Blood on your Hands

The images have started pouring in on us again in news reports of the carnage being inflicted by Turkey on North Syrian Kurds and anyone else caught in the crossfire. In particular, the sight of the Syrian woman refugee in Akçakale whose baby son was killed by a mortar this week reminded me of this poem by Nelly Sachs, which I translated several years ago.

Those in power with blood on your hands, will you never stop?

Already wrapped in the arms of heavenly solace
stands the demented mother
with the rags
of her tattered mind,
with the cinders of her burnt brain,
laying her dead child in his coffin,
laying her lost light in his coffin,
bending her hands to bowls,
filling them from the air with the body of her child,
filling them from the air with his eyes, his hair,
and his fluttering heart –

then kisses the air-birthed babe
and dies!

German Original:

Schon vom Arm des himmlischen Trostes umfangen
Steht die wahnsinnige Mutter
Mit den Fetzten
ihres zerrissenen Verstandes,
Mit den Zundern ihres verbrannten Verstandes
Ihr totes Kind einsargend,
Ihr verlorenes Licht einsargend,
Ihre Hände zu Krügen biegend,
Aus der Luft füllend mit dem Leib ihres Kindes,
Aus der Luft füllend mit seinen Augen, seinen Haaren
Und seinem flatternden Herzen –

Dann küßt sie das Luftgeborene
Und stirbt!

Birthday Tribute

I don’t have a huge following on my blogs – you are basically the same trusty few who comment regularly and one or two people who say shyly to me, “I read your blog sometimes.” And I say once more that I’m very grateful to you for your feedback and support, expressed or silent. At least I know I’m not talking to myself.

How surprised I was yesterday when WordPress suddenly notified me that my Nelly Sachs website was getting more traffic than usual. I looked at my stats and my jaw dropped. Almost 10,000 views, just under 5,000 visitors! Was it Holocaust Memorial Day? I checked – no, that’s in January. Then a message popped into my mailbox and all was explained. It gave me a link to and I realized that 10 December was Nelly Sachs’ 127th birthday.


I was very touched that this was being commemorated and a bit overwhelmed to see that so many people had followed the link to my translation of O die Schornsteine (O the Chimneys). This is probably the most accessible of Sachs’ poems, but I was very pleased to find that several people had moved on to other pages, and left comments there (mostly complimentary). By the end of the day my site had been visited by over 12,000 people and there were more than 20,000 views.

Considering the millions of people still classed as refugees (which is fast beoming a dirty word) I feel it fitting to link here to two of Nelly Sachs’ many poems on the subject of displaced persons.



Stats Again …

WordPress stats are probably no exception to the general progression of “lies, damn lies and statistics”, but I keep an eye on them for my own personal entertainment. It’s interesting to see where my readers are located, and I’m still hoping one day to see a red dot in the middle of Siberia, the Sahara or Gobi Desert on the little map (which differs from WordPress by recording the number of visitors rather than hits).

There are already isolated pimples out in the Pacific and Indian Ocean corresponding, I think, to Hawaii, the Maldives and the Seychelles. Judging by reports from friends who have holidayed in the last two places, the general level of intense boredom there probably accounts for those hits on my blog.

Mainly, though, I check the stats to reassure myself that I’m not talking to the wall like Shirley Valentine. I am grateful to my readers for providing an audience, but I do sometimes wonder what brings my faithful followers back to my blogs time after time, panning for gold in the dishwater of my thoughts here on “Catterel” and wading through the impenetrably dense poetry of Nelly Sachs on my “B-side”.

Much to my amazement, in the past few months I have noticed that Nelly Sachs has attracted more than a hundred more hits than my vapid burblings here. (Obviously, the literary quality of Nelly Sachs’ work is infinitely higher than mine, but she is more arcane.) Apart from comments by some high school students whose teacher had obviously directed them to the site, there are few indications of who is actually perusing these translations. I even have a couple of followers there, though after having now posted over a hundred poems, my output has slowed to less than a trickle. I hate to disappoint, so I am now on the lookout for more poems, so far untreated, to reward these kind souls for their loyalty. Noblesse oblige, after all! It looks as if I might have to fork out and buy the complete works … maybe this will turn out to be a doctoral thesis!

Holocaust Memorial Day

I didn’t want to let Holocaust Memorial Day pass without a comment, but what could I add to the millions of words already spoken and written, expressing the grief and tears and hopes of the ever-dwindling numbers of survivors?

Television brings Auschwitz into our homes, and as that footage is shown again and again we risk becoming inured to the sight of those living skeletons filmed as the camp was liberated. That must never happen. We need to continue to feel, just as strongly, the horrified outrage and revulsion that hit us in the solar plexus the first time we ever became aware of these atrocities. This is a wound that must never be allowed to fade into a mere scar.

I have wandered through the heart-wrenching Berlin Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, and felt nauseous on the tilted floor of the Garden of Exile in the Jewish Museum there. I think of the Jews I know and have known, people of my own generation or slightly older who were saved by the Kindertransport, or whose parents and grandparents were victims of Auschwitz and other concentration camps; each story a unique mixture of horror and miracles. I think of my friends in Israel, born in the Diaspora but who have returned there, made Aliyah, drawn by their centuries old homing instinct, still facing the attacks of their enemies, day in and day out.

What can I say about the Holocaust, and what it stands for on a global scale, where genocide continues in many parts of the world even now, and man’s inhumanity to man seems to be escalating out of control? It isn’t only about anti-Semitism, though that remains a focal point.

What can I add? I can point to my other blog, with 100 translated poems of Nelly Sachs. Nothing else I can say can be more poignant than that.

Students And Nelly Sachs

All of a sudden yesterday there were over 500 hits on my Nelly Sachs site, and more than a dozen comments. Intrigued, I checked to see what was happening and discovered that the comments were clearly by students in the USA who must have been given an assignment by their teacher to choose a poem and comment on it.

Whilst I am pleased to see that my versions of Nelly Sachs’ poems are being read and the students are trying to figure out what they are about, it is also rather disappointing to see how facile and wide of the mark most of these comments are. My knee-jerk reaction was to trash them, but then I decided to click the “approve” button after all: not that I approve of the comments themselves, but of the intentions behind them. Thank you to the teacher who found my blog and pointed the class to it, and thank you to the students who actually sat down and struggled through these poems until they found one that appealed to them.

Mine are translations, not interpretations. I am no wiser than the next person about what was going on in Nelly Sachs’ head when she wrote her original works. Naturally I have my ideas, and since I also wrestled with her words, symbolism and ambiguity as I sought to render the German into English, I have perhaps delved more deeply into them than these teenage students are able to. Plus I am so much older than they are, and have so much more experience of life, as well as having been alive – though a small child – at the time of the Holocaust. I have met survivors of those horrors, and am thus much closer to them than sixteen or seventeen-year-old American High School students. So I apologise to my young readers for my hasty judgement and initial dismissal of their comments.

I don’t know why they have posted these on my blog: it would have made more sense – assuming this was a homework assignment – to present them in class so everyone can express their views, and the teacher could guide them into a better understanding of the aspects they have missed. Perhaps they are doing that, too, and it is simply a courtesy on their part to have shared their reactions with me? Is the generation gap simply too wide between us? I am, after all, old enough to be their grandmother.

I would like to be able to enter into a real discussion with them and their teacher (who has all my sympathy in her desire to acquaint her class with Nelly Sachs and the Holocaust: it can’t be an easy task) and point out a few things that to me are as plain as a pikestaff but which they have missed. Alas, any exchange of comments on my website is going to remain very superficial, and would I fear be even more frustrating for all concerned. I want to encourage my young readers, not deter them from making the effort to get to grips with difficult poetry or to understand what went on in the Third Reich. So perhaps I should, after all, respond individually to each one and offer a little food for thought, more easily digestible than the morsels they have chosen. I just hope I don’t end up making Nelly Sachs even more unpalatable.

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.


Why No Comment?

It’s been about 8 months (counting on my fingers) since I moved my Nelly Sachs page onto a dedicated blog site, and then gradually added a few more pages. I haven’t been there for a while, as I have had nothing to add, but a notification from WordPress drew my attention to the fact that it was drawing a lot of traffic so I checked out the stats. Surprise, surprise, this obscure poet has attracted over 5,000 hits, although scarcely anyone has bothered to comment.


I am intrigued.

I’d appreciate some feedback.

More Room For Nelly Sachs

When I first set up a new page on this blog devoted to my translations of Nelly Sachs’ poems, I had about 30 of them. To my surprise, this page has proved very popular and gets several hits a day, mostly from students I think.  Over time, I have been adding new versions until there are now about 70, and I have finally been persuaded to include the original German.

The page has become something of a misshapen monster,  and not even I can always find a particular poem, so having a little time on my hands this Sunday morning I decided to tidy it all up.

This has led me to create a completely new blog dedicated to Nelly Sachs and her work. After a few mishaps, I think I have found a suitable format – though it may yet change to accommodate future needs – and so I shall be moving everything away from this blog onto the new one at Or just click here. I have also taken advantage of this “spring-cleaning” to revise and – I believe – improve some of the translations.

All comments are welcome, of course, and I hope this will make it easier for Nelly Sachs admirers.

Nelly Sachs: Comments Welcome!

Deutsch: Unterschrift der deutschen Dichterin ...

Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Why is my page of Nelly Sachs poems suddenly so popular? I wondered.

For most of the time, until a couple of months ago, nobody took much notice of it, and then suddenly it had several hits a day. I was pleased, of course, though few of the visitors left any comments, and – sensitive soul that I am – I tend to think that no comment means people don’t really like it but are too kind to say so. So I have been a little puzzled about this phenomenon: is it one person who keeps coming back, or are there several of you? I’d like to think that this Nobel prize-winner is receiving some of the recognition she deserves.

Good old Google provided me with a partial answer as to why I was getting hits, but I would still like some feedback, to satisfy my curiosity. I have also found some more of her poems on the web, so there’s another little project for the new year.

All visitors are welcome, and please don’t stay anonymous – I can take criticism, especially if it’s constructive, and am pleased to enter into dialogue with you. You may have some interesting interpretations of these poems that can be so mystifying and I’d love to hear them.

More Thoughts on Translating Poetry

Berlin memorial plaque, Nelly Sachs, Lessingst...

Berlin memorial plaque, Nelly Sachs, Lessingstraße 5, Berlin-Hansaviertel, Germany

Nelly Sachs has been occupying my thoughts again lately, and I’ve added a few new translations to my collection (scroll down to the bottom of the page for them). Eric over at Red Yucca provided the spur, as he posted his translations of a couple of poems that sounded familiar to me so I checked my list and, yes – there they were. Interesting to see how someone else interprets these poems, and to guess at the thought processes behind his choice of words where it differs from mine.

We all act as filters – I would contend that none of us is capable of rendering exactly the original German into English. We succeed with certain aspects but cannot reproduce all, like a two-dimensional mirror reflecting a three-dimensional world.  We persevere in our endeavours, though, as we relish the challenge: if it isn’t difficult, it isn’t worth translating, as Eric has already said.

Part of the challenge where Nelly Sachs is concerned is in her relatively limited and superficially simple vocabulary. Certain words and symbols appear over and over again, and the dilemma arises for the translator whether to use the same English word each time or not. In different poems, I mean. Where she speaks of Stein, Stern, Meer there is no problem – stone, star and sea are perfectly adequate in English – but there are other innocent-looking words that can be a real stumbling block for the translator.

Take the evocative word Sehnsucht, one of her most frequently used terms. It means longing, yearning, a wistful, unfulfilled desire. The very sound of the sibilants and the long vowels makes this a powerful word when spoken aloud, but the second syllable also has the sense of addiction or craving, thus doubling the potency of the longing into something far greater than mere wistfulness. Find me a good English word that matches up to Sehnsucht, and I’ll be eternally grateful!

I would like to have been able to make a double column with German and English side by side but I don’t know how to do that kind of formatting on my blog page, and am also daunted by the thought of copying out 100 poems, some of which are quite long. So here you have it: the German is there, but below the English and sometimes with a link to an audio version of the original.