Do you know that land where lemons grow?

I entered my translation of this poem by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe for the 2023 Stephen Spender prize. Like all entries for this prize, it includes my commentary on the translation. 

For information about the prize, please see Stephen Spender Prize (stephen-spender.org)


Do you know that land where lemons grow,
Where through dark leaves golden oranges glow,
In the blue heavens soft winds sigh,
Silent stands the myrtle and the laurel stands high?
Do you know it, then?
That’s where! That’s where,
My love, let us go there.

Do you know that house? Its roof rests on pillars tall,
All ashimmer glitter its chambers and hall
And marble statues look me through:
Poor child, what have they done to you?
Do you know it, then?
That’s where! That’s where,
My protector, let us go there.

Do you know that mountain with its cloud-draped bridge?
The mule seeks his way across the foggy ridge,
In caves the dragons’ brood resides,
And across the steep cliff the torrent slides:
Do you know it, then?
That’s where! That’s where
Our path goes; O father, let us go there!

By Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

Commentary

This untitled poem is one of the best-known German poems. It appears in Goethe’s novel Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre, sung by the mysterious child Mignon to the eponymous Wilhelm Meister. The poem expresses Mignon’s longing to cross the Alps back to Italy.

One reason why I chose it is that the novel claims this text is itself translated—clumsily by Wilhelm from Mignon’s unnamed native language. The novel says that Mignon spoke broken German, mixed heavily with Italian and French. 

The rhymes are a powerful feature of the original, so I wrote the translation in rhyme as well. To create some rhymes in English, I added some words, for example tall and ridge

In each stanza, the first four lines are in rhyming couplets, but the last two lines end in only a near rhyme dahin / ziehn. I suspect in Goethe’s time this pair might have been readable as a rhyme without much of a stretch. I created a rhyme for those last couplets using where / there.

The fifth line of each stanza posed a particular problem. It contains the single word dahin, first as a stand-alone exclamation and then repeated as the first word of new sentence. Dahin means ‘to there’. This concise and insistent repetition is hard to capture. There is unclear, to there is clumsy and thither is too archaic. I settled on that’s where

For rhythm, I took inspiration from a recent performance of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. A monologue by Oberon starts with two lines matching the rhythm and mood of Goethe’s first 2 lines almost perfectly:

I know a bank where the wild thyme blows,
Where oxlips and the nodding violet grows,

I tried to capture the same rhythm in the first two lines of my translation.

Original

Kennst du das Land, wo die Zitronen blühn,
Im dunkeln Laub die Goldorangen glühn,
Ein sanfter Wind vom blauen Himmel weht,
Die Myrte still und hoch der Lorbeer steht—
Kennst du es wohl?
Dahin! Dahin
Möcht’ ich mit dir, o mein Geliebter, ziehn!

Kennst du das Haus? Auf Säulen ruht sein Dach,
Es glänzt der Saal, es schimmert das Gemach,
Und Marmorbilder stehn und sehn mich an—
Was hat man dir, du armes Kind, getan?
Kennst du es wohl?
Dahin! Dahin
Möcht’ ich mit dir, o mein Beschützer, ziehn.

Kennst du den Berg und seinen Wolkensteg?
Das Maultier sucht im Nebel seinen Weg,
In Höhlen wohnt der Drachen alte Brut,
Es stürzt der Fels und über ihn die Flut—
Kennst du ihn wohl?
Dahin! Dahin
Geht unser Weg; o Vater, laß uns ziehn!

My earlier translations

I’ve entered this competition several times before, as well as the Joseph Brodsky/Stephen Spender Prize. Here’s a link to my earlier entries: Translation: poetry Archives – Language Miscellany

2 comments

  1. For no reason other than curiosity, I decided to translate the original German into English using Google Translate, and then compare with Peter’s translation. Google did a decent, prosaic, uninspired translation. Peter’s is lyrical and inspiring.

    (It would be easier visually to compare the two, stanza by stanza, side by side. But WordPress doesn’t seem to allow commenters to do that. So my results below are sequential.)

    FIRST STANZA GOOGLE:
    Do you know the land where the lemons bloom?
    The golden oranges glow in the dark leaves,
    A gentle wind blows from the blue sky,
    The myrtle stands still and the laurel stands tall—
    Do you know it?
    There! There
    I would like to go with you, O my beloved!

    FIRST STANZA PETER:
    Do you know that land where lemons grow,
    Where through dark leaves golden oranges glow,
    In the blue heavens soft winds sigh,
    Silent stands the myrtle and the laurel stands high?
    Do you know it, then?
    That’s where! That’s where,
    My love, let us go there.

    SECOND STANZA GOOGLE:
    Do you know the house? Its roof rests on pillars,
    The hall shines, the room shimmers,
    And marble images stand and look at me –
    What have they done to you, you poor child?
    Do you know it?
    There! There
    I would like to go with you, O my protector.

    SECOND STANZA PETER:
    Do you know that house? Its roof rests on pillars tall,
    All ashimmer glitter its chambers and hall
    And marble statues look me through:
    Poor child, what have they done to you?
    Do you know it, then?
    That’s where! That’s where,
    My protector, let us go there.

    THIRD STANZA GOOGLE:
    Do you know the mountain and its cloud bridge?
    The mule looks for its way in the fog,
    The old brood of dragons live in caves,
    The rock falls and the flood over it –
    Do you know him well?
    There! There
    Go our way; O father, let us go!

    THIRD STANZA PETER:
    Do you know that mountain with its cloud-draped bridge?
    The mule seeks his way across the foggy ridge,
    In caves the dragons’ brood resides,
    And across the steep cliff the torrent slides:
    Do you know it, then?
    That’s where! That’s where
    Our path goes; O father, let us go there!

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