A poem in translation: The Rockface by Conrad Ferdinand Meyer

My Summer in Other Languages project for 2022 is now over. I didn’t do much, basically just reading one book in French … but every little bit helps. I’d really like to get back to working on German now. I’ve actually been quite surprised and pleased that my conversational skills seem to have improved quite a bit lately even without making any conscious effort. I can more easily follow conversations about everyday things and am less hesitant to chime in with my own thoughts than before, even if I make mistakes. However, I need to learn more vocabulary! I am reliant on a small body of words to try to express my meaning, along with pointing and gesturing. So that could use some work.

One way I enjoy working with German is dabbling in translation. Even before I started to properly learn the language, I started doing this — I was in eurythmy school and was given some translated poems to work on that were so terrible I had to have a try at doing them better myself. Then, when working on books for the Waldorf Early Childhood Association, I occasionally revised verses or poems that needed a more poetic treatment than the literal version given by the translator. This included a couple by the Swiss poet Conrad Ferdinand Meyer that I really liked.

Since then I’ve worked on a few other poems by Meyer, just for fun. Not much of his work has been translated, as far as I can tell, so there’s no competition in the field. And I find it a stimulating sort of puzzle to try to reproduce something of the rhythm (most important), sounds, and rhyme scheme, as well as the content in English. Of course I cannot claim to have a thorough knowledge of the language, but English and German are close enough that given a literal translation I can make some effort towards equivalence, at least. Then I run it by my husband for a native speaker’s opinion.

Here’s one example that he said was not bad, along with the original. I like the mountain imagery that reminds me of our trip to the Alps in July.

Mountain Stairs by Mokepoke – Deviant Art

The Rockface
Conrad Ferdinand Meyer

Unwelcoming and wild, the rockface stares.
The eye shrinks back, then roves irresolute
About those steeps. It seeks security.
There! Above the abyss a bridge is spun
As if of spiderweb, and round an edge
Rough steps are hewn, suggestive of a path.
Atop juts out a doorway filled with blue –
There may a climber come to sunlit heights!
The eye connects the span, the step, the stair.
It seeks. It’s found the homeward way entire,
And see, how friendly now appears this face.

Die Felswand

Feindselig, wildzerrissen steigt die Felswand.
Das Auge schrickt zurück. Dann irrt es unstet
Daran herum. Bang sucht es, wo es hafte.
Dort! über einem Abgrund schwebt ein Brücklein
Wie Spinnweb. Höher um die scharfe Kante
Sind Stapfen eingehaun, ein Wegesbruchstück!
Fast oben ragt ein Tor mit blauer Füllung:
Dort klimmt ein Wanderer zu Licht und Höhe!
Das Aug verbindet Steige, Stapfen, Stufe.
Es sucht. Es hat den ganzen Pfad gefunden
Und gastlich siehe, wird die steile Felswand.

6 thoughts on “A poem in translation: The Rockface by Conrad Ferdinand Meyer

  1. My German is virtually nonexistent so I can’t say how faithful your translation is, but I have to say your version stands on its own merits as a poem, with its evocative phrases and apt alliterations. All kudos to you, Lory!

  2. Wow, you’re very brave to attempt to translate poetry – and with such good results. I really struggle with poetry translation even with languages I am very confident in…

    1. I really would never have dared if I had not been given those translations that were so terrible, I knew it had to be possible to do better than that! And I found that I enjoy the puzzle-like nature of it, attempting to match up equivalents with variable qualities … kind of like a linguistic jigsaw. Anyway, I’m glad you found it satisfying.

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