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Peter Handke – photo Economic Times of India – and the problem with Handke

I’m no translator, but I like the process of it, how it brings a closer look at a poem and its language. As I said here, with my translation of Paul Celan’s “Reminiscence of France,” I learned German as a child, when my father was stationed there with the U.S. army, and like to re-enage with it when I can.

Following is my attempt at “Lieder vom Kindseit,” “Song of Being a Child,” by Peter Handke. The original in German is here.

One little note: The title is usually translated as “Song of Childhood,” but I felt that “childhood” denotes a period of time, whereas the poem is more about being a child, and the parts of the child-being we lose or carry as we age. Also, I have a theory that Handke created the word “Kindseit” — child-being — for this purpose. But I could be totally wrong about that.

I first got to know this poem in the Wim Wenders movie Wings of Desire. In the movie, the poem is given out over several scenes; you don’t get it all in one reading. This youtube video is a compilation of the scenes (with Greek subtitles added) in which the poem is recited by different characters, very beautifully, sometimes musically.  (The streaming on youtube might be a bit rough in places; the original film is fine – you should watch it!)

Song of Being a Child

When the child a child was,
it let its arms dangle,
wanted the brook to be a creek,
the creek a river,
and this puddle a sea.

When the child a child was,
it didn’t wish it were a child,
all was full of spirit,
and all spirits were one. 

When the child a child was,
it drew meaning from nothing,
it kept no habits, 
often sat cross-legged, 
jumped up to run, 
had a cowlick
and didn’t pose for photos. 

When the child a child was, 
it was time for the following questions:
Why am I myself and why not you?
Why am I here, and why not there?
When did time begin and where does space end?
Is life under the sun not merely a dream?
Is what I see and hear and smell
not the naked shine of a world before the world?
Is there really evil and are there people 
who really are evil ones? 

How can it be, that I, who am I, 
before I became, wasn’t, 
and that someday I, who am I, 
will no longer be I, who once became? 

When the child a child was, 
it choked on spinach, lettuce, rice pudding, 
and steamed cauliflower, 
and now eats them all and not only because it has to. 

When the child a child was,
it woke once in a strange bed
and now again and again, 
many people shone beauty on him
and now only by luck, 
a paradise lay clear before it
and now can only be sensed at best, 
it couldn’t think of nothingness
and today shudders before it. 

When the child a child was,
it played whole-heartedly
and now, things are much of a muchness, 
for these things make work. 

When the child a child was,
it knew its food, its apple and bread
and that remains so. 

When the child a child was, 
its hand held berries as berries
and that remains so, 
fresh walnuts roughed up its tongue, 
and that remains so,
every mountain held
yearning for a higher mountain 
and every city held
yearning for a yet bigger city, 
and that remains so,
reaching into treetops for cherries, elated 
just like today,
shy with strangers,
even today, 
waiting for the first snow, 
and so it waits today. 

When the child a child was, 
it threw a stick as a lance against the tree
and there it still quivers today. 


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