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“99 Luftballons”

Posted by purplemary54 on March 3, 2013

Sandee posted recently about wanting to learn German, which I had the pleasure of taking on and off during my wandering years in college.  (I actually managed to get a BA in English, but before and for a while after, I took classes because they interested me.  I’m one of the rare ducks who went to school to get an education.  Go figure.)  German is a hoot.  Because English is at heart a Germanic language, many words are the same between the two languages, which are called cognates.  The German word for car?  Auto.  Wanna talk about fingers and hands in German?  Refer to your fingers and hands.  Of course, everything is pronounced differently; and while there are many similar words, the grammar and verbs are a real pain in the tuchus.  (For the record, “tuchus” is a Yiddish word.)

What does any of this have to do with this song?  Other than the fact that this song is in German, absolutely nothing.

I don’t remember much of the German I took, so I really can’t do more than pick out a couple of words here and there.  I can recognize where the verbs are in the sentences, and I know it’s an anti-war song.  When she sings about “Captain Kirk,” I assume she’s referring to reckless, egotistical showboating in some military character.  I also know I really don’t like the English version; rhymes and rhythms that are so effortless in the original become forced and stuttering in the remake.  The Beatles had a similar problem when they re-recorded a couple of their hit songs in German for their loyal fans in Hamburg.  While “Sie Liebt Dich” is really fun to say, the German version of “She Loves You” is just a little bit off kilter.  There is a lot of truth to the idea that something is always lost in translation.

I originally took German because I wanted to read the poetry of Ranier Maria Rilke in its original language.  I’d gotten a copy of The Selected Poetry of Ranier Maria Rilke, with excellent translations done by Stephen Mitchell (who also translated the only version of the Tao Te Ching that actually makes sense to me), and I was absolutely slayed by the beauty of the words.  My favorite is “The First Elegy” from The Duino Elegies:


“Who, if I cried out, would hear me among the angels’

hierarchies? And even if one of them pressed me

suddenly against his heart: I would be consumed

in that overwhelming existence.  For beauty is nothing

but the beginning of terror, which we still are just able to endure,

and we are so awed because it serenely disdains

to annihilate us.  Every angel is terrifying.”



3 Responses to ““99 Luftballons””

  1. Oh how I loved that song in high school…but mostly the English version. =)

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