German words expats should know: Sehnsucht
Our German word this week is another famously untranslatable term that’s difficult to sum up in one English word. No matter whether you translate it as desire, longing or yearning, die Sehnsucht is most definitely an emotive German term.
Sehnsucht: Desire, longing, yearning, or all of the above?
Have you ever felt a deep, emotional, almost painful, longing for something - even if you can’t quite put your finger on what that something is? Could be that you’re experiencing a bout of Sehnsucht. How very German of you.
The truth is that the concept of Sehnsucht is hard to satisfactorily describe in English. So much so that the stage director and author Georg Tabori called it one of those quasi-mystical terms in German that has no adequate corresponding terms in other languages.
It might help if we break it down. Another good German compound noun, Sehnsucht is composed of two parts: Sehn, from sehnen (to yearn) and Sucht (addiction or craving).
It’s not clear where the word Sehnen comes from, but many people have tried to pin down a definition for it over the years, including the Brothers Grimm, who wrote in their dictionary that it means “to grieve, to grasp, to demand something, especially related to the pain and desire of love.” Sucht does not come - as you might expect - from suchen (to search), but from siech, which means sick.
Put them together and you can see that Sehnsucht literally means a sickness caused by yearning or desire. This adequately characterises both the positive and negative aspects of the emotion - since Sehnsucht is generally agreed to be accompanied by both positive and negative feelings.
However, it goes a little deeper than just a yearning or a desire. Sehnsucht can represent thoughts and feelings about all aspects of life that are imperfect or unfinished, and comes along with a desire to experience utopian, alternative realities. It could be described as someone’s search for happiness as they come to terms with the fact that some desires are unattainable.
It can also be experienced as a longing for a distant place - not necessarily anywhere that exists on earth, but somewhere that is very familiar and most definitely “home”. In this sense, it is a type of nostalgia.
Sehnsucht in popular German culture
As you might expect for a term that’s provoked so much dialogue, the concept of Sehnsucht is explored or invoked in a number of different cultural creations in Germany. You might want to take a look at some of these to get a better understanding of what these Germans are driving at:
Sehnsucht (Friedrich Schiller)
A poem that inspired composers like Franz Schubert and Siegfried Wagner.
Nur wer die Sehnsucht kennt (Johann Wolfgang von Goethe)
Another famous poem that was later set to music by multiple composers, including Ludwig van Beethoven.
Sehnsucht (Joseph von Eichendorff)
A romantic poem, published in 1834. This poem is sometimes known by its first line: "Es schienen so golden die Sterne".
Both the 1997 album and its title track by Rammstein are called Sehnsucht.
Sehnsucht nach Sandin
A TV movie from 2002, starring Christian Kahrmann, Alexandra Kamp and Günther Schramm.
Jennifer: Sehnsucht nach was Besseres
A comedy TV series that has been running on NDR since 2015, starring Katrin Ingendoh.
German sayings about Sehnsucht (Sehnsucht Sprüche)
... And it has also given way to a number of German proverbs or sayings about Sehnsucht. Fit in with the natives and impress you friends by dropping some of these Sprüche in conversation and trying to look profound:
Nur wer die Sehnsucht kennt, weiß, was ich leide
Only those who have experienced longing can know what I suffer - Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
Wenn die Sehnsucht größer ist als die Angst, wird der Mut geboren
When desire trumps fear, courage is born - Unknown
Es ist sicher: Sehnsucht führt nur zu noch mehr Sehnsucht. Sie hört nicht auf
Wanting just leads to more wanting. There’s no end to desire - Nicola Yoon
Letztlich lieben wir die Sehnsucht, nicht das Ersehnte
Ultimately, it is the desire, not the desired, that we love - Friedrich Nietzsche
Tief empfundene Sehnsucht, echte Sehnsucht ist die Sehnsucht, jemandem nah zu sein
Profound desire, true desire, is the desire to be close to someone - Paulo Coelho
Der sensible Mensch leidet nicht aus diesem oder jenem Grunde, sondern ganz allein, weil nichts auf dieser Welt seine Sehnsucht stillen kann
Sensitive people do not suffer for this reason or another, but all alone because nothing in the world can satisfy their longing - Jean-Paul Sartre
Wer es einmal geschafft hat, seine Sehnsucht Vorfreude zu nennen, der kann nie wieder richtig unglücklich sein
Once you have managed to recognise your desire as anticipation, you can never really be unhappy again - Peter Hohl
Get thinking, feeling and yearning
Whichever way you put it, Sehnsucht is certainly an emotive concept. The Germans sure know how to do deep thinking.