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David Constantine: Translating ‘Als ich nachher von dir ging …’

This article has previously been published on Campus: The Poetry School

Some notes on my translation of Brecht’s ‘Als ich nachher von dir ging …’ and some hints on translation more generally.

First the text itself, with a very literal interlinear translation:


Als ich nachher von dir ging
When I afterwards from you went

An dem großen Heute
On the great today

Sah ich, wie ich sehn anfing
Saw I, when I to see began

Lauter lustige Leute.
Nothing but cheerful people.

Und seit jener Abendstund
And since that evening hour

Weißt schon, die ich meine
[You] know very well which I mean

Hab ich einen schönern Mund
Have I a lovelier mouth

Und geschicktere Beine.
And more skilful legs.

Grüner ist, seit ich so fühl
Greener is, since I so feel

Baum und Strauch und Wiese
Tree and bush and meadow

Und das Wasser schöner kühl
And the water lovelier cool

Wenn ich’s auf mich gieße.
When I it over me pour.


Some remarks on the German language:

-       All nouns have capital letters (and Brecht always capitalizes the first word of every new line).

-       In a subordinate clause the verb (together with its auxiliaries if it has any) goes to the end. Examples: l. 1 and l. 12.

-       In a sentence beginning with anything other than the subject, that subject and its verb are in inverted order. Examples: l. 3 and l. 7.

Knowing such rules, you can ask yourself when translating whether you should or might follow any of them in English. Why would you? For what effect? Would the oddity (of a German rule being followed or imitated in English) outweigh any good it might do (estrangement, making us see things differently)?

The form of the poem

Three stanzas of four lines each rhyming ab-ab (masculine-feminine). The metre is trochaic, with a very slight (one extra syllable, making a dactyl) and pleasing irregularity in ll. 4 and 8.


Reading the German closely (with the interlinear literal version) you can begin to see what constitutes the poem. What makes those twelve lines into a poem? How – out of words available to any German speaker, a grammar that is native to German, and verse forms that, in essence, have been in the language for many centuries, is the poem made? What makes that assemblage of words poetic?

The better you understand that, the more you have at your disposal as you translate. As with the rules of grammar, the foreign means to poetry may be transferable into English or they may not be. The same means may work more or less similarly or more or less differently in the two languages. If you feel they don’t work, aren’t transferable, you will have to find others that do and are, to compensate, to achieve a comparable effect.

Compensation is a well-known strategy in translation. Put crudely, it means if you fail in one place you must make it up in another. Really, you are always compensating, looking for opportunities to make up for failures, when you translate. Even if you know the foreign language very well, even if you are a perfect speaker of both, still, moving out of one into another, hitting again and again on the differences between the two – how they work, how they make poetry – you will have to compensate.

The question of stanzaic form, rhyme and metre.

Don’t decide too readily that in your translation you can’t rhyme, can’t use the same metre or the same stanzaic forms. German and English have much in common. For one thing, their traditional system of scansion is, unlike those of, say, French or Classical Greek and Latin, accentual. So a trochee or an iamb in German is at least imitable in English (though German stress is more pronounced, more definite than English). If you decide not to rhyme, not to use a regular pattern of scansion – fine! But what will you do instead? How will you make up for the effects engendered by precisely those means in the German poem? How will you compensate?

My version

I shan’t say much about it. Reading the German, the interlinear literal version and the remarks above, you will be able to see how well and badly I have done.


When I left you, afterwards …

When I left you, afterwards
On that great today
I saw nothing, when I began
To see, but gaiety.

Since that evening, that hour
You know the one I mean
Livelier is my stride and more
Beautiful this mouth of mine.

Greener are, now that I feel,
Meadow, bush and tree,
The water is more lovely-cool
That I pour over me.


A few comments

Brecht rhymes regularly throughout. I forfeited a rhyme in the first stanza and, apart from tree/me in the last, employed half-rhyme or near-rhyme. I thought, in stanza 1, that rather than any forcing for the sake of a rhyme, I would make do with the other pair, which although not pure is quite substantial: great today/ gaiety. (Brecht himself, in his rhyming poems, including sonnets, will change his scheme or drop a rhyming pair altogether

when it suits him.) Half-rhymes have been well-established in English verse since Wilfred Owen, and in my own practice I prefer them and near-rhymes: they give you a bit more freedom, help you avoid forcing, but are still a discipline and the effects are, I think, pleasing.

I kept quite close to his at times deliberately tense syntax (ll. 3 and 6-7, for example) and twice even followed German inverted order though such inversion is less usual in English. That slight oddity: ‘Livelier is … Greener are …’ is, I suppose, ‘compensatory’: it is a signal, like rhyme and metre throughout, that these fifty-or-so words are a poem not a piece of prose. Then to finish I revert to the normal English order: ‘The water  is …’.

The problem of ‘geschicktere’ (l. 8).

A closer translation than ‘livelier’ would be ‘more skilful’, ‘more adept’, ‘better at doing something’. She – the speaker of this poem written by a man – probably means her legs are more adept now in love-making (perhaps she wraps them round him). ‘Livelier is my stride’ is less intriguing, I know, but it wasn’t out of prudery that I preferred it. Any better suggestions?