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Heine: Yehuda ben Halevy — Overview December 31, 2011

Posted by anagasto in poetry.
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Heine was in his “mattress grave” in Paris when he wrote this.

It is still not clear whether his awful illness was maybe multiple sclerosis. It lasted 20 years, and to the end he wrote the greatest poetry.

Because a year or two ago I could not find it online and few people can read it in German, I started on a prose translation.

The poem is very long. There are four parts where Heine tells the story of the great man, his upbringing, his formation, his work, and his death, and how (or why) he was not known in France.

It is surely wrong that in some high places Heine is considered a renegade Jew because at one point, to try and get a decent job at a university, he let himself be baptised as a Protestant. This is  pro forma baptism and  is not valid anywhere.

Besides, where, where, where in Heine’s work and way of thinking can you see as much as one iota of Protestant colour?

Added February 2016

I have since come across Leo Strauss quoting  Heine as saying that to be a Jew was a “misfortune”, and that is simply wrong. Heine said “ein dunkles Weh”. Strauss knew German, and he must have known that “Weh”, a Biblical word used only by poets, cannot be translated as “misfortune”. —

Otherwise, “Weh” is part of many terms in everyday language concerning pain as in headache Kopfweh, belly pain Bauchweh, nostalgia Heimweh, toothache Zahnweh, but it is never used on its own, and the very expression “a dark Weh” sounds so sad that translating it as misfortune makes one feel angry at Strauss.

Was Strauss sometimes a little tricky? — Heine was an active leftist. Or did Heine maybe say “misfortune” elsewhere, sort of bitchily, on the spur of a moment? Then it cannot be quoted in all eternity.

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Added November 2011: I have just found a free verse translation at http://www.utdallas.edu/~nhr061000/Jewish%20Literature_files/Heine.Halevy.pdf, but have not yet looked into it

Added September 2013: Now there seem to be many freely available verse translations online, but I have not yet made a list..
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Part 1

Starting: Lechzend klebe mir die Zunge: Let me die of thirst if ever…….(a line quoted from Psalm 137)

My own translation is only prose at https://espliego.wordpress.com/2011/12/30/heine-jehuda-ben-halevy-part-1/

This section is about ben Halevy’s upbringing that prepared him for his later greatness when he led Israel’s song in the desert of the exile.

Heine’s famous lines:

A poet who has received God’s grace is considered a genius: his rule is absolute in the realm of thought. Only God can call him to account. The people can’t.

In art, as in life, people can kill us, but they can never judge us.

Please notice  he says “us”  meaning that though he was poor and exiled, he knew he too was a poet who had received God’s grace and is therefore called a genius..

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Part 2

Starting: Bei den Wassern Babylons sassen wir:  By the rivers of Babylon

After a short but none too cautious dig at “Edom”,  Heine writes about the Middle Ages to compare  Europe’s  poetry with that of Jehuda ben Halevy. He sets pretty luxury passtimes against lifelong commitment  to truth.

I cannot translate in verse and had to desist from turning the beginning of Part 2 into prose. — As everyone knows, in poetry and in songs all kinds of things can be stated rather vividly without getting adverse reactions.

The famous lines:
Psalm 137:  By the Rivers of Babylon

By the Babylonish waters      fragment of a verse translation  from http://www.archive.org/stream/worksofheinrichh12hein/worksofheinrichh12hein_djvu.txt
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Part 3 —

it’s the easiest to read

Starting with

Nach der Schlacht bei Arabella — After the battle of Arabella

My prose translation is at https://espliego.wordpress.com/2013/09/25/heine-yehuda-ben-halevi-part-3/

It is Heine’s story of the little gold chest:

There is a little marvelous gold  case and in it there are jewels still more marvelous, but they are nothing compared to what Heine would keep in the little chest if he owned it:  he would keep in it Yehuda ben Halevi’s poetry.

Heine says that the  jewels that victorious Alexander handed out to his friends  and their stories are trash compared to Halevy’s poems.

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Part 4

Starting:

Meine Frau ist nicht zufrieden ….. My wife is not too happy about

This  section is no longer serious. Most of it is sheer fun to read. It is verbal fun which gets lost in translation, but I’ll try to do the beginning, where Heine criticises “French” tuition priorities.

Heine tells his wife to learn Hebrew so that she might read the great poets, since in  Parisian girls’ schools  you learn piles of irrelevant data, but nothing about the really great names.

This is the original German text and its prose translation into English::

Meine Frau ist nicht zufrieden      My wife isn’t too happy

Postscript September 2013

Yesterday I gave this to read to an American friend and he said: “You call this poetry?!”.

Indeed, it sounds as prosaic as a street clown’s tin drum. It is Heine’s way of doing political poetry. The dull rhythm is intentional and  deals with  the kind of humdrum you’d now get via newspaper.

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He wrote all of this in his “mattress grave” which he said was worse than a real grave where at least he could have had some silence.  He was in Paris, poor, and physically helpless.

Here is the Schlemihl story as translated in verse by Margaret Armour at http://www.archive.org/stream/worksofheinrichh12hein/worksofheinrichh12hein_djvu.txt.

Reproduced as an OpenOffice document it is at
The Origin of the Word Schlemihl

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Wikipedia: Judah Halevi (also Yehuda Halevi; Hebrew: יהודה הלוי; Arabic: يهوذا هاليفي

c. 1075–1141) was a Spanish Jewish physician, poet and philosopher. He was born in Spain, either in Toledo or Tudela, in 1075 or 1086, and died shortly after arriving in the Land of Israel in 1141. Halevi is considered one of the greatest Hebrew poets.

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Comments»

1. Pietr Hitzig (@PietrH) - April 16, 2012

This possible descendant of the first schlemiel is waiting for your translation!

2. cantueso - April 17, 2012

I am not at Twitter, but I think I know where there is a good translation of Heine’s Schlehmihl story. As soon as I have it, I’ll link it here.
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May 8
I have found a translation online, but it isn’t very good. A sequence of jokes is just too difficult to translate, because many are wordplays that depend all on their original wording.
Here is the complete text http://www.archive.org/stream/worksofheinrichh12hein/worksofheinrichh12hein_djvu.txt

Scroll down to “What the word Schlemihl betokens”.

If you prefer, here is an OpenOffice copy of the text:
Heinrich Heine: fragment of the Romancero:
The Origin of the Word Schlemihl


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