Robert Gernhardt

Robert Gernhardt, who died of cancer on Friday at the age of 68, wrote ‘light’ or ‘nonsense’ and also more serious poetry. I have sometimes tried, not very successfully, to translate some into English. I think it could be translated, but it would take a lot of labour to achieve the lightness, and some of the wordplay would have to be substituted by other wordplay. But from the Süddeutsche obituary I discover that he had a translator, Ursula Runde, and not only that, but fifteen poems ‘were translated’ at Warwick:

bq. Seine letzte Dienstreise unternahm er Anfang Mai nach Warwick in Großbritannien, um eine Woche lang an der dortigen Universität zu lehren. Als er heimkam, erzählte er stolz, es sei dort gelungen, fünfzehn seiner Gedichte ins Englische zu übersetzen, und die Studenten hätten heftig lachen müssen – man stelle sich vor: Briten, deutsche Verse, freudiges Lachen.

Well, I don’t see why he should not be well received in Britain, apart from the translation problem.
Warwick University has a page on Gernhardt.

He went to Warwick on its German Writer in Residence programme, which has entered the work of Kunert (Englisches Tagebuch), Rühmkorf and Martin Walser. They’ve also had Herta Müller there, among others.

I’m sure the Warwick programme is a bit ahead of its time in its selection of writers. Although Gernhardt’s books have had very good reviews, and his reputation has been growing, I am not sure if he’s regarded as an ‘important’ poet, or rather, if his lighter poems are given the credit they deserve.

At Warwick, and at the Poetry site, there is in fact one poem by Gernhardt published together with a translation. The poem is about death. I imagine that since Gernhardt knew he was dying, he deliberately authorized this one poem to appear. In Poetry vol. 173, in October 1998, 4 poems were published, but only this one is online.

I have tried this poem myself and post it here. I am not quite satisfied with my version. I like Ursula Runde’s (I love ‘the scythe is for grim reaping’), but the tone is not quite what I associate with the German. Of course, I haven’t got the rights to translate the poem, but I’ll put my version in the extended entry for comparison.


I will keep my pleasant manners
Even at my final breath
When I hear that doorbell ringing
I’ll call out: Do come in, Death!Oh

I will keep my pleasant manners
Even at my final breath
When I hear that doorbell ringing
I’ll call out: Do come in, Death!

Can I help to entertain you?
I’m to die? That’s an idea.
Though I haven’t had much practice
We can do it, have no fear.

May I see your lovely hourglass?
Yes, I’ll hold it till it stops,
And your scythe, so long and shining,
Ready to give me the chop?

Which way do you want me facing?
Left – from your side or from mine?
Right beside this six-foot crater
What’s next – must I walk the line?

Do you need your hourglass back now
Since the sand has all run through?
Such an interesting model –
I would like to buy one too.

Not an everyday design, that –
Something special, as I said.
Oh! You want me to stop speaking?
At your service! Now I’m

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