Monday, February 21, 2022

There was a king in Thule...

J.W. Goethe's two-part poetic drama Faust is perhaps the greatest work of German Romanticism, which is why it's such a shame there aren't better translations of it.

A while back, I began writing my own translation of Faust, and I even posted my version of the Dedication to this blog. Perhaps my translation still leaves something to be desired, but I wanted to capture the raw power of the original.

Recently, I've been revisiting Faust, and I was stuck by the ballad Goethe has Gretchen sing in the scene entitled "Abend" or Evening. The song begins "Es war ein König in Thule" and tells the story of a king who lived in the mythical land of "Ultima Thule" at the northernmost edge of the world.

Thule has two syllables, making it rather tricky to rhyme in English. (What does one use? School-day?) No English translation of the ballad matches the simplicity and emotionality of Goethe's language. The verse is in trimeter, with an ABAB rhyme structure, and packs a great deal of meaning into a few simple words.

I decided to try my hand at translating the passage. English is rarely as concise as the language in the poem, but this is how I rendered it:

                    The King of Thule

               The King in Thule above
               Was true unto the grave,
               His dying Queen and Love
               A golden cup to him gave.

               He kept it always near,
               Grasped it at every meal;
               His eyes would swell and tear,
               For how it made him feel.

               And as he came to die,
               He gave away cities and land,
               All to his son on high,
               But he kept the cup in his hand.

               He sat with advisers all,
               The knights who followed him free,
               There in his ancestors' hall
               In the castle above the sea.

               But then he rose him up,
               And drank with the last of his blood,
               Then threw the holy cup
               Down into the raging flood.

               He saw it plunge and drink
               The waters that lapped at the shore,
               His heavy eyes did sink,
               He drank not one drop more.

I'm still not completely satisfied with it, but perhaps it's getting there....