Saturday, August 02, 2008

A Translation of "Don Juan" by E. T. A. Hoffmann

(For a PDF version of this translation, go to The Worldview Annex). 


A supernatural episode in the life of a traveling music lover

A piercing chime of bells; a resonant cry of "The spectacle is about to commence!" roused me from the gentle slumber into which I had sunk; contrabasses are chaotically rumbling--a stroke of a kettledrum--some trumpet blasts--a clear, sustained A delivered by an oboe--violins join in, tuning up: I rub my eyes. Had Satan, in his unflagging industry, seen fit to make my drunken self the butt of one of his jokes--? No! I find that I am in no other place than my room at the hotel I checked into, barely standing, last night. Directly above my nose is suspended the imposing tassel of the bell-rope; I give it a hefty tug, and the waiter appears.

"What in heaven's name is the meaning of this charivari next door? Is there a concert taking place on the premises?"

"Your Excellency"--I had drunk some of the house champagne at lunchtime--"Your Excellency is perhaps unaware that this hotel and the theater are one and the same establishment. This secret door gives on to a short passageway, from which you may proceed directly to No. 23: the visitor's box."

"What? A theater? A visitor's box?"

"Yes, the tiny visitor's box seating two--or, at most, three--persons, reserved for the use of distinguished gentlemen, wallpapered all in green, and with latticed windows, right next to the stage! Today, if it please your Excellency, we are presenting Don Giovanni by the illustrious Mozart of Vienna. The fee of a thaler and eight groschen will be added to your bill."

By the time he had finished speaking, he was already making way for me at the entrance to the box, so hastily had I stepped through the secret door and into the passageway on hearing the name Don Giovanni. The hall was quite spacious by small-town standards, tastefully decorated, and splendidly lit. The boxes and the pit were both packed. With the sounding of the first chords of the overture I knew that, thanks to a first-rate orchestra, I was guaranteed the fullest enjoyment of the masterpiece, however feeble the singing should prove to be. In the andante, I was overwhelmed by the torments of the infernal regno all pianto; blood-curdling premonitions of the horrors thereof pervaded my imagination. The jubilant fanfare in the seventh bar of the allegro sounded to me like a gleefully committed sacrilege: from out of the blackest night I discerned fiery demons stretching forth their glowing claws upwards towards the heedless mortals merrily dancing on the thin surface of a bottomless abyss. The conflict of human nature with those unknown diabolical forces that, in surrounding it, ultimately spell its ruin, was made manifest to me in its starkest clarity. At length the tempest subsides; the curtain rises. Chilly, disgruntled, huddled in his cloak, Leporello paces up and down in the gloom of night against the background of the pavilion. "Notte e giorno faticar"--What's this I'm hearing? Italian, in this provincial German town? Ah, che piacere! I shall hear everything, down to the last recitative, as it was received and re-conceived in the mind of the master! Now Don Giovanni comes rushing out, trailed by Donna Anna, clutching at the skirts of the malefactor's cloak. What a sight this is! To be sure, she ought to have been a bit taller, a bit thinner, a bit more majestic in her carriage; but what a face!--eyes that radiate love, rage, hate, and despair like the single focal point of a prism casting forth such inextinguishable sparks as sear the heart like Greek fire! Tresses of her dark, untied hair cascade in undulating curls along the nape of her neck. Her white nightgown perfidiously divulges no small number of irresistible charms to the spectator's prying eyes. One's heart fairly palpitates in violent protest against the enormity of the crime. And now (what a voice!): "Non sperar se non m'uccidi." Through the orchestral tempest her notes shine forth like incandescent lightning-bolts, like veritable shafts of ethereally molded quicksilver! In vain Don Giovanni tries to tear himself away from her. But does he really want to? Why does he not repel the woman with a mighty blow of his fist and make his escape? Has the evil deed rendered him impotent, or is it the struggle between love and hate that has deprived him of his courage and strength? Old Papa in his foolishness falls on his powerful adversary in the dark and pays for it with his life; Don Giovanni and Leporello, conversing in recitative, step forward to the proscenium. Don Giovanni shakes off his cloak and stands there splendidly attired in slashed scarlet velvet embroidered with silver. A powerful, majestic figure: the face is masculinely beautiful; a noble nose, piercing eyes, tenderly-shaped lips; the curious play of one of the forehead muscles over the eyebrows secondarily lends to the physiognomy a certain Mephistophelean quality--which quality, while not vitiating the beauty of the countenance in the slightest, elicits a thrill of involuntary horror. It is as if he is a past master of the magic art of the rattlesnake; as if women, once they have met his gaze, can no longer part with him and, spellbound by his uncanny power, must ineluctably achieve their own ruin. Tall and gaunt in his red and white-striped doublet, Leporello circles stumblingly around him. In the aggregate, Leporello's features evince a curious amalgam of bonhomie, roguishness, lubricity, and sarcastic impudence, just as his grizzled hair and beard stand out in curious contrast to his jet-black eyebrows. Plainly, one notes, this old boy is fully qualified to be Don Giovanni's trusty right-hand man. Luckily, they flee the scene just in time, over the wall...Torches. Donna Anna reappears with Don Ottavio: a dainty, squeaky-clean slip of a man aged, at most, twenty-one years. Inasmuch as he has been summoned hither so expeditiously, one surmises that, on account of his betrothal to Anna, he shares quarters with the family; the first audible signs of the commotion, which he undoubtedly heard, gave him more than enough time to dash outside and rescue the old man: he needed, however, to attend to his toilette beforehand; and, in any case, he generally prefers not to venture out of doors at night if it can be avoided.—“Ma qual mai s’offre, o dei, spettacolo funesto agli ochi miei!” Something more than mere despair over the enormity of the outrage itself inheres in the gruesome notes of this recitative and duet. It is not solely Don Giovanni’s cold-blooded murder—which, after all, portends nothing less than his inevitable destruction; and which, indeed, has already achieved nothing less than the death of the father--that wrests these notes from the anguished heart: such sounds as these can be elicited only by an all-consuming, do-or-die battle waged within the innermost depths of the soul.

Now Donna Elvira--tall and haggard yet evidently possessed of traces of great, albeit faded, beauty--resoundingly denounces the unfaithful Don thus: "Tu nido d'inganni," and the ever-sympathetic Leporello sagely observed of her: "Parla come un libro stampato," a remark I fancied I heard echoed by some other voice hailing from an indeterminable distance. It would have been all too easy for someone to slip in through the entrance of the box and creep up behind me--an interruption that would have been as fatal to my enjoyment as a stab in the heart. To my delighted relief, though, I discovered that I was, after all, still alone in the box, such that the myriad fibers of my sensorium could uninterruptedly continue, like the tentacles of a sea anemone, to seize hold of every particle of this most perfect realization of Mozart's masterpiece, and thereafter assimilate it to my being! A single word--quite apart from its-all-too-probable intrinsic inanity--would have served to tear me away, in the most grievous manner, from this glorious moment of poetic-cum-musical rapture! I thereupon resolved to take no notice of my neighbor; and, indeed, to absorb myself completely in the performance, and to ignore each and every extraneous word and glance. Out of the corner of my eye, I could see this selfsame neighbor, chin in hand, turning his back to me. The remainder of the performance proved more than a match for its superb beginning. The diminutive, concupiscent, love-sick Zerlina solaced that genial blockhead Masetto with suitably winsome notes and wiles. By way of therein evincing unalloyed contempt for the puny specimens of humanity whose feeble dreams and plans he had hijacked solely for the sake of his own pleasure, Don Giovanni unabashedly proclaimed the fundamentally chaotic essence of his character in the riotous aria "Fin ch'han dal vino"; throughout which aria, the twitching of his forehead muscle was more violently in evidence than it had been hitherto. Enter the masqueraders. Their trio is a prayer that radiates heavenward in lustrous beams of sound. Now the middle curtain rises. Everyone is having a high old time; glasses collide in resonant clinks, peasants mingle with an assortment of masked figures in one merry heap, all present having been lured hither by the Don's invitation to a party. Now the three conspirators resolve to seek their vengeance. The mood grows ever more festive, right on through to the commencement of the dance. Zerlina is rescued; and in the mighty, thunderous finale, Don Giovanni, with sword drawn, boldly confronts his adversaries. He strikes the bridegroom's steel dress sword out of his hand and forces his way through the vulgar rabble, throwing it into confusion as brave Roland did the army of the she-tyrant Cymork, sending everyone tumbling into and over each other in a most comical fashion, and thereby making his escape from the house.

Often enough I found myself wondering if I had not just felt a gentle breeze wafting against me from close behind, or if I had not just heard the rustle of a silk dress; which together allowed me to surmise the propinquity of a member of the Sex, but lost as I was in the poetic realm being divulged to me by the opera, I paid scant regard to the inference. But once the curtain had fallen, I took a look at my lady box-mate. No--no words can express my astonishment: Donna Anna, still clad head to toe in her costume, exactly as I had seen her on stage, was standing behind me and gazing directly at me with her piercing, soulful eyes. I felt the necessity of saying something to her, but for sheer astonishment--nay, terror--I could not move my tongue. At last--long last--the words escaped me almost involuntarily: "How is it possible to see you here?"; whereupon she immediately replied, in the most impeccable Tuscan accent, that if I could not speak Italian she would have to forgo the pleasure of my company, inasmuch as she, for her part, could speak no language but that one. The sweet words sounded like singing. Her speech imparted additional expressiveness to her dark blue eyes, from each of which there issued a torrent of lightning directed straight at my heart, every single one of whose fibers palpitated individually as my pulse grew ever faster and stronger. This unquestionably was Donna Anna. It did not occur to me to ponder exactly how she managed to be present in my box and on stage at the same time. For according to the same principle whereby a happy dream synthesizes the most curious combination of disparate images; and whereby a simple, pious faith comprehends supersensual phenomena and effortlessly conjoins them to the so-called natural events of life; I fell into a kind of somnambulistic trance in the presence of this astonishing woman, a trance wherein I discerned mysterious connections that bound me so intimately to her that she herself had been unable to abandon me during her appearance on stage. How glad I am to be setting down here for you, dear Theodor, every word of the remarkable conversation that now commenced between Signora and me; save for the fact that what she said eludes translation into German, that each of these words seems to me stiff and dull, each of these phrases cumbrous in articulation, by comparison what she with said with such ease and grace in Tuscan.

While she was speaking about Don Giovanni and about her role, the depths of the masterpiece yielded themselves to me for the first time, such that I managed to see clearly see through to them and distinctly discern the topography of the foreign country concealed therein. She said that her whole life was music, and that she often believed that hidden in the depths of her soul were many mysterious things that were inexpressible in words and yet intelligible to the singing voice. "Yes: then I understand it completely," she exclaimed with eyes blazing, and in a raised voice, "but it remains dead and cold in me, and icy hands are clutching at my ardent heart as the crowd applauds my intricate trills and well-executed grace notes. But you--you understand me, for I know that you too are aware of this marvelous realm inhabited by the enchantments of sound."

"But why should you--exquisite woman that you are--know me so well?"

"Does not the preternaturally lovesick madness of the character *** in your latest opera issue directly from your soul? I have understood you, for your heart has poured itself out to me in song! Yes, ******," (here she addressed me by my Christian name), "I have sung you; and, what comes to the same thing, your melodies are me."

A bell-tone signaled the end of the interval: all color immediately drained from Donna Anna's unrouged face; she started off with one hand to her heart, as if in an access of pain; and whispering, "Now, poor, unfortunate Anna, come your most terrible moments!" she vanished from the box.

Enthralled though I had been by the first act, the music of the second act made an altogether different and altogether more curious impression on me in light of the miraculous event that had preceded it. It was as though the long-promised fulfillment of my fairest dreams of some world to come were being realized in this life; as though the most ineffable presentiments of my enraptured soul were inextricably bound to the living notes and could not help manifesting themselves in the most curious, the most fantastic--and yet, for all that, the most palpable--of forms. In Donna Anna's scene I felt myself fairly shuddering for drunken bliss at the warm, gentle breeze that was then wafting over me; I involuntarily closed my eyes, and a passionate kiss seemed to sear my lips: but this kiss was like a single, indefinitely-sustained note bespeaking eternally unsatisfied longing.

The finale commenced in a burst of blasphemous high spirits: "Gia la mensa è preparata!"--Don Giovanni was seated at table between two girls, caressing them and uncorking one bottle after another by way of liberating the effervescent spirits hermetically imprisoned therein. The scene was set in a room of modest dimensions with, in the background, a large Gothic window giving on to the pitch darkness of night. Even as early as the moment when Elvira was tasking her sometime betrothed with reminders of his broken vows, one frequently espied flashes of lightning through the window and heard the ominously muffled roar of thunder. Finally comes the mighty knock at the door. Elvira and the maids flee the room, and then, to the accompaniment of that awful chord signifying the infernal world beneath, in strides the mighty marble colossus, before whom Don Giovanni stands like a mere pygmy.  The earth trembles under the giant’s thunderous footfalls. Through the tempest, through the thunder, through the wailing of the demons, Don Giovanni cries out his blood-curdling ‘No!’; the moment of his downfall has arrived. The statue vanishes; the room fills with thick clouds of smoke that assume the ghastly forms of specters and ghouls. From time to time, amidst and beneath the demons, one catches a glimpse of Don Giovanni, writhing in exquisite agony, and beset by all the torments of hell. An explosion like a thousand-bolt-strong flash of lightning: Don Giovanni and the demons have vanished; exactly how is anybody's guess! Leporello lies unconscious at the edge of the room. Salutary indeed, from the point of view of the spectator, is the subsequent appearance of the rest of the cast, searching in vain for the Don, whom subterranean powers have put beyond the reach of earthly justice. One feels as though one has only just now escaped from the dreadful orbit of the infernal spirits. Donn Anna seemed to have completely changed: her face was covered over with a deathly pallor; every trace of fire in her eyes had been extinguished; her voice was tremulous and of variable intonation, but therefore all the more heartrending in her brief duet with her beloved fiancé, who, now that heaven has handily exempted him from his post of official avenger, is all too keen to make short work of the marriage ceremony.

The fugato vocal ensemble had brought the work to a most satisfactorily unifying conclusion, and I hastened to my room in a mood of sublime exaltation. The waiter stopped by to summon me to dinner, and I mechanically followed him to the dining room. The company there, on the whole, was splendid; and their main topic of conversation was today’s staging of Don Giovanni. The Italian diction of the cast received general praise, as did their dramaturgical compatibility; and yet it was all too plain, on the evidence of certain casual remarks waggishly interjected from time to time, that nobody present had the slightest inkling of the deeper significance of this opera—or, indeed, of any other opera. Don Ottavio had done quite a fine job. Donna Anna, on the other hand, had been altogether too passionate. On stage, he1 opined, one must exercise a modicum of self-restraint and avoid untoward accesses of emotion. The staging of the rape scene completely nonplussed him. Here he took a pinch of snuff and exchanged an ineffably asinine look with his neighbor, who maintained that the Italian lady, otherwise quite a beautiful woman, had not taken sufficient pains on the score of her make-up or costume; in every single scene she had left a lock of hair undone and thereby concealed half of her face from the audience's view! Next, someone began softly to intone "Fin ch'han dal vino," whereupon a lady remarked that Don Giovanni himself had pleased her least of all: the Italian gentleman had been much too sinister, much too serious, and on the whole had failed to capture the character's essential jollity and frivolousness. The explosion at the end was heartily praised. Having had my fill of such twaddle, I hurried back to my room.

In No. 23: The Visitor's Box
How cramped, how suffocated, I felt in the muggy atmosphere of that chamber! Round midnight, dear Theodor, I fancied I heard your voice! Seemingly, from the vicinity of the secret door, and in a murmuring tone, you distinctly uttered my name. What is hindering me from revisiting the site of my recent, miraculous adventure? Perhaps I see you along with her who pervades the entirety of my being! How easy it is to bring along the little table, two candles, pen and ink! The waiter arrives to deliver the punch I have ordered; he finds the room empty, the secret door ajar: he follows me to the box and eyes me dubiously. At a sign from me, he places the bowl on the table and, with a question still sitting on the tip of his tongue, withdraws, casting yet another glance at me, sideways, en route. Turning my back to him, I lean out over the edge of the box and look into the deserted hall, whose architecture, magically illuminated and reflected by my two candles, stands forth in curious relief like some edifice out of a fairy tale. The curtain is stirred by a cross-breeze blowing through the hall. What if it should rise? If Donna Anna, haunted by a terror of gruesome specters, should appear? Involuntarily, I cry out "Donna Anna!": the cry expires in the recesses of the empty room, but the spirits of the orchestral instruments come to life--a marvelous vibration percolates upwards as if in sympathetic utterance of the beloved name! I am defenseless against the surreptitious onslaught of the wave, but it courses through my sinews to no ill effect.

I am becoming master of my state of mind and feel myself disposed, at the very least to adumbrate for you, my dear Theodor, how for the first time I have come to believe that I thoroughly grasp the deepest, most essential characteristic of the divine master’s chef d’oeuvre. Only the poet understands the poet; only a romantic soul can enter into the mysteries of romanticism; only the poetically exalted spirit, who has been initiated in the inner sanctum of its temple, can understand what a fellow initiate is inspired to express. To expound this poem (i.e., the libretto of Don Giovanni) without ascribing a deeper meaning to it, and thus merely to concede to it the superficial merit of dramatizing a good story, is to elicit the question of how Mozart managed to conceive and compose such sublime music out of such a trivial subject. A bon vivant, inordinately fond of wine and women, who invites to dinner a stone statue, a representation of an old man he has struck down in self-defense: granted, there is nothing particularly poetic in this, and, to be frank, such a person hardly merits installation as an exhibit in hell's Museum of Unworthies; that the statue, brought to life by a transfigured spirit, should go to the trouble of descending from his steed for the sake of exhorting this puny sinner to repent; nay, that the Devil himself should dispatch his closest comrades to transport the individual in question to his kingdom by the most grisly conveyance imaginable!--mark my words, Theodor: nature endowed the Don, her spoiled favorite child, with every quality that can exalt humanity, in its closest approach to the divine, above the vulgar rabble, above the shoddy factory-produced mannequins who figure as mere ciphers in her eyes (for, insofar as a human being can figure as anything in her eyes, it is as an integer: an entity sui generis extruded from the raw stuff of matter); and she did so, I say, to no other end but that of dominating and defeating him. A splendidly handsome, robust physique--a figure positively radiant with such intimations of the highest realm as seek and find their mark in the heart of another; a soul of profound feeling, a shrewd and penetrating intellect. But this is the terrible sequel of the Fall: that the Devil has retained his power to ambush man, to lay snares for him even within the very aspirations whereby, in striving to perfect himself, he expresses his divine nature. This conflict between divine and demonic forces begets the notion of earthly life; just as the eventual victory of the besieging army begets the notion of a subterranean existence in hell. The Don claimed the right to live; by this claim his spiritual and corporeal organization was actuated and inspired, and he was driven by an unquenchable yearning that coursed unceasingly through his veins to clutch at every earthly phenomenon that came his way, futilely seeking his quietus therein. To be sure, there is nothing on this earth that elevates man in the most intrinsically human sense to such a height as does love, by whose mysterious and powerful agency the fundamental constituents of his being are at once annihilated and transfigured. Small wonder, then, that Don Giovanni hoped to still the ardor that lacerated his breast through love, or that out of love the Devil saw fit to weave the noose he slung around the Don's neck. Thanks to the cunning machinations of the arch-fiend, Don Giovanni acquired a conviction that by means of love, by means of amorous dalliance, he would attain that fulfillment that dwells in our hearts solely in the form of the promise of heavenly salvation; and it is precisely this infinitely insatiable longing that establishes our most immediate relation to the spiritual realm. Restlessly fleeing the embrace of one pretty girl for that of another still prettier, passionately savoring their charms to the point of satiety and devastating intoxication, always believing himself mistaken merely in his particular choices, always hoping at last to discover the ideal of contentment, Giovanni needs must ultimately have found all the uses of this world but weary, stale, flat and unprofitable2; all the while generally despising humanity and revolting against its phenomenal manifestations, in which, inasmuch as he swore by them above all other things, he had been so bitterly disappointed. Each amorous encounter with a woman constituted not merely a gratification of his sensual appetites, but also a blasphemous slap in the faces of the creator and mother nature. He was impelled to his excesses by a profound contempt for the worldview of common sense (to which he felt himself immeasurably superior) and by a bitter scorn for humanity (whose bourgeois confederacy of the happily married at least bespeaks a humble intimation of the higher desires that nature has so maliciously implanted in our bosoms); against these institutions he rebelled, and in so doing he valiantly pitted himself against that elusive, omniscient Being whom, in light of the self-evident state of things, he regarded as nothing more than a character in some monstrously sadistic farce, on a par with the pathetic progeny of His congenital ill humor. In wresting him free of the fetters of existence, each seduction of a beloved bride-to-be--each irremediable, inconsolable, reputation-defiling breach in the good fortune of some hapless inamorata--constitutes for him a glorious triumph over the enemy forces: over Mother Nature and the creator! In truth, his unabating desire for the things of this life is but an intentional prelude to his eventual plunge into the pit of Hades. The seduction of Anna, along with its attendant consequences, is his high-water mark.

Vis-a-vis the endowments of nature, Donna Anna stands as Don Giovanni's perfect feminine counterpart and foil. For just as Don Giovanni was an archetype of masculinity in all of its marvelous splendor and power, so is she an archetype of the divinely feminine, impervious to all diabolical incursions in virtue of its spiritual purity. Once Satan had achieved her ruin, hell itself could not defer the providentially ordained exacting of heaven's vengeance. Jestingly, scornfully, Don Giovanni invites an inanimate representation of the old man he has stabbed to death to a merry dinner party; and this man's transfigured spirit, distressed on Giovanni's account for having witnessed at first hand the ultimate fate of the damned, does not scruple to appear before him in the most hideous of guises for the sake of exhorting him to repent. But his soul is so damaged, so riven, that nary a ray of hope of heavenly bliss can penetrate it, and thereby rouse him to aspire to a higher order of being!

You will doubtless have noticed, my dear Theodor, that I spoke of Anna’s ruin; and it would perhaps behoove me at this moment, when my soul's torrent of thoughts and ideas flows too fast and full for words, to explain to you as concisely as possible how I view the whole mutual relation of these two embattled natures (i.e., Don Giovanni and Donna Anna), as it is evinced by the music, irrespective of the libretto. Now I have already averred that Donna Anna is the Don's foil. How, then, given that Donna Anna had been destined by heaven for such a role, could the Don be apprised of his fundamentally divine nature--and thereby wrested free of the despair of his empty striving--through love, which, thanks to Satan's artifices, was bespoken as the agent of his destruction? He encountered her too late, during the epoch of his most outrageous excesses, when he was pervaded by such diabolical lusts as could only corrupt her. She was not rescued! As he fled the scene, her ruin was achieved. Her innermost being was overwhelmed by the fire of a superhuman sensuality, by an infernal incandescence, that rendered vain her every effort to resist. Only he, Don Giovanni, was capable of arousing in her that carnal mania with which she consequently overwhelmed him, and thereby imbued his soul with that devastating, infernally inspired spirit of transgression. Immediately after the consummation of the act, when he was thinking only of escape, she was suddenly wracked by the tormenting realization that she had been ruined, which held her fast in its embrace like some terrible, venomous, death-spewing monster. The thought of her father's death at the hands of Don Giovanni, and of her betrothal to that cold, effeminate mediocrity Don Ottavio, with whom she once fancied herself in love; the soul-pervading, all-consuming flame of love itself, which, having blazed up at the moment of her acutest pleasure, now smolders with the complementarily devastating passion of hatred: by all of these is her heart riven. She feels that Don Giovanni's downfall alone can secure peace for her restive, mortally-tormented soul, but this peace is her own earthly downfall. Henceforth, she unremittingly exhorts her frigid fiancé to avenge her; nay, she herself trails the violator's footsteps, and only once the infernal powers have dragged him down into Hades does she begin to feel more composed--and yet she cannot bring herself to humor her fiancé's marriage-lust: "lascia, o caro, un anno ancora allo sfogo del mio cor!" She will not survive this selfsame year; Don Ottavio will never know the embrace of that woman whose pious soul would not suffer her long to remain the betrothed of Satan.

How vividly I felt all of this in the innermost core of my soul, by way of the heart-rending chords accompanying the first recitative and the staging of the nocturnal violation! Even Donna Anna's interjection in the second act--"Crudele!"--while ostensibly referring solely to Don Ottavio, expresses most wonderfully, in its mysterious overtones, that interior spiritual state bespeaking the utter exhaustion of earthly happiness. To say nothing of those curious words the poet casually--perhaps unthinkingly--appended thereto: "torse un giorno il cielo ancora sentira pieta di me!"; what are we to make of—

--The clock is striking two! A warm, electric breeze from below is wafting over me; I discern therein the faint scent of that fine Italian perfume from which I first surmised the presence of my fair neighbor last night; I am enfolded by a blissful sensation such as I fancy can only be articulated in music. A fierce wind is sweeping through the hall--down in the pit, the strings of the piano are stirring--Good God! From off in the distance, I fancy I hear Donna Anna's voice, borne aloft as if on the crescendoing melodic wings of a gossamer orchestra, thus: "Non mi dir bell' idol mio!" Unbosom thyself to me, o spiritual realm: thou remote, uncharted Jinistan of unexampled splendor, pervaded by an inexpressible, heavenly sorrow akin to the ineffable joy of the enraptured soul that transcends all such promises of earthly happiness as are vouchsafed to the rabble! Grant me passage into the circle of thine enchanting visions! May it so happen that when my body is bound fast in the leaden shackles of sleep, some dream (against thy stirring it into a nightmare), should elect my soul a friendly envoy of us earthbound mortals, and conduct it to thine ethereal fields!

Postscript: A Conversation in the Dining Room at Lunchtime

CLEVER FELLOW WITH SNUFFBOX (slamming shut the lid of thereof): Of course, it's a pity we shan't soon be hearing another decent opera. But that is what comes of indulging in such frightful histrionics!

MULATTO-FACE: Indeed, indeed! And I certainly told her so often enough! Yesterday she seemed particularly overwrought by the role of Donna Anna, as if she were fairly possessed by it. They say that she was lying in a dead faint throughout the whole of the interval, and that more than once during the second act she succumbed to an attack of nerves--


MULATTO-FACE: Yes, of nerves! And that they literally couldn't drag her offstage afterwards.

I: For heaven's sake! I hope that these nervous fits portend nothing serious, and that we shall soon hear Signora again?

CLEVER FELLOW WITH SNUFFBOX (inhaling a pinch therefrom): Not very likely, seeing that Signora died at the stroke of two this morning.



1. Hoffmann gives no antecedent for this "he," but on the evidence of his behavior in this episode one assumes that "he" is none other than the "clever fellow with snuffbox" who will turn up later on, in the Postscript.

2. I trust the numerous patent constellational affinities of Hoffmann's Don with Shakespeare's Dane justify my Scott-Moncrieffian amplification of the original "alles irdische Leben matt und flach finden" via Hamlet (I.ii.133-134)?

Translation © 2008 by Douglas Robertson


Unknown said...

Wonderful translation, but where is the end which explains the character of don Juan and his relationship with Donna Anna?

Anonymous said...

What fascinates me most in this piece is Hoffmann's claim that the libretto and the music in an opera can tell two different stories and that the language of music is by far more powerful than than of words that can never fully express our ideas and emotions. Hoffman is, indeed, a quintessential Romantic!

Anonymous said...

My previous comment is not complete, of course. It just occurred to me that the story also reflects the tragic paradox of Hoffmann as artist. He values music as the highest of all the arts, by far superior to language arts. Yet as composer, he, like Salieri, could have asked God, "Why give me the longing, and then grant me no talent..." And so, as composer, Hoffman is largely forgotten. And it is in words/ language that his genius finds its expression. But, while the language of music is universal, poetic and literary works are accessible only to those who know the language in which they are written. For others, they have to be translated into their own language. Such translations, however superb (and this one is excellent, thank you), give us a mere glimpse into the original's genius. The particular rhythm, the musical beauty, the subtle play on words, and many other qualities of the original simply cannot be rendered in a different language.

It is true that musicians offer their different interpretations of the same pieces of music. However, while translation is always interpretation, interpretation is not necessarily always translation.

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Billy said...

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