Translator's note

You may ask yourself, with all the translations that already exist, why would anyone undertake to make yet another translation of Winterreise anyhow ? I don't think it ever would have occurred to me if Emily Ezust hadn't been looking for translations for her website. The idea is to voluntarily provide song-text translations that are not bound by copyright that can be used by the general public or reprinted for nothing in concert programs. All the translator is entitled to is to have their name attached to the translation if it is used. In the event, my Winterreise translation did not end up on the song-texts website (someone else submitted one first), but I am still glad that I did it because I learned a great deal about Winterreise, not to mention about the art of translation.

I am not a translator by profession. The few translations I have done before Winterreise were of technical items or interviews, things that did not require an enormous effort to get things exactly right. In those cases, if the translator fudged a little or conveyed the sense of what was being said instead of the actual words, it didn't matter in the least. But translating a literary work is another question all together. There getting things exactly right is extremely important, and a great deal more effort and care were required. I had the luxury of being able to take as long as I wished to do the job I had undertaken. I am not satisfied with my Winterreise translation, but my respect for the job that translators of literary works do has increased enormously. God bless you all !

A year or more ago, when lieder-l was still in its infancy, I posted a query to opera-l asking what listeners of art songs were looking for in a translation of song-texts. The replies were very enlightening. For one thing, I discovered that many more listeners were entirely dependent on translations of song-texts than I had imagined. For another, most people who replied to my query said that they preferred to have line-by-line translations that were as faithful to the original text as possible. The majority of art-song enthusiasts wanted to be able to understand why a particular word in the song text received particular emphasis, or why a line or a stanza received the treatment it had from the composer or performers. I tried to let those concerns guide me in doing my own translation of Winterreise. Now you can decide whether I was successful. I think that in some cases I was, but I am painfully aware of the many instances in which I was not. Maybe next time...

So, what did I have in mind when I made my Winterreise translation ? First, I tried to provide line-by-line translations wherever possible and be as faithful as I could to the original text. Second, I wanted to confine myself to what the text actually said without injecting my own interpretation into the translation. And third, I wanted to provide a translation that would not sound silly to an American audience at the tail end of the 20th century. I wanted to eschew the self-consciously poetic without producing something that looked like bad prose arbitrarily made to look like poetry. No easy task, as it turned out. I made it a point not to look at other translations of Winterreise until I had completed a working translation of every poem because I didn't want to find myself cribbing from another translations, consciously or unconsciously. When I reached that point, I did consult about a half dozen translations. The one I liked the best is Richard Wigmore's, which appears in his book of Schubert song translations and is also used in the Hyperion Schubert Edition. Of course, my version does not correspond to his in every particular. What was most helpful in doing the translations was repeated listening to the songs themselves. Schubert knew what Müller was saying, and that was often of great assistance.

On the face of it, Wilhelm Müller's Winterreise poems don't appear to present an enormous challenge to the translator. The poems are generally simple and straightforward, quite naive and folksong-like, in fact. His vocabulary is fairly limited, his sentence structure is reasonably simple, and, as Fischer-Dieskau once observed somewhat dryly, the poems do not contain much in the way of serious intellectual content. However, it soon became clear to me that a translator can make a mess of a simple poem as easily as a complicated one, and awkwardness in a simple poem is even more glaringly evident than it would be in a poem that is more complex. Moreover, turning German into reasonably normal English while maintaining a line-by-line translation is an enormous problem. Things that still look quite normal in contemporary spoken or written German may look antiquated at best in contemporary English. At worst, they simply look bizarre. In addition, although Müller's vocabulary is limited, his use of words and images is very deliberate and demands something equally deliberate and careful from the translator. If the reader of a song-text translation is to have the greatest opportunity to understand what the composer was responding to when he set the poem, the poet's text has to be rendered as faithfully as possible. With this in mind, I would like to mention a number of specific difficulties I encountered while making my translation.

DIE WETTERFAHNE: This poem is a killer, IMHO, and has done in many a translator in the past. The first major headache is the last line of the first stanza: "Sie pfiff den armen Flüchtling aus." The meaning is clear enough: "Auspfeifen" in this context means expressing disapproval by whistling or hissing. In the theatre, "jemanden auspfeifen" would mean to hiss or boo someone off the stage. Given that a literal translation would look like nonsense, the best solution would seem to be: "That it mocked the poor fugitive," which is what I used. However, that solution does not acknowledge the principal image that Müller creates in the first stanza of his poem. The wind turning the weathervane makes a sound that the wanderer interprets as mockery of his plight. That is what draws his attention to the weathervane in the first place, and he then elaborates on the weathervane as a symbol of inconstancy or fickleness in the following stanzas. (A similar image is invoked by Gottfried von Strassburg in his epic poem "Tristan und Isold," when, in the context of a trial by ordeal, he remarks that God is as fickle as a windblown sleeve.) The protagonist should have paid better attention to the symbol displayed so prominently on his erstwhile sweetheart's house. If he had, he would never have made the mistake of expecting to find a faithful woman living there. The other problem comes in the first two lines of the final stanza: "Der Wind spielt innen mit den Herzen/Wie auf dem Dach, nur nicht so laut." At least one translation I have seen had the inhabitants of the house up on the roof with the weathervane. I don't think that is what Müller had in mind. The image is actually clear enough. The people in the house change directions just as readily as the weathervane on the roof, but they are a bit more subtle about it. But there you are, faced with the same problem that cropped up in the first stanza: If you didn't give a literal translation of "auspfeifen" in the first stanza, the "nur nicht so laut" in the last one doesn't make much sense. So you either end up with yet another interpretation of the symbol or a reference to a noise that you didn't make the reader aware of in the beginning. A mess, no way to get around it.

ERSTARRUNG: The last stanza is very difficult to translate. The first line reads "Mein Herz ist wie erstorben" [dead] (instead of "erfroren" [frozen]) even though the sense of the rest of the stanza rests on the images of freezing and thawing. My first impulse was to go with "frozen" in line one in defiance of what is actually written. Then I decided to interpret "kalt starrt" in line 2 as "frozen," so that I could give a more accurate translation of line one. This may seem like much ado about nothing, but the original text of the stanza sets up a dichotomy that is very important. Even though being numb or frozen [with grief] may seem like a bad thing for the protagonist, giving up his grief [thawing] will signify the ultimate loss of the beloved. That is reflected in the image of the final stanza: My heart seems to be dead, the beloved's image is frozen within it. Should my heart ever thaw, my beloved's image will be lost forever. (The same image of freezing and thawing or ice and fire recurs in both "Wasserflut" and "Auf dem Flusse.")

DER GREISE KOPF: And what does "Der greise Kopf" mean ? The adjective "greise" means "hoary [white with age], elderly, venerable." The text of the poem is very clear: The wanderer wakes up with snow on his head, making it look as if his hair has turned white and he has become an old man. Some translators use the title "The Hoary Head." Accurate ? Surely. A bit silly sounding to a contemporary audience?. You bet. What was that again? The horny head? The whore-y head? The hairy head? Does anybody use the word hoary these days? I don't think so. (And not only that. For me personally, it has unpleasant associations with the "hairy hand," a case U.S. law students are baffled by in their first-year Contracts class.) My first idea was to use "The Gray Head" as the title, but snow is not gray (well, not in most places, anyway). Finally, I decided to use "The Old-Man's Head" (even though the word "greise" with a small "g" is an adjective and not the same as "Greise" with a capital "G", which is a word for an old man). However, now the translator is faced with the first two lines of the final stanza: "Vom Abendrot zum Morgenlicht/Ward mancher Kopf zum Greise." There "Greise" specifically means "old man," but what person in English would say "between sunset and dawn many a head becomes an old man"?? So I translated it as "many a head turns white." It's like being in quicksand and sinking ever deeper with nothing in sight to hang onto. All I can say is that this is one instance in which I thought that sense had to prevail over literalness. Others may disagree...

TÄUSCHUNG: There are no enormous obstacles in this poem, but a couple of things are worth noting. The last two lines of stanza 2 can pose a bit of a problem. How to translate "Graus" ? Fear, horror ? Seems a bit strong to me. Why "Graus" ? Well, it rhymes with "Haus." I went with "fear." I don't like it, but what can you do? Then there is the final couplet. I confess that I took a bit of a liberty. "liebe Seele" means "dear" or "beloved" soul, not "loving," but I kind of wanted two syllables. You see, I had these two lines with the same meter and they rhymed, and, and... "Nur Täuschung ist für mich Gewinn" means, literally, "only illusion benefits me," but "Only illusion lets me win" conveys the sense, and, and... Well, you get the picture. I got carried away.

DIE NEBENSONNEN: Here again, the title poses some difficulties. It is often translated as "The Mock Suns" but I opted for "The False Suns" in order to stress both the hallucinatory character of the image and the falsity of the beloved. Nit-picking, I suppose, but it satisfied me better.

A final comment. In furtherance of the contrast between light and darkness that runs through the Winterreise cycle, Müller uses the word "hell" in a number of poems, and sometimes more than once in the same poem. Rarely does it receive the same translation twice. A versatile word !

Celia A. Sgroi © 1998