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. • (1209 views)

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26 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.

  3. Jon Hall says:

    Zu, my I call you Zu?, you cite the songs of Kindertotenlieder, but what about these gorgeous Mahler songs:::
    If that link doesn’t work, try entering this “Rückert-Lieder” at Wikipedia. I especially love “Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen.”

    • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

      Jessye Norman doing Blicke mir nicht in die Lieder!

      Berliner Philharmoniker doing Ich atmet’ einen linden Duft [I like this better than the first one but the spiky dress is odd. Everyone’s a critique.]

      Kožená / Abbado doing Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen [Is that the same singer as the previous? This one’s a little longer than the previous two. A little dull at first but it grows on you.]

      Susan Graham doing Um Mitternacht.

      Susan Graham doing Liebst du um Schönheit

      • Kung Fu Zu Kung Fu Zu says:

        Kozena singing “Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen” was very beautiful. I think one appreciates such music more as one grows older.

        I noticed Claudio Abbado was conducting. About thirty years ago, my parents, my wife and I were visiting Salzburg during the Festwochen. We stayed in a very nice smallish hotel on the outskirts of town and the Maistro was also staying there. The thing I recall best about that stay is that Abbado had a small display of his recording on a strategically placed table in the hotel lobby. For all the airs and high-art involved, he was still hawking his CDs.

        • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

          Yeah, that K/A is a nice combo. And it looks (hears) like they’ve got some great acoustics in that hall they are playing in. I like the layout, sort of like they’re in the center.

          The amount of talent and coordination it takes to get everyone to play like that. They make it look easy. Certainly it is everything but that…a lifetime of practice on their instruments for each and every one of them.

          Sorry, but compare this to the schlepped-out crap of rap where you need no voice, no talent, but your authentic edgy “anger” can make you a millionaire. Jon was right to feature this. As civilization groans under the senseless vulgarians, we can still appreciate fine art.

          Here’s the song that automatically plays after the K/A one. It’s not exactly chopped liver either. Kozena sings Bach – Cantata 199 – Aria ‘Tief gebuckt und voller Reue’

      • Jon Hall says:


        Here are all five songs done by one bodacious broad:::

        von Otter’s vibrato is very nice. There was another recording on YouTube by her of these same ditties that might have been even better, but it be deleted. Sad! heh heh.

        • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

          Ahh…she indeed does have a beautiful voice. At first I thought she was a dead-ringer (in terms of voice) for Kathleen Battle. I guess when they’re that damn good, they’re all going to tend to sound a little bit alike.

          One of my favorite opera singers is the mezzo-soprano, Frederica Von Stade (starts at 1:02). It’s a matter of personal taste. And part of this is due certainly to her slightly lower register. But I think more character comes out of her voice than just the typical “violin-string” screeching pure-note soprano who can shatter glass.

          • Kung Fu Zu Kung Fu Zu says:

            But I think more character comes out of her voice than just the typical “violin-string” screeching pure-note soprano who can shatter glass.

            I understand your thinking. That is why I made my comment regarding the tingling feeling I got from listening to von Otter. She is a soprano, but she has a full, what I call a round tone. It doesn’t cut you. It caresses you.

            I found Sills to be more of a screeching pure-note soprano and Sutherland to have a full, round caressing voice.

            • Timothy Lane says:

              I don’t know if this is exactly what you’re talking about in terms of character coming out in the voice, but I’ve noted an interesting contrast in versions of the song “I Who Have Nothing” by Shirley Bassey and Petula Clark. Bassey (best known for her James Bond theme songs, most notably “Goldfinger”) does a fine job, of course, but Dame Petula’s version is a reminder that she was an actress as well as a singer. She really puts the emotion — desperate, hopeless love — into the song.

              • Kung Fu Zu Kung Fu Zu says:

                Singers have to attain a certain level of technique if they wish be good. But at some point, a singer has to get beyond mere technique and infuse one’s singing with interpretation to become great.

                Amazingly, some singers are so great that they can be slobbering-drunk and still sing wonderfully. Jussi Bjorling was one such singer.

              • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

                Here’s Petula doing I (Who Have Nothing). Very coincidentally, I’m listening right now to Frank doing her “Call Me.” And now he’s doing “Downtown.” Certainly I prefer Dame Clark’s version. In fact, this is one of the few cases Frank doesn’t bring a hell of a lot to either version, although “Call Me” was pretty good. His contemporary stuff is generally so-so. Still, you sometimes gotta sing what the audience knows.

            • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

              “Doesn’t cut you.” That’s a great way of describing it. And her vibrato is indeed rich and smooth.

        • Kung Fu Zu Kung Fu Zu says:

          I agree with you 100% that von Otter’s vibrato is excellent. The first two notes of this video gave me a tingling feeling which I do not often get, particularly from female voices.

          She has wonderful control.

    • Kung Fu Zu Kung Fu Zu says:


      You can call me Kung
      You can call me Fu
      You can call me Zu

      Sorry, I felt the inspiration to be poetic.

      Seriously, I used to listen to a fair amount of German Lieder as my voice teacher was close to a famous German voice professor, the name of whom I can no longer recall, who worked with Dieter Fischer-Dieskau. The professor spent some time with us in a master-class. He observed that Fischer-Dieskau smoked too much.

      Another time, my voice professor, who was very well connected, had Gerald Moore visit us and give master classes. Moore had retired from most public performance at that time, but did work with voice students and others. He had recorded several LP’s of piano accompaniment for vocal music without any singing. These were to be used by voice students who couldn’t always carry an accompanist in their pockets for daily practice. I bought a couple of these and would sing to them in my room. I believe I still have them packed away somewhere.

      • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

        Couldn’t find any kind of piano-only CD from him, but there’s a CD (also available in digital format which means you can sample a little of each song).

        • Kung Fu Zu Kung Fu Zu says:

          Couldn’t find any kind of piano-only CD from him

          I am not surprised as it was very specialized. If I recall correctly, I bought them at the voice workshop he gave for us, which was, sadly, over forty years ago. In fact, it must have been about forty-five or forty-six years back.

      • Jon Hall says:

        Gerald Moore? you must be a geezer, Zu.

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