The German Writer Who Foresaw His Own Death

This holiday period is an especially difficult one for many people, who will look up into the cold sky not in expectation of Santa Claus, but in despair. From wartorn Ukraine to the cost of living crisis in Europe, many people are suffering in ways that seemed unthinkable only a year ago.

This night, the seventh night of Hanukkah and the night before Christmas, pay a thought for those who are living insecurely and losing hope. There are many of them. All we have is each other, ultimately. Alas, some of us do not even have that. Here is the story of one such man, Maximilian Bern.

Maximilian Bern, (born Bernstein), was a Jewish German writer who died during the hyperinflation which brought the Weimar Republic to an end almost a century ago, in 1923.

He had been born in 1849 in Ukraine, in Kherson, where his father was a doctor. But then as now, people were leaving Ukraine, and Maximilian relocated with his mother to Vienna after his father died. Though the family fortune was lost, Maximilian’s first novel Auf Schwankem Grunde (“On Shaky Ground”), made his name, and he became a freelance poet, writer and novelist thereafter.

Bern is alas not much read today.

He lived for a couple of years in Paris, and for a time he was married to the renowned actress Olga Wohlbrück, who is now regarded as Germany’s first female movie director. She later left him for a playwright. However, until soon before his death in 1923, he lived an affluent life of artistic renown in Berlin.

In 1904, he published a collection of poems called Die zehnte Muse (“The Tenth Muse”), in which we may read two of his poems which now seem disturbingly prophetic. These are On a Dead Track, and Vagabond Song, which I have lovingly mistranslated below.

What do they appear to prophecy? His own death, which appears almost as a footnote or an aside in Frederick Taylor’s 2013 history The Downfall of Money: Germany’s Hyperinflation and the Destruction of the Middle Class. Taylor had borrowed the anecdote about Bern’s death from a book by Otto Friedrich entitled Before the Deluge: A Portrait of Berlin in the Twenties, wherein on page 126 we hear briefly about Bern’s fate.

Hyperinflation had destroyed Maximilian’s savings as it had so many others, and aged in his seventies, he was in no position to restore the family fortune a second time. He withdrew them all – over 100,000 marks – and spent the entirety of his wealth on a subway ticket, all he could now purchase. After riding one last time around the city, Bern withdrew to his apartment and starved to death.

On a Dead Track

There are people who fall through

old ways and norms, either due

to someone else’s fault or all their own,

to land on a dead track, alone.

Though thousands pass on,

hunting in the world for happiness,

you are chained, unmoving, gone

cheated by the turns of fate, helpless.

You are separated, restricted, forever

from all paths where burns

driving ambition, or wherever

a proudly purposeful force stirs.

Tormented by consuming longing

to storm into the open, into the wide,

even those who miss their lives must

die unnoticed, lonely, set aside.

Vagabond Song

Now I don’t care about anything at all.

What goes up must come down again.

And if I go nowhere, by the road I’ll fall

and stretch out to die, who knows when.

Then the morning finds me dead

like many a bird on a pile of shit,

like many a deer, killed in the night

alone and helpless, in the forest unlit.

When the first fingers of dawn’s light

touch my cold and pallid cheek,

they’ll gleam to show that I was glad

to be freed at last from torment so bleak.

The Iceberg

It’s been a while since I last published a mistranslation, so here’s The Iceberg, mistranslated from the poem by the late great Brazilian poet Paulo Leminski. It’s not the first of his I’ve egregiously mishandled. Regular readers may recall this travesty from earlier this year.

Having now done damage to his work twice, I will release Leminski from the clutches of this project and seek other subjects elsewhere. You, however, are advised to go and read as much of his poetry as possible.

Paulo is not impressed with my mistranslating.

The Iceberg

An Arctic poetry

of course, is what I wish for.

A bleached-out practice,

three verses of ice.

An icecap of words

where speaking of life

is no longer possible.

Words? No, none.

A silent lyre

reduced to absolute zero,

a blink of the spirit,

the only, only thing.

But it’s all cock. And in speaking I provoke

swarms of misunderstanding

(or swarms of monologues?)

Yes, winter. We’re still alive.

The (Mis)translation of Lorca and Cavafy

When I started doing this (mis)translations thing, I promised myself that certain poets were off limits. I drew up a list of them, poets who deserved better than to have their words manhandled out of shape and into poor English by me.

Lorca was, of course, one of them.

But I cracked in the vicious heat the other day while looking at the Puglian landscape just as he must have looked at the selfsame landscape in Spain, and suddenly realising, only one man has ever captured what I’ve seen here.

So, I am sorry, Federico Lorca.

Land without Song

Blue sky

and yellow field.

Blue mountain

and yellow field.

Across the roasted plain

an olive tree is walking.

An olive tree


And having broken the vow, one sin leads to another of course. So I decided to own the fault, and reached for a long-loved Constatine Cavafy poem which, like the Lorca one above, has already been perfectly well translated into English by poetry translators expert in the work of these authors themselves.

This wasn’t supposed to happen. In fact, it flies in the face of the original idea of the (mis)translations project. Perhaps what will happen sooner or later is these two texts will quietly vanish from the internet some late night and never appear in the resulting volume. In which case, “enjoy” them while you can, I guess. Their mere existence is precarious and ambivalent.

After all, I didn’t want trouble, and I didn’t want to do the big names like Lorca or Cavafy anyway because there are specialist poetry translators who spend all their lives on those guys. I wanted to do like the B or C division voices, people who don’t often get translated.

And why MIStranslate them? Because I’m not one of those specialist poetry translators. But I am an avid reader, and sporadic writer, of poetry. And additionally, I’m singularly untalented at languages. My children are multilingual, but I have journalist’s command of foreign languages – ie the basic thirty phrases one needs to survive, in about seven or eight tongues that I’ve had reason to use in the past.

Being fully truthful, I’m probably only really capable of assessing a translation of poetry that moves between French and English. And I’ve NEVER seen Shakespeare or Yeats properly translated into French. Likewise, there has never been a remotely satisfactory translation of Baudelaire into English.

Your mileage may vary. You may perhaps utterly adore some of these translations. And that’s okay, a mere matter of difference in taste. But can you honestly say that the original is FULLY communicated in even the best of translations? That NOTHING is missing? No nuance, no context, no wordplay, no rhyme scheme or echo?

You know, it sometimes almost makes me angry, even when it’s someone like Voltaire or François-Victor Hugo (son of the author of Les Miserables) who translates Shakespeare. Why? Because so much is missing. So much is simply impossible to translate.

Hence the (mis)translations project. The point is that I don’t know any of these languages. I don’t speak them. I don’t read them for the most part. I am reliant on a range of dictionaries, online and in print, as well as pre-existing translations and advice from native-speaking friends, in order to produce these works.

That was the point, to prove that is all poetry is ultimately untranslatable. It cannot be translated, only creatively (mis)translated. The term is therefore an apology to the poets themselves, and the entire project an act of deliberate and conscious (and conscientious) failure from the get-go.

Anyhow, digression aside, I departed from my original plan by (mis)translating Lorca, and compounded the sin by then (mis)translating Cavafy. Since I have shared one sin with you, I might as well make you complicit in the other too:

As Much As You Can

And if you can’t make the life that you want,

as much as you can, at least try

not to humiliate yourself

in so many worldly contexts,

all those movements and speeches.

Don’t humiliate your life by shipping it about

all over the place, exposing it to

the daily nonsense

of relationships and socialising,

until it becomes a foreign cargo you must carry.