Jorge Luis Borges, To the German Language
(tr. Alastair Reid):
My destiny is in the Spanish language,
the bronze words of Francisco de Quevedo,
but in the long, slow progress of the night,
different, more intimate musics move me.
Some have been handed down to me by blood— 5
voices of Shakespeare, language of the Scriptures—
others by chance, which has been generous;
but you, gentle language of Germany,
I chose you, and I sought you out alone.
By way of grammar books and patient study, 10
through the thick undergrowth of the declensions,
the dictionary, which never puts its thumb on
the precise nuance, I kept moving closer.
My nights were full of overtones of Virgil,
I once said; but I could as well have named 15
Hölderlin, Angelus Silesius.
Heine lent me his lofty nightingales;
Goethe, the good fortune of late love,
at the same time both greedy and indulgent;
Keller, the rose which one hand leaves behind 20
in the closed fist of a dead man who adored it,
who will never know if it is white or red.
German language, you are your masterpiece:
love interwound in all your compound voices
and open vowels, sounds which accommodate 25
the studious hexameters of Greek
and undercurrents of jungles and of nights.
Once, I had you. Now, at the far extreme
of weary years, I feel you have become
as out of reach as algebra and the moon. 30
In lines 20-22 Borges refers to a poem by Gottfried Keller (1819-1890), here translated by James Joyce:
Now have I fed and eaten up the rose
Which then she laid within my stiffcold hand.
That I should ever feed upon a rose
I never had believed in liveman's land.
Only I wonder was it white or red
The flower that in the dark my food has been.
Give us, and if Thou give, thy daily bread,
Deliver us from evil, Lord, Amen.
Da hab' ich gar die Rose aufgegessen,
Die sie mir in die starre Hand gegeben!
Daß ich noch einmal würde Rosen essen,
Hätt nimmer ich geglaubt in meinem Leben!
Ich möcht' nur wissen, ob es eine rote,
Ob eine weiße Rose das gewesen?
Gib täglich uns, o Herr! von deinem Brote,
Und wenn du willst, erlös' uns von dem Bösen!