A Poem: “Met People” by Gottfried Benn

Culture Week takes a literary turn, with my own translation of a poem by Gottfried Benn, a modern German writer little-known in the English-speaking world. 

Benn, a dermatologist and venereal disease specialist (the two disciplines are, for some reason, always studied together in Germany), lived most of his life in Berlin, where he died in 1956.  He wrote novels, essays, and poems — some faintly gruesome and nihilistic, some limpid and lovely.

I know it’s cheeky for a non-specialist to translate a poem, but this one’s not particularly fancy.  Besides, some amateur apparently already translated it into Italian on his own website, so I won’t be the first.  Here goes:

Met People

I’ve met people who,

when you ask their name,

shyly — as if they could hardly claim

the right to have a name —

answer ‘Miss Christian’ and then:

‘like the first name’, they wanted to make it easy to grasp

not a difficult name like ‘Popiol’ or ‘Babendererde’ —

‘like the first name’ — please, don’t strain your memory!

I have met people, who

grew up in a hovel with parents and four siblings

studied, nights, on the kitchen stove

with their fingers in their ears

made good, outwardly beautiful and ladylike like countesses

and inwardly gentle and conscientious like Nausicaa

who wore the pure brow of angels.

I’ve often asked myself where the gentle and good

come from and found no answer,

still don’t know it today and have to go now.

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