Die Eichbäume

by Friedrich Höderlin

Aus den Gärten komm ich zu euch, ihr Söhne des Berges!
Aus den Gärten, da lebt die Natur geduldig und häuslich,
Pflegend und wieder gepflegt mit dem fleißigen Menschen zusammen.
Aber ihr, ihr Herrlichen! steht, wie ein Volk von Titanen
In der zahmeren Welt und gehört nur euch und dem Himmel,
Der euch nährt` und erzog, und der Erde, die euch geboren.
Keiner von euch ist noch in die Schule der Menschen gegangen,
Und ihr drängt euch fröhlich und frei, aus der kräftigen Wurzel,
Unter einander herauf und ergreift, wie der Adler die Beute,
Mit gewaltigem Arme den Raum, und gegen die Wolken
Ist euch heiter und groß die sonnige Krone gerichtet.
Eine Welt ist jeder von euch, wie die Sterne des Himmels
Lebt ihr, jeder ein Gott, in freiem Bunde zusammen.
Könnt ich die Knechtschaft nur erdulden, ich neidete nimmer
Diesen Wald und schmiegte mich gern ans gesellige Leben.
Fesselte nur nicht mehr ans gesellige Leben das Herz mich,
Das von Liebe nicht läßt, wie gern würd ich unter euch wohnen.

Photo courtesy of Anne MacKinney

The Oak Trees 

Out of the gardens I come to you, you sons of the mountain!
Out of the gardens, where Nature lives patient and domestic,
Caring and cared for in return together with the diligent man.
But you, you majestic ones, stand like a people of Titans
In the tamer world, and you belong only to yourselves and to the heavens
that nurtured and raised you, and to the earth that bore you.
None of you has yet gone to the school of mortals,
And happy and free you thrust yourselves, from powerful roots,
upwards and, like the eagle does its prey, you grasp the space
With mighty arms, and towards the clouds
is your sunny crown serenely and grandly directed.
One world is each of you, like the stars of the heavens
you live, each a god, in free alliance together.
Could I only bear the servitude, I would never envy
these woods and I would gladly submit myself to societal life.
Were I only no longer chained to societal life by the heart,
which out of love does not let, how gladly would I live amongst you.

– Translation by Anne MacKinney

Comments on the translation

Die Eichbäume written in 1796-98 by Friedrich Hölderlin is one of the first German poems that I read and fell in love with. I was hesitant to translate this poem and touch Hölderlin’s lyrical phrases and vivid imagery, so beautifully captured in the German language. On the other hand, I thought it would be important to share some of Hölderlin’s magic with with non-German speakers as well as put forth my first translation attempt to those who do speak German (with the hope that they will offer suggestions, challenges, and alternatives!).

Several instances in the original poem proved particularly challenging to express in English:

  • Himmel is used to indicate both the relatively neutral sky as well as heaven, or heavens. Because Hölderlin describes the trees as gods (“jeder ein Gott”) and as “ihr Herrlichen” – a word recalling the German Herr, meaning lord in both a political as well as spiritual sense – and furthermore uses Greek mythological imagery in this poem (“wie ein Volk von Titanen”) as well as in many other works, I decided to translate “Himmel” as “the heavens” in order to pick up on the more mythic, spiritual mood of the poem.
  • While Menschen can mean people, men, or humans, I chose to translate “die Schule der Menschen” as “the school of mortals” and thereby create an opposition to the god-like, mythological trees the poem’s subject describes.
  • The dictionary translation of sich schmiegen (“schmeigte mich gern”) includes to nestle, and to snuggle. Quite in contrast to these sentimental verbs, the related noun die Schmiege references a carpenter’s beveling tool. I didn’t think that either signification fit the tone of the poem and therefore decided in this instance to use the word “submit,” which seems appropriate in the context of the “servitude” (“Knechtschaft”) and chains of societal life that the subject speaks of.
  • Hölderlin’s “gesellige Leben” has been translated in other versions as “life of society,” “the joining life,” “the social life.” All these I find rather awkward and my “societal life” hardly offers a smoother, more elegant alternative. I have yet to find a word that captures the multilayered meaning of gesellig or its noun form, Geselligkeit, which indicates community, sociability, gregariousness and companionship. 

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