Thursday, 27 November 2008

Pavel Haas, songs from Theresienstadt

These poems were translated from the original Chinese into the Czech language by Bohumil Mathesius (1888-1952). They were recently translated from Czech into German by Eva Profousova. And now, here they are, freshly translated from German into English by Poet-in-Residence who feels as if he is taking part in the children's game of Chinese whispers; by the end of the children's whispers (e.g. egg becomes peg becomes beg becomes bed and so on) the original word and meaning have been lost. So a word of caution; being three translations, and four languages, away from the original the new poems may no longer resemble the old.

I have heard the wild geese

Your homeland is there
far away
and you should go home,
straying heart!

In this foreign night,
in this autumn rain,
in the wind's sad moan
you feel the most pain.

I sit in my high house
and hear the cries
of the wild geese;
they are flying home again.

Far from home is the moon

Out of the dark sea
climbs the moon.
In foreign lands
it also shines.

Love protects
against senseless dreams
in the faraway evening.

Brightly the moon
outshines my sadness.

I put on my nightshirt
the dew is cold.

My hands, my arms
they are too weak,
to write about all that.

Sleep, send me in a dream
flying home over the rooftops.

Sleep, the dream never comes
the longing always shakes me awake.

Through the night

The bamboos shake in the wind
the moon sits on the stone.

Under the flickering Milky Way
flies the shadow of a wild duck.

I think of our next meeting,
the dream is behind my eyelids.

I sing with joy till the magpie's
chattering opens the day.

The Czech composer Pavel Haas (1899-1944), a student of Leos Janacek, set these and other poems to music after he was imprisoned in Theresienstadt in 1941, following the Nazi occupation of his country. He was transferred to Auschwitz and was duly murdered on 17th October 1944, one day after his arrival. His opera 'The Charlatan' was first performed in his home town of Brno in 1938.


  1. The wild duck's shadow
    and the chattering of magpies
    the moon is a far dream.

    However far removed from the original the lines resonate.

  2. Thanks! Nice haiku there.
    Translating is a funny business. On the next post (above) re the Theodor Kramer poem I've put the original German text on the replies page by request so that readers can weigh for themselves the merit or otherwise of the translation.


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