Some Translations

by Ursula K. Le Guin

from various languages

some of which I know even less of than I know of the others.

With my heartfelt thanks
to the translators whose translations allowed me
to pretend I was reading the original

and heartfelt good wishes
to the future translators who will improve on my versions.


Christian Morgenstern:
Two poems from Galgenlieder

Morgenstern is indescribable and incomparable, but if you like Edward Lear you may like Morgenstern.

The rare quality of true literary silliness has never been taken seriously by literary critics. This is probably a good thing.

Der Lattenzaun

Es war einmal ein Lattenzaun,
mit Zwischenraum, hindurchzuschaun.

Ein Archtekt, der dieses sah,
stand eines Abends plötzlich da —

und nahm den Zwischenraum heraus
und baute draus ein grosses Haus.

Der Zaun indessen stand ganz dumm,
mit Latten ohne was herum.

Ein Anblick grässlich und gemein.
Drum zog ihn der Senat auch ein.

Der Architekt jedoch entfloh
nach Afri- od- Ameriko.


The Fence

There was a lattice fence. With ease
one saw through its interstices.

An Architect who noticed this,
one night removed each interstice,

crept softly off through evening dim
and built himself a house with them.

And there the fence, crestfallen, sat —
one uninterpolated slat.

A sight unseemly, an offence!
The City Fathers razed the fence.

The architect, however, flew
to Afri- or Ameri-kew.


Das Nasobem

Auf seinem Nasen schreitet
einher das Nasobem,
von seinem Kind begleitet.
Es steht noch nicht im Brehm.

Es steht noch nicht im Meyer.
Und auch im Brockhaus nicht.
Es trat aus meiner Leier
zum ersten Mal ans Licht.

Auf seinen Nasen schreitet
(wie schon gesagt) seitdem,
von seinem Kind begleitet,
einher, das Nasobem.


The Nosibung

Behold proceeding towards us
the stately Nosibung,
upon its several noses,
escorted by its young.

It is not yet in Webster
nor the Britannicay.
It stepped first from my lyre
into the light of day.

Behold, as I have mentioned,
escorted by its young,
proceeding on its noses,
the stately Nosibung.


Six Odes of Horace

The Latin texts of the Odes are beautifully presented at

The Latin Library,

The last of these odes is in the Alcaic meter, the other five in the Sapphic/Adonic, which I find particularly seductive. I don’t try to reproduce the meters in English, only to suggest them. My translations are often similarly suggestive.

We are often told that the Romans borrowed their gods from Greece, but I think what they lacked and borrowed was a mythology. The Greek tales of passionate gods and goddesses were transferred onto the elemental, inhuman, local deities of the Italians. It wasn’t a good fit, but the Romans made the best of it, as they did with a lot of things. Sacred ritual went deep in Roman life both in the city and on the farm, and for all Horace’s light, sophisticated, very literary approach, I think his invocations of certain deities ring true.

I:x   To Mercury

Mercury, you eloquent son of Atlas,
you who formed a fierce and unfinished people,
training us in civilised speech and decent
     manners in wrestling,

let me praise you, herald of heaven’s lord and
all the gods, inventor of music’s curved lyre,
happy prankster, thieving whatever you please,
     just for the joke of it.

When one time you’d rustled his cattle, there came
Lord Apollo, dreadful in anger: finding
all the arrows filched from his quiver, he stood
     helpless with laughter.

Past the haughty sons of the House of Atreus
old King Priam, led by you, crept unnoticed,
brought his gold past enemy sentries; watch-fires
     burned unavailing.

Guide of patient souls to the house of healing,
urge the weightless throng with your bright staff onward.
Dear are you those up on high, and dear to those who
     rule the deep places.


I:xxv   For Lydia

Not often now are your shutters shaken
by wild fellows rapping and banging on them;
your sleep’s uninterrupted, your door
     sticks on the threshold,

though it used to swing wide on its hinges,
ever so easy. Less and less often
you hear, “Hey, Lydia! all night I’ve been
     perishing for you!”

It’s going to end with an old, unloved,
worn-out woman in a lonesome alley,
dark of the moon, and a great, wild
     north wind rising,

and the fire of passionate lust
like the fury of a mare in heat
still hot in your belly, and nothing
     left you but grieving

that men always go for the youthful green
ivy and myrtle, letting the dry leaves
blow off on the cold wind, the wind that
     comes with the winter.


I:xxxiv   Jupiter

Sparing and seldom is my god-worship
as I go wandering here and there after
random wisdom; but now I have to
     turn round and head right

home, where I came from. For the Lord
whose blinding fire splits the clouds
today drove across a cloudless sky
     his thundering horses

and chariot. The brute Earth was shaken
down to its roots, all the waters, the Styx
down in the underworld, the wide Atlantic.
     His is the power.

He can turn lowest to highest, topple the great,
lift up the lowly. He sends quick-winged Luck
shrilling with pleasure, to crown a head here,
     snatch off a crown there.


II:xvi   To a Rich Sicilian

Peace and quiet! — prayed for when storm-clouds cover
ocean, hide the moon, so that sailors vainly
seek the star-signs shining above to give them
     sure course to steer by;

savage Thracians, terrible warriors, painted
Parthian bowmen, all pray for it -- peace and quiet!
You can’t buy it, even with jewels, gold, or
     Tyrian purple.

Money’s no more use than a consul’s goon-squad
at ending mental riots and tumult, or catching
worries that fly around and around beneath an
     opulent ceiling.

Live well on little. The ancestral silver
salt-dish set by itself on a frugal table.
Easy sleep, untroubled by ugly greed or
     anxious ambition.

Life has limits. Why do we aim so widely?
Why leave home to rush off on trips, to swelter
somewhere foreign? You can escape from your land,
     but from yourself, no.

Care and worry climb on the ship right with you,
they’re so quick, a stampede of horses can’t keep
up, not even deer as quick as the storm-wind driving
     clouds to the southward.

Let your heart be happy in what is now, and
let what’s coming be what it will be; meet hard
times untroubled, smiling. For nothing ever’s
     going to be perfect.

Death too early came for the brave Achilles,
age too tardy shrivelled up poor Tithonus.
What if fortune suddenly took what you have,
     sending it my way?

Flocks of sheep and hundreds of purebred cattle
mill around you, racehorses crowd your stables,
you wear togas double-dyed with authentic
     African murex.

Fate, well-named the Stingy, gave me only
this little farm, plus a slight gift for setting
honest Latin words to old Greek tunes, and no
     care for what fools think.


III:xviii   To Faunus

Before Rome was Rome, Faunus, Lord of the Animals, was honored by a hunting, herding, farming people who knew the profound human dependence on and interdependence with animals. Horace’s Greekish literary reference to fleeing nymphs doesn’t belie, to my ear, his respect for this ancient, earthy, wild god and his wish for his blessing.

Faunus, lover and chaser of fast-fleeing wood-nymphs,
come to my farmlands, walk in benevolence over
my sunny pastures, leaving them blessed with
     plenty of young lambs.

At the top of the year, we’ll kill you a kidling,
and pour you out plenty of Venus’s good friend,
wine, in a deep bowl, while incense-smoke curls up
     from the old altar.

For you, when early December days come round,
the fields are all grassy, the herds all contented;
farm-people dress up, having a holiday here with
     the cows in the meadows.

Intrepid, the lambs watch a wolf strolling by them.
For you the trees of the forests wildly scatter their leaves,
and the feet of the spadesman pound the cold, hard ground,
     joyously jigging.


III:xxiii   To a Farmer’s Daughter

When you see the new-born moon, lift up
your open hands to heaven, child,
and make your house-gods happy
with incense, fresh grain, and a greedy pig.

The sick south wind won’t wilt your vines
nor the blight fell your crops; your young beasts
won’t suffer in the heavy time of year
when the apple trees are bearing.

A destined victim’s grazing now
on snowy Algidus in groves of oak and ilex,
growing fat on Alban grass, whose cut throat
will dye the priest’s knife with crimson.

But you’ve no call to importune the Lares
with slaughter of sheep. Just weave wreaths
of rosemary and delicate myrtle
to crown the little gods.

If the hands that touch the altar are innocent,
no need for more persuasive sacrifice.
Even the sulkiest Penates will be pleased
with the sacred meal and the bright white salt.



Two Poems

Suleika spricht

Der Spiegel sagt mir: ich bin schön!
Ihr sagt: zu altern sei auch mich Geschick.
Vor Gott muss alles ewig stehn,
In mir liebt ihn, für diesen Augenblick.


Zuleika speaks

The mirror tells me: I am beautiful!
You tell me: old age is my destiny.
Before God all must stand forever still.
Just for this blink of time, love Him in me.


(From the late uncollected poems)

Goethe doesn’t say “fall in the shit” in this odd little dialogue, he says “break your neck;” but he does say shit in other poems, and it seemed to be the right word here.


Ja, das ist das rechte Gleis,
Dass man nicht weiss
Was man denkt
Wenn man denkt
Alles ist als wie geschenkt.


“Wie hast dus denn so weit gebracht?
Sie sagen, du habest es gut vollbracht!”
Mein Kind, ich hab es klug gemacht:
Ich habe nie über das Denken gedacht.


“Wohl kamst du durch; so ging es allenfalls.”
Machs einer nach und breche nicht den Hals.


The Right Track


You’re on the track to heaven
when you don’t even
know what you’re thinking
when you’re thinking.
As if it were all just given.


“So, how did you ever get so far?
They tell me you’re a major star!”
Child, I did as wise men ought
and never gave a thought to thought.


“Well, you got through, you got away with it!”
Go ahead, try it, don’t fall in the shit.


Jorge Luis Borges
Two Poems

Composición escrita en un ejemplar de la Gesta de Beowulf

A vese me pregunta qué razones
Me mueven a estudiar sin esperanza
De precisión, mientras mi noche avanza,
La lengua de los ásperos sajones.
Gastada por los años la memoria
Deja caer la en vano repetida
Palabra y es así como mi vida
Teje y desteje su cansada historia.
Será (me digo entonces) que de un modo
Secreto y suficiente el alma sabe
Que es inmortal y que su vasto y grave
Círculo abarca todo y puede todo.
Más allá de este afán y de este verso
Me aguarda inagotable el universo.


Written in a Copy of Beowulf

Sometimes I ask myself why
in the twilight of my years, without a hope
of ever finishing, am I trying
to learn this stony Saxon language?
Wasted by the years, my memory
loses the word vainly repeated,
just as my life keeps weaving
and unweaving its weary story.
I tell myself: it’s so my soul will know
in some obscure, sufficient way
it is immortal, and its vast, slow
circle touches everything, holds everything.
On past this toil, this line of verse,
the universe awaits me, inexhaustible.


Arte poetica

Mirar el río hecho de tiempo y agua
y recordar que el tiempo es otro río,
saber que nos perdemos como el río
y que los rostros pasan como el agua.

Sentir que la vigilia es otro sueño
que sueña no soñar y que la muerte
que teme nuestra carne es esa muerte
de cada noche, que se llama sueño.

Ver en el día o en el año un símbolo
de los días del hombre y de sus años,
convertir el ultraje de los años
en una música, un rumor y un símbolo,

ver en la muerte el sueño, en el ocaso
un triste oro, tal es la poesía
que es inmortal y pobre. La poesía
vuelve como la aurora y el ocaso.

A veces en las tardes una cara
nos mira desde el fondo de un espejo;
el arte debe ser como ese espejo
que nos revela nuestra propia cara.

Cuentan que Ulises, harto de prodigios,
lloró de amor al divisar su Itaca
verde y humilde. El arte es esa Itaca
de verde eternidad, no de prodigios.

También es como el río interminable
que pasa y queda y es cristal de un mismo
Heráclito inconstante, que es el mismo
y es otro, como el río interminable.


Poetic Art

To watch the river made of time and water
and remember that time’s another river,
and know we vanish like the river
and faces pass by like the water.

To feel that being awake’s another sleep
that dreams it isn’t dreaming, and that the death
our body fears is the same death
we die every night, called sleep.

To see in every day or year a symbol
of our days, our years,
and turn the outrage of the years
into a music, a murmuring, a symbol.

To see in death the dream, in sunset
a sorrowful gold, is poetry,
its poverty, its immortality.  Poetry
comes back, like dawn and sunset.

Sometimes in the evening a face
looks at us from the depths of a mirror;
art should be like that mirror
showing us our own face.

The story says Ulysses, fed up with marvels,
wept tears of love when he saw his Ithaca,
his green and humble island. Art’s the Ithaca
of everlasting greenness, not of marvels.

And it’s like the interminable river
that passes by, is still, and is the mirror of the same
inconstant Herakleitos, always the same
and yet another, like the interminable river.


R.M. Rilke
Three poems

Wilder Rosenbusch

Wie steht er da vor den Verdunkelungen
des Regenabends, jung und rein,
in seinem Ranken schenkend augeschwungen
und dock versunken in sein Rose-sein;

die flachen Blüten, da und dort schon offen
jegliche ungewollt und ungepflegt:
so, von sich selbst unendlich übertroffen,
und unbeschrieblich aus sich selbst erregt,

ruft er den Wandrer, der in abendlicher
Nachdenklichkeit den Weg vorüberkommt:
Oh sieh mich stehn, sieh her, was ich bin sicher
und unbeschützt und habe was mir frommt!


Wild Rose Bush

How young and pure it stands, as the darkness
of the rainy evening grows,
offering up its long outcurving shoots,
yet rapt and deep in being a rose.

Its shallow blossoms open here and there
as if absent-mindedly, disheveled:
so endlessly making itself out of itself,
overdoing and outdoing itself forever,

it calls to the meditative wanderer
on the twilit pathway strolling past:
O see me stand here, see how sure I am,
and how defenseless, and how blest!


Two fragments from Rilke’s late uncollected poems

. . .

Irgendwo blüht die Blume des Abschieds und streut
immerfort Blütenstaub, den wir atmen, herüber:
auch noch im kommendsten Wind atmen wir Abschied.

Somewhere the flower of farewell blooms and strows
its ceaseless pollen over us who breathe it,
and even in the wind blowing to us we breathe farewell.

. . .

O wenn ein Leben
völlig stieg und aus Wolken des eigenen Herzlieds
niederfällt: so nennen wir Tod diesen Regen.

O when a life
rises up wholly and from the clouds of its own heart’s pain
descends again, we call that rainfall Death.



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