Dillon Bergin on translating Hilde Domin

Dillon Bergin

on translating Hilde Domin

I didn’t have to compromise too much while translating this poem. Its simple words are, for the most part, easily felt in their English counterparts. This is why I kept a very direct translation in all but a few cases.

However, there are a few lines and words I struggled with. Lines like “Aber das Gras / ist schon gelb über dir.” were tricky. It’s a seemingly direct statement, but even in German this sentiment comes off as odd or uncommon. I translated it into English with a phrase less bizarre to English ears, but I think I could still find a better way of making the line sound as striking and unfamiliar in English as it does in German. Distelsamen was also difficult for me to translate. Distelsamen literally translates to “thistledown” in English, but most English speakers don’t know what thistledown is, while most German speakers know or assume what Distelsamen is (though I might have to check with a larger sample size on this). I initially translated Distelsamen as “pollen,” although thistledown isn’t pollen. Thistledown are the little white fuzzy things that drift in the air duringfall. Most people know exactly what this is, but don’t have a word for it, or would guess that they’re from dandelions, which also isn’t true. Additionally, the word schattenfussig is of typical German construction — part of the beauty of the language — but awkward in English. It literally means “shadowfooted,” which isn’t a word in English and doesn’t reflect common adjective constructions in the language either.

On the other hand, there were also many victories in my translation. I was impressed with how beautiful “Autumn Eyes” sounds in English, which really does “Herbstaugen” justice. I was also very happy with how the plain and immediate language of the poem in German fit well structurally in the shape and length of the English translation. A problem with translating German is that, due to word construction freedoms, a single German word can correspond to a whole sentence or phrase in English. Usually, such lengthiness can potentially botch the flow of a poem, but the English translation turned out nicely. Overall, I tried to translate this poem with the natural, concrete language and emotions that I feel when reading it in German.

about the author

In 1909, Hilde Domin was born as Hilde Löwenstein in Cologne to a Jewish family. She began her university studies in law and economics, then studied philosophy and political science. In Germany, she studied in Heidelberg, Cologne, and Berlin. However, Domin’s Jewish background and socialist involvement were good reason to leave Germany in 1932. She moved to Italy, where she received her PhD in political science in Florence. There, she met her future husband, Erwin Palm. The two survived “literally on language” — Domin taught language courses and translated the scholarly writings of her husband. In 1939, the couple fled to Santo Domingo. The city’s name inspired the last name of Domin’s pen name, “Domin.” In Santo Domingo, Domin’s husband became an art history professor and she began writing in German as an “alternative to suicide.” The terrifying paradox of her life was that she had escaped to an island paradise while many of her friends and family were forced into hell on Earth. After the war, Domin moved back to Heidelberg where she became a professor and lived until her death. Notably, she was a very close friend of her fellow poet Nelly Sachs. The two exchanged letters while both in exile — Domin in Santo Domingo and Sachs in Sweden.

about the translator

Dillon is a junior majoring in comparative literature. He loves mornings, is very good at sharing food, and unfortunately, can only concentrate on one thing at a time. He also loves languages and began his studies in Germanistik at the University of Freiburg before transferring to Penn. His heart is still in that sunny, charming university city next to Black Forest.