Goethe-Zitate: German to English Quotations by Goethe

Famous Lines From the Prolific German Poet

Painting of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Staedelmuseum, Frankfurt, Hesse, Germany
altrendo travel Getty

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749–1832) was a prolific German poet and writer. Within his body of work are many quotes (zitate, in German) that are now famous bits of wisdom passed down through the generations. A number of these have also influenced other popular musings and sage advice.

Among Goethe's best-known lines are those below. Many come from published books of the poet's work while a few are from personal correspondence.

Here, we will explore them in both their original German as well as the English translations.

One of the Best-Known Goethe Quotes

"Man sieht nur das, was man weiß."

English Translation: You only see what you know.

Goethe From "Die Wahlverwandtschaften"

"Die Wahlverwandtschaften" (Elective Affinities) was Goethe's third novel published in 1809.

"Glücklicherweise kann der Mensch nur einen gewissen Grad des Unglücks fassen; was darüber hinausgeht, vernichtet ihn oder läßt ihn gleichgültig."

English Translation: Fortunately, people can comprehend only a certain degree of misfortune; anything beyond that either destroys them or leaves them indifferent.

Goethe From "Maximen und Reflexionen"

"Maximen und Reflexionen" (Maxims and Reflections) is a collection of Goethe's writings published posthumously in 1833.

"Der Alte verliert eines der größten Menschenrechte: er wird nicht mehr von seines Gleichen beurteilt."

English Translation: An old man loses one of the most important rights of man: he is no longer judged by his peers.

"Es ist nichts schrecklicher als eine tätige Unwissenheit."

English Translation: There's nothing worse than ignorance in action.

Goethe to Eckermann, 1830

Goethe and fellow poet Johann Peter Eckermann regularly corresponded with one another.

This comes from a 1830 letter to Eckermann.

"Napoleon gibt uns ein Beispiel, wie gefährlich es sei, sich ins Absolute zu erheben und alles der Ausführung einer Idee zu opfern."

English Translation: Napoleon provides us an example of how dangerous it is to be elevated to the absolute and to sacrifice everything to implement an idea.

Goethe From "Wilhelm Meisters Wanderjahre"

"Wilhelm Meisters Wanderjahre" (Wilhelm Meister's Journeyman Years) is the third in a series of books written by Goethe. It was first published in 1821, then revised and republished in 1829.

"Unter allem Diebesgesindel sind die Narren die schlimmsten. Sie rauben euch beides, Zeit und Stimmung."

English Translation: Of all the thieving riff-raff, fools are the worst. They steal both your time and your good mood.

"Das Leben gehört den Lebenden an, und wer lebt, muss auf Wechsel gefasst sein."

English Translation: Life belongs to the living, and those who live must be prepared for change.

"Es gibt keine patriotische Kunst und keine patriotische Wissenschaft. Beide gehören, wie alles hohe Gute, der ganzen Welt an..."

English Translation: There is no patriotic art and no patriotic science. Both belong, like all high good, to the whole world...

Goethe From "Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre"

"Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre" (Wilhelm Meister's Apprenticeship) is the second volume in Goethe's famous series, published in 1795.

"Alles, was uns begegnet, läßt Spuren zurück. Alles trägt unmerklich zu unserer Bildung bei."

English Translation: Everything we encounter leaves traces behind. Everything contributes imperceptibly to our education.

"Die beste Bildung findet ein gescheiter Mensch auf Reisen."

English Translation: The best education for a clever person is found in travel.

Goethe From "Sprichwörtlich"

The following are small excerpts from Goethe's poem "Sprichwörtlich" (Proverbial).

Zwischen heut' und morgen
liegt eine lange Frist.
Lerne schnell besorgen,
Da du noch munter bist.

English Translation:

Between today and tomorrow
lies a long time.
Learn quickly to take care of things
while you're still fit.

Tu nur das Rechte in deinen Sachen;
Das andre wird sich von selber machen.

English Translation:

Just do the right thing in your affairs;
The rest will take care of itself.

Goethe From "Reineke Fuchs"

"Reineke Fuchs" is a 12-song epic written by Goethe in 1793.

"Besser laufen, als faulen."

English Translation: Better to run than to rot.

Goethe From "Hermann und Dorothea"

"Hermann and Dorothea" is one of Goethe's epic poems published in 1796.

"Wer nicht vorwärts geht, der kommt zurücke."

English Translation: If you're not going forward, you're going backward.

Goethe From "Faust I (Vorspiel auf dem Theater)"

"Faust I" is a collection of Goethe's work and when combined with "Faust II," the two span 60 years of the poet's artistic writings. "Vorspiel auf dem Theater" (Prelude on the Theater) is one poem examining the conflicts of drama and theater.

Was glänzt, ist für den Augenblick geboren,
Das Echte bleibt der Nachwelt unverloren.

English Translation:

That which glitters is born for the moment;
The genuine remains intact for future days.