Ginkgo Biloba

I entered my translation of this poem by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe for the 2021 Stephen Spender prize. Like all entries for this prize, it includes my commentary on the translation.

The word Ginkgo seems to be spelt variously, in both German and English, sometimes as Gingko and sometimes as Ginkgo. Printed copies of Goethe’s poem sometimes spell it as Gingo, which is allegedly his original spelling, though in the manuscript shown below he clearly wrote Ginkgo.

Ginkgo Biloba

The leaf of this tree, as a favour
From the Orient to my garden came,
Bearing a secret we can savour
As experts enjoy the same.

Did One living creature
In two split itself?
Did two choose each other
So we see them as One self?

I have found the true key
To answer this question without trouble,
From my songs don’t you see
I am both One and double?

Gingo Biloba

Dieses Baums Blatt, der von Osten
Meinem Garten anvertraut,
Gibt geheimen Sinn zu kosten,
Wie’s den Wissenden erbaut,

Ist es Ein lebendig Wesen,
Das sich in sich selbst getrennt?
Sind es zwei, die sich erlesen,
Daß man sie als Eines kennt?

Solche Frage zu erwidern,
Fand ich wohl den rechten Sinn,
Fühlst du nicht an meinen Liedern,
Daß ich Eins und doppelt bin?


The 65 year old Goethe wrote this poem in 1815 for 30 year old newly-wed Marianne Willemer. As a metaphor for their relationship, Goethe muses whether the leaf of the Gingko tree is one leaf with two lobes or two leaves joined together.  His manuscript with the leaf attached can be seen at [see below for a copy]

The poem’s strikingly rich rhymes emphasise and link key terms: Four of the six rhymes are on two syllables and a fifth pair is on two strongly stressed words. Only the very last rhyme is feeble, hitting the colourless ‘bin’ (am), not the thematic ‘doppelt’ just before.

Deciding to include as many strong rhymes as possible, I managed to find two rhymes on double syllables (favour /savour; trouble / double) and two full rhymes on one syllable (came /same; key / see). The rhyme trouble / double replaces the one feeble rhyme from the end of the original.  

One rhyme repeats perhaps too directly (itself / One self), but stresses the key contrast at the centre of the poem between a single self split in two and two selves combined.  Another rhyme (creature / each other) is impure, but links two key concepts, and works if the reader stresses the consonant in the middle of ‘creature’ and at the end of ‘each’, and swallows the last syllable of creature and the whole of ‘other’.

In seeking rhymes, I adapted the idea of the tree being entrusted (anvertraut) to Goethe’s garden to become the idea of a favour and replaced his state of mind (Sinn) with a key, used ‘without trouble’. One final point: the poem highlights the word Ein with an initial capital in all three appearances, giving a mystical flavour. I kept this deliberate capitalisation in all three instances of ‘One’.  

Goethe’s manuscript, with two Ginkgo leaves attached.
14 July 2021

Postscript: machine translation

When I opened my file containing the original, Microsoft asked if I wanted it translated. Here is what it came up with:

Gingo Biloba

This Tree Leaf Entrusted
by East To My Garden,
Gives Secret Meaning to Taste,
How’S Built to the Knower,

Is It A Living Being,
Who Separates Himself into Himself?
Are there two who choose each other,
That they are known as one?

To answer such a question,
I found the right sense,
Don’t you feel in my songs,
That I am one and double?

(I inserted the line and stanza breaks, and some breaks between words.)

All things considered, the machine version is OK as a starting point, though of course as a piece of creative writing it would be hopeless.

Winning entries

You can read the prize-winning translations at:

My earlier translations

I’ve entered this competition before, as well as the Joseph Brodsky/Stephen Spender Prize. Here are my earlier entries:

History, spelling and pronunciation of Ginkgo

For a note on the history, spelling and pronunciation of the word Ginkgo, please see

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