Betten schauten mich an [English tense]

Anna Brauckmann

New Member
German
I am translating a German poem into English and find it difficult to decide if past or past continuous is the better equivalent in English of the imperfect in German.
Here is an example:

Fremde Gräber: Betten schauten mich an,

An allen Straßenecken krepierten Sonnen,

Könige trauerten um ihre Paläste und Götter,

Und im Gefechtsfeuer ihrer Verluste lachte kein einziger Hofnarr mehr.


Weit war jedwede Ferne, weit waren die Weinstöcke schöner Feste

Und schlicht die Freude über das Vergangene.

Und in meinem Kopf brannte bloß des wichtigsten Feindes Lied,

Des Todes Brosche: Stecknadel – die man für gewöhnlich findet

Auf dem Dachboden oder bei einem Antiquitätenhändler,

Aber ohne Namen und Adresse: das sterbliche Juwel Erde.



Foreign tombs: Beds looked at me,

On all street corners suns died a wretched death,

Kings mourned their palaces and gods,


And in the gun fire of their losses not one court jester was laughing anymore.

Far was any distance, far were the vine stocks of splendid festivities

And easy the joy about the past.

And in my head was burning the song of the most important enemy,

The broach of death: Pin – commonly found

In the attic or antique shop

But without name or address: the mortal jewel Earth.



Thanks for your help,

Anna
 
  • Kajjo

    Senior Member
    In this case I would go for past continuous. These are all very acute, ongoing actions. Let's see what the natives say.

    (I'd have several other comments, but they'd be off-topic: vines stocks, not a single jester, plain the joy, colloquial quality of "krepieren" is ignored; feast vs festivity)
     

    Hans in Texas

    Senior Member
    US English
    I like your choices for the past continuous, emphasizing the personalized aspects of the general chaos and disaster. Simple past sounds like the retelling of a familiar children's story, recitation of a banal sequence of events predicted beforehand. Good!
    What about (heady) wines instead of grapevines?
     

    Schlabberlatz

    Senior Member
    German - Germany
    Ich glaube, dass die gewählten Zeiten passen. Man könnte wohl auch alles ins continuous setzen, wenn man betonen wollte, dass die beschriebenen Vorgänge eine gewisse Dauer hatten. Simple present kann man meistens als normales Erzähltempus nehmen, um aufeinanderfolgende Ereignisse zu beschreiben. "… was laughing anymore" dürfte aber korrekt sein, Stichwort: gleichzeitige Vorgänge. "I was washing my hair when you phoned."
    And in my head was burning the song of the most important enemy,
    Auch das müsste passen, wegen Dauer und Gleichzeitigkeit. Aber muss es nicht besser heißen "the song… was burning", statt "was burning the song"?

    Mit Hans überschnitten.

    I like your choices for the past continuous, emphasizing the personalized aspects of the general chaos and disaster. Simple past sounds like the retelling of a familiar children's story, recitation of a banal sequence of events predicted beforehand.
    Aber das simple present am Anfang ist OK, oder? :confused: ("Beds looked at me, … suns died… etc.")
     

    Kajjo

    Senior Member
    Aber das simple present am Anfang ist OK, oder? :confused: ("Beds looked at me, … suns died… etc.")
    I would use past continuous there, too, because this is supposedly not something that always happened, but in that moment. However, it depends on the situation we imagine.

    After several hundred years of war, the was no life anymore. Empty beds looked at me...

    It was the pivotal day: Open graves were looking at me, kings were mourning their Gods, not a single jester was laughing...
     

    Anna Brauckmann

    New Member
    German
    I would use past continuous there, too, because this is supposedly not something that always happened, but in that moment. However, it depends on the situation we imagine.

    After several hundred years of war, the was no life anymore. Empty beds looked at me...

    It was the pivotal day: Open graves were looking at me, kings were mourning their Gods, not a single jester was laughing...
    Rereading it now and looking at your comments, I would opt for continuous here too. Thank you.
     

    Minnesota Guy

    Senior Member
    American English - USA
    My immediate reaction would be to use the continuous ("beds were looking at me. . . ."). "Beds looked at me" somehow has a strange feel (which might be appropriate), while the continuous brings it closer to the feel of everyday conversation.
     

    Hans in Texas

    Senior Member
    US English
    Here I am again. In my comment #3 I meant all your simple-past tenses were like the drumbeat of a tragic, uncontrollable fate, as I believe they were intended. The two continuous tenses, singing and burning, are the personal, agonized reactions of the only authentic persons here, the jester and the narrator.
     

    Hutschi

    Senior Member
    Hi,

    I do not know whether it is in the same range like the Present tense poem.

    I would compare also these poems.

    In my mind: It should sound naturally and it should also fit rhythm patterns.

    Note the tragic tone. Hans called it " were like the drumbeat of a tragic, uncontrollable fate ". I follow this here.

    In German the overall tone is laconic, story telling.
     

    Anna Brauckmann

    New Member
    German
    Thank you all so much. I will have a look at the bits of the poem in question and will then need to decide, but will do so with all your critical and thoughtful contributions next to me, as well as a native speaker :) This has been my first time to the forum and I have been completely overwhelmed by the interest you took in solving these problems and the immense help you have been.
     

    Schlabberlatz

    Senior Member
    German - Germany
    Here I am again. In my comment #3 I meant all your simple-past tenses were like the drumbeat of a tragic, uncontrollable fate, as I believe they were intended. The two continuous tenses, singing and burning, are the personal, agonized reactions of the only authentic persons here, the jester and the narrator.
    Danke sehr! :) Danke auch an Minnesota Guy und Limette für die Rückmeldungen. Da ich das Thema sehr interessant finde, würde ich mich über weitere Rückmeldungen freuen. @Edinburgher @ayuda? @sedmont ?
     

    Edinburgher

    Senior Member
    German/English bilingual
    My gut reaction is that the continuous past, while very much suited to prose, sits very uncomfortably in poetry, even in this style of poetry that has neither rhyme nor meter. It sounds out of place. I would avoid it entirely.
     

    jedna

    Senior Member
    @Edinburgher

    I realize that the taste for poetry is always very personal, but to me there's so much poetry in above lines:
    Those images, how expressive... That stirring up rythm that all of a sudden stops - just for a moment -, and goes on... What a fabulous timing.

    In my view the past continuous fits perfectly here and creates to a large extent the atmosphere.
    Anna did a fantastic job, translating the poem the way she did:)
     
    Last edited:

    sedmont

    Senior Member
    English -- USA
    Da ich das Thema sehr interessant finde, würde ich mich über weitere Rückmeldungen freuen. @Edinburgher @ayuda? @sedmont ?
    Hi Schlabberlatz,

    I can't say if the past continuous is or isn't faithful to the original German, given that German does not have a past continuous tense. Past continuous in English perhaps can bring events more alive -- one might by more likely to picture them in process of actually happening, whereas the simple past seems a bit more likely to suggest that the living events are no longer alive and in movement.

    So it partly depends on what the poet wanted.

    Did the poet want to give more of a feeling of the past as past? There might be many reasons for wishing to do that.

    Or did the poet want a somewhat more participatory experience, so the reader feels a bit more in the past, thus partly forgets it's the past, feels it a bit more as if it were present?

    Continuous past tense version:

    Foreign tombs: Beds were looking at me,

    On all street corners suns were dying a wretched death,

    Kings were mourning their palaces and gods,

    And in the gunfire of their losses not one court jester was laughing anymore.


    vs.

    Simple past tense version:

    Foreign tombs: Beds looked at me,

    On all street corners suns died a wretched death,

    Kings mourned their palaces and gods,

    And in the gunfire of their losses not one court jester laughed anymore.
     

    Schlabberlatz

    Senior Member
    German - Germany
    Danke sehr! :) Danke auch an Jektor für die Rückmeldung in Form des "agree".

    So it partly depends on what the poet wanted.

    Did the poet want to give more of a feeling of the past as past? There might be many reasons for wishing to do that.

    Or did the poet want a somewhat more participatory experience, so the reader feels a bit more in the past, thus partly forgets it's the past, feels it a bit more as if it were present?
    Vielleicht kann die Poetin das erläutern :) @Anna Brauckmann Bist du noch da? ;)

    @sedmont : Stimmst du Hans zu, dass man continuous und simple auch mischen könnte?
    In my comment #3 I meant all your simple-past tenses were like the drumbeat of a tragic, uncontrollable fate, as I believe they were intended. The two continuous tenses, singing and burning, are the personal, agonized reactions of the only authentic persons here, the jester and the narrator.
    Foreign tombs: Beds looked at me,

    On all street corners suns died a wretched death,

    Kings mourned their palaces and gods,


    And in the gun fire of their losses not one court jester was laughing anymore.
     

    sedmont

    Senior Member
    English -- USA
    Hi again Schlabberlatz,

    You asked, "Stimmst du Hans zu, dass man continuous und simple auch mischen könnte?"

    If you are asking about poetic feeling, then yes, I agree. It seems to me a poet might in some cases do well to choose a mix of those two tenses in order to achieve one or another nuance of moods, perceptions, feelings, and sounds. But I can't speak to whether such a mix is appropriate to the original German poem. My German language ability is somewhat basic. Poetry, unless it is relatively prosaic in content, has too many subtleties to be within my ability to translate decently into English.
     

    Hutschi

    Senior Member
    Hi again Schlabberlatz,

    You asked, "Stimmst du Hans zu, dass man continuous und simple auch mischen könnte?"

    If you are asking about poetic feeling, then yes, I agree. It seems to me a poet might in some cases do well to choose a mix of those two tenses in order to achieve one or another nuance of moods, perceptions, feelings, and sounds. But I can't speak to whether such a mix is appropriate to the original German poem. My German language ability is somewhat basic. Poetry, unless it is relatively prosaic in content, has too many subtleties to be within my ability to translate decently into English.
    In principle it is possible.
    It is a translation decision.
     
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