Thursday, October 30, 2008

General Notes on the Translations from the German Contained Herein

(For a PDF version of these notes, go to The Worldview Annex.)


1. They are all of them[1] wholly original efforts neither profiting from nor handicapped by consultation of other translations, and hence my exclusive copyright. I feel obliged to make this declaration out of fear not so much of willful and outright theft--for Lord knows the interest in them hitherto evinced has been slight enough!--as of the casual stopper-by's inadvertent misconstruction of this site as a part-time Project Gutenberg-syndicating engine.

2. Only those translations postscripted by "THE END" are even provisionally complete; the rest are (at most) so-called works in progress.

3. The date of the post in which a translation is contained corresponds to the date of its most recent augmentation or revision.

4. Flagrant interpolations and conjectures, passages obviously unfit to stand in their present state, undigested bits of Deutsch (whether for the sake of clarification or the lack of a dictionary definition), and editorial comments are all enclosed within square brackets.

5. Now that the reader has been apprised that this site is not a part-time Project Gutenberg syndicating engine, he may well be wondering what, if anything, my original translations have to offer that certain free inline alternatives to them do not. Suppose, for example, that having penned a review of his local opera company’s production of Les Contes d’Hoffmann, he is vacillating over which of the top three conjectural Google hits for “Hoffmann Don Juan translation” to post as a link for further reading. Above a listing of my translation he espies one of a 1999-copyrighted translation by one Mark Caputo, Orville Redenbacher Professor of German at Vermont State University (i.e., an evidently non-native Germanophone with evidently impeccable if not necessarily sterling academic credentials); while below it he finds some Gutenbergian reference to an 1858 translation by one Penelope Schfinster (academic qualifications unknown). The first listing holds in promise, at minimum, the fruits of a decades-old daily immersion in the source language plus a degree of articulateness in the target language sufficient to teaching and grading therein; while the second arrogates to itself—however feeble Miss Schfinster’s skill as a Germanist might turn out to be—the un-overratable advantage of historical proximity. Whereas mine…well, what can I tell you? I have, on the one hand, been seriously, intensively—and whatever other emetic adverbs traditionally stand as a screen for “spending a measurable fraction of each and every goshdamn day”—studying the German language for only about three years now. And well into the second of those three years I was blithely oblivious of even so elementary a grammatical idiosyncrasy of the language as the separable verbal prefix. Yea--I kid thee not, DGR--a scant 33 months ago, in my first dry-run at translating Hoffmann’s Don Juan, I rendered “Das Theater fängt an!” as “The theater is catching on!” And yet, even then, I was hardly a stranger to German. Indeed, the two of us—Deutsch und ich—were already, in a certain manner of speaking, alte Freunde. For from the age of 16 onwards, I had been intimately familiar with the sound and a certain portion of the lexicon of the language, and the typographical realization of both, thanks to numerous liberally-annotated and libretto’d recordings of the lieder of Schubert and Mahler, and of Berg’s two operas Wozzeck and Lulu. It is difficult to qualify and quantify the merit of such a superficial but longstanding acquaintance with the source language; at minimum, I suspect, it means that I have a better than average inner German reader, and that as a consequence I will do a better than average job of preserving the rhythms of my source texts. In the end, though, my chief qualification may be of a negative and more general nature; inasmuch as, unlike many professional Foreignists, I have not sought in my second language a refuge from any perceived shortcomings of my native one, and I do not seek to punish my fellow-countrymen for not having accompanied me into exile. Such that you will never catch me writing the likes of this: “Anschauung, Vorstellung, Aufhebung, formed, like so many philosophical terms in German, from verbs describing familiar and rudimentary actions, are rendered [by previous translators] into an English which deprives them of their effective connotations and thereby of their truth-content, generally by latinizing them[.]”; or this: "The criterion of clarity [in English] is rigidly enforced by a grammar which taboos long sentences as clumsy and whose ideal remains brevity and simplicity at all costs. Polemical exceptions, from Sterne to Byron, have only reinforced the prevailing maxim that if something is worth saying it can be said directly and to the point. This tendency to break thought down into its smallest, self-contained, monadic parts is probably the most formidable barrier to dialectics. The absence of word-genders and inflections make long sentences prohibitively clumsy if not impossible, and thus prevent or discredit the complex hypotactic constructions which are the life-blood of dialectical thinking."[2]

The first block of assertions is partly true: German words (and not just philosophical terms) are more often than English ones derived from verbs (and nouns) “describing familiar and rudimentary actions.” But in “latinizing” such words into English do we really “deprive them of their truth-content”? Perhaps, but only to the extent that we deprive a preface of a book of its truth-content in renominating it a foreword, or that in comprehending something we fail to understand it; or that Schlegel corrupted Shakespeare’s philosophy in rendering it as Schulweisheit. To the Sontagsdeutschfreund such distinctions can only carry so much Schwere. Being a lover—some would perhaps say, rather, a futator--of words tout court, and one, moreover, hyper-scrupulously heedful of their various denotative and connotative force-fields, he cannot for the life of him exorcise something more corporeal than the mere ghost of a suspicion that his choice between this and that English word allegedly mutually segregated by twenty Hindoo [sic] caste levels of register is more often than not wholly arbitrary, or, to put a sufficiently fine a point on it, it is governed prevailingly by the criterion of novelty—by the question of which of the two is newer to him, or of which of them he is less tired. And being deeply and by nature an internationalist, he cannot help suspecting that the same sort of capriciousness is sometimes at work in the soul-smithies of even the most punctilious native Germanaphone stylist; that his opting for say, wahrnehmen in place of fühlen may at least occasionally be governed by the brute fact that he has already used fühlen ten times in the last two pages of the composition to hand, rather than by some sort of ineffaceable mental snapshot of a pair of hands snatching at an allegorical statue of Lady Truth (i.e., in place of a mental snapshot of a pair of hands groping at nothing in particular). And finally, in putting this suspicion into translational practice, and seeking principally to reproduce the sheer number and variety of words in his original text, he may just—despite his limited Erfahrung—come to produce a more readable English version than certain of his more etymologically-orientated professional non-colleagues have done.

The second block, on the other hand, can most favorably be read as an eloquent tribute to the damage wreaked on received opinion of the English prose tradition by the likes of Messers Hemingway and Mailer (or, perhaps, by their fans among the faculties of American higher and lower education). Sterne and Byron are not “polemical exceptions” to some KISS-ian norm of Anglo-Saxon prose composition established by Bede or King Alfred; indeed, in their bent for the hypotactic and the periodic they were very much in the mainstream of their respective times. The “absence [sic] of word genders and inflections” in their vernacular medium never discouraged Thomas Browne or Samuel Johnson or Edward Gibbon or William Hazlitt from penning whole paragraphs and indeed pages devoid of full stops; nor can the presence of grammatical gender and merely relative abundance of inflections have done much on their own to facilitate German prolixity. (As these notes presuppose no knowledge of or curiosity about the technicalities of German grammar on the reader’s part, I shall confine my elaboration of that last clause to this brief parenthesis: the marking of oblique cases in certain forms of the articles, and of three genders in the relative pronoun derived from the definite article, together allow for substantially greater flexibility of word order within clauses in German than in English, but in his transit between clauses [and it is in interclausial betweenness alone that hypotaxis consists], the decorous Germanophone writer is practically as syntactically straitjacketed and hamstrung as his Anglophone counterpart.) Like many another polemicist on behalf of the continental old world, Mr. Weber has mistaken a uniquely recent global quality or phenomenon for a uniquely, trans-historically Anglo-Saxon one. I now yield the floor to W. G. Sebald, an author whose patiently anti-telegraphic prose style has won more admirers in Britain and America than in his native Germany: "There are hypotactical syntax forms in these [i.e., his own self-consciously archaic] sentences which have been abandoned by practically all the writers now for reasons of convenience. Also because they are no longer accustomed to it. But if you dip into any form of eighteenth- or nineteenth-century discursive prose--the English essayists, for example [he probably means the romantic essayists, viz. Lamb, de Quincey, Hazlitt, etc.[3]--these forms exist in previous ages of literature and they have simply fallen into disrepair." And here, in connection with this syntactical “disrepair,” is where I—a veritable verbal Bob Villa in search of a late Georgian or early Regency fixer-upper (or its German stylistic equivalent [Biedermeier, as far as I know, is a style of furniture and not of architecture proper]) —come in, and where Professor Caputo might at least consider graciously to step aside. For even supposing he is a specialist in Die Romantik, Professor Caputo has probably devoted the better part of his reading since graduate school to critical essays and monographs penned by his fellow Germanists, few of whom are sympathetically inclined to the old hypotatctic tradition, and fewer still of whom manage to smuggle any traces of such sympathy past the internal and external customs officials of contemporary professional academic style; whereas I have read little in the past decade that does not hail from the high period of the old hypotactic style, such that I may with a certain sort of legitimacy claim Sterne, Hume, and Johnson as my contemporaries and Dickens, Arnold, and Twain as my juniors. Oh, to be sure, I’m all about the F******k, the Y**-T**e, the B*n-w*h b*lls; I doff my assless chaps one leg at a time just like the next intermillennial yobbo, but when it comes to putting a sentence together—why, I would sooner coordinate a pair of peppermint tartan slacks with a Charlie Brown pullover than one plausibly subordinable or superordinable clause with another. (Yes, I know the content of the preceding sentence is contradicted by its form, in exchange for which contradiction I hereby append the present sentence, whose triple-subordinated construction attests, I trust, to my proclivity for, if not competence in, the old style.) Such that in my eyes the convoluted periods of Hoffmann and Novalis appear entirely natural, and any attempt to untangle them into something more conformable to intermillennial prejudices in favor of the paratactic is bound to seem perverse, counterintuitive, or what have you—in other words, the rendering of these sentences into so-called acceptable intermillennial prose would effectively involve a second translation that I would just as soon not undertake, given that, well, in the first and most obvious place, it would involve extra work, and in the second—well (I at last exclaim, succumbing to my exasperation in outrage, and with arms akimbo) just who the heck are these troglodytic contemporaries of mine who can’t be arsed to sit through a few measly semicolons at a stretch, and why must their impatience be humored? Where, for example does Alain de Botton get off writing, a propos of translating out of Proust’s French: “[P]lenty of challenges remain for the Proustian translator. One of these stems from the way that the French language changes much less slowly [sic] than English: you only have to read Pascal’s Penseés, written in 1660, then switch to Sir Thomas Browne’s Urn Burriall, written in 1658. The former sounds like it could have been written yesterday, the latter verges on incomprehensibility.” Both the former and the latter of these assertions verge on the ridiculous: in point of its grammatical essentials, none of the big five or six modern Western European languages has changed very much in the past half-millennium. The principal reason that the Penseés is more accessible to a twenty-first century Francophone readership than Urn Buriall is to a twenty-first century Anglophone one is that that Pascal’s vocabulary is much smaller and more commonplace than Browne’s, and that Browne happens to prefer longer and more involved sentences than Pascal’s. Neither Pascal’s apparent up-to-dateness nor Browne’s apparent archaism is an ineluctable quality of the French or English of their time, and the soulier would be very much on the other pied were one to use, say, Pepys and Bousset as exemplary comparanda. Anyway, to take up Mr. de Botton again from where I forced him to leave off (of necessity, as he is inadvertently alluding to quite a different pseudo-problem in this next sentence): “As a result, the old Scott Moncrieff [translation] can on occasion feel very anachronistic. Characters say, ‘By jove,’ and ‘Old Boy,’ and come across as Edwardian, whereas their French counterparts continue to move with the times.” Here, Mr. de Botton is guilty of what one may term the Ptolemaic fallacy: Scott Moncrieff’s Anglophone realizations of Proust’s characters may be indeed be off-puttingly Edwardian to a certain hyper-whiggish Elizabethan (sichissimo!) sensibility, but even if their French counterparts are not correspondingly off-putting to present-day Francophones, this axiomatically cannot be because they “are moving with the times”—for that expression absurdly suggests that they have adopted the oaths and epithets of Chiracian (and now Sarkozyian) France—but rather because the times have stood still for them; in other words, that the French lexicon of the present retains vestiges of “Edwardianism” that have disappeared from English since Proust’s and Moncrieff’s day. In any case, if the repulsiveness of Moncrieff-Proust’s linguistic folkways, whatever their provenance, is so acute to “us” as to be remedied only by the substitution of more palatably intermillennial oaths and epithets, then why stop there? Why not, say, “translate” the frock coats, crinolines [?], and pantaloons of M. and Mme. Swann et al. into T-shirts, thongs, and jeans? Or the various tilburies, barouches, calashes, and fiacres into cars of socio-demographic significatively analogous brands, makes, and models (actually, it occurs to me now that this would be a more worthwhile exercise for the translator of Balzac)? By this point, I may seem to have strayed rather far afield of my topic, but fear not: my coté du chez Swann is about to join up with my coté du Guermantes; for it is Professor Caputo above all others, catering as he must do to an audience of undergraduates, who is most likely to be inclined, and ultimately to succumb, to this temptation to level and update. At the very least he is bound occasionally to barbarize by omission, by forbearing to use a given word or turn of phrase for fear that it will not be instantly recognized and understood by his semi-literate, dictionarophobic constituency, and substituting in its place some more commonplace synonym, which while not being technically anachronistic, sells short the lexical resources of his source language, and buys short those of our own.
What, then, given that my motto is essentially “The more unabashedly old-fangled, the better,” can I say in comparative defense of my own translation against that of Miss Schphinster? The rudiments of such a defense are, of course, to be found above, in my orchidically burdensome assertion of virtual contemporaneity with Hume, Sterne, and Johnson, but this assertion hardly constitutes an open-and-shut, water-tight case on its own, for Miss Schphinster may, after all, turn out to have been an aficionado and student of all three authors, and to have written a monograph or two on each in the way of proof of such devotion and attention. The (again O-B) case I really needs must make is that I, as a certain sort of native-born citizen of the early twenty-first century, enjoy a twinned citizenship with the early nineteenth such as could never have been enjoyed by even a native-born undevicentarian. There are at least two ways I could go about this. I could, in the first place, and more prosaically, draw on notable precedents in one of the other so-called arts, namely musical performance. Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau and Glenn Gould, for example, certainly have their detractors, but it is generally agreed that they did a much finer job, in their recordings, of realizing the so-called intentions of Schubert and Bach, respectively, than did any of the most ardently Schubertophile or Bachophile singers and keyboardists of the preceding generation—the Hotters and Landowskas et al.—who were axiomatically situated, in virtue of sheer accident of birth, a good quarter-century closer to the date of their expounded works’ inceptions. And if they could thus cheat history in so flagrantly successful a fashion, why can I not do the same? Oh, of course, at first blush I may seem to be hoist once again by my own petard; at first blush, the potential laurels of any such endeavor needs must be placed on the brows of Professor Caputo—if, that is, all I am talking about are certain parallel improvements in philologico-hermeneutic and musico-performative technique as have been witnessed in the past three hemi-centuries. But in point of fact, the virtue that I am getting at has absolutely nothing to do with either of these. What I am getting at, rather, is a kind of so-called 24-7—or at least 8-3.5—imbuement of one’s total habitus with the objective materials of one’s so-called craft as has been witnessed in the specific cases of Messers Gould and Fischer-Dieskau. I am thinking here, of course, of all of those thousands of hours and millions of feet of paper and videotape and cinefilm to which DFD and GG both devoted not to their official bailiwicks, to vocal or keyboard technique, but rather to the music of Bach and Schubert and plenty of other composers eo ipso, in perverse defiance of the division of labor that more or less insured that, as the specialized musicological likes of H. H. Stuckenschmidt and Karl Dalhaus and (more contestably[4]) Charles Rosen were already penning the very last definitive words on these subjects, their own ruminations thereunto would be relegated to the dustbin of gentleman-amateurdom. As they more or less have been qua musicological treatises, but qua sheer bona fides of their authors’ profound commitment to and understanding of the music of Bach and Schubert, they are of course very much out of the dustbin, and alive and kicking. Now, I may be—nay, decidedly am—lacking in the degree of technical competence at my chosen instrument (the German language) and understanding of my chosen media (the specific works), that DFD and GG enjoyed at theirs, but I am certainly every bit as fain as they were to devote my so-called off hours to talking about the medium and the instrument, should anyone be equally fain to give me a platform for such discoursing. Indeed, even in the absence of such a platform, I’ve managed to insinuate thousands if not tens of thousands of words on the subject into my writings and personal chit-chat; which is more than either Professor Caputo or Miss Schphinster can say for himself or herself (or, more to the point, has ever gotten around to saying for himself or herself). These Notes constitute but a minute fraction of the actual extant total of such remarks, and of the potential total thereof, the total that I would deliver myself of given my druthers (or, what comes to the same thing, the aforementioned platform) …why, the proportion must be incalculably tiny. In short, DGR, if what you’re looking for is an hermetically idiomatically correct nineteenth-century translation, Miss Schphinster’s version might just suit your purposes. But I dare you to try to get hold of Miss Schphinster on the blower in the wee small ones of a Thursday, or even at mid-day on a Saturday, to ask her why she chose to render empfinden as perceive rather than as feel on line 253 in her translation of Novalis’s Lehrlinge; or why (unlike Professor Caputo), she did not think “is initiating relationships” was a suitable translation of “knüpft Verbindungen” in Letter No. 6 of Book I of Tieck’s William Lovell. They don’t exactly keep office hours on that side of the bourn from which no traveler, etc. Whereas I am not only corporeally capable (touch wood) of answering such queries, but eager to do so till the proverbial cows come home. After all (and equally proverbially), I got nothing better—and plenty worse—to do.

More poetically I could perhaps favorably liken my endeavor to the most celebrated feat of a certain not uncelebrated Frenchman of the early part of the last century, Pierre Menard. I shan’t insult the reader’s urbanity by reminding him of the nature of the feat, or rehearsing the so-called story behind it—for this story is, after all, by now known to every schoolboy; and, in any case, I was not put in mind of the possibility of such a comparison by the feat itself but rather by a certain remark made apropos of it by one of Menard’s more alacritous boosters:

Menard selects as his “reality” the land of Carmen during the century of Lepanto and Lope de Vega. What a series of espagnolades that selection would have suggested to Maurice Barrès or Dr. Rodríguez Larreta! Menard eludes them with complete naturalness. In his work there are no gypsy flourishes or conquistadors or mystics or Philip the Seconds or autos da fé. He neglects or eliminates local color. This disdain points to a new conception of the historical novel. This disdain condemns Salammbô , with no possibility of appeal.

It seems to me that the majority, if not totality, of twentieth and twenty-first century English translations of pre-twentieth century texts suffer from a defect not merely analogous to, but even coterminous with, the defects that this commentator ascribes by negative implication to the modern historical novel of the Salammbôian type; that is to say, they are more principally interested in those aspects of their subjects that appeal to us—or, rather, a certain idea of us—than in those that would have appealed, as near as we can tell, to their subjects’ contemporaries. Among historical novels, this preference manifests itself in—among many other more reprehensible things—what the commentator disparages as “local color,” a pedantic over-attention to the way things are supposed to have looked or been done or been said in a given place or epoch. Thus, Salammbô gives us a nineteenth-century real-estate appraiser’s view of ancient Carthage, Ships Shooting at Each Other: In the Middle of Nowhere, a view of Nelsonian naval life that only a truly Gulliverian[5] sensibility can appreciate. Among translations, this predilection is made manifest—please pardon my decidedly inelegant variation—in the sort of linguistic present-ifying efforts of which I have already complained and given sufficiently abundant examples. In succumbing to either predilection, one is taking the easy, indeed the libertine’s, way out; to avoid doing so, and thereby to risk making the text virtually unreadable by any empirical twenty-first century reader, requires a well-nigh heroic degree of asceticism. Or perhaps this asceticism is merely perverse: for whose approval or attention is one seeking, if not some empirical living reader’s--one’s own self’s, perhaps? To be sure: but of what stratum or register of that self? Surely not the so-called innermost core thereof; for that would imply an extremity of so-called identification with one’s source text as has been realized perhaps only by one Watt at the ***** tavern in Alexandria, Virginia. I have indeed written the following words in the character of E. T. A. Hoffmann: “Every composer can call to mind some original, powerful impression immune to the ravages of time. The spirit immanent in living sound has spoken to him, enunciating a Logos that has appropriated him to its own ends, awakening the spirit long dormant in his soul and causing it to shine forth with eternally unconquerable radiance. Indeed, in being imbued with such radiance, all melodies that come from the heart seem to us to be the rightful property of the women who first ignited the melodic flame therein. Once having heard them, we commit to paper only what they have sung.” But, for all of my previously avowed syntactic sympathy with the ancients, am I any more capable of understanding these four sentences as some counterfactually Anglophone Hoffmann would have understood them than Menard was capable of understanding his own Don Quixote as an “opposition of the tawdry provincial reality of his country to the fictions of chivalry”? If the answer to this question is “no,” and yet, nonetheless, I manage to hoodwink someone or other into mistaking passages such as these for authentic specimens of nineteenth-century prose, will I not have accomplished something of merit? The nature of that something still eludes me, but that, whatever it may be, it is worth coming into being, is beyond dispute in my eyes. In the end, perhaps misappropriation as the quasi-anonymous products of a part-time Gutenberg syndicating engine is a fate neither ignominious nor undesirable for these texts: in the end, indeed, such a misappropriation may turn out to be the ultimate tribute that can be paid to them.




[1] Yes, even the Bernhard interview, to whatever extent an unauthorized translation of a pirated text can be legally copyrighted.

[2] Samuel M. Weber in the preface to Shierry Weber’s and his translation of Theodor W. Adorno’s Prisms (Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1967; pp. 12 and 13, respectively).

[3] If so, he might be less censoriously getting at much the same thing as Edmund Wilson is getting at in the following passage from A Window on Russia (New York, 1972) : “Gogol’s style is a variety of that viscous prose which—for reasons rather difficult to understand—was so popular in the early nineteenth century. The plum cake of Charles Lamb is a typical example; so in a different field, is the maddeningly impeded narrative style of a Hawthorne or a Herman Melville. This style allows no rapid progression. A paragraph seems a mere clot of words, which might almost as well be read backward as forward and in which the contrived rhythms have the air of being ends in themselves, since they are always forcing the reader to stop and pay attention to them instead of sweeping him on. This style must have been due to some very strong pressures, for it is shared to some extent by a writer who worked on a big scale, like Balzac; and even by a popular writer like Scott, who did want to tell a story. The settings of the stage in Balzac, the antiquarian preliminaries of Scott, are often entanglements of this littered non-functional style, which combines the facetious with the pompous, clumsily handled actualities with jaunty mythological allusions” (41). I don’t know about “clumsily handled actualities,” but “jaunty mythological allusions” are certainly characteristic of Hoffmann and Tieck (and uncharacteristic of their eighteenth-century model, Sterne).

[4] More contestably: because Rosen, like Gould, was—and still is—a professional pianist. I sometimes wonder whether his reputation as a pianist has not more suffered than benefited from his reputation as a musicologist and literary critic.

[5]I mean specifically characteristic of the Gulliver of the early paragraphs of the Voyage to Brobdingnag, as exemplified by the following sentence: “We got the Star-board tacks aboard, we cast off our weather-braces and Lifts; we set in the Lee-braces, and hawl’d forward by the Weather-bowlings, and hawl’d them tight, and belayed them, and hawl’d over the Missen Tack to Windward, and kept her full and by as near as she would lye.”



Copyright ©2008 by Douglas Robertson

1 comment:

JasonR said...

I have assembled a collection of bones to pick with recent translators of the modern classic

Indeed. Of these bones are quarrels made.