Translating Goethe

This past weekend, I took up the challenge to translate a few poems by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. I did it because my World Lit textbook didn’t include any of his lyric poetry, and I it’s no fun to teach Romanticism without starting with Goethe. Yes, I know he’s technically part of the Sturm und Drang movement that precedes Romanticism in Germany and includes Classicist elements, but especially in the lyric poems (not to mention his incredibly romantic novel The Sorrows of Young Werther), he clearly establishes the tone for Romantic writers to come, and I like to see him as a transitional figure that creates a bridge between the Enlightenment and Romanticism. Literary periods never start and stop as conveniently as their labels would suggest.

But the problem with teaching Goethe’s lyric poetry is that there aren’t good translations available. One issue is copyright. I don’t feel comfortable using much of another recent poet’s translation without permission (there is fair use, though that’s a tricky issue). So if it’s not in my textbook, I prefer public domain. There are some competent 19th Century translations, but their language is dated and can be a challenge for students — too many thees and thous, and too convoluted syntax. The twentieth-century translations that I own (Michael Hamburger’s, Christopher Middleton’s, and John Frederick Nims’, and Vernon Watkins’ in the Princeton Selected Poems) are faithful renderings, but at least in the four poems I wanted to work with, the translations lacked the simplicity I value in the original.

I had translated a couple of the very short poems a few years ago, so this year I decided to tackle “To the Moon.” The challenge with Goethe is that he rhymes, and he does it very facilely in German. To ignore the rhyme would destroy the poem, but to get exact rhyme would often require too much change to the meaning. I tend to be fairly literal when I translate. I don’t like to interpret or read too much into the poem, though I am willing to rearrange and play with shades of meaning as needed to get the form. As I’ve done when translating Dutch sonnets for my Masters thesis ages ago, I resorted to off-rhymes or vowel rhymes at times. As long as the vowel was close and the consonants of the rhyme words weren’t too far off, I was willing to live with it. The point was to suggest rhyme, rather than slavishly repeat what couldn’t be repeated in English. The rhyme sounds are all different, anyway, and often different words have to be used as rhyme words. I tried to have at least one pretty close rhyme pair in each stanza and allowed one pair (usually the first and third lines) to be a little less exact. Since Goethe uses a ballad stanza, and since that can be an unrhymed, A, unrhymed, A pattern, I felt that a partial rhyme was justified, especially if it allowed me to keep from straying too far with the meaning. I was a little more strict about the meter. I didn’t always follow the exact foot that Goethe used, but I tried to keep the number of beats consistent with the ballad stanza. I wanted the feel of the poem to be what it was in the original as much as possible.

It was fun to pull out my old dictionaries and spend time looking words up in my Roget’s Thesaurus. Translating is always a puzzle, but when form is involved the puzzle is more complex and challenging. It was so much fun, that I decided to take on The Alderking next. I stuck with that title, even though some translators use Erlking, which doesn’t make much sense in English. Maybe Earlking would be better, but the combination of Earl and King seems redundant; whereas, Goethe’s mistranslation of Erlkönig out of the Danish to make an Alder-king makes the Elf-king a king of the forest trees. To me, that adds to the poem. Again, the rhyme was a challenge, as was the meter. There are places where I’m not 100% satisfied, but then you never are. When I teach them again, I might revisit the translation and make other choices, but I’m happy enough with it for now. And I provided my students links to some alternate translations so they can compare. That emphasizes for them that translators vary in their rendering of a poem and reminds them that what they read in World Literature is always translated.

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