New (Rough) Translation of Goethe’s Erlenkönig

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.

26 Responses to New (Rough) Translation of Goethe’s Erlenkönig

  1. Anonymous says:

    I love that piece. I don’t speak any German but the music is so descriptive that I can tell what was happening in the story (though I think I did read a translation once in college too so that helps… along with the fact that Mein Vater, Mein Vater sounds very much like My Father, My Father…) So where is our MP3 link to the piece? 

    Posted by Geoff J

  2. Anonymous says:

    I would gladly provide one but I don’t own any server space. I could send you an MP3 and then link to that, if you want. 

    Posted by john fowles

  3. Anonymous says:

    This was a famous ballad that was set to music by many composers such as Zelter, Spohr, and Huttenbrenner. Perhaps the most famous non-Schubert setting is the one by Carl Loewe, available in many recordings, which is a different but very interesting take on the poem. Loewe’s setting was composed in 1818, but he was unaware of Schubert’s, since it was published only in 1821 (despite being composed in 1815).

    Goethe, on being sent a group of Schubert settings of his poems, never replied. Apparently, he preferred non-dramatic strophic settings, where the music wouldn’t get in the way of the words, and favored the version of Johann Friedrich Reichardt (1794). 

    Posted by Bill

  4. Anonymous says:

    Bill, thanks for the info on this poem being set to music. I sure would like to hear the Loewe version. I also have never heard the Reichardt version, which would be interesting if that is the one Goethe favored. 

    Posted by john fowles

  5. Anonymous says:

    I found a recording of the Reichardt version here 

    That Goethe preferred it gives some credence to the critic Hans Keller’s comment that Goethe was “genuinely, profoundly un-musical.” Reichardt certainly doesn’t do anything remarkable with the ending — unlike Loewe.

    I couldn’t find the entire Loewe online, but you can get a taste of it here

    Unfortunately, you won’t hear the great ending.

    Finally, if you really want to compare and contrast, this might interest you 

    Posted by Bill

  6. Anonymous says:

    Bill, thanks a lot for those links. I liked the part of the Loewe version that is available online.

    I actually liked the Reichardt version, thanks for the link. The simplicity of it allows focus on the poem itself. But I can definitely see why it would be disparaged by someone looking for a more exciting piano song. It is quite repetitive and straightforward.  

    Posted by john fowles

  7. Anonymous says:

    John: Check out the Paul Johnson editorial in todays WSJ. He invokes Goethe… 

    Posted by lyle

  8. Anonymous says:

    I haven’t got a subscription. Send me a link or cut and paste the article in an email to me. 

    Posted by john fowles

  9. Anonymous says:

    I’ve always found this one so sad. Hadn’t read it for probably 30 years, and revisting it is sadder still. 

    Posted by Stephen M (Ethesis)

  10. Anonymous says:

    BTW, the attorney STP hired instead of Jordan has about 15 more years of experience, including running an office just like the one she was hired into. But they were impressed by him.

    I’ll be he is currently being paid twice what they would have been able to pay him, but they will have another opening coming up if he isn’t happy with the move he made. 

    Posted by Stephen M (Ethesis)

  11. Anonymous says:

    Who is STP? 

    Posted by Jordan

  12. Anonymous says:

    Stephen, you comment is truly a mystery. Jordan wasn’t turned down by any law firm; on the contrary, he found himself in the enviable (if not uncomfortable, for him) position of having to choose between excellent offers. I would also love to understand what you are talking about. Who is STP? 

    Posted by john fowles

  13. Anonymous says:

    So Goethe had sort of a Tolkien thing going; good for him. This is why personal blogs are so much more fun than group blogs — you can post any interesting thing you want to, and people will comment if it catches their eye. Keep up the good work. 

    Posted by Dave

  14. Anonymous says:

    Beautiful, and very sad. I’m with Ethesis on this one. 

    Posted by Adam Greenwood

  15. Felix Filzhut says:

    That poem definitely sucks, I don’t speak german but even from the translation I can tell that!

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