The Heine Translations

Paul Hiebert knew German and, as such, is the real "bad" translator of two Heinrich Heine poems in Sarah Binks that provide a few pages of comic delight. Hiebert chooses two of Heine's most famous poems: "Du Bist Wie Eine Blume" and "Lorelei." Heine is one of the most famous and most controversial poets in the German tradition, who survived even Hitler's reign by being published anonymously. For more information on Heine see Heinrich Heine: a Modern Biography by Jeffrey L. Sammons.

Sarah's Translation:

Du Bist Wie Eine Blume

you are like one flower,
So swell, so good, and clean,
I look you on and longing,
Slinks me the heart between:

Me is as if the hands I
On head yours put them should,
Praying that God you preserve,
So swell, so clean, and good.

A Translation from Ernst Feise from Lyric Poems and Ballads by Heinrich Heine:

You are just like a flower
So fair and chaste and dear;
Looking at you, sweet sadness
Invades my heart with fear.

I feel I should be folding
My hands upon your hair,
Praying that God may keep you
So dear and chaste and fair. (111)

Du Bist Wie Eine Blume was set to music by Robert Schumann called "Op. 25/24"

There is also a version of Du Bist Wie Eine Blume by Liszt (S.287); find sheet music here.

You can listen to Douglas Hicton's musical version of "You are Like One Flower" here, featuring the cast of Sarah Binks: A Musical Tribute recorded in Biggar, SK.

The humour seems to stem from the literal translation of the German words which fail to capture the mood of the poem. Sarah, in fact, knows no German and simply borrows Kurt Schwantzhacker's German dictionary which culminates in, as the biographer reveals, "an almost perfect translation" (24). The joke here being that the perfection of the translation is based not on translating what the poem itself means, but translating each individual word without context to the whole work. Thus, awkward phrases like "me as if the hands I / On head yours put them should" appear where a real translation reads "I feel I should be folding / My hands upon your hair." Perhaps this is a comment on the supreme confidence of Sarah or perhaps another poke at her naivety, and either way we can laugh at the poorness of the poem. However, this humour typifies what Gerald Noonan identifies as "incongruity." In this case it is an incongruence between what we expect from a translation and what we receive from it; we expect poetic license and we receive none. We expect connotation but receive only denotation and so we laugh not only at the poorness of the poem, but the unexpectedness of its poorness. Similarly, Binks also mistranslates Lorelei (linguists are unsure of its etymology though some translate it as "murmuring Rock") a famous landmark in Germany which has received many references in art.


An early 20th century postcard showing the murmuring rock Loreley. From wikipedia.

Binks translates this as "Laurel's Egg," which is itself humorous in its complete missing of the mark of the Germanic legend, which would be unknown to Sarah. But Hiebert also brings the biographer in on the jape, by confidently suggesting that poor old Sarah made the "easily understandable mistake" (24) of translating Lorelei as "Laurel's Egg" instead of what it should be, "Laura's Eye" (24), proving he or she too knows little German for its the only mistake of Sarah's which he or she mentions.

Sarah's Translation:

The Laurel's Egg (Die Lorelei)

I know not what shall it betoken,
    That I so sorrowful seem,
A marklet from out of old, spoken,
    That comes me not out of the bean.

The loft is cool and it darkles,
    And ruefully floweth the Clean,
The top of the mountain-top sparkles,
    In evening sun-shine sheen.

The fairest young woman sitteth,
    There wonderful up on top,
Her golden-like outfit glitteth,
    She combeth her golden mop;

She combs it with golden comb-full
    And sings one song thereto,
That has one wonderful, wonderful
    And powerful toodle-di-doo.

The shipper is very small shiplet,
    Begrabs it with very wild cry,
He looks not the rock and the riplet,
    He looks but up top on the high.

I believe that the whales will devour,
    The end of the shipper and ship,
And that has in her singing bower,
    The Laurel's egg done it.

You can listen to Douglas Hicton's musical version of "The Laurel's Egg" here, featuring the cast of Sarah Binks: A Musical Tribute recorded in Biggar, SK.

A Translation from Ernst Feise from Lyric Poems and Ballads by Heinrich Heine:

Loreley

I do not know what haunts me,
What saddened my mind all day;
An age-old tale confounds me,
A spell I cannot allay.

The air is cool and in twilight
The Rhine's dark waters flow;
The peak of the mountain in highlight
Reflects the evening glow.

There sits a lovely maiden
Above, so wondrous fair,
With shining jewels laden,
She combs her golden hair.

It falls through her comb in a shower,
And over the valley rings
A song of mysterious power
That lovely maiden sings.

The boatman in his small skiff is
Seized by turbulent love,
No longer he marks where the cliff is,
He looks to the mountain above.

I think the waves must fling him
Against the reefs nearby,
And that did with her singing
The lovely Loreley. (47-9)

The dramatic irony of biographer identifying the mistranslation of "Rhine" to "clean" as "masterful" (25) is in itself also masterful. Traute Klein informs us that "the word "rein" means "clean" in English, and the pronunciation of "Rhein" and "rein" is identical" (n.p.). The academic is mercilessly mocked for an over-reading of an incidental detail, reminiscent of the famous typo in Melville's Whitejacket of "coiled" as "soiled" in the Constable Edition (1922-1924) which F.O. Matthiessen, in American Renaissance, used to make a point, thereby formulating an argument based on an error (Bryant 124). Matthiessen writes

hardly anyone but Melville could have created the shudder that results from calling this frightening vagueness some 'soiled fish of the sea.' The discordia concors, the unexpected linking of the medium of cleanliness with filth, could only have sprung from an imagination that had apprehended the terrors of the deep, of the immaterial deep as well as the physical. (329)

The problem, of course, is that Melville didn't create that shudder. Matthiessen did. Perhaps Hiebert knew of this misstep, but likely he did not; yet, it serves as a real-life example of the literary critic engendering the text with meaning, just as the narrator of Sarah Binks does by proclaiming the mistranslations of "Rhine" as "clean" as "masterful."

The biographer's admission that "[Sarah] is not at her best in translation. She tends to be too literal, and in her efforts to preserve form and rhyme she loses, if not the actual content, at least some of the spirit of the original" (25). This comic understatement (a common theme in Hiebert's book along with grand overstatement) exposes the mistranslations of "The Laurel's Egg done it" and "She combs it with golden comb-full" as not only poor translations, but poor English as well. Additionally, the inability for Sarah to translate well (combined with her lack of an adequate vocabulary) has her resort to phrases like "toodle-di-doo." The real joke, however, and the reason that Sarah Binks works on many levels - is that the biographer - and other fictional critics - miss the point completely and Von Knödel

in his study of these translations asserts that in rendering of Mit den Pfeil ung Bogen, etc. as

With the file, and bending,
Come the gripes a-rending,

she has lost not only the spirit but the form and content as well, but admits that she has improved on the original. (26)

It appears that the critic is always sycophantic, ready to give the infallible author the benefit of the doubt and even when the spirit and form and content are lost in translation, it is still an "improvement" on the original poem, when in fact it should be regarded as a separate poem altogether.

Works Cited

Bryant, John. "Melville's L-Word: First Intentions and Final Readings in Typee." The New England Quarterly 63.1 (Mar 1990): 120-131.

Klein, Traute. "Sarah Binks Translates Heine." Heritage German. 1 October 2010. http://www.oocities.com/heritagegerman/007.html

Heine, Heinrich. Lyric Poems and ballads by Heinrich Heine. Translated by Ernst Feise. Pittsburgh: U of Pittsburgh P, 1961.

Hiebert, Paul. Sarah Binks. New Canadian Library. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 2010.

Matthiessen, F.O. American Renaissance: Art and Expression in the Age of Emerson and Whitman. London: Oxford UP, 1968.

Noonan, Gerald. "Incongruity and Nostalgia in Sarah Binks." Studies in Canadian Literature. 3.2 (1978): N.P. Accessed 18 October 2010 http://journals.hil.unb.ca/index.php/SCL/article/view/7898/8955

Sammons, Jeffrey L. Heinrich Heine: A Modern Biography. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton UP, 1979.

Spencer, Hanna. Heinrich Heine. Twayne's World Authors Series. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1982.


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