Jonathan Iwry on translating Richard Dehmel

Jonathan Iwry

on translating Richard Dehmel

“Verklärte Nacht,” written in 1896, is considered to be one of Richard Dehmel’s most memorable works — and in turn inspired Arnold Schoenberg to write one of his most well-known compositions in 1889. The poem depicts a man and woman as they walk through the forest; the woman confesses to carrying another man’s child, the man forgives her and welcomes the coming child as his own, and, in keeping with the poem’s title, the night is “transfigured.”

Although other English translations of this poem already exist, I wanted to translate the poem in such a way as to preserve its original formal qualities — specifically, its meter and rhyme scheme. The ninth line of the original, in which the female speaker describes her desire to experience motherhood, translates to “I had a heavy longing.” The original word, schwer, which means both “heavy” and “burdensome,” seems to serve as a play on words evoking the notion of pregnancy. The poet appears to use pregnancy as a metaphor for the woman’s burdensome longing to become a mother, describing her longing as a heavy weight she carries. I chose to translate the word to “heavy” to convey both the weight of the speaker’s longing and the physical encumbrance of pregnancy — as in the English phrase “heavy with child.”

about the author

Richard Dehmel is considered one of the greatest German poets of the period before the First World War. Despite his support for Germany’s war effort — as well as his decision to enlist in the German army in 1914 — Dehmel expressed strong progressive values throughout his career. He clashed with conservative poets, advocated for workers’ rights, and frequently portrayed love, sex, and eroticism in his poetry, for which he was prosecuted for blasphemy and obscenity on multiple occasions. His work embodied the cultural contradictions and historical juxtapositions of their author, contrasting frank depictions of sexuality and social issues with flawless execution of the conservative formal conventions of the time.

about the translator

Jonathan Iwry graduated summa cum laude from the University of Pennsylvania with a BA in philosophy and history. He does occasional translations in memory of his grandmother, Nina Rochman Iwry, who did translations before the Second World War. In addition to speaking Hebrew, he has been teaching himself German over the course of the pandemic; this is his first translation from German into English.