New (Rough) Translation of Goethe’s Erlenkönig

June 15, 2005

I listened to a cd of Schubert’s Goethe-Lieder on the way to work this morning and very much enjoyed all the songs. But the problem is that I’ve had Goethe’s haunting poem “Der Erlkönig” in Schubert’s tune in my head all day. So, I took a break from work and decided to offer a new but rough translation of this scary but sobering poem. I know there are a few problems with the meter that I hope to fix if I get the time (feel free to offer commentary/criticism), but it’s still worth posting, I believe:

Wer reitet so spät durch Nacht und Wind?
Es ist der Vater mit seinem Kind;
Er hat den Knaben wohl in dem Arm,
Er faßt ihn sicher, er hält ihn warm.

Mein Sohn, was birgst du so bang dein
Gesicht? –
Siehst Vater, du den Erlkönig nicht?
Den Erlenkönig mit Kron und Schweif? –
Mein Sohn, es ist ein Nebelstreif. –

»Du liebes Kind, komm, geh mit mir!
Gar schöne Spiele spiel ich mit dir;
Manch bunte Blumen sind an dem Strand,
Meine Mutter hat manch gülden Gewand.«

Mein Vater, mein Vater, und hörest du nicht,
Was Erlenkönig mir leise verspricht? –
Sei ruhig, bleibe ruhig, mein Kind;
In dürren Blättern säuselt der Wind. –

»Willst, feiner Knabe, du mit mir gehn?
Meine Töchter sollen dich warten schön;
Meine Töchter führen den nächtlichen Reihn
Und wiegen und tanzen und singen dich ein.«

Mein Vater, mein Vater, und siehst du nicht dort
Erlkönigs Töchter am düstern Ort? –
Mein Sohn, mein Sohn, ich seh es genau:
Es scheinen die alten Weiden so grau. –

»Ich liebe dich, mich reizt deine schöne Gestalt;
Und bist du nicht willig, so brauch ich Gewalt.«
Mein Vater, mein Vater, jetzt faßt er mich an!
Erlkönig hat mir ein Leids getan! –

Dem Vater grauset’s, er reitet geschwind,
Er hält in den Armen das ächzende Kind,
Erreicht den Hof mit Mühe und Not;
In seinen Armen das Kind war tot.

Who rides so late through night and wild?
It is the father with his child;
his ride is burdened by his effort to hold
that boy in his arms against the cold.

My son, why hide your face in fear?
Oh father, I see the Elfking draw near!
My son, the Elfking with his crown and tail?
It is not him but mist and hail.—

“Oh little boy, come go with me!
Come play my games with youthful glee;
My flowered beach is a wonder to behold,
as is my mother with her dresses of gold.”

My father, my father, do I hear right,
what does the Elfking promise this night?—
Hush, my child, you’re safe in my arm;
and the wind on the leaves offers no harm.—

“Fine boy will you not go with me?
My caring daughters for to see;
such daughters as perform a nightly routine
to cradle you with dance and song in that scene.”

My father, my father, do you see there
the Elfking’s daughters so dark but so fair?—
My son, my son I do actually see:
The pasture looks gray underneath that far tree.—

“I love you my boy and your beautiful face;
And if you won’t come then I’ll show you your place!”

My father, my father, I can feel his disdain!
The Elfking has touched me and caused me such pain!

The father is worried and rides with more force,
The weak boy in his arms he spurs on the horse,
and reaching the goal he glances with dread;
for in his strong arms his child lay dead.

(c) John Fowles 2005

I have observed this soberness and even sadness in many of Goethe’s poems.