Goethe’s Elfking (Again)

I just came across a translation done by Alan Keele and Leslie Norris of BYU of Goethe’s Elfking poem. It is online here. I had not read this translation at the time I rendered the poem into English.

Keele and Norris start out the translation like I did, rendering “Wind” in the first line as “wild” in order to rhymn with “child” in the second line (in the German “Wind” rhymes with “Kind”), thus preserving the intended connection, I believe, even though departing from an ultra-literal German to English rendition. But their translation differs in other significant ways. I actually like mine better, which surprises me considering my great respect for both Professor Keele of the BYU Department of Germanic and Slavic Languages and Leslie Norris, BYU’s poet in residence.

First of all, I find the way I translated the second stanza to be imperative, but to my knowledge, I am the only one to translate the third line from the voice of the Father, rather than the son. The question mark at the end of the third line reveals Goethe’s intention, I believe, to have the father speak this line and not the son, which is how Keele and Norris do it, as well as other translations I have read. This must be a controversial assumption on my part, since other translators (inexplicably, in my opinion) have the son voice the third line rather than the father. But I like the meaning conveyed by having the father doubt the son’s vision through this clarifying question. I also think that it doesn’t really make sense the other way.

Also, Keele and Norris translate “Schweif” as “cloak,” whereas I render it as “tail” which is more literal, I believe. Still that is not really a point of criticism, since I depart from a literal rendition at times to convey what I feel is the intended meaning.

One point of criticism, perhaps, is Keele’s and Norris’s use of pretty artificial constructions in order to make a rhyme. For example, in the third line of the fourth stanza, they render “mein Kind” as “my nestling” in order to rhyme with “rustling” in the fourth and final line of that stanza. This is awkward at best, in my opinion. Mine feels smoother and, I feel, conveys the intended meaning better:

Hush, my child, you’re safe in my arm;
and the wind on the leaves offers no harm.—

I have the same complaint of awkwardness with the first two lines of the fifth stanza in their translation, but I like the last two lines of theirs better than mine. Theirs is less wordy and conveys more lively imagery:

They will dance all night in a dizzy round,
And then they’ll cradle you, safe and sound.

By comparison, mine is the clumsy and awkward rendition of these two lines:

such daughters as perform a nightly routine
to cradle you with dance and song in that scene.

To be fair, I had added the additional constraint on myself of a complex meter structure to try to convey the formalism of the original German. But their version of these lines reads better, sounds better, and even conveys the original meaning better.

But again in the sixth stanza I have to say that I feel my translation, although not literal in the last two lines, remains closer to Goethe’s meaning and, frankly, runs more smoothly:

My son, my son I do actually see:
The pasture looks gray underneath that far tree.—

By contrast, their rendition of these lines departs even more from a literal translation of the original (by completely eliminating the verb “sehen”, “to see”) without even effecting a convincing rhyme in the process:

My son, my son, they’re only shadows,
The tossing shapes of old gray willows.

Finally, our final stanzas differ in several ways, not least in form and rhyme. Goethe’s final stanza reads as follows:

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.

I think my final stanza gives a more powerful punch by conveying the ultimate let-down felt in Goethe’s original more effectively than does their rendition:

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.

By comparison, their closing stanza reads a little more sedately by ignoring the action of Goethe’s reitet geschwind at the end of the first line of the last stanza:

The father shudders, his eyes are wild,
He holds in his arms the moaning child,
He gallops for home; but drops his head.
The boy he holds in his arms is dead.

All in all, however, I was actually pleased to see that Keele and Norris had done a rendition of this poem as well. I think it is a fine and sober poem, one worth knowing. When I originally posted my translation, I was hoping for some Bloggernacle feedback on my effort but we all got distracted talking about different song versions of the poem. I still welcome any critical or comparative analyses of my attempt at translation.

6 Responses to Goethe’s Elfking (Again)

  1. Anonymous says:

    “My son, my son I do actually see:
    The pasture looks gray underneath that far tree.—

    My son, my son, they’re only shadows,
    The tossing shapes of old gray willows.”

    John F., I prefer their version here. “I do actually see” is forced, the sh alliteration is nice in theirs, and so is the unexpected shadows-willows rhyme.

    I like yours in other parts better.

    I know nothing about german. Just judging it as English poetry. 

    Posted by Adam Greenwood

  2. Anonymous says:

    Thanks for the input. I have also stumbled on the structure of that line–you are right that the construction “I do actually see” is unnatural and forced. I might end up reworking it to maintain the verb “see” but in a more flowing sentence. I was interested to see that you like the shadows/willows rhyme. On the first read, though, did you get the impression that the second line there was somehow stunted? 

    Posted by john fowles

  3. Anonymous says:

    I think it is evident that the line
    Den Erlenkönig mit Kron und Schweif?
    is spoken by the son. 2 reasons:

    First, look at the distribution of the “-” ‘s
    in the German version you quoted:

    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. –

    Since there is no “-” after “nicht?”,
    it seems quite obvious the “-” ‘s seperate the speakers.
    (The distribution of the ?’s does not point to either solution)

    Let me add a substantive argument:
    Only the kid sees the Erlkoenig. Only he is affected by it. The father asks him why he does shiver.
    So how should the father be able to describe the looks of the Erlkoenig, when in fact he only sees some fog?
    No jury would buy that … 🙂


    Posted by A German lawyer

  4. Anonymous says:

    I think you are right that the strongest argument for having the son voice the third line is the constellation of dashes used in that stanza. It’s actually strong enough to make me consider changing it.

    But I don’t think your second argument is very convincing. The way mine reads indicates a common cultural knowledge between the father and son of who the Erlkönig is and his role. The son asks, father don’t you see the Erlkönig? The father, incredulously, answers with a clarifying question that emphasizes the improbability of such a sighting, what, the Erlkönig with his crown and tail? Of course I haven’t seen that, how absurd!, it’s just the fog playing tricks on your eyes. 

    Posted by john fowles

  5. Anonymous says:

    You are a genius. Anyone told you that recently? 

    Posted by Ronan

  6. Anonymous says:

    Thanks Ronan, but honestly, I can’t say that they have. . . . (until now). 

    Posted by john fowles

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