Posts Tagged ‘rhyme’

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 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.

Some Thoughts on Rhyme

Though it is still the holiday season and most of my recent posts have been about food, I’ve been thinking about poetry and teaching, especially as we drive across country, listening to music. As we prepare to ring in the new year, I’ve been thinking about rhyme in song lyrics and in poetry. As a poet, you tend to learn to rhyme or to use sound by ear. You read great poets and listen to great music, and you pick up technique. As a teacher, you try to explain technique, and even though you can ‘do’ it as a poet, it can be virtually impossible to explain, especially to young writers whose ideas about rhyme are stuck in what they learned in grade school.

We tend to think of rhyme in terms of rhyme words. There are rhyming dictionaries that reinforce this notion. Yet I’m always dissatisfied with rhyme and with discussing rhyme in terms of the words that rhyme. Even good rhyme pairs can sound bad or predictable if they aren’t used well. I’ve noticed many of my students tend to use rhyme at the end of a sentence, and they tend to rhyme nouns. This leads to uninspired rhyming, since the words are very similar and the placement in the sentence is always the same. Even if the rhyme pair isn’t predictable, you know you’re coming to a rhyme word because you’re about to reach the end of the line and the end of the sentence. The phrasing also becomes monotonous, since every line ends with a full stop.

I’ve tried to convince students to write more enjambed lines, to write sentences that span two or more lines, regardless of whether they write with rhyme. This helps the pacing of the poem and if rhyme is part of the mix, it can help with the element of surprise. To rhyme an adjective with a noun or to rhyme a subject with the object of the sentence leads to poetry that is more inventive and playful. The best old song lyrics have this quality and often have quite dense rhyme.

So I have encouraged students to write with more internal rhyme and more techniques like assonance, consonance, and alliteration, so that their language is more dense with sound. This avoids the problem of rhyme becoming too much. If most of the line is boring until you get to the rhyme word, which is the only sound technique being used, then the rhyme hits you like a hammer over the head or the bell that sounded as you reached the margins of an old typewriter (I have to reveal my age when I pull out this example!).

All that is well and good, and it has helped some students ‘get it’ when it comes to rhyme (and others just avoid it, which may be better than sticking with elementary notions of rhyme). But I’ve been looking for another way to present the issue, and I may have come across an idea that will work. I may try it out this semester and see if it helps. That idea is to talk about rhyming within sentences.

I’ve noticed that many of the song lyrics I admire make use of complex rhymes, and that many of these happen within a single sentence. Rather than talking about rhyme as an aspect of poetry, I’m thinking of talking about rhyme as an aspect of good writing that is more pronounced in some kinds of poetry. When we talk about language in creative writing, we talk about choosing words that have the right meaning, the right connotations, and the best sound. That might be a good time to introduce rhyme and to get students rhyming within single sentences. Sentences would almost certainly have to be complex, combining an independent clause with several dependent clauses — or at least compound, joining two independent clauses with a conjunction. If you use parallel structures and words that rhyme, perhaps working on an AB rhyme pattern across the sentence, your language will automatically be more complex and rich. Students can concentrate on writing more interesting rhyme without having to think about writing in lines. It will also force them to rhyme different parts of speech or at least different parts of the same sentence (as opposed to always rhyming a direct object, for instance). Thinking about rhyme outside of poetry might make it easier for the rhyming poets to get beyond some of their habits, and it might help those who are terrified of rhyme see that it can be fun and worthwhile.

Then when we get to poetry we can talk about using end-rhyme and/or internal rhyme. We can look at different rhyme schemes and traditional forms that use rhyme. Yet hopefully students will still understand that rhyme is not a separate entity, but is intimately related to the sense and the syntax of the rest of the poem (or prose).