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.


9 thoughts on “Job

  1. I would be most grateful to know who is the translator of the ‘Prayer for the Dead Bridegroom’. Could you plese tell me? Many thanks, Jonathan Katz

      • Thank you for this very prompt reply. I like the translation very much, and I was wondering if you might allow me to use it for a private reading with friends – absolutely non profit-making, but in the good cause of spreading enthusiasm for German poetry. How should I acknowledge authorship – i.e. could you give me your full name?

  2. My full name is shown in my profile, under my photo – Catherine Sommer. Thank you for wanting to use my translation in this way, and you are welcome to do so in private provided, of course, that you credit me appropriately. Let me know how the reading goes.

  3. Dear Catherine,

    I would like to congratulate you on all your Nelly Sachs work. I think it’s great! I’ve been aware of it for some time. But I’m prompted to get in touch now, because I’m sort of in the same game, myself.

    I first discovered Sachs’ work about thirty years ago, and have actually been translating it off and on ever since – basically, I have to confess, because my German just isn’t good enough to read German poetry at all fluently without working quite hard at it. I’m primarily a theologian – now fairly recently retired, after ten years as Canon Theologian at Manchester Cathedral. And I’ve finally decided, with the help of a more technically minded friend, to set up my own website, with the translations I’ve done: Work on which is still in progress, but will hopefully be complete quite soon. (Meanwhile, I’ve also translated all of Gluehende Raetsel, but am hoping to include my versions of this in a theology book, on the general topic of ‘mysticism’; so I’ve left them out.) My approach is generally a bit more cavalier than yours, and perhaps you won’t approve of it. But it does seem to me that Sachs is actually a very important figure, and that the prevailing unawareness of her work in the English-speaking world is a great shame.

    And so I, absolutely, salute your work.

    All the best,
    Andrew Shanks

  4. Thank you, Andrew – I appreciate your comments and admire your versions of Nelly Sachs’ poems published on your site, which are beautifully rendered. I absolutely agree that she deserves greater recognition in the English-speakingworld and hope that these translations will help with that.

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