Comparing German translations of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah”

I translated this great song because of a stupid mistake: I thought there was no German translation. I could only find a “wedding version” that swaps out all of the lyrics except the “Hallelujah” and replaces them with new text about marriage. I’m sure that’s dear to someone’s heart, but it isn’t a translation. So I thought I’d write one, and make it a Christmas gift to my mom.

I later learned there actually are at least two translation already. Since I wrote my own independently, this is an opportunity to compare them. This won’t be biased at all!

The first translation of “Hallelujah” into German (I think) was published by Janus on their album “Winterreise” in 2002. A more successful one was published by Max Prosa on his album “Rangoon” in 2012 and covered by the Opus Sanctus project in 2015. Also a folk group called Vocalensemble Kreuz und Quer made a version, but that one again swaps out all the text except the word “Hallelujah” so it doesn’t count. There might be more translations that I missed.

Any German translation of “Halleluja” (the German transliteration of the hebrew הַלְּלוּיָהּ doesn’t end with an h) has to adress two serious and obvious difficulties.

The first is these lines in the first stanza:

It goes like this, the fourth, the fifth
The minor fall, the major lift

This is the trickiest bit of the text because it does so many things at the same time. It describes in detailed technical language the chord progression that is the basis of the song. It even says that that is what it is doing. And in the context of the previous lines about King David and praising God, it echoes the biblical idea of salvation where a fall is followed by a big lifting up that makes the fall comparatively minor. And it does it all in sixteen syllables, and with strict meter, and with good rhyme. In a word, this is brilliant. Too brilliant for a musically uneducated guy like me to even understand – but luckily my dad helped me a lot with this. I imagine these two lines, and the chord progression they describe, are the inspired original seed that Cohen wrote the rest of the song around.

This is the hardest kind of thing to translate. Go from the technical language of music in English to the fairly different technical language of music in German, reflect the theological implication, and do it all in exactly sixteen syllables with meter and rhyme. The “fourth” in German is the Subdominante, the fifth is the Dominante, that’s too many syllables and in the wrong meter, so there’s just no way. The German words for major key (Dur) and minor key (Moll) don’t have the double meanings of “major” and “minor” in English, deal with it.

The Janus translation deals with this in the bluntest way possible: it simply omits the first stanza entirely. In their defense, so did Cohen on his 1994 album “Live Songs”, which this translation is based on. But the first stanza is, again, brilliant, and to skip it is a mistake no matter who makes it, Janus or Leonard Cohen himself.

Max Prosa has a translation that works:

Hier ist der Dreh – Ein F ein C
Und nun A-moll und dann das G!

The content of this is confusing to me because the sequence of chords in the original is this:

“Fourth”: b d f, “fifth”: c e g, “minor fall” d minor (d f a) and then b major “major lift”. Thanks to my dad for spelling it out for me.

Max Prosa might have changed the melody in some way that I don’t understand because I know nothing about music, and describe his own melody correctly. I suspect he simply gave up on doing the self-referential bit where the text describes its own melody, and just uses the fact that “C” and “G” rhyme. But that’s still way better than what Janus did. It does get the syllables and meter and rhyme right, and it does carry across the idea that “Hallelujah” is both a word and a melody.

The second difficulty is this: the word “Halleluja”, which the third line of each stanza is supposed to rhyme with. Since the last syllable is unstressed and rhymes on an unstressed “ah” are unsatisfying, you really need to rhyme on the last two syllables. And “Halleluja” doesn’t have any good rhymes in German. There are “Maracuja” (passion fruit) and “Troja” (Troy) but those don’t help a lot. And you need to find one for each stanza, because if you only rhyme on some of the stanzas it is very jarring: the translation of “do you” into “oder” is obvious enough and makes a near rhyme, but if you rhyme on the first stanza and you fail to do it on following stanzas, it just sounds like an obvious mistake.

Now English doesn’t have good rhymes with Hallelujah either. But Leonard Cohen made do with near rhymes like “fool you” and near rhymes can be a compromise solution where a good rhyme can’t be found. But both the Janus and Max Prosa translations just give up on that rhyme entirely and use third lines in each stanza that don’t rhyme at all.

The other thing to consider before a translation is which stanzas to use. There are various versions of the lyrics, as summarized here. The original four stanzas from the 1984 album “Various Positions” make a number of references to ideas from the Jewish mystical tradition of Kabbalah. Then there was a version on the 1994 “Live Songs” where the first three stanzas are completely different and contain no Kabbalah but instead a lot of sex. I imagine that Cohen, who had a subtle, introverted religiosity, got a lot of responses from fans with unsubtle, extroverted religiosities and decided to challenge them. In Cohen’s live concerts, and on various cover versions by very many musicians, many permutations of these seven stanzas have been used. Janus translated the 1994 version, Max Prosa translated all of the stanzas.

I went with the original version, plus the first stanza of the second version. It may be an odd choice for an atheist to use all of the explicitly religious stanzas, but I strongly believe mysticism is a phenomenon atheism needs to take seriously and learn from and frankly the sexual stanzas wouldn’t have been appropriate for a gift to my mom. I also dislike the part from the often-used third stanza of the second version that goes

all I ever learned from love
Was how to shoot at someone who outdrew you

It’s a good one-liner and it has one of those hard-to-come-by rhymes with “Hallelujah”, but it doesn’t fit with the rest of the song and I don’t think it is sincere.

Finally, the easy part. Let’s go through the stanzas.

The opening lines are better in Max Prosa’s translation than in mine. His “Es gab geheime Harmonien / Die David spielte und dem Herrn gefielen” is quite close to Cohen’s “I’ve heard there was a secret chord / That David played and it pleased the Lord” and the rhyme is a bit iffy but overall this is really good. For the next line, he has “Doch du scherst dich nicht um Lyrik, tust du’s?” which deliberately and needlessly changes the text from “Musik” to “Lyrik” , has bad meter and doesn’t rhyme, so I’m happier with mine. For the next lines my dad helped me come up with a solution that doesn’t have the theological implication but otherwise works in form as well as content, unlike the solution by Max Prosa already discussed.

Leonard CohenMax Prosame
Now I’ve heard there was a secret chord
That David played, and it pleased the Lord
But you don’t really care for music, do you?
It goes like this: the fourth, the fifth
The minor fall, the major lift
The baffled king composing Hallelujah
Es gab geheime Harmonien
Die David spielte und dem Herrn gefielen
Doch du scherst dich nicht um Lyrik, tust du’s?
Hier ist der Dreh: Ein F ein C
Und nun A-moll und dann das G!
Der König ganz verblüfft
Er schreibt sein Hallelujah
Ich hörte den geheimen Klang
von König Davids Lobgesang
Nicht dass Musik dir wichtig wäre, oder?
Vier, Fünf in Dur, dann Sechs in moll
mit B-Dur ist die Folge voll
So schrieb der König staunend Halleluja

The beginning of the second stanza from the original is very different in these two translations in a way that I think reflects contradictory approaches. Max Prosa prioritized the first line and bent the second to make it fit, while I prioritized the second and bent the first to make it fit. I like my translation better because it more clearly references the biblical story of David and Bathsheba. On the next line Max Prosa is closer in content but gives up not only on rhyme but also on number of syllables. In the second half of the stanza I’m closer to the content but Max Prosa has two very neat lines with a strong rhythm: “Sie hielt dich fest, ihr wart ein Paar / Sie brach den Thron, sie schnitt dein Haar”. I think this works really well.

Leonard CohenMax Prosame
Your faith was strong, but you needed proof
You saw her bathing on the roof
Her beauty and the moonlight overthrew you
She tied you to a kitchen chair
She broke your throne and she cut your hair
And from your lips she drew the Hallelujah
Du glaubst, doch suchst du den Beweis
Du sahst sie baden, dir ward heiß
Überwältigt von der Schönheit und dem Mondlicht
Sie hielt dich fest, ihr wart ein Paar
Sie brach den Thron, sie schnitt dein Haar
Und aus dem Mund zog sie dein Hallelujah
Tief gläubig doch voll Drang nach Tat
Sahst du vom Dach sie nackt beim Bad
Erlagst der Schönheit und dem Mond der zusah
Den Thron der dein gewesen war
Zerbrach sie, band dich, schnitt dein Haar
Und zwang aus deinem Mund das Halleluja

Next in my translation comes the only stanza that is translated in all three German versions. Here the Janus translation seems better than the Max Prosa one: close to the text, good rhymes, only the meter is sloppy. Max Prosa departs from the original text rather significantly and includes words in English that make the departure look even more deliberate. My own translation assumes the first line “Baby, I’ve been here before” is the important one and figurative (as in “I have more experience than you”) and the next line is more of a thing that rhymes with the previous line. My fourth line strays relatively far from the original (by my own standards, which are evidently stricter than others) in pursuit of a rhyme.

Leonard CohenMax Prosa
But baby I’ve been here before
I know this room, I’ve walked this floor
I used to live alone before I knew you
I’ve seen your flag on the marble arch
love is not a victory march
it’s a cold and it’s a broken Hallelujah
Auch ich lag einst vor seinem Thron
Auf diesem Boden kroch ich schon
Doch kam ich gut alleine klar bevor ich dich sah
Du spieltest bloß dein Spiel der Stars
Doch Love is’ kein Parademarsch
Liebe ist ein zartes Hallelujah
Liebling, ich war hier schon mal
Der Raum ist noch genauso kahl
Ich lebte hier bevor ich dich kannte
Deine Flagge weht, das ist nicht genug
Liebe ist kein Triumphzug
Sie ist nur ein schwaches Halleluja
Doch Liebste ich hab’s schon erlebt
Ich kenn den Ort der uns umgibt
Vor dir war ich allein und das weißt du ja
Du hisst die Fahne stolz im Flug
doch Liebe ist kein Siegeszug
Sie ist nur ein gebroch’nes Halleluja

The third stanza with “You say I took the name in vain” is where Max Prosa departs the most from the original text while I try hard to stay really close. This stanza has the most references to Jewish theology. It starts with the Second Commandment, then points out the Kabbalistic idea that the explicit name of God is not known and follows up with the idea that one’s conception of God is a matter where humans shouldn’t attempt to lawyer over each other. This last one isn’t distinctly Kabbala, but an important element of a wider range of various mystical and protestant theologies. The next three lines spell out Kabbalistic ideas of secret holiness to be found in broken creation. This is why it was important to me to prioritize the word “broken” in my translation although the German word has an inconvenient meter. I don’t think Max Prosa understood any of this and chose to disregard it, I think he’s trying to make sense of the stanza but just hasn’t wasted enough time on these particular obscure semi-heterodox aspects of Judaism.

Leonard CohenMax Prosame
You say I took the Name in vain
I do not even know the Name
But if I did, well really, what’s it to you?
There’s a blaze of light in every word
It doesn’t matter which you heard
The holy or the broken Hallelujah
Du sagst, dass ich vergeblich ruf
Den Gott, den man sich einst erschuf
Und wenn’s so wär, was macht’s denn dir aus?
Das Licht doch jedes Wort durchdringt
Und wenn es wer gebrochen singt
Selbst heilig, bleibt es nur sein Hallelujah
Du sagst ich hätt’ den Nam’ missbraucht
Den weiß ich gar nicht, und du auch
Doch hätte ich, na wenn schon, was willst du da?
Das Licht strahlt hell aus jedem Wort
Was du auch hörst, das Licht ist dort
im heil’gen und gebroch’nen Halleluja

The final stanza exists in all three translations, but the Janus translation bears little resemblance to the original. Only the first and third lines are really translation, the rest is basically newly written lyrics. The first line is the only one that is actually identical between Max Prosa’s translation and mine. The rest is pretty similar. He went with “Gott der Lieder” for “Lord of Song” which I rejected because is close to the text but sounds more polytheistic than the original. It is still better than the other obvious choice “Herr der Lieder” which would have reminded listeners more of “Herr der Ringe” (Lord of the Rings) than of God. I took artistic license here and referenced the final composition of the greatest composer of his age, Johann Sebastian Bach, who on his deathbed, blind and in severe pain, dictated to one of his sons what is arguably the best-titled song in the history of music: “With This I Step Before Thy Throne“. It fits the original text well enough.

Leonard CohenMax Prosa
I did my best, it wasn’t much
I couldn’t feel, so I tried to touch
I’ve told the truth, I didn’t come to fool you
And even though it all went wrong
I’ll stand before the Lord of Song
With nothing on my tongue but Hallelujah
Ich tat mein Bestes, viel war’s nicht
Ich wollt’ es spüren, also sucht’ ich dich
Und eines war ich sicher nicht: Dies alles Lüge!
Doch sogar dann, wenn nichts gelang
Werd ich vor’m Gott der Lieder stehen
Und auf den Lippen nichts als Hallelujah
Ich tat mein Bestes, das war nicht viel
Ich weiß, so kommen wir nie ans Ziel
Doch ich bin nicht hier, um dich zu täuschen
Erwarte jetzt nicht mehr von mir
Ich stehe noch einmal vor dir
Mit nichts als einem letzten Halleluja
Ich tat mein Bestes, viel war’s nicht
Gefühllos tastend lernte ich
Das ist die Wahrheit, ich komm nicht als Lügner
Und wenn ich auch gescheitert bin,
tret ich vor Seinen Thron einst hin
Auf meinen Lippen nichts als Halleluja

In the end, Janus and Max Prosa are musicians and I’m only a poet, grasping only a single dimension of this song and not the most important one. “Hallelujah” is about the music, and the chorus, the lyrics come no sooner than third. Who cares about translating them when the important part is in Hebrew anyway? Well, I do. So there!