The Sting in Heine’s Tail

Here’s a literal translation of a very short poem by Heinrich Heine followed by the German original. The first two verses are predictable enough but …

I don’t believe in Heaven,
of which the little priest speaks;
I only believe in your eyes,
they are my heavenly light.

I don’t believe in the Lord God,
of whom the little priest speaks;
I only believe in your heart,
I have no other god.

I don’t believe in the Evil One,
in Hell and the torments of Hell;
I only believe in your eyes,
and in your evil heart

Ich glaub nicht an den Himmel
Wovon das Pfäfflein spricht;
Ich glaub nur an dein Auge,
Das ist meins Himmelslicht.

Ich glaub nich an den Herrgott,
Wovon das Pfäfflein spricht;
Ich glaub nur an dein Herze,
‘nen andern Gott hab ich nicht.

Ich glaub nicht den Bösen,
An Höll und Hõllenschmerz;
Ich glaub nur an dein Auge,
Und an dein böses Herz.

… the last verse changes everything. In fact, when you think about it, it is just one word “evil” (böses) in the last line which does the trick. It is an amazing feat to make a poem spin about completely on the hinge of a single word. The turnaround is so quick and ferocious that it is like an unexpected sting or the sudden slash from a hidden dagger. I can’t think of any other poet who has written such a scorpion of a poem. If you know any let me know.

Here is another poem. Watch what he does here. (German original followed by prose translation.)

Die Botschaft

Mein Knecht! steh auf
und sattle schnell
Und wirf dich auf dein
Roß,

Und jage rasch durch
Wald und Feld
Nach König Dunkans
Schloß

Dort schleiche in den
Stall, und wart,
Bis dich der Stallbub
schaut.
Den forsch mir aus:
Sprich,wleche ist
Von Dunkans Töchtern
Braut?

Und spricht der Bub: “Die
Braune ists”,
So bring mir schnell die
Mär.
Doch spricht der Bub:
“Die Blonde ists”,
So eilt das nicht so sehr.

Dann geh zum Meister
Seiler hin,
Und kauf mir einen
Strick,
Und reite langsam, sprich
kein Wort,
Und bring mir den
zurück.

The Errand

My squire! To your feet, saddle up quickly and throw yourself on your horse and gallop fast through forest and field to King Duncan’s castle.
Creep into the stable there, and wait till the stable-boy sees you. Question him: Say, which of Duncan’s daughters is to be married?
And if the boy says ‘It’s the dark one’, bring me the news quickly. But if the boy says ‘It’s the fair one’, there’s not so much need to hurry.
In that case go to the master rope-maker and buy me a cord, and ride slowly, speak no word, and bring it to me.

(Translations are by Peter Branscombe in Heinrich Heine Selected Verse, Penguin)

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