I recently got a Deutsche Grammophon CD with recordings of songs by Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau. When reading the texts, I noticed the translation of the title of one of the songs. Intuitively I knew it wasn't correct. The only reason why I'm posting this question is to find out if there's a better translation.

Anyway, the German text is "Blicke mir nicht in die Lieder", which is translated as "Don't look at my songs."

In my naive opinion (no German speaker) this is a poor translation because there's no posessive about the songs in the original sentence. The mir is more like a Datif (?) (don't do this to me).

Intuitively I know the meaning of the original German sentence but the reason why I'm writing is to see if there's a more accurate single-sentence English translation. FWIW I've tried to come up with an English translation myself but it's rather difficult (no native English speaker either).

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    Note that "Lieder" (songs) sounds like "Lider" (eyelids), so there could be a pun involved here as well. I don't know the song itself, but for it to have a double meaning along the lines of "Don't look into my eyes" was what first popped into my mind. – Gerhard Apr 21 '17 at 6:57
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    I googled it: the second line is "Meine Augen Schlag ich nieder". <- this is what you normally would do with eyelids, not eyes. – Gerhard Apr 21 '17 at 7:04
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    @Gerhard: that impression is entirely correct. Lid used to be spelt Lied at the time the poem was written. – Takkat Apr 21 '17 at 9:11
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    Had to remove my comment, since i think @Takkat is right - it's Lid in an old spelling. Just to preserve the link to the original text: lieder.net/lieder/get_text.html?TextId=14008 – tohuwawohu Apr 21 '17 at 10:24
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    You have a quite similar grammatical construct in English with e.g. "Don't look me in the eyes." – Arminius Apr 22 '17 at 1:00

Credits first: Gerhard has already pointed out the pun that may be going on here, while tofro has shed some good light on the context of this sentence / line, which does sound a bit odd indeed.

Since your confusion seems to lie, mainly, with the Dative case being translated as an English genitive / possessive, I'm adding yet another answer to address that.

While you are right in that a German Dative was translated as an English genitive here, this translation is actually quite accurate. There is something in German called a "dativus possessivus" (possessive dative). This is a dative whose semantics indicate possession:

Ich habe mir das Bein gebrochen. - I've broken my leg.

Notice how English - which doesn't have a dative (any more) - defaults to the possessive in order to translate this phrase?

The same thing is going on in the verse / song title in question:

Blicke mir nicht in die Lieder. - Don't look at my songs.

Hence, I find the translation quite accurate. The only thing that could be criticised is that it loses the beautiful pun pointed out by Gerhard, but I don't see a way either to put it into English and not have it get "lost in translation". If everything could be translated perfectly, there wouldn't be much incentive to learn a language any more. ;)

For further study, you may look into the types of the Dative case in German. Unfortunately, I couldn't find this in English just now, so it's in German. But with a bit of digging you may find an English-language page.

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    Also I Wonder If "blicke in" which is more like "look into" can be ignored (even if it is not "into eyes"). It is more intimate / closed and therefore warrants the warning. (My first impression was like "don't guess my agenda") – eckes Apr 21 '17 at 14:30
  • Thanks but I'm not sure if I follow the reasoning. I do understand the notion of a possessive dative but I don't think it applies to this case. E.g. if we change the sentence to Blicke mir nicht in seine Lieder, this doesn't make the songs mine: they belong to somebody else. In my opinion the mir more intimately refers to the verb blicken than to the noun Lieder. – user26693 Apr 21 '17 at 20:24
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    The answer to that is simple: Nobody would say Blicke mir nicht in seine Lieder, because it doesn't make much sense. It amounts to saying: Klau mir nicht dein Auto. (Don't steal your car from me.) Either it's yours or mine (or his, as in your example). – ParaDice Apr 21 '17 at 21:06
  • A teacher could say "schau mir ja nicht in sein Heft" to a pupil cheating. It actually does make sense. – tofro May 1 '17 at 7:00

The translation is only half of the story. In this poem by Friedrich Rückert we may also have an old spelling Lied in the meaning of (eye-)lid:

enter image description here
T. Ruete: Physiklische Untersuchung des Auges, 1854

This is the original poem:

Blicke mir nicht in die Lieder!
Meine Augen schlag ich nieder,
Wie ertappt auf böser That;
Selber darf ich nicht getrauen,
Ihrem Wachsen zuzuschauen:
Deine Neugier ist Verrath.
Friedrich Rückert: Verbotener Blick

Rückert may have intended this pun (i.e. song and eyelid both would have the same spelling) but it was originally written as a poem, not as a song.

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    If "Lieder" means eye-lids, rather than songs, what does then "ihrem Wachsen" refer to? And what's the point of the comparison with bees making honeycombs in the second stanza? – Uwe Apr 21 '17 at 11:20
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    @Uwe: good point... I believe it is all intended to be a pun, as bees also put a lid (third meaning of Lied) on their comb... but of course this all is very speculative. – Takkat Apr 21 '17 at 11:27
  • I was thinking along the same lines at first but abolished that thought after having read the whole thing. I do not think the pun is intended. – tofro Apr 25 '17 at 20:37

That actually is a difficult piece of text - Rückert (the original poet) has left out quite a bit of words in order to make the poem go. The "mir" is actually dative and gives a hint to what's meant and the rest of the context clarifies it further.

You could extend the verse to somewhat like

Blicke mir nicht [über die Schulter] in meine Lieder, [während ich sie noch schreibe]

The rest of the poem makes it clear the poet doesn't want to show his half-baked lines while he is still working on them - Only when it's done and perfect, it should be visible to the public.

The dative actually is an expression of "don't do that to me", but that is actually hard to express in English.


Don't you look over my shoulder at my songs

would somehow transport the dative.

  • Thanks. The over my shoulders makes the sentence more personal and adds to the "dative" aspect. Still I don't like the my because Rueckert didn't mention a my and I don't think it's needed. Maybe these is better? – user26693 Apr 21 '17 at 6:37
  • How about "Don't peek at what I'm writing"? – aparente001 May 1 '17 at 6:17

The construct you are stumbling upon is called Dativus possessivus, denoting to whom the accusative object belongs (In your case the songs, belonging to me). Further examples are:

  • Die Mutter putzt dem Kind die Nase (Mother cleans the nose of the child)
  • Der Vater bindet der Tochter die Schuhe zu. (Father ties the shoes of the daughter)
  • Schau' mir in die Augen, Kleines (Famous Casablanca quote, originally "he is looking at you, kid")

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