Friedrich Rueckert

Kunk Fu Zoby Kung Fu Zu4/3/17
It is often said, mainly by those who do not speak it, that German is a course and rough language. Whenever I hear such nonsense, I immediately think of Rainer Maria Rilke. His poetry is beauty itself. Of course, Schiller and Goethe come to mind with their powerful works. Many claim that Goethe’s “Faust” is the greatest work in German literature. To these luminaries I would also add a man who I only learned of last year; Friedrich Rueckert.

Rueckert was born in the late eighteenth century. January 31, 2016 was the 150 anniversary of his death. He was what is generally called a “Sprachgenie” in German. A linguistic genius. During his life he taught, translated and/or spoke over forty different languages. He is also known as the founder of German Orientalism.

Today, he is best remembered for his poetry, much of which he did not publish during his lifetime. But composers such as Schumann, Schubert, Brahms and Richard Strauss all wrote music for his verse.

Perhaps the most famous case of such work was done by Mahler who composed music to accompany poems which Rueckert wrote after the death of his children who died of scarlet fever, Luise in 1833 and Ernst in 1834.

I first read this piece last year and its effect on me was immediate. That is why I decided to write this short essay.

„Wo ich auch nach dir frage,/Find’ ich von dir Bericht,/Du lebst in meiner Klage,/Und stirbst im Herzen nicht./

Wo ich mein Zelt aufschalg/Da wohnst du bei mir dicht/Du bist mein Schatten am Tage/Und in der Nacht mein Licht. 

Du bist ein Schatten am Tage,/Doch in der Nacht ein Licht;/Du lebst in meiner Klage, / Und stirbst im Herzen nicht.“

It is difficult to express the power and depth of feeling of these words to a non-German speaker. The love and pain, which Rueckert captures in this simple poem, are almost unbearable.

My translation of these lines (which while close is not literal) runs as follows:


Wherever I search for you, 

I find of you a trace, 

You live in my lament, 

And die not in my heart. 


Wherever I raise my tent, 

You reside close to me, 

You are my shadow by day, 

And in the night my light.


You are a shadow by day, 

Yet in the night are a light, 

You live in my lament, 

And die not in my heart. 


While I believe my translation captures the intent of the poem, it simply cannot capture the true beauty, emotion and simplicity of the original. There is, after all, a reason for the old saying, “You lose something in translation.” Neverthesless, I hope the reader will gain, if only slightly, a new sense of what is possible in the German language.

Kung Fu Zu is a conservative prognosticator who has traveled widely and lived outside the United States. He also had translated Commander Riker. • (558 views)

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9 Responses to Friedrich Rueckert

  1. Timothy Lane says:

    My knowledge of German is extremely modest (I could read maybe half before you gave your translation), and I suspect needs to be much better to truly appreciate the poem.

    • Kung Fu Zu Kung Fu Zu says:

      Of course, the knowledge that Rueckert wrote this poem after the death of his children adds poignancy. I believe he wrote over 400 poems in their memory.

      • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

        Yes, the context of the poem adds something. Death of children (outside of abortion) used to be frighteningly common.

  2. pstmct says:

    My German is very weak and what little ability I did have was for the spoken word. My wife could read it and I could hear it, so we made a good team while over there for two weeks. What you translated is good but I suppose you are right, that it loses something in the translation.
    I never found the German language to be coarse or rough, so I would have to agree with you on that. In all of our travels over southern Germany, we ran into only one old guy that did not speak any English, (an old farmer wearing actual working lederhosen), and they were very happy to practice English just as I was to practice German; to those that were fluent in both, I’m sure I was very comical in my butchery of the language.

    • Timothy Lane says:

      And of course German has its dialects — as with many Old World countries, too numerous to mention. The linguist MacWhorter mentioned visiting a Suabian bar and (though he was fluent in German, at least in theory) he couldn’t understand the jokes they were telling (in their local lingo).

      • Kung Fu Zu Kung Fu Zu says:

        German has the most dialects of any Western European language.

        When I first moved to Switzerland, I thought I had forgotten my German as I didn’t understand anything being said. Of course, I hadn’t forgotten anything. I had to learn dialect with a very strong accent.

        Even in a country as small as Austria, the dialects are many and strong. I used to joke about the people in Voralberg, the western-most province bordering Switzerland, not being able to understand those from Burgenland, the eastern-most province which borders Hungary.

        • Timothy Lane says:

          That might be true. Burgenland used to be part of Hungary, not Austria, until after World War I, so their dialect was no doubt heavily influenced by that. Then consider how the German of the Banat and Transylvania (not to mention the Volga Germans, if any survived World War II) would have changed over the years (before they were expelled at the end of World War II).

    • Kung Fu Zu Kung Fu Zu says:

      we ran into only one old guy that did not speak any English, (an old farmer wearing actual working lederhosen), and they were very happy to practice English just as I was to practice German; to those that were fluent in both, I’m sure I was very comical in my butchery of the language.

      I lived in Bavaria for about 6 weeks in the early Fall of 1973. In those days, many people still wore Lederhosen and other traditional garb. They also ate “traditional” breakfasts. I remember seeing an older looking man in traditional clothing having white sausage and a liter of beer for breakfast. That was amazing to me at the time.

      As to your attempts to speak German, let me say this. The Germans, unlike the French, appreciate it very much when a foreigner tries to speak German to them. I have a nice story about that as well.

      • pstmct says:

        They did seem to really appreciate the effort, but we gave a bunch of them a belly laugh when my mother had an accident and we needed a seat cushion for her broken tail bone. I think we asked for a butt pillow in my limited German. I think everyone in the pharmacy cracked up at my attempt to describe the item.

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