Translating the Translator IV

2006-03-16

Here is another of Walter Kaufmann's German poems (copyright 1962, 1971, 1975 by Walter Kaufmann):

Epitaph

Alles starb in meinem Herzen
was nicht reines Feuer war:
in den Gluten meiner Qualen
bracht ich's Gott im Himmel dar.

Nur das flammenhafte Sehnen
das sich grad am Brande nährt
hat die Gluten überstanden
noch nachdem sie Gott verzehrt.

And my first draft at a translation (there's a lot in this one I'm unsure of, so it might change quite radically):

Epitaph

All's dead inside my heart
that once was purest fire:
in flame I offered up
my pain to heaven's God.

Only ardent passion,
which fed and fanned the flame,
has yet outlived the fire
that God alone devoured.

UPDATE 2010-06-06: Someone named William Tychonievich has contacted me about this poem, questioning whether my tentative translation is consistent with what we know about Kaufmann's outlook on life. His alternative rendition doesn't quite ring true to me, so to explain why I think my version makes sense I've created an embellished prose version of the "story" behind the poem as I have translated it:

"As a young man I started life with the pure fire of faith, and in my youthful enthusiasm I thought that God would ease my pain. But just as God is dead, so too the fire of faith died out in me (you could say that God put out the fire by the very fact that He does not exist). The only thing I have left now is the passion that nourished my faith in the first place -- my passion for life, for knowledge, for the ideal."

Now, I don't know if that's consistent with Kaufmann's experience because I don't know anything about his biography. But I think it has some plausibility as the story of one person's journey from religion to philosophy.


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