Hermann Hesse – Steps
I’ve been trying to translate some poetry. This time, it’s Hermann Hesse’s ‘Stufe’, which means ‘steps’ or ‘phases’ or ‘stages’. ‘Steps’ is the usual English title, and makes the most sense as, in English, there’s a similar ambiguity between steps as actions and steps as physical aids to ascending (or descending) as there is in the German. But that ambiguity can become a burden if the context isn’t as clear as Hesse’s, so a careful line needs to be steered between flowery liberties and grim literality. It’s all a matter of taste, and because mine doesn’t coincide with any of the translations I’ve found, I’ve done a version that pleases me better.
As every flower and every youth
moves into age, each phase of life bursts forth;
Each pearl of wisdom, and each virtue, blooms
According to its time, but none can last for ever.
The heart must at each summoning of life
Be ready to depart and begin anew
Taking courage in itself and, without tears,
Giving itself to new and different bonds.
Within each new beginning lives a magic
that protects us and which helps us live.
We must blithely stride from world to world
Considering none as home.
The spirit of the earth will neither bind us nor restrict
but will, from stage to stage, raise and broaden us.
If we should settle in a sphere of life,
And feel complacent, then we lose our grip.
Only those prepared to break away and travel
Can break the shackles of familiarity.
Even at the hour of death, perhaps, it will
Send us, young again, to new worlds
Life’s call to us will never end
Take heart, my heart, take leave and fare you well.
Hermann Hesse (tr. Simon Wilks)