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Two Goethean ballads

March 9, 2014

Some say that the best way to study a poem written in a foreign language is to translate it. I spent a few hours this weekend testing out that theory on two of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s ballads, “Der Fischer” und “Der Erlkönig,” that is, “The Fisher” and “The Alder-king”; I submit the fruits of those labors here.

Both of these poems were written early in Goethe’s career, when he was around thirty years old (though he had already written the best-selling The Sorrows of Young Werther and numerous other works). They pretend to be anonymous folk ballads, but are actually extremely artful. I find it helpful to think of both as in some sense about art, about contemplating it, making it, its power to ensnare us. But the traps the two poems set are quite different from each other. One is about desire, the other about language; art as marriage, art as fatherhood.

“The Fisher” enacts an erotic seduction: the fisher sets out to lure a fish, but instead gazes Narcissus-like at the water, a lovely faerie-wife who lures him to drown in it. “The Erlkönig” enacts a hidden abduction: the father sets out to carry his son home, but for the trees fails to see the forest, a rival faerie-father who carries his child away. In the first, the poet wants to bring a poem out of powerful emotions recollected in tranquility (to anachronistically quote Wordsworth), but his desire seizes control of him. In the second, the poet wants to write a poem that will remain his own, but the spirit of poetry takes its meaning away from him just as he finishes it.

Notes on the translations. They’re quite precise, hence a few lines sounding somewhat awkward grammatically; I make no claim to their poetic excellence. It’s difficult to retain the original rhymes in translation (though easier for the German-English transition than for most language pairs). Still, I do think pleasing patterns of assonance and consonance still emerge. Choice of vocabulary for translation is always a difficult task. I’ve made three in particular that may need defending. 1) In “The Fisher,” I translate “feucht” as “foamy,” when most often it would be translated “moist”; I do this because the English word “moist” sounds disgusting and the line should instead be vaguely erotic. I would have used “dewy” and the word “Tau”=”dew” shows up later. 2) I’ve translated the title “Der Erlkönig” as “The Alder-king,” when most have “The Elf-king.” Of course the poem is about Faerie, and we associate Faerie with elfs; and perhaps Goethe came up with “Erlkönig” as a mistranslation of a Danish word “Elverkonge” when he should have put “Elfenkönig”; but that doesn’t justify ignoring what Goethe actually wrote. “Erlkönig” means “Alder-king”; the tree motif runs throughout the poem; and the specificity of “alder” lends the poem an eerie beauty that a generic “elf” would miss out on. 3) When the father in “Der Erlkönig” asks “what do you hide your face from?” I’ve completely ignored the word “bang,” which means “fearfully,” because the line is quite long enough even without three extra syllables. This is the only instance of such an excision.

The Fisher

The water rushed, the water swelled,
A fisher sat there,
Looked calmly at the line and rod,
Cold rising in his heart.
And as he sat, and as he harked,
The flood parted aloft;
From the passionate water rushed
Forth a foamy wife.

She sang to him, she spoke to him:
“What, do you lure my brood
With men’s wit and men’s wiles
Up into death’s heat?
Ah, if you knew how the little fish is
So toasty on the ground,
You’d climb under here, as you are,
And at last be sound.

“Don’t they feast themselves, the kind sun,
The moon, on the mere?
Don’t their wave-breathing faces turn
Doubly better here?
Doesn’t the deep heaven lure you,
The foam-transfigured blue?
Doesn’t your own visage lure you
Here in eternal dew?”

The water rushed, the water swelled,
It wet his naked feet,
His heart waxed full of longing
As when lovers meet.
She spoke to him, she sang to him;
So to him it happened;
Half she drew him, half he sank down,
And never more was seen.


The Alder-king

Who rides so swift through night and wind?
It is the father with his child.
He has the lad well in his arm,
He holds him safe, he keeps him warm.–

My son, what do you hide your face from?–
Don’t you see, father, the alder-king?
The alder-king with crown and train?–
My son, it is a wisp of fog.–

“You dear child, come, go with me!
Quite pretty spells I’ll spell with you;
Many gaudy flowers are on the strand;
My mother has many golden threads.”

My father, my father, and do you not hear
What the alder-king quietly promises me?–
Be still, stay still, my child!
In dry leaves murmurs the wind.–

“Will you, fine lad, go with me?
My daughters shall wait on you prettily;
My daughters will lead the nightly row,
And sway and dance and sing for you.”

My father, my father, and do you not see
The alder-king’s daughters in the gloomy space?–
My son, my son, I see it true;
There shines there the old willows so grey.–

“I love you, it moves me, your fine form,
And if you’re not willing, I’ll bring you by force.”–
My father, my father, it holds me on,
The alder-king has done me harm!–

The father’s in terror, he rides full-speed,
He holds in his arms the groaning child,
He reaches the farm with toil and dread;
In his arms the child was dead.


Translating Goethe is in a way pointless, so many other and better translations have already been made. But the popularity of Goethe’s ballads has benefits too. For example, the fact that Franz Schubert wrote lieder to go along with many of them, including these two. Enjoy.

Franz Schubert – “Der Fischer”

Franz Schubert – “Der Erlkönig”


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