now bearing silent witness,
Of the founder of that race.

That is what the Fates sang;
The exile listens to the songs
And at night in caverns
The old man thinks about his
Children and their children
And shakes his head.


This poem from Goethe’s play Iphigenia on Auris alludes to the life of Iphigenia’s ancestor, Tantalus, who was exiled to the underworld after committing crimes at a feast with the Greek gods. The gods placed a curse on Tantalus and all his descendants, setting off a series of bloody events. Towards the end of the play, Iphigenia recalls the Song of the Fates, which her nurse used to sing to her.  

The poem has no fixed metre and is unrhymed. The lines and stanzas vary in length.  Nevertheless, although this poem poses no translation problems of rhyme or metrical schemes, it is a challenge in other respects. The lines are short and densely packed, with in places surprisingly convoluted syntax. I responded by some radical changes in sequence, for example swapping the first two lines of the second stanza, and also the last two lines of the fourth stanza.    

Each line begins with a capital, even in the middle of a sentence.  Although it feels slightly awkward in places, I kept this touch of slightly archaic solemnity.

One striking feature is the insistent rhythm of the first two lines, almost like a drumbeat.  I tried to create a similar effect but couldn’t keep the amphibrachs of the original, and so switched to iambic metre.

I manged to keep some of the alliteration, at least partially, or found substitutes. For example:

  • Their immortal hands hold / The reigns of power for Sie haltern die Herrschaft/ In Ewigen Händen
  • Despised and disgraced for Geschmäht und geschändet
  • in vain / For justice to prevail for vergebens /Gerechten Gerichts

One lucky alliterative find was On Cliffs and Clouds for Auf Klippen und Wolken.  ’Clouds’ is the normal translation of ’Wolken’.

Overall, this poem poses interesting translation challenges and I enjoyed wrestling with them.

German original


Es fürchte die Götter
Das Menschengeschlecht.
Sie halten die Herrschaft
In ewigen Händen
Und können sie brauchen
Wie’s ihnen gefällt.

Der fürchte sie doppelt,
Den sie je erheben!
Auf Klippen und Wolken
Sind Stühle bereitet
Um goldene Tische.

Erhebet ein Zwist sich,
So stürzen die Gäste,
Geschmäht und geschändet,
In nächtliche Tiefen
Und harren vergebens
Gerechten Gerichts.

Sie aber, sie bleiben
In ewigen Festen
An goldenen Tischen.
Sie schreiten vom Berge
Zu Bergen hinüber:
Aus Schlünden der Tiefe
Dampft ihnen der Atem
Erstickter Titanen,
Gleich Opfergerüchen,
Ein leichtes Gewölke.

Es wenden die Herrscher
Ihr segnendes Auge
Von ganzen Geschlechtern
Und meiden, im Enkel
Die ehmals geliebten,
Still redenden Züge
Des Ahnherrn zu sehn.

So sangen die Parzen;
Es horcht der Verbannte,
In nächtlichen Höhlen
Der Alte die Lieder,
Denkt Kinder und Enkel
Und schüttelt das Haupt.

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