by Emrys Westacott
Lili Marleen is one of the best known songs of the twentieth century. A plaintive expression of a soldier’s desire to be with his girlfriend, it is indelibly associated with World War II, in part because it was popular with soldiers on both sides. It was first recorded by the German singer Lale Anderson in 1939. The Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels disliked the song and initially banned it from the radio, probably because it expresses a preference for staying at home rather than going off to war. But in 1941 he granted a Belgrade-based radio station in German-occupied Yugoslavia permission to broadcast it. Apparently, Rommel, commander of the German troops in North Africa, liked the song, Goebbels relented, and soon Radio Belgrade (which had a very limited supply of disks available) was playing it every night as their sign-off tune. It quickly became popular with both German and allied forces. Anderson recorded an English version in 1942.
Marlene Dietrich, who worked tirelessly during world war two entertaining allied troops, also recorded both a German version and an English version of the song. Compared to the Anderson recordings, with their strong, marching tempo, Dietrich’s versions, which begin with the melancholy strains of an accordion, are slower, sweeter, and more wistful. The English version retains the melody and the general theme, but beyond the first line the lyrics are not even a loose translation of the original German.
The song began life as a poem of three stanzas, written in 1915 by Hans Leip (1893-1983), a schoolteacher from Hamburg who had been called up into the German army and was training in Berlin prior to leaving for the Eastern front. In the years following world war one, Leip became a successful author. His poem, with two further verses added, was eventually published in 1937, as “Das Lied eines jungen Soldaten auf der Wacht” (The song of a young soldier on watch). It was put to music in 1938 by Norbert Schultze, already by then a well-known composer who wrote numerous songs to be used by Goebbels’ propaganda ministry.
Anderson’s recording of Lili Marleen was the first German record to sell over a million copies. The song has been covered by numerous artists, including Vera Lynn, Bing Crosby, Edith Piaf, Perry Como, and Carly Simon, and has been rendered into dozens of languages. But the meaning of the English lyrics made famous by Dietrich and others bear little relation to Leip’s poem. While they no doubt served their purpose in relation to English-speaking audiences at the time, they lack the unity and poetic coherence of the original.
The central image of that poem is that of the lantern or streetlamp that burns brightly by the barracks gate. It marks the place where the lovers would wait, meet, embrace and kiss. It signifies love, intimacy, constancy, happiness, home, peace, the cherished past, and a hoped-for future. The poem underscores this by constantly returning to the phrase “bei der Laterne stehen” [stand by the streetlamp]. There is also an ominous cast to the later verses which gives the whole a greater seriousness and depth. The soldier recalls saying goodbye, considers the possibility of being a combat casualty, and contemplates being replaced by another lover. The imagery of the final stanza–mist, earth, and silence–intimate the prospect of death.
So, in the hope of offering a reasonably lyrical English version of this lovely song that doesn’t stray too far from its original sense, I humbly offer the following translation of Leip’s poem.
Vor der Kaserne In front of the barracks
Vor dem grossen Tor Before the giant gate
Stand eine Laterne There stands a streetlamp
Und steht sie noch davor It’s where we used to wait
So woll’n wir uns da wieder seh’n And if that streetlamp still burns bright
Bei der Laterne wollen wir steh’n We’ll stand again beneath its light
Wie einst Lili Marleen (repeat) Like back then Lili Marleen
Unsere beide Schatten Our two shadows look
Sah’n wie einer aus Like one seen from above
Dass wir so lieb uns hatten Easy to see
Das sah man gleich daraus How much we were in love
Und alle Leute soll’n es seh’n For anyone who saw the sight
Wenn wir bei der Laterne steh’n Of us standing there beneath the light
Wie einst Lili Marleen Like back then Lili Marleen
Schon rief der Posten Already the sentry cries
Sie blasen Zapfenstreich They’re sounding the curfew
Das kann drei Tage kosten That can cost you three days
Kam’rad, ich komm sogleich OK I’m coming through
Da sagten wir auf Wiedersehen There where we kissed and said adieu
Wie gerne wollt ich mit dir geh’n Oh how I wish I could go with you
Mit dir Lili Marleen With you Lili Marleen
Deine Schritte kennt sie That streetlamp knows your footsteps
Deinen zieren Gang How you walk gracefully
Alle Abend brennt sie It burns bright every evening
Doch mich vergass sie lang But it won’t remember me
Und sollte mir ein Leids gescheh’n And if I should fall in the fight
Wer wird bei der Laterne stehen Oh who will stand beneath the light
Mit dir Lili Marleen? With you Lili Marleen?
Aus dem stillen Raume From the solid earth
Aus der Erde Grund With silence all around
Hebt mich wie im Traume Just like in a dream
Dein verliebter Mund Your kisses lift me from the ground
Wenn sich die späten Nebel drehn And when the mist fall with the night
Werd’ ich bei der Laterne steh’n I’ll be standing there beneath the light
Wie einst Lili Marleen Like back then Lili Marleen