Walter Kaufmann’s “Epitaph”

Walter Kaufmann ends his book Critique of Religion and Philosophy with an untranslated poem in German, entitled “Epitaph”:

Alles starb in meinem Herzen
was nicht reines Feuer war:
in den Gluten meiner Qualen
bracht ich’s Gott im Himmel dar.

Nur das flammenhafte Sehnen,
das sich grad am Brande nährt,
hat die Gluten überstanden
noch nachdem sie Gott verzehrt.

I’m sure I’m not the only reader of Kaufmann who has virtually no German but would like to know what this poem says. The only translation I’ve been able to find is a tentative first draft (“there’s a lot in this one I’m unsure of, it may change quite radically”) by the blogger Peter Saint-Andre:

All is dead inside my heart
that once was purest fire:
in the heat I offered up
my pain to heaven’s God.

Only the ardent passion
that once nourished the flame
has yet outlived the fire
that God alone devoured.

Something tells me that can’t possibly be right, especially the last line, so here’s my attempt. The reader is strongly warned that I know no German whatsoever and did this translation by looking up every word in a dictionary and skimming parts of a German grammar. Still, since no professional translation seems to exist, I offer this for whatever it’s worth. My hope is that someone who actually knows German will stumble upon this post and set me straight.

All died in my heart
which was not pure fire:
In the heat my pains
I brought to God in heaven.

Only the flame-like longings
Which fed the fire
Have survived the heat
Even after it consumed God.

There’s much here that I’m unsure of, too. The word bracht is confusing, so I read it as brachte or gebracht. I didn’t know what to do with dar or grad, either, so I just omitted them. The dictionary says Sehnen is a noun meaning “sinews,” but that didn’t make much sense in context, so I interpreted it as having something to do with the verb phrase sich sehnen, meaning “to long.”

My version differs from Saint-Andre’s on two crucial points: (1) his says the fire is dead, but mine says everything but the fire is dead; and (2) his says God devoured the fire, but mine says the fire consumed God. Although I don’t know a lick of German, I do know a bit about Walter Kaufmann, and I think my reading is more plausible.


Filed under Literature, Translation

3 responses to “Walter Kaufmann’s “Epitaph”

  1. You may not have a “lick” of German, but your literary sense is very acute. Peter Saint-Andre’s translation of Walter Kaufmann’s Epitaph makes several crucial errors of sense and interpretation, which you are quite right to “smell” as being implausible. German is a grammatically exacting and precise language, and all kinds of traps lie in wait for scholars who try to translate with the help of a mere dictionary — I presume this was PSA’s approach too!

    “Everything died within my heart/ which wasn’t pure fire” is indeed what Kaufmann is suggesting, so your interpretation is accurate. “Starb” is the imperfect tense of “sterben”: “died” not “is dead”.

    “…in the ardour of my pain/ I offered it to God in heaven.” A few things to say here: “die Qual” — actually a stronger word than “pain”, closer to “agony” — takes the genitive form in line 3. The verb in line 4 is “darbringen” (indicative), which is one of the many verbs in German with a separable prefix: “dar-” means “there” and altogether the verb suggests something constituted. For reasons of scansion, Kaufmann has omitted the final -e of the first personal singular of the imperfect: “ich bracht(e) es dar”. Note that the pronoun “es” — shortened to ’s to allow the line to scan — refers to “das Herz” in line 1. And I think the phrase should read “Gott im Himmel …”

    “Only the flamelike yearning/ feeding now on the conflagration…” “Das Sehnen” is cognate with that quintessentially German Romantic word for deep longings, “Sehnsucht”. “Grad” is a contraction of the adverb “gerade”, meaning “immediately” or “right (now)”, which incidentally happens to be a homophone of the substantive “Grad” (“degree”): this is indeed a brazier of yearning! Note that line 5 should read: “Nur das flammenhafte Sehnen…”

    “… (has) survived the heat/ after it burned up God.” “Die Glut”, “die Gluten”, refers back to line 3. It surely suggests a burning in all its hotness (ardour), although in German it can also suggest an “afterglow” or “embers”: the heat (of the passion) almost gone out. “Verzehren” is a powerful verb for utterly eating away or consuming something; “sie” can only refer to “die Gluten”, and after the intended wobble of ambiguity (who has done the consuming: God or the fire?), the German reader is obliged to supply a silent “haben” at the end of the poem, viz. “…nachdem sie Gott verzehrt haben.” Again, standard usage is subverted for the sake of the poetic form — all quite legitimate in German.

    This is a very inward, compacted poem which, I think, compares unfavourably with the sprightly, lucid (and often sarcastic) Nietzsche poems which Kaufmann provides in his version of The Gay Science. K knew what he was doing when he left it untranslated!

    Best regards,

  2. Iain, thank you very much! Yours is precisely the sort of comment I was hoping to attract with this post. I really appreciate your taking the time to share your knowledge.

    I’ve edited the original post to correct the typo (dar for das) you pointed out.

    One question: In your rendition of lines 5 and 6, you have the yearning feeding on the fire rather than simply feeding it — that is, being fueled by the fire rather than fueling it. Are you quite sure that this is the correct reading?

    • Iain Bamforth

      You’re most welcome to the comments.

      With regard to your query, the yearning or longing appears to be a Platonic emanation of the conflagration (I chose “conflagration” to distinguish this blaze from the “pure fire” of line 2!).

      It is possible to say in German, as in English, that something fuels a fire: that would be “nährt den Brand” (direct accusative). WK has used the reflexive verb “sich nähren an”, although the normal usage in German for feeding on something would be “sich nähren von.” To apply the preposition “an” (cognate with the English “on”) — “das sich grad am (=an dem) Brande nährt” rather than “das sich grad vom (=von dem) Brande nährt” — emphasises that the yearning is produced by or even hovering over the conflagration, not feeding it. (And that is what you would expect too, if it is “flame-like”.)

      That still leaves some imponderables. Which symbolic organ would be the repository for yearning if not the heart? And yet the poet tells us at the start that everything died in it except “pure fire.” This reverse Prometheus takes the fire to heaven for the ultimate act of arson…

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