When the wind sings over Vienna. Walter Buchebner in Translation.


Recently there has been some discussion about digital publishing and translation. Geoff Howes called translations ‘rendition[s] of a “score”, a “Partitur”‘ of an original poem. And as everyone, who is even remotely interested in music, knows, every musical piece can be the basis for a virtually infinite number of interpretations. The following post is a first result of this discussion. It is an experiment in which both Geoff and myself both translated one poem by the little known Austrian writer and artist Walter Buchebner (German). As you will see, there are some striking differences in the two renditions, but also some striking similarities. The next step in the experiment is to aks two very basic questions: What does the comparison of our two translations tell us about the poem? and What does this mean for the future of publishing translations?

German Original:

mein chef ist der wind

ich gehe über den graben wien 1.bezirk irgendwo hinter mauern

ein musikautomat ich gehe über den graben mein

chef ist der wind wien 1. bezirk ich singe bei tag und bei nacht

mein lied in den frühling die sonne die harfe taucht

ihre blüten in licht der wind mein chef kommt mit

blüten und einer melodie von der donau es kommt von der donau


mein chef der wind und trägt seine schiffe quer über den strom

ich gehe über den graben wien 1. bezirk ich trage meine

sehnsucht über den platz vor dem dom der dom ist ein zwerg

mein chef ist der wind er singt sein lied ich wiederhole es

stolz und monoton ich höre die mauer die zerbröckelt und


mein chef ist der wind der sein meisterlied singt über wien


über wien über dem graben über dem 1. bezirk ich

wiederhole sein lied von der donau in nebel gekleidet das

lied vom fluß das sich staut in der stadt bei tag und nacht

ich halte ein auf meinem weg mein chef ist der wind schwarze

mauern fliegen in den silbermond ich halte ein vor dem dom

ich lausche dem lied den blüten dem licht mein chef ist

der wind der sein meisterlied singt über wien sein lied

von der donau dem meines nicht gleichkommt

English Translations:

my chief* is the wind

i am walking across the graben* vienna 1. district somewhere behind walls

a musicbox i am walking over the graben my

chief is the wind 1. district i am singing at day and at night

my song into the spring the sun the harp dips*

her* blossoms in light* the wind my chief comes with*

blossoms and a melody of* the danube it comes from the danube


my chief the wind and carries his ships straight over the stream

i am walking over the graben vienna 1. district i am carrying my

yearning over the square in front of the minster* the minster is a dwarf

my chief is the wind he is singing his song i repeat it

proud and monotonous i hear the wall that crumbles and


my chief is the wind who is singing his meisterlied* above vienna


over vienna over the graben over the 1. district I

repeat his song of the danube covered* in fog the

song of the river that is swelling up* in the city at day and at night

i pause on my way my chief is the wind black

walls are flying into the silvermoon i pause in front of the minster

i listen to the song the blossoms the light my chief is

the wind who sings his meisterlied over vienna his song

of the danube which mine does not equal

Trans. Martin Prechelmacher
(see commentary below)


my boss is the wind

i’m walking across the graben vienna 1st district somewhere behind walls

a jukebox i’m walking across the graben my boss

is the wind vienna 1st district by day and by night i sing

my song into the springtime the sun the harp dips

her blossoms into light the wind my boss comes with

blossoms and a melody from the danube it comes from the danube


my boss the wind and he carries his boats crosswise over the current

i’m walking across the graben vienna 1st district i’m carrying my

yearning across the cathedral square the cathedral is a dwarf

my boss is the wind he sings his song i repeat it

proudly in monotone i hear the wall that’s crumbling and


my boss is the wind who sings his master song across vienna


across vienna across the graben across the 1st district i

repeat his song of the danube cloaked in fog the

song of the river that’s backing up in the city by day and night

i pause on my path my boss is the wind black

walls fly into the silver moon i pause before the cathedral

i listen to the song the blossoms the light my boss is

the wind who sings his master song across vienna his song

of the danube to which mine does not come close

Trans. Geoff Howes


[title] Semantically, German ‘Chef’ is best translated with ‘boss’. However, the poem strongly depends on the sound-quality of the long vowel /e:/ in German or, respectively, /i:/ in English.

[verse 1] [alt] trench: The “Graben” is one of the most famous streets in Vienna leading up to St. Stephen’s. The name originates from Roman and medieval times when there used to be castle wall there. In the construction ‘über den graben mein’, one could also find a figura etymologica in ‘Graben’ and ‘Grab’ (‘grave’) adding to the poem’s melancholic tone.

[verse 4] Unlike in English, the progressive aspect cannot be expressed morphologically in German. ‘ich gehe’ can, therefore, be translated as either ‘I walk’ or ‘I am walking’. The choice is a purely poetic one. You will notice that I did not use either form consistently. However, my choice is not completely arbitrary but tries to map a shifting perspective onto a grammatical level: At the beginning the poem’s ego seems to be in some kind of ethereal and floating state, set apart from the everyday life and suspended in time. The progressive seems to express this best. In line 4, at the other hand, the progressive is highly inappropriate because the verb ‘ein-/tauchen’ (‘to dip / into’) denotes a momentary action, or, rather, a singular sensation. So, too, is the wind’s arrival in lines 5 & 6. However, over the course of the poem, the poem’s ego shrinks in comparison with the wind. With the minster the motives of littleness and finitude are introduced into the poem and progressively expanded on. In the end, the ego has to concede that his song cannot reach the wind’s master song and that, unlike his chief, he is bound to the ground and the city. This growing littleness and finitude of the protagonist I tried to express by using the indicative whereas the wind is increasingly associated with the progressive form.

[verse 5] [alt] its: I decided to keep the German gendered articles to enhance the poem’s anthropomorphism, cf. iv.

[verse 5] The phrase ‘in Licht tauchen’ is most common as a passive construction as in ‘in Licht getaucht’ (‘flooded with light’). The active construction found in this poem is, by comparison, very rare and situates the agency with the harp.

[verse 5] [alt] follows, comes along: ‘mitkommen’ can mean either ‘to come along, to follow’ or ‘come with, take along’. Read in the context of the first line it roughly translates to ‘the wind, my chief, comes along’; read in the context of the second line it roughly translates to ‘the wind, my chief, brings along blossoms and a melody’, however. From a purely grammatical point of view, only the second translation is valid. However, taking into account the cognitive processes of the reader, the first translation is equally accurate.

[verse 6] In German ‘of, about’ and ‘from’ are homonyms. The first ‘von der donau’ can, therefore, read ‘of the danube’ as well as ‘from’ the danube’.

[verse 9] The common translation for German ‘Dom’ is cathedral (as in ‘St. Stephen’s Cathedral’). Nevertheless, I decided to use minster, which shares the same Latin root as German ‘Münster’, a synonym for ‘Dom’, used mainly in Germany. The benefit of ‘minster’ is that it fits the smooth sound pattern of the poem and doesn’t break the rhythm of speech as much as ‘cathedral’.

[verse 13] [alt] master song: In the 15th and 16th century, the German ‘Meistersinger’ were freemen carrying on the tradition of the older Minnesang.

[verse 15] The German ‘gekleided’ (‘clothed’) adds to the poem’s anthropromorphism.

[verse 16] [alt] jamming, accumulating: The German verb ‘sich stauen’ usually only refers to liquid that is accumulating due to some blockage, usually a dyke. However, here it refers to the song itself and not to the river.


Comments RSS
  1. Geoff Howes

    I would like to thank Martin for initiating this experiment!

    Martin’s annotations are very instructive. I appreciate his explanation for choosing “chief” (sound quality is essential, of course), but I chose “boss” for “chef” because of its immediate and somewhat whimsical association in this context. Another problem in this poem is the recurrence of the preposition “über.” After some consideration, I decided to use “across” for most instances. (For example, I had originally translated “ich gehe über den graben” as “i’m walking down the graben,” but then I adjusted it. The words “boss” and “across” echo each other, and even though these are back vowels instead of front vowels (the “i” and “e” so prevalent in the original), the principle of sonorousness is maintained.

    We have both used the progressive form, though Martin used it more often than I did (e.g., “are flying”). This of course extends the lines and creates a different metrical pattern, and so I used contractions as well to keep the rhythm working: “i’m walking”; “that’s backing”. Thus I purchase rhythmic effects at the cost of level of diction – the contractions make it more casual and colloquial, which echoes the colloquial word “boss” and thus pushes the whole thing in a more casual and airy direction.

    I was not happy having to translate the evocative one-syllable word “dom” with the three syllables “cathedral,” and so I find Martin’s solution with “minster” (more compact, nasal, and Germanic) ingenious. It did not occur to me. Münster is such a German-German word, as opposed to Austrian German, so that the cultural connotations are not the same, but then we’re working in English, not German.

    If I were to revise this translation, I would do what Martin did and leave “meisterlied” in German. The word is available in English through music history, and it has immediate connotations related to the guild system, the various connotations of “meister” in German (not all shared by “master”), and a certain operatic allusion as well (meisterlied > meistersinger).

    My rendering of the phrase “das lied vom fluß das sich staut” is ambiguous: “the song of the river that’s backing up,” because the English relative pronoun does not make the antecedent (“lied”/”song”) clear, whereas it’s absolutely clear in German. Thus the ambiguity is not productive or evocative, even though this phrase is poetically rich because it is the song, and not the river as one would expect, that is being backed up or dammed up. Hence Martin’s “is swelling up” is the better – really inspired – solution, because both a song and a river can swell. Here the semantic (as opposed to grammatical) ambiguity is productive.

    Like Martin, I anthropomorphised the wind and the sun by using the gendered possessive adjectives “his” and “her,” which is only implicit in German because of the naturalness of grammatical gender.

    The German verb “gleichkommen” is hard to translate without a certain loss. Martin opted for the “gleich” part (“which mine does not equal”). After considering that, I opted for the “come” part (“to which mine does not come close”). This has the disadvantage of adding syllables but the advantage, given my choice of a colloquial tone, of continuing that mood. “Equal” emphasizes the lack of similarity, whereas “come close” retains the spatial metaphor implicit in the German word by emphasizing the distance between the poet’s song and the wind’s.

  2. leifhendrik

    The detailed notes are really welcome. Such an excellent feature here. I also really like the comparison between different translations of the same literary work and different interpretations of the same piece of music.

    • Geoff Howes

      Thanks for your comment! It’s good to know the site is being read, and that our experiment in tandem translation is being appreciated!

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