English translation of Conrad Ferdinand Meyer's "Der Römische Brunnen"
translated by Rolf-Peter Wille
|Conrad Ferdinand Meyer|
The Roman Fountain
Up springs the spout and, falling, fills
To brim the marble basin’s round,
Which, under veiling, over spills
Into a second basin's ground;
The second one, too rich now, runs
Into the third its falling waves,
And each one takes and gives at once
And streams and stays.
(tr. by Rolf-Peter Wille)
Building the Roman Fountain
The Roman Fountain was under construction from 1860-1882—not the one in the Villa Borghese gardens but Conrad Ferdinand Meyer’s famous and beloved poem. We know at least seven versions, all Meyer’s, and many sketches. A Herculean labor by Meyer? A translator will not think so! In the act of "constructing" a verse translation we produce far more versions (and in a shorter time too). Each version "streams and stays not" because discard it we must. Up spring spouts of tears from our poetic eye, until we finally abandon tears and labor—happy not, but worn out. […we publish nevertheless…]
Too many basins need to be filled by the fountain pen of the verse translator: produce good English (whatever that may be), stay close to the "content" of the original, its diction, its metaphors, its story, its sound, its rhythm. Not all "basins" are equally "round". "Up springs the spout" sounds crooked and cannot be called good English. Should it not be our moral obligation to approach the prosaic reader with something accessible like "The jet ascends"? The first two verse lines can be nicely translated thus:
"The jet ascends, then falls and fills
a marble basin to its brim."
Naturally we need to believe that "Aufsteigt der Strahl und fallend gießt / Er voll der Marmorschale Rund," is "good German". German grammar is crazily flexible. Turn around words we can. But as a "good German" I assure you that "Aufsteigt der Strahl" is very "bad German". The sentence should read: "Der Strahl steigt auf und gießt beim Fallen die runde Marmorschale voll". No drunk would say "Aufsteigt der Strahl" and, in fact, not even Conrad Ferdinand Meyer said it—at least not before 1882. His 1870 version still murmurs "Der Springquell plätschert" ("The wellspring ripples") and, by the way, that is exactly what the real "Fountain of the Sea Horses" is doing:
"Der Springquell plätschert" accurately describes reality and certainly is "good German". It is also "bad poetry" as the language does not express much. It reminds me of "Opa plätschert lustig in der Badewanne" the game I loved to play as a child and still today. "Aufsteigt der Strahl" is an almost violent hyperbaton, a turning around of the "normal" word order. Shakespeare and Yoda loved it and even today we may find "high soars the eagle" in (pseudo?) poetic language. "Aufsteigt der Strahl" does not try to be "poetic" however. Its raw impetus is reinforced through alliteration (same consonants) "steigt / Strahl". And thus I discarded the more poetic "High soars the jet" and opted for "Up springs the spout" instead. Should I have dared, like Meyer, to write "Upsprings the spout"? "Aufsteigt der Strahl" has more burst than "Auf steigt der Strahl".
What made Meyer discard "good German" and invent expressive one instead? The answer is simple: He became bored with idyllic metaphors and fell in love with rhythmic virility. The rhythm of his final Roman Fountain version , evolving from line to line, is a mimesis of the water art. As Meyer wants us to feel calmness in motion, the main accent of each line gradually moves from the very beginning towards the end of the line until, in the last three lines, the rhythmic energy peters out: "Up springs the spout and, falling, fills" throws its strongest accent onto the first syllable "Up", violently contradicting the iambic meter. In the second line the main accent shifts to the second syllable "brim", whereas the second foot "veiling" carries the main accent of the third line and, somehow, this insertion—"under veiling"—dams the flow of the water into the second basin. There is a similar insertion in the fifth line, "too rich now", but the rhythmic resistance here is less pronounced. Contradicting the meaning of "wallend" (undulating, surging) and "Flut" (flood, torrent) the rhythm of the sixth line feels tame. Its strong accents are quite evenly distributed. That "easing out", a "ritardando" if you want, continues in the last two lines, which are droning out their accents justly and squarely: "And each one takes and gives at once / And streams and stays."
Meyer’s genius convinced him to cut two feet off his last line and this charming amputation affects us most magically. It seduces us to substitute the missing feet with rests:
"And each one takes and gives at once
And streams -- and stays -- ."
And thus slows the tempo. No greater contrast can be imagined than the one between the first line and the last line. "Strömt und ruht", though, relates to the title, "Der Römische Brunnen", through assonance (same vowels, here "ö" and "u"): Der Römische Brunnen strömt und ruht.
A rhythmic device more obvious than shifting accents is the enjambment, running the sentence over from the upper line to the lower one (as the water runs from the upper basin to the lower one): "fills / to brim", "spills / into a second". Such enjambments are mostly missing in Meyer’s earlier versions. A comparison is revealing. Some of the earlier versions are twice as long (16 lines) as the last one. The 1964 version, The Beautiful Fountain, feels rather "chatty": "In a Roman garden I know a beautiful fountain". The language "ripples along" in a more lyrical manner with adjectives; ...with kitsch even ("golden wallend" "golden flowing"). The final version has stripped away all that "Laubwerk", leaves, ornaments, etc. It avoids adjectives and has replaced them with adverbs, mostly present participles.
Conciseness is the main characteristic of Meyer’s last version. His early versions of the poem nicely describe the Roman fountain. His last one builds it.
Here is the original German Roman Fountain:
Der Römische Brunnen
Aufsteigt der Strahl und fallend gießt
Er voll der Marmorschale Rund,
Die, sich verschleiernd, überfließt
In einer zweiten Schale Grund;
Die zweite gibt, sie wird zu reich,
Der dritten wallend ihre Flut,
Und jede nimmt und gibt zugleich
Und strömt und ruht.