Soap&Skin - Vater

Having recently read about Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and his decision to translate Dante's Divine Comedy after the death of his wife, I think more about language and grief, about how we put grief into words, how we translate an abstract feeling into art, and what language we choose and what form that language takes, be it poetry, prose, or music. 

Anja Plaschg, a singer who performs under the name Soap&Skin, lost her father in 2009. Anja is Austrian, but writes songs in English. However, when she decided to write a song about her father's death, she wrote in her mother tongue, German. She spoke to The Quietus about this choice and why she wrote the song:
Almost all your lyrics are in English, why write in your second language? 
Ummm.... I always did it, like naturally, because maybe I feel more connected to an abstract world. 'Vater', the first song on the album, is my first song in my mother tongue. That is just because I wanted to confront myself for this tune with my mother tongue. 
Because it's such a personal song? 
Yes. It was clear from the beginning that I have to do it in German... um, yeah. 
It is a tender song but it also sounds very angry too - are you raging over your father's death? 
No, I think it is more like... protocol? Is that right? I am going through separate emotional states. I wrote this song in one year. It took one year.
Anja's confession that it took a year to write the song further reminds me of Longfellow and how it took eighteen years for him to write a poem that memorialized his dead wife. In the initial days and weeks of grief, we might find it difficult to write or even speak. We confront the limits of language.

"Vater" (German for father) is a stunning song of heartbreak and grief. The imagery is haunting, like when Anja sings that she wants to be a maggot in order to be close to her father again. There is also violence, like the interviewer at The Quietus points out. She tells her father to beat himself out of her head, she demands to be made into bone like him. Her longing for him is intense, overwhelming, even brutal, for in order to be with him again she must die. There is also the final, violent image of Anja wishing she could shatter the sky above so that her father can crash from heaven back down to earth, liberated from death.  It's a raw vision of grief, one that acknowledges the relentless desire for self-obliteration and to be reunited with the dead.

There is no definitive English translation of the song. I have collaborated with someone who is fluent in both English and German for the translation below. We have tried to remain faithful to the original sounds and meanings of the song. The process of collaborating revealed to me just how difficult translation is and the conflicts that arise whenever we try to put feelings and emotions like grief, loss, and heartbreak into words. Perhaps Anja felt that only German could adequately communicate her anguish. Our translation can never fully capture the original, but I hope we've come close. I'm also posting the beautiful instrumental version of the song as a powerful reminder that, when it comes to music, words are not always necessary, though they are important. Listening to the song without words is an equally powerful and moving experience.

German Lyrics

Haltet alle Uhren an
hindert den Hund daran
das Rad anzubellen

Wo immer ich aufschlage find’ ich dich
Du fällst im Schatten der Tage
als Stille und Stich
Ich trink’ auf dich dutzende Flaschen Wein
und will doch viel lieber eine Made sein

Der Sarg fällt zusammen
die Blumen fallen in die Wangen
Zuerst weiß, dann blau, dann grau, dann grün
dann Schaum, dann braun und Laub und Staub

Bitte schlag dich aus meinem Kopf, meinem Haus
wie sonst halte ich den Graus aus?
Mit welchem Herz, mit welchem Körper


Wo immer ich aufschlage find’ ich dich
Du fällst im Schatten der Tage
als Stille und Stich
Ich wart’ auf dich, wann kommst du wieder heim?
Ich wollt’ noch nie lieber eine Made sein
Eine Made sein
Eine Made sein
Eine Made sein
Eine Mama

Lass mich rein, rein, beinhart wie du sein
lass mich in dein Aug’ hinein
Ich will es seh’n, die Prüfung besteh’n
ohne Pein, ohne Pein, ohne Pein
lass mich rein, du Stein!
Mir hilft kein Warten und kein Wein
kein Schreien

Um alles in der Welt, das dich am Leben hält
zerschlag’ ich auch mein Himmelszelt
auf dass es unter dir zusammenfällt
und du dich neigst
und du dich endlich wieder zeigst!

English translation

Stop all the clocks,
hinder the dog
from barking at the wheel.

Wherever I end up I find you,
You're falling within the shadow of the days
as silence and sting.
I toast to you dozens of bottles of wine,
but would rather be a maggot

The coffin crumbles,
Flowers fall into cheeks,
First white, then blue, then gray, then green,
Then foam, then brown and leaves and dust.

Please, beat yourself out of my head, my house,
How else will I endure the terror?
Endure with what kind of heart, what kind of body?


Wherever I end up I find you,
You're falling within the shadow of the days
As silence and sting.
I wait for you, when will you return home?
I never wanted so much to be a maggot.
To be a maggot,
To be a maggot,
To be a maggot.
A Maggot.

Let me in, in, be hard as bone like you,
Let me into your eye,
I want to see it, I want to pass this test
Without pain, without pain, without pain.
You stone, let me in!
Waiting doesn't help and crying doesn't and screaming doesn't.

For everything in this world, that keeps you alive,
I'll also shatter my firmament,
Such that below you it will crumble,
And you will fall,
And you will finally come out again.