Lost in Translation?


Poems by Hermann Hesse

One of the joys of Hermann Hesse Reading Week has been the chance to discover new aspects of this great author’s work; for example, I hadn’t really considered his poetry, despite the fact that his novels are littered with it! However, Caroline mentioned his poems in one of her posts, and I thought it would be worth tracking down at least one new volume for the Week – and here it is:

hesse poems

The book contains 31 poems, selected by James Wright from those in Hesse’s Collected Works, and also translated by him. Wright was an American poet who died in 1980 and his introduction, penned in 1970 is a strange one. Wright states that he thinks many of Hesse’s 480 pages of poems are very fine; but while lauding the German author, Wright also seems to diss him a little, quoting an article that describes him as “second-rate”! This was a bit distracting, and the main thrust of the introduction seems to be to indicate a theme of homesickness as permeating the poems; well, at least, the ones translated here…

The verses themselves are presented in original German on the left hand page and English translation on the right. This is useful, as a non-German speaker like me can try to keep an eye on the original rhyme schemes and line endings. However, it was while flicking back and forward between the two languages that I spotted something odd in the poem “Ode to Holderlin”. The lines in German are:

Sehnlich wenden wir us, vom Tag Ermudete
Der ambrosischen Nacht deiner Gesange zu,

and the English version is given as:

We turn passionately, exhausted by day,
To the ambrosia, the night of your music,

Now as I said, my German is minimal, if non-existent; but it struck me that “ambrosischen” was a longer word than “ambrosia”, and I wondered if it had a slightly different meaning. I had a look at an online translation service (which I know is notoriously cranky and inaccurate!) but it came up with “ambrosial” and suggested the whole line could be rendered something like “To the ambrosial night of your song” – which to me changes the sense of the line a bit. Yes, I know, I know, translation is an impossible art, and poetry can’t be translated literally; I may be getting things completely wrong here – if I am, will a German speaker please correct me and I’ll calm down a bit. But I confess I was just a little unsettled by this.

hesse writing

Putting all this aside, though, I really enjoyed reading these poems. The verses range from “I know, You Walk” from 1899 up to “All Deaths” in 1921. The sense of yearning and melancholy they convey is strong, and seems to run through not only Hesse’s poems but also much of his prose writing. It’s something I might not have picked up on when I was younger but it seems more obvious now. The language is simple and effective in these translations, capturing verses about lost loves, ageing and loneliness. So I imagine Wright chose these particular poems to translate in order to give his collection a cohesion.

Yet I couldn’t help wondering if this is a representative selection of Hesse’s poetry writing; and unless there’s a more comprehensive collection available in English I may not be able to find out! Nevertheless, despite my reservations about this particular book, I’m glad to have had the chance to get to know another element of Hesse’s writing and I *will* keep my eye out for other poetry collections.

Outsider Culture and the Wolf from the Steppes


Steppenwolf by Hermann Hesse

So, why choose this particular novel to revisit for the Hesse Reading Week? Well, it’s one of his best-known titles; it was particularly adopted by the youth culture of the 1960s; and it was one of the first I read. Additionally, I stumbled across a sparkly new translation, so I figured this was a good one to approach.


“Steppenwolf” translates literally as a wolf from the Steppes, and the book tells the story one Harry Haller, a middle-aged German intellectual living between the two world wars who regards himself as the titular creature. The story is initially narrated by the nephew of Haller’s landlady, who relates his experience of knowing Haller, and introduces the next section of the book, writings left behind by Haller when he departed. This section, which opens with the declaration that it is for “Mad People Only”, relates Harry’s experiences leading up to his leaving from his own point of view. It’s a multi-layered narrative as it also contains within its pages a tract on the Steppenwolf which Harry receives from a pedlar at one point.

A stray wolf of the steppes, now part of the herd of city-dwellers – there could be no more compelling way of picturing him, his wary isolation, his wildness, his restlessness, his homelessness and his yearning for home.

As the story develops, we gradually find out more about Haller. An embittered man, he has left behind him the wreck of a personal life (mad wife, children etc) and, disillusioned with the world, seeks refuge in drink and an isolated life. Moving from city to city, taking up residence in boarding houses and hiding in books and music, he views normal life from the outside, despising it and longing for it at the same time. He regards himself as a divided self, with a civilised human side and a wolf-like side constantly in conflict.

However, the Steppenwolf tract he reads has a different view and castigates Harry for thinking of himself in such simple terms:

“….for there are absolutely no human beings, even primitive Negroes, even idiots, who are so pleasingly simple that their characters can be explained as the sum of only two or three principal elements. And to attempt to explain someone as subtly complex as Harry, of all people, by naively splitting him into wolf and human being is too childish for words. Harry is not made up of two characters, but of hundreds, of thousands. His life, like that of every human being, does not oscillate between two poles only – say between the body and the mind or spirit, between the saint and the profligate – but between thousands, between innumerable polar opposites.”*

And the tract has a point – humans are complex organisms and not so simply explained. However, Harry’s life is about to change; during his wanderings through he city, he constantly stumbles on hints that there are things behind the scenes, below the surface (the presentation of the Tract to him is one such event). And an encounter with a beautiful woman called Hermione in a bar leads Haller on a surreal journey of self-discovering involving love affairs, jazz, a Magic Theatre, murder and plenty of hallucinatory action.

“Steppenwolf” is a remarkable book, brimming with ideas on life and its meaning, the conflict between the civilised and wild side of humanity, and what it actually means to be a human being. Harry is portrayed as the typical intellectual – striving to reach the ‘immortals’, to overcome the everyday and the limitations of humankind, but dragged down all the time by his nature. He imagines himself superior to the bourgeois middle-classes, but he’s soon brought down to size by one of his dream encounters, when it’s pointed out to him that he’s tied to them and his rebellion is an impotent one as he cannot break free of his human chains. In his final encounter with the immortal Mozart (one of his heroes) he is encouraged to accept what he is and to recognise what is great even when filtered through human experience (in this case, classical music transmitted through a tinny transistor radio).


As I mentioned above, “Steppenwolf” has often been interpreted as a counter-culture bible of sorts, but the book is much more than just an anti-establishment manual.There are multiple layers in the story and each narrator is potentially an unreliable one. There is mention at one point of Herman, Harry’s friend from youth, and later the elusive and seductive Hermione (who resembles Herman and has a feminised form of the name) takes to cross-dressing, at which point Haller falls in love with him/her. This could be a nod to the author, or simply another indicator that humans are even more multi-faceted than you might suspect.

An important element in the book is Haller’s basic contempt for humanity, and this is exemplified by his hatred of war (a sentiment Hesse shared). The effects of the First World War are still being felt, and yet Haller sees all around him preparations being made to build a force ready for a second conflict. Harry warns against it, stands against it and condemns it, but in remarkably prescient prose, knows that another world war is inevitable. This is chilling to read in a book published in 1927.

“Steppenwolf” is a powerful read; on one level it’s a touching and moving portrait of a man torn between two extremes, two different modes of living, and unable to settle for the bland middle ground through which most of us move. But it also throws up many questions about human nature, the way we choose to live, our need for violence and conflict and our search for the sublime.


* I read “Steppenwolf” in a Penguin Modern Classics version, with a new translation by David Horrocks. The latter provides an excellent afterword which discusses the book and highlights the links between Hesse’s life at the time and text. However, as far as translations go, I compared the passage quoted above with the version from the one I originally read many moons ago. At the time, I kept a little notebook in which I jotted interesting quotes, and the passage was translated like this:

“For there is not a single human being, not even the primitive negro, not even the idiot, who is so conveniently simple that his being can be explained as the sum of two or three principal elements; and to explain so complex a man as Harry by the artless division into wolf and man is a hopelessly childless attempt. Harry consists of a hundred or a thousand selves, not of two. His life oscillates, as everyone’s does, not merely between two poles, such as the body and the spirit, the saint and the sinner, but between thousands, between innumerable poles.”

Looking at the two versions, for me the one I read originally has more resonance; this may simple be because it’s the one I read and the one I recall and felt strongly enough about to copy out; or it may be that I’m more in tune with the language of that time. Whichever it is, it’s made me decide that any more Hesse re-reads will be in the versions I read first time round…

Hermann Hesse Reading Week begins!


hesse single border

Just a reminder that Caroline at Beauty is a Sleeping Cat and I are co-hosting a Hermann Hesse reading week, starting today.

I’ve cross-posted my original introduction on a separate page and if you read anything by Hesse, or have anything to say about him, do please post a comment or a link there. Looking forward to hearing your thoughts very much!

Coming to a blog near you….



hesse revised

When Caroline at Beauty is a Sleeping Cat suggested the idea of a Hermann Hesse Reading Week (back during the German Literature Month last November), I jumped at the idea, delighted to co-host. Hesse is an author with whom I have a long history; I first read his work in my 20s, and I was absolutely absorbed by his books, with their vivid ideas and fascinating tales.

Hesse was a Nobel prize-winner, with an illustrious writing career: his first novel “Peter Camenzind” was published in 1904, and his final one “The Glass Bead Game” in 1943. It was this latter, widely considered his masterpiece, which was cited in particular when he receive the prize; but his works are wide-ranging, from the earlier, more pastoral and evocative tales, to the later novels dealing in high concepts of morals, ethics and meanings.

hesse covers

Hermann Hesse’s works were very fashionable in the late 20th century, in particular works like “Demian” and “Steppenwolf” which drew on lifestyles and beliefs being adopted by the counter-culture. They also reflected his anti-war views which of course were much in vogue, and his spiritual side typified by his love of Buddhism. However, I do feel that he may have slipped out of sight of modern readers, so I’m really happy to be involved in any kind of initiative which brings his works to potential readers!

In recent years I’ve read his “Knulp” for the first time and revisited “Siddhartha”. However, I’d like to go back to at least one of his later and more substantial works for this reading week; there are plenty to choose from and so actually deciding which book(s) will be the hardest thing!

What’s surprising is how scattered Hesse’s work is in translation; a few books are available as Penguin Classics, but some of the earlier ones only appear to be in older, out of print versions. Surely he’s an author that needs to be brought to modern readers in a nice new edition of his complete works!

hesse spines

So what Hesse to read? Well, as far as I know, not all of his works have been translated into English, but here is a partial list of possible titles, based on what I could see online and what I have on my shelves. I imagine Caroline may well be reading in the original language but alas, I will have to stick with the versions other people have kindly rendered understandable for me…

Peter Camenzind (1904)
Beneath the Wheel (also published as The Prodigy)(1906)
Gertrude (1910)
Rosshalde (1914)
Knulp (1915)
Strange News from Another Star (1919)
Demian (1919)
Klingsor’s Last Summer (1920)
Wandering (1920)
Siddhartha (1922)
Steppenwolf (1927)
Narziss and Goldmund (1930) (yes, I know it’s now translated as “Narcissus” but I’m sticking with my original Penguin!)
Journey to the East (1932)
The Glass Bead Game (1943)

If the War Goes On (collected 1978)
Stories of Five Decades (collected 1954)

There is also poetry, which I may try to track down, and plenty of autobiography and essays. For me, I think I shall definitely revisit “Steppenwolf” but apart from that I’m not sure. “The Glass Bead Game” is calling too and also “Narziss and Goldmund. However, I appear not to own “Peter Camenzind” so there’s another possibility.



So please do join in if you fancy exploring the work of this wonderful German writer; I may well put up a separate page and please leave any comments and links to reviews, thoughts on Hesse or anything else relevant. Check out Caroline’s blog where she’ll be posting and linking too. Hermann Hesse Reading Week promises to be a great experience and we’ll look forward very much to a joint rediscovery of this great German author!

%d bloggers like this: