The Waste Land (04) – translating foreign language lines


I’m spending the next 6 months reading The Waste Land and exploring it, its meaning, its references, its context and its place in (modern?) culture.

In my last post I outlined my plan for approaching this project, noting there are some basics to cover. This post therefore looks at translating the foreign language lines throughout The Waste Land. We don’t here yet explore what the meaning of the lines is or the wider work from where they’re taken, nor why Eliot chose to use foreign language to express them.

A note on process: where Eliot makes specific reference to the foreign language lines in his notes, then I have allowed myself to find a relevant copy of the text online. My thinking here is that I could as easily find a copy of the given title in a library, but physically accessing a library would extend the project by several months! Where, though, there is no reference in Eliot’s notes then I have not simply searched for it. This goes back to part of my original reason for undertaking this project: “to create some space, focus and flow for myself in one tiny area of the physical and mental worlds”.

Now, to the translations.

The epigraph

I’m actually going to deal with the epigraph in a separate post. It’s in Latin and Greek, and is not alluded to in any of Eliot’s notes. Part of the challenge I’ve set myself in this project is not simply to Google an answer – there must be a process of discovery – so I am trying to find a translation of the epigraph and from where it’s taken via separate means.

 For Ezra Pound

il miglior fabbro

This Italian translates as “the better maker” and refers to the fact that Ezra Pound supported Eliot closely in how he structured the poem, and indeed gave it its title. I discovered this through reading Peter Watson’s A Terrible Beauty, which I realise now is where I first substantively came across The Waste Land.

(A note for later study is to understand better the role Ezra Pound played in the creation of The Waste Land.)

Bin gar keine Russin, stamm’ aust Litauen, echt deutsch (12)

Not referred to in Eliot’s notes, I assume that Eliot wrote this himself and have translated this line myself to be: “I am not Russian, but Lithuanian – true German”

Frisch weht der Wind / Der Heimat zu / Mein Irisch Kind, wo weilest du? (31-34)

Cited in Eliot’s notes as being lines 5-8 of Act I of Richard Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde. A common translation has these lines as:

Fresh blows the Wind

towards home

My Irish Child

where are you now?

(A note for later study is to find out more about Tristan und Isolde)

Oed’ und leer das Meer

Also cited in Eliot’s notes as being from Tristan und Isolde – line 24 of Act III, translating as:

Desolate and void the sea!


“You! hypocrite lecteur!–mon semblable,–mon frere!” (76)

Cited in Eliot’s notes as being from the (poem) preface to Baudelaire’s Fleurs de Mal (Flowers of Evil), this translates as:

you — hypocrite Reader — my double — my brother!




Et O ces voix d’enfants, chantant dans la coupole! (202)

I could have had a stab at this French – children’s voices singing somewhere or other. Fortunately, Eliot notes the source in his notes: Verlaine’s poem Parsifal. It translates as:

And, O these children’s voices singing in the dome!

Although we are not yet exploring the meaning of these foreign language lines, we should note here in the rest of Parsifal an explicit reference to the Holy Grail (“As priest-king and guardian of the sacred treasure / In golden robe he worships that sign of grace / The pure vessel in which shines the Holy Blood”). Parsifal is also the name of another Wagner opera (as is Tristan und Isolde) – there’s much here to get into later.


Datta (402), Dayadhvam (412), Damyata (419) (and again together at 433)

The translation is given by Eliot himself in his notes as:

Give, sympathise, control



Poi s’ascose nel foco che gli affina (428)

Cited in Eliot’s notes as being from Dante’s Purgatory, line 148 of canto 26, and translates as:

Then, in the fire that refines, he hid


Quando fiam uti chelidon (429)

Eliot’s notes cite this line from Pervigilium Veneris and he probably meant to refer to the translation as:

When shall I become like a swallow


Le Prince d’Aquitaine a la tour abolie (430)

Again, my secondary level French may well have sufficed for this one (a Prince, a destroyed tower), but Eliot kindly provides a note to point us in the direction of El Desdichado by Gerard de Nerval. The translation is:

The Aquitaine Prince whose tower is destroyed


Shantih shantih shantih (434)

Given by Eliot in his notes to mean “The Peace which passeth understanding”.

So we have a literal understanding of what the foreign language lines of The Waste Land mean – a good start. We’ve also begun to create a reading list of sources from which Eliot drew direct inspiration (Wagnerian opera, Dante’s Divine Comedy, some Sanskrit texts). Before we explore their specific meanings, what the meanings of the works they’re taken from is, and why they’re used in a foreign form, we’ll carry on looking at some other basics, too, continuing next with the characters referenced throughout.


The Waste Land (03) – outline plan


I’m spending the next 6 months reading The Waste Land and exploring it, its meaning, its references, its context and its place in (modern?) culture.

After outlining my reflections from a first read – summarised into themes and dimensions – now is the time to plan on how to approach the rest of the project.

As I noted before, I would feel most comfortable getting into the dimensions of The Waste Land: considerations such as structure, rhyme, languages, perspectives etc. But form follows function, and it feels like I’d be taking the more straightforward route if I focused on these (relatively) easier dimensions rather than grapple with Eliot’s meaning. I must, therefore, start with meaning and themes and then seek to understand how the rest magnifies these.

Before this, though, there are some basics to cover. There are lines in foreign languages (the epigraph is in Latin, the dedication in Greek, passages in French and German, and a smattering of Sanskrit) to be translated. There are characters to understand (at least in the first instance; for example, who are Belladonna, Tiresias, Phlebas the Phoenician, Philomel, Cupidon) and what does Eliot mean by invoking them? And there are locations to place (Starnbergersee, the London locations, Carthage, Margate).

Some time should first be spent, therefore, building this basic knowledge.

From there, it feels most natural to work through Eliot’s own notes to further elucidate his meanings. This will particularly require reading “From Ritual to Romance” by Jessie L. Weston (cited by Eliot as the inspiration for the title, plan and much of the symbolism of The Waste Land), as well as “The Golden Bough” (a book I’ve heard of, at least, if not read or know much about).

I think we’ll be getting somewhere if we do these things, and will also generate a better idea of what to pursue in light of the results. Off we go!

The Waste Land project (02) – first read


“It’s all Latin to me.”

“No no. I think you’ll find it’s also Greek, German, French and Sanskrit.”


So formally begins my project to spend the next 6 months reading The Waste Land and exploring it, its meaning, its references, its context and its place in (modern?) culture.

I knew enough to understand this was going to be a personal challenge – why set the task of the project otherwise? – but a first detailed reading shows just how long and steep this climb is going to be.


As we approach the end of June (one month gone already! There’s been a lot happening, which goes to show how difficult the pull of news and events and life can be, especially when a further intention of this project is specifically to create some space, focus and flow for myself in one tiny area of the physical and mental worlds) I have read The Waste Land in detail three times. After my first read I wrote down the themes and dimensions of the poem that I could see, all of which have many questions associated with them.

To try and provide some structure to how I’ll get into The Waste Land, below are these very initial notes and some associated questions.


Themes, or meaning

Knowing what The Waste Land means is the whole point of this, really, so I can’t expect myself to capture and understand all of the themes and meaning of it in one go! The themes I have detected so far, though, are:

  • Time and seasons
  • Geography and nature
  • Reality and mysticism
  • Our everyday lives against the tide of humanity

There will be others.

There’s not much point expanding on these just now, so I won’t.


These feel to me more like the technical aspects of the poem – how it achieves its effects and conveys its themes. They seem to include:

  • Perspectives and relationships – it’s hard to know exactly who is talking or is being talked about at any given point of the poem. Who are the characters? Why are the characters? What do the different perspectives bring?
  • Structure – why is The Waste Land structured as it is? What is the purpose of this and what effect does it create? How does this compare to other poetry of the time?
  • Rhyme and repetition – sometimes there, sometimes not. Why?
  • Language(s) – there are at least six languages used in the poem. What are the translations? Why are different languages used? What does a different language add that the English equivalent couldn’t convey? What motivates the inclusion of an additional barrier to understanding the poem?
  • Humour – unexpected, but definitely there. To what end?

What next?

It’s not much, but it’s a start.

It is probably to be expected, but I feel more comfortable in thinking about the dimensions of The Waste Land rather than its themes. As someone with an untrained eye for poetry (and literature more generally) there is an element of comfort in questioning the practicalities of the poem rather than grappling with its themes. This, alas, will have to change.

But for now this will suffice. The question in my mind, though, is how to progress now? – a question I’ll return to in a further post.




The Waste Land project (01)

The Triumph of Death by Pieter Bruegel the Elder

Today I am starting a new personal project: the Waste Land project.

I know very little about The Waste Land. It’s a Modern poem by T.S. Eliot and, well, that’s about it. It keeps cropping up in various other things I’ve read over the last few years, so it must be important in some sense or another; I just have no real feeling of what that sense might be.

And so the idea came to me to spend a set period of time reading The Waste Land and exploring it, its meaning, its references, its context and its place in (modern?) culture.

The idea is to spend the next 6 months – until Christmas – reading pretty much only The Waste Land and things associated with it. As much as possible I will explore it myself, by which I mean I won’t simply search straight away for what other people have said about it, nor buy the Norbury Critical Notes that achieves everything I’m seeking to do through this project.

This belies a final reason for undertaking this project: to create some space, focus and flow for myself in one tiny area of the physical and mental worlds. Physical, in the sense that I’ll do it mainly amidst the noise and selfishness of train journeys; mental, in the sense that it will be a focus away from the well-known sinks of time I’ve reflected on before.

I will try to document the project as I go. It’s worth noting that I don’t have any particular eye or training when it comes to poetry and literature; I’m also quite a poor completer/finisher. By making this project relatively public, then, there is both risk (of being stupid in public) and reward (a benign motivation that comes from the possibility people may be reading this).

Finally, you are of course very welcome to join in. Please do leave thoughts, links, questions, provocations in the comments or via Twitter – I tweet @rich_w and will try to use #wasteland throughout the project.