Crosswise –

If someone rises from the rocks
wielding the sun disk against the foe
when the rootless trickling riddles of tears
foretell for these eyes only
crosswise –
then are let loose
the lionesses of tormented hearts
to devour the mark of Cain
crosswise –
until the wounds wittingly
flow in the brother’s blood
crosswise –

Steigt einer aus den Steinen
die Sonnenscheibe dem Feind vorhaltend
wenn die wurzellos rinnenden Rätsel der Tränen
unter vier Augen wahrsagen
kreuzweis –
die Löwinnen der Herzensqualen
losgelassen warden
zu verschlingen die Kainszeichen
kreuzweis –
bis die Wunden wissend
im Bruderblut fliessen
kreuzweis –



It’s been a long time since I added to these translations, but as I now have some followers, I feel duty bound to reward their fidelity with new contributions. Thank you for your interest.

My original aim was to post 100 poems in translation here. Then a few more came along. Now I have acquired a copy of “Teile dich Nacht – die letzten Gedichte” and inspiration has returned, along with the courage to try to meet the challenges that Nelly Sachs’ poems always pose.

The assonance and alliteration of the original isn’t too hard to imitate in English, but the condensed syntax and the profundity of her imagery often evades capture – at least by me. Translation is a filter. I have tried to give her a voice in my language.


You’ve lost your name

You’ve lost your name
but the world rushes up
and offers you a grand choice
You shake your head
yet your beloved
once found you the needle in the haystack
Hark: he’s calling you now

Dein Name ist dir verlorengegangen
aber die Welt eilt herzu
und bietet dir schöne Auswahl an
Du schüttelst den Kopf
aber dein Geliebter
hat dir einmal die Nadel im Heuhaufen gefunden
Hörst du: er ruft dich schon

Whoever comes from the Earth

Photo credit: the coyote calls photography

Photo credit: the coyote calls photography

comes from the Earth
reaching for the moon
other heavenly mineral flower –
will soar high
wounded by blasts
of memory
shot from the explosive burst of yearning
out of Earth’s painted night
his winged prayers arise
out of daily destructions
seeking the inner pathways of the eyes.

Craters and arid seas
filled with tears
travelling through starry stations
escaping from dust and ashes.

Everywhere the Earth
is building its colonies of homesickness.
Not to land
on the oceans of addicted blood
only to sway
in the luminous music of ebb and flood
only to sway
to the rhythm of the unscathed
mark of eternity:
life – death –

von der Erde kommt
Mond zu berühren
anderes Himmelsmineral das blüht –
von Erinnerung
wird er hoch springen
vom explodierenden Sehnsuchtsstoff
aus bemalter Erdennacht
aufgeflügelt sind seine Gebete
aus täglichen Vernichtungen
suchend die inneren Augenstraßen.

Krater und Trockenmeere
erfüllt von Tränen
durch sternige Stationen reisend
auf der Fahrt ins Staublose.

Überall die Erde
baut an ihren Heimwehkolonien.
Nicht zu landen
auf den Ozeanen des süchtigen Blutes
nur zu wiegen sich
in Lichtmusik aus Ebbe und Flut
nur zu wiegen sich
im Rhythmus des unverwundeten
Leben – Tod –

Translator’s Comment: “Fahrt ins Staublose” – Rather than some variation on “journey into where there is no dust” I have shifted the focus onto the departure rather than the destination, simply because I couldn’t find any satisfactory concise phrase as evocative as the German.



O you wind rose of torment!
Torn by primeval storms
In ever changing directions of the tempests;
Yet your south is loneliness,
Where you stand is the navel of pain.

Your eyes are sunk deep into your skull
Like cave-dwelling doves in the night
Brought out blind by the huntsman,
Your voice is silenced
From asking too many whys,

To the worms and the fishes your voice has gone.
Job, you have wept through all the watches of the night
But some day the star sign of your blood will
Outshine all the rising suns.

O du Windrose der Qualen!
Von Urzeitstürmen
in immer andere Richtungen der Unwetter gerissen;
noch dein Süden heißt Einsamkeit.
Wo du stehst, ist der Nabel der Schmerzen.

 Deine Augen sind tief in deinen Schädel gesunken
wie Höhlentauben in der Nacht
die der Jäger blind herausholt.
Deine Stimme ist stumm geworden,
denn sie hat zuviel Warum gefragt.

 Zu den Würmern und Fischen ist deine Stimme eingegangen.
Hiob, du hast alle Nachtwachen durchpennt
aber einmal wird das Sternbild deines Blutes
alle aufgehenden Sonnen erbleichen lassen.


Comments on this translation:

This is pretty much a word-for-word translation. Why make it complicated when the simple solution works? Even so, for those who are interested in how I arrived at this version, here’s my thought process.

The image of Job is that of a bewildered man, defenceless, helpless, suffering repeatedly, never knowing why, nor where the next agonising pain will strike, struggling blindly in the dark, driven to silence, mute as the fish and worms, his questions unanswered, and yet there is the assurance, in an indefinite future, of a glorious outcome. While he represents the victims of the Holocaust, this Job is also the personification of all who suffer persecution.

Windrose der Qualen: In the Book of Job (30:22), he complains: “You snatch me up and drive me before the wind; you toss me about in the storm.“ The image of the wind rose (almost the same word in both German and English) evokes not only a means of measuring the intensity of Job’s suffering and the attempt, as with a compass, to find direction and sense in the midst of a battering storm where the winds are coming from all directions at once, but also (one of Sachs’ favourite metaphors) the flower, the rose that suffers and survives the horror.

Qualen is plural in German, but “the sufferings of Job” has become such a cliché that although the sense would be correct I have avoided this word. My choices were between ‘tortures’ and ‘torments’.

Urzeitstürmen: As always, the sounds play a vital role in Sachs’ choice of words and “von Urzeitstürmen … gerissen” has an onomatopoeic quality that is difficult to render in English. Instead of the sibilants and tight ü and i I have used the assonance and alliteration of /‘torment’/ ‘torn’/ ‘storms’/, thus ‘torments’ rather than ‘tortures’, but the subtle effect of the glottal stop before Urzeiten and Unwetter defeats me in English.

These are also powerful words: the prefix Ur– indicates the original first form of anything, so Urzeit is the earliest time, primeval, prehistoric. Such storms suggest the metaphysical chaos that reigned before creation, or (as in the biblical story of Job, the earliest book of the Bible) the introduction of evil into the world, when Satan roamed around looking for someone to tempt.

Unwetter, a common word for a storm, also holds strong negative connotations: if the word existed in English ‘un-weather’ would be far more than just bad weather. And, of course, here this has metaphysical insinuations of the Shoah, the ‘unheard-of storms’ of genocide afflicting the Jews.

Noch dein Süden heisst Einsamkeit: For Job, even the south, the gentlest and least painful point of the compass, is harsh. Here is the subjective sense of abandonment. Not solitude, which can be a pleasant state: this is total isolation. Einsamkeit refers to one person standing utterly alone. Hence: ‘loneliness’.

Nabel der Schmerzen: Where Job stands, wherever he is, he is at the very centre of pain, the navel, the hub, where pain not only flows in but also streams out in all directions, from and into infinity. I prefer ‘navel of pain’ not only because literally Nabel = navel, but the image is as powerful in English as it is in German. A navel is a biological feature, the remains of the umbilical link; in a metaphysical sense, a link to the universe from which Job came, but in a physical sense also better than ‘hub’ as a receptor and transferor of pain.

Höhlentauben: His eyes have sunk so far into his skull that they are like birds that have gone blind from living in a pitch black cavern: doves, a symbol of peace and love, are easy prey for the hunter who brings them out, i.e. forces him to confront what he is trying to avoid. Is this also a far echo of the Song of Solomon, who compares his beloved’s eyes to “the eyes of a dove” and refers to the doves that live in the crevices of the rocks? ‘Tauben’ is also a homonym of the adjective ‘taub’ meaning deaf – Job is not explicitly deaf but his blind passivity at this point is emphasised by the unconscious associations this word can have for the reader.

Deine Stimme ist eingegangen: His voice is mute, silenced by asking “Why?” too many times, and receiving no answer. It is eingegangen – literally ‘gone inside,’ dead – gone to the worms and fishes, one of Nelly Sachs’ own recurring allegorical symbols of mute helplessness. This metaphor is echoed in Nelly Sachs’ autobiographical description of her own loss of speech after being interrogated by the Gestapo, when she says: “For five days I lived without speech through a witch hunt. My voice had fled to the fishes.” (Leben unter Bedrohung). As for the worms, the Biblical Job complains: “When I lie down I think, ‘How long before I get up?’ The night drags on, and I toss and turn until dawn. My body is clothed with worms and scabs, my skin is broken and festering. “ (Job 7:4-6 New International Version)

Das Sternbild deines Blutes: Job has wept throughout all the watches of the night, but there is hope. Das Sternbild is another familiar Sachs allegory, as is the association of sunrise and sunset with blood. This set of stars is formed from Job’s blood, which will one day stream like a radiantly red Milky Way, making the most brilliant sunrise look pale. Here, Job’s suffering takes on cosmic dimensions: this constellation will not only outshine our sun, but all suns. Hints of the Resurrection. The English word ‘constellation’ lacks the immediacy of the German word, literally ‘star picture’, an image made of stars. Who thinks of ‘stella’ = star as part of the word ‘constellation’? It’s just too weak. I have therefore translated Sternbild by ‘star sign’ simply to maintain the contrast between stars/sun. ‘Star sign’ has astrological connotations that aren’t present in the German word, however. For the moment, I have no better alternative.

Prayer for the Dead Bridegroom – II.

If only I knew
What was the last sight you saw.
Was it a stone, that had already drunk
So many last sights until those sights fell blindly
Onto the blind?
Or was it earth,
Enough to fill a shoe,
And already blackened
By so many partings
And so much death?

Or was it your last journey,
Bidding  you farewell from all the paths
You ever trod?

A puddle of water, a piece of mirroring metal,
Perhaps the buckle of your enemy’s belt,
Or some other small celestial

Or did this Earth
Which lets no-one depart from it unloved
Send you a bird-sign through the air,
A reminder to your soul, so that it shuddered
In your burnt, tormented body?

Gebet für den toten Bräutigam – II.

Wenn ich nur wüßte,
Worauf dein letzter Blick ruhte.
War es ein Stein, der schon viele letzte Blicke
Getrunken hatte, bis sie in Blindheit
Auf den Blinden fielen?

Oder war es Erde,
Genug, um einen Schuh zu füllen,
Und schon schwarz geworden
on soviel Abschied
Und von soviel Tod bereiten?

Oder war es dein letzter Weg,
Der dir das Lebewohl von allen Wegen brachte
Die du gegangen warst?

Eine Wasserlache, ein Stück spiegelndes Metall,
Vielleicht die Gürtelschnalle deines Feindes,
oder irgend ein anderer, kleiner Wahrsager
Des Himmels?

Oder sandte dir diese Erde,
Die keinen ungeliebt von hinnen gehen läßt,
Ein Vogelzeichen durch die Luft,
Erinnernd deine Seele, daß sie zuckte
In ihrem qualverbrannten Leib?

You can listen to this in German here.

The Crooked Line of Suffering

   The crooked line of suffering
stumbling along the godfired
geometry of the universe
forever on the  trail of light leading to you
and dimmed  again in the falling sickness
impatient to reach the end –

Die gekrümmte Linie des Leidens
nachtastend die göttlich entzündete
Geometrie des Weltalls
immer auf der Leuchtspur zu dir
und verdunkelt wieder in der Fallsucht
dieser Ungeduld ans Ende zu kommen –      


suckling on death
and starry rays
bearing the secrets of the blood
spurt from the artery
where the world went to quench its thirst
and blossomed.

derives its viewpoint from silence
and the unseeing eye
of the blind-alley desolation of dust
crosses the threshold of sight
while the drama of time
is being consecrated
right behind its icy sudary.

saugend am Tod
und sternige Strahlen
mit den Geheimnissen des Bluts
fahren aus der Ader
daran Welt zur Tränke ging
und blühte

bezieht seinem Standpunkt aus Schweigen
und das blicklose Auge
der aussichtslosen Staubverlassenheit
tritt über die Schwelle des Sehens
während das Drama der Zeit
eingesegnet wird
dicht hinter seinem eisigen Schweisstuch