The balloons are not red, and there is no toy shop. The narrator doesn’t dream of red balloons either. But, like its English-language counterpart (“99 Red Balloons”) Nena’s “99 Luftballons” (1983) is about an accidental, apocalyptic war triggered by 99 balloons.
Luft means air, and ballon means balloon. So, literally, a luftballon is an air balloon — but you could also just call it a balloon.
Unlike the English-language first verse in which “you and I” buy “a bag of balloons” in a toy shop and then “set them free at the break of dawn,” the German language verse begins by asking “Have you any time for me? Then I will sing a song for you about 99 balloons on their way to the horizon.”
The first verse’s final line, “Und dass so was von so was kommt” is “and how that thing comes from this,” or, more colloquially, “how one thing leads to another.” The line “Dass es einmal soweit kommt” (in the fourth verse) echoes this earlier line. I’ve chosen the line in which it appears — “Mann, wer hätte das gedacht / Dass es einmal soweit kommt” — as the title for this post because, “Man, who would have thought it would come to this” also seems an apt line for this current moment.
Both final verses convey an apocalyptic aftermath, but instead of beginning “99 dreams I have had / and every one a red balloon,” the original German is “99 Jahre Krieg / ließen keine Platz für Sieger”: “99 years of war leaves no room for winners.”
In addition to being my first in German, “99 Luftballons” is the darkest “Plague Song” I’ve recorded to date. I hope its buoyant riffs, catchy tune, and 1980s nostalgia push back against the darkness of the lyrics.
Here it is in its original German.
And in English.
I remember a music video, but I cannot seem to find it on-line. Instead, here’s a live performance from 1983.
Oh, and the final two lines are very close in both German and English. The German translates to “I have found a balloon. / I think of you and let it fly.”
Finally, as will be obvious to anyone who speaks German fluently, I do not. I am learning it, but am far from fluent. (Indeed, apologies to German-speakers for the flaws in my pronunciation. As I listened to my performance, I realize that my vs should be closer to an English f. I am reasonably satisfied with my zs, though.)
Thus: any and all corrections would be most welcome!
You could perform a #PlagueSong, too. All languages welcome. Or you could perform a song without words. I’ve many ideas on this playlist. But I know there are many more I’ve not considered.
- Germany and the German Language
- Fight Stupidity; Keep Reading: A Dispatch from the Internationale Jugendbibliothek (on the KSU English blog) (30 Nov. 2018)
- Mundo Azul, Berlin (10 July 2019). The greatest children’s bookshop I have ever seen.
- Ruth Krauss auf Deutsch (25 July 2020). Two different German translations of the Krauss-Sendak classic, A Hole Is to Dig.
- Plague Songs
- Sing. Sing a Song. #PlagueSongs, no. 1 (17 Mar. 2020). Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive.”
- Do Not Touch Your Face. #PlagueSongs, no. 2 (24 Mar. 2020). The Weeknd’s “I Can’t Feel My Face.”
- The Bright Side. #PlagueSongs, no. 3 (31 Mar. 2020). Monty Python’s “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life.” Also the first post where I began my practice of using a lyric as the title.
- It’s later than you think. #PlagueSongs, no. 4 (7 Apr. 2020). Prince Buster’s “Enjoy Yourself.” (Also: the discovery that I cannot play ska.)
- There doesn’t seem to be anyone around. #PlagueSongs, no. 5 (14 Apr. 2020). Tommy James and the Shondells’ “I Think We’re Alone Now.”
- Be an optimist instead. #PlagueSongs, no. 6 (21 Apr. 2020). The Kinks’ “Better Things.”
- Kick at the darkness. #PlagueSongs, no. 7 (28 Apr. 2020). Bruce Cockburn’s “Lovers in a Dangerous Time.”
- So far away, but still so near. #PlagueSongs, no. 8 (5 May 2020). Robyn’s “Dancing on My Own.”
- If you just call me. #PlagueSongs, no. 9 (12 May 2020). Bill Withers’ “Lean on Me.”
- In the end, they’ll be the only ones there. #PlagueSongs, no. 10 (19 May 2020). Hanson’s “MMMBop,” and a few chords from Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit.”
- No matter how I struggle and strive. #PlagueSongs, no. 11 (25 May 2020). Hank Williams’ “I’ll Never Get Out of This World Alive.”
- Love. #PlagueSongs, no. 12 (1 June 2020). Medley of Nick Lowe’s “(What’s so Funny ‘Bout) Peace Love, and Understanding” and the O’Jays’ “Love Train,” with brief snippets of the Staple Singers’ “This Train” and the Beatles’ “All You Need Is Love.”
- This is the time. #PlagueSongs, no. 13 (9 June 2020). Lou Reed’s “There Is No Time.”
- My neighbor and my friend. #PlagueSongs, no. 14 (16 June 2020). Fred Rogers’ “Won’t You Be My Neighbor.”
- If you’re lost, I’m right behind. #PlagueSongs, no. 15 (23 June 2020). Everything But the Girl’s “We Walk the Same Line.”
- Live to see another day. #PlagueSongs, no. 16 (30 June 2020). The Bee Gees’ “Stayin’ Alive.”
- Offer me solutions, offer me alternatives, and I decline. #PlagueSongs, no. 17 (7 July 2020). R.E.M.’s “It’s the End of the World as We Know It (and I Feel Fine).”
- Someday we’ll find it. #PlagueSongs, no. 18 (14 July 2020). Kermit the Frog’s “Rainbow Connection.”
- Can’t control my brain. #PlagueSongs, no. 19 (21 July 2020). Ramones’ “I Wanna Be Sedated.”
- 4’33” #PlagueSongs, no. 20. AND 43 notes on silence, time, and the corona era (28 July 2020). John Cage’s 4’33”, plus an essay inspired by the piece.
- What Is Your COVID-19 Routine?