A Ton of Nelly Sachs


A piece of art that looks as if you know what it’s about – till you look really closely …

I’ve done it! Reached my target of 100 translations of poems on my Nelly Sachs website. Feeling quite pleased with myself, and wondering why on earth I have bothered. Who is going to read them? Who is going to pat me on the head and say: Thank you for making this obscure poet accessible to me? Who is going to say: That’s a lousy version, you have totally betrayed her genius? Who is going to say: Wonderful, let’s get these into a book and sell millions worldwide?

Really, though, the main question is, whether in German or English, is anyone going to understand them?

Sure, some of them are clear enough. There are metaphors and images that strike chillingly into our consciousness and shake our conscience like a dog with a bone. Others are so abstruse that I defy anyone to explain precisely what the poet meant. If it were possible to explain, she wouldn’t have needed the poetic form to express it. We’re left with a feeling, an inkling, an idea – the sense that a great truth has been glimpsed but the shutter closed too quickly for the brain to seize it. Artists are all kin and like the music and painting of the mid twentieth century, contemporary with Sachs, these works of art mean different things to different people. Some appear to be nonsense – until you immerse yourself in these works.

Why have I done this? I really don’t know. I came across some of her poems twenty-odd years ago and they struck a chord with me, as I realised that what she had written about refugees from the Holocaust also applied to the asylum-seekers I was meeting pouring in as Yugoslavia fell apart. This was reinforced as I had more and more contact with refugees from all over Europe, Africa and the Near East.

One of the very first I put into English was “Wenn einer kommt”. Watching the news on TV yesterday, as French police bulldoze a Syrian refugee camp near Calais, I recognise once again just how topical this plea for understanding is.

Once I had met the challenge of the refugee poems, I was hooked. Starting was one thing – continuing, another. It became like an addiction, an obsession, a need that had to be satisfied.  Perhaps now I can stop?

If someone comes

from far away

with a language that

maybe stifles sounds

with a mare’s whinnying


the cheeping
of blackbird nestlings


even a screeching saw

cutting proximity to pieces –

If someone comes

from far away

cringing like a dog


maybe like a rat

in the wintertime –

wrap him up warm

he might well have

fire under the soles of his feet

(he may have been riding
on a meteor)

don’t scold him

if your carpet screams through its holes –

A stranger always carries

his home in his arms

like an orphan

and maybe

all he is looking for

is a grave

to bury it.


5 thoughts on “A Ton of Nelly Sachs

  1. Oh Wow! Twenty years work! That is some achievement and you should sit back and take a well-deserved rest. I had not read any of her poems before and so i will say to you “Thank you for making this obscure poet accessible to me”

  2. This was wonderful ~ thank you! The final words touched me profoundly.
    “A stranger always carries

    his home in his arms
like an orphan
and maybe
all he is looking for
is a grave

    to bury it”

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