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.

Nelly Sachs Tribute

I have just created a new page on this blog dedicated to the poetry of Nelly Sachs, with my translations of her poems. This is not food to everyone’s taste and may prove indigestible to some. However, as a Jewish woman who escaped the Holocaust by the skin of her teeth, Nelly Sachs wrote poetry that – in my view – is as relevant today as it was when first published. I feel it should be available to those who don’t understand German, and hope that some of you will appreciate her work in these translations.