(Wald) Einsamkeit: Capturing the Untranslatable Word 

Courtesy of Swarthmore College

There are some words in German that cannot be translated into English. Waldeinsamkeit is one of them. The Oxford German-English Dictionary tells me that it is “woodland solitude,” while another dictionary describes it as “the feeling of being alone in the woods, usually a sublime or spiritual one.” But what does this mean? What does it mean to feel alone wandering in the woods? What does it mean to feel einsam at all? This short reflection explores the very different times and ways that I was able to capture (Wald) einsamkeit beyond the bounds of language. 

I am a big fan of classical music and among Beethoven’s 9 symphonies – of which only three I have really familiarized myself with – Symphony No.6 the ‘Pastorale’ is by far my favorite. It paints a picture of Beethoven alone in the woods and all the possibilities of a journey to the woods: the cheerful feeling and calmness of arriving in the countryside, the relaxed scene by the brook, the merry gathering of friends, the sudden tempest, and finally the reconciliation with oneself after the storm. 

While composing Symphony No. 6, Beethoven was in a tough time in his life as his deafness gradually worsened. During this period he managed to compose Symphony No. 5 (“Fate”) and No. 6 (“Pastoral”) – two very different pieces – in rapid succession. Both premiered on the evening of Dec. 22, 1808. like to think of them as complementary, a thorough understanding of one relies paramountly on that of the other. If Fate is Beethoven’s stark, majestic testimony protesting against the unjustness of destiny, then Pastorale is a Beethoven reconciling with his mortality, his humanity in the face of a higher power that even he cannot contain, and his seeking hope from the smallest of all grand things in life. Pastorale is a respite in the woods that offers him Waldeinsamkeit. Compared to the statement-making nature of Fate, I prefer the courage and thoughtfulness of Pastorale much better. 

I am a Classics student, so let’s carry on our discussion of einsamkeit — which perhaps after Beethoven we start to have an inkling of — to what every good Classics student has to read: The Iliad. The poem itself is of so many things: Filled with love, power, and glory, einsamkeit is probably not the first thing that comes to mind, but one of my favorite lines in the entire poem is strangely about this seemingly obscured theme: 

αὐτὰρ Ἀχιλλεὺς 

δακρύσας ἑτάρων ἄφαρ ἕζετο νόσφι λιασθείς, 

θῖν ̓ἔφ ̓ἁλὸς πολιῆς, ὁρόων ἐπ ̓ἀπείρονα πόντον: πολλὰ δὲ μητρὶ φίλῃ ἠρήσατο χεῖρας ὀρεγνύς: 

But Achilles, 

Shrunken sat far away from his comrades crying 

On the shore of the grey-dyed ocean, staring at the boundless sea; he asked his beloved mother Many things reaching out his hands: 

Imagine the greatest hero of all time, the symbol of Western masculinity, sitting alone on a random shore far away from home weeping; It’s kind of hilarious to think about. Sometimes I would look back on this passage and start laughing. Masculinity — a construct that took centuries to build and maintain, a construct emphasizing a superiority and power complex based on gender that has distorted humanity to an extent that makes it unrecognizable, is so brittle at its core from the very classical start. 

But again at some other times, I would find myself weeping with him. I wonder what Achilles was thinking at that very moment. Was he crying out of rage for his lost glory? Was he feeling lonely and helpless? Or is he finding a particular solitude that resonates with himself? What is the kind of einsamkeit at hand here? In that very moment as he was stripped of glory and freed from the shackles of ‘the greatest warrior,’ I see a kid in need of help from his mother, a man in need of peace with himself, and a victim of an institutionalized system that demands a god from a man. I want to talk to that Achilles, to feel what he was feeling. 

Every Friday night I watch a movie with a few friends. A few weeks ago, on the verge of running out of interesting choices, the 1993 film Philadelphia somehow ended up making its way through the night. Towards the end of the movie, there was a scene of the famous soprano aria La Mamma Morta from the 1896 opera Andrea Chénier. As the soprano sings the story of a young girl whose mother died protecting her in the French Revolution, Andy, the protagonist who knew that he will soon die from AIDS, dances alongside, alone. How did a nineteenth-century aria connect a girl from the French Revolution, Andy, a dying man who suffered injustice because of his homosexuality, and me? As I became more and more engaged, I experienced an emotion beyond words. It was a mixture of madness, loneliness, cheerfulness, but also emptiness. Perhaps this together is also to be construed as einsamkeit

Last month, I ran the annual Philadelphia marathon. With five miles to go one of my legs started to cramp. I went on half-limping until a mile later my other leg gave out as well. Standing alone on the side of the road, I tried to form an idea in my head of how long four miles is exactly. The pain in my legs went on stinging as I lifted my head and looked at the runners who were overtaking me from behind one after another. A feeling emerged; it was neither sadness nor anger, but a feeling resembling such resignedness from the surroundings to which I am speechless: a feeling of einsamkeit

But einsamkeit is once again more than this. In my spare time, I like to walk in the woods. I like to feel the breeze brushing onto my face; I like to drench in the singing of the birds; I love not knowing what I am running into; and I enjoy the rare space to be with myself. The Waldeinsamkeit is both peaceful and scary. It represents freedom but also uncertainty. All of the above are manifestations of the German word einsamkeit, but from Beethoven to Achilles and from La Mamma Morta to myself I still cannot come up with one fitting, unifying definition in words. Maybe, it is just one of those rarities that has the potential for infinite meanings. And if that is the case, then people should just leave it alone for a translation. Because at the end of the day not all words are translatable, some are only to be felt.

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