Other Voices, v.2, n.2 (March 2002)
Copyright © 2002, Jörg Waltje, all rights reserved.
The West-Eastern Divan is the last great cycle of poetry which Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832) worked on. It was first published in 1819, then again in an expanded edition in 1827. While Goethe's first poetry cycle, the Römische Elegien, was strongly influenced by the writer's interest in classical antiquity, the Divan was stimulated by Goethe's discovery of a Divan by the Persian poet Hafis, whom he had read in the translation by Joseph von Hammer-Purgstall in 1814. For most modern readers, the title Divan conjures up images of Arabian couches and love poetry, but the word is primarily used in Persian to describe an assembly of people. Figuratively, it is used for a collection of poetry or other literary writings.
Interest in the Orient had intensified over the years, Orientalistik (Oriental Studies) had become a regular subject taught at universities, and Goethe, now in his sixties, felt rejuvenated and stimulated by the impulses he perceived this new kind of literature to have on his own work. In order not to alienate those readers who were not yet familiar with the Orient, its mores and literary traditions, Goethe appended a second part to the West-Eastern Divan, namely the Noten und Abhandlungen zu besseren Verständnis des West-östlichen Divans (Notes and Queries for a Better Understanding...). In this part he comments on terms, places and historical figures, as well as on the literature, religion, and history of a region which, at that time, was only known to a few travellers and aficionados. It is in these Noten where we can also find a short passage dealing with translations, and although Goethe's Divan is not a translation of Hafi's Divan, we can understand why his discussions of the difficulty of literary translations involving texts from extremely different cultures also puts the Nach-Dichter (re-worker) into a favorable light: precisely because he did not attempt to merely translate, but instead tranfers and adapts ideas and insights from one culture to another.
Goethe's distinction between the three levels—or epochs—of translation runs contrary to the hierarchies in translation we are used to working with today. Goethe favors an exact rendering of meaning, form, images, and style from one language to the next, not at the expense of the receiving one, but rather for its enrichment! He finds translations which attempt to convey spirit and style of the original work by using equivalents of syntax and idiom (the French School) of only limited value, and he allows the free/prose adaptation, which conveys the spirit but has to alter style, structure, grammar, and idiom of the original only as a first "reading help."
Walter Benjamin, in "The Task of the Translator," refers to Goethe's Noten as "the best comment on the theory of translation that has been published in Germany."1 At the same time he praises Rudolf Pannwitz who echoes Goethe in Die Krisis der europäischen Kultur:
Ultimately, Goethe endorses the "interlinear version," literally a translation written between the lines of the original, to gain access to the full contents (style, meaning, structure, idiom). One hundred years later Benjamin follows the same path, for, in his opinion, "the translation must be one with the original in the form of the interlinear version, in which literalness and freedom are united" (82).
In an interdisciplinary context and for comparatists, Goethe's ideas on the translatibility of texts (which he took for granted) and cultures will still provide a welcome stimulus for further discussion. The Noten und Abhandlungen have not appeared in English before, so this will be the first translation of "Translations." The German text is based on Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Goethes Werke, 7. Band (Weimar: Hermann Böhlau, 1888) 235-239, with some minor adjustments modernizing spelling and punctuation.
Many thanks go to Ralph J. Hexter, University of California, Berkeley, for his invaluable insights and comments.
Since the Germans also approach the Orient ever nearer by means of translations of all sorts, we must mention at this point something which is well known, to be sure, yet cannot be stated often enough.
There are three kinds of translations. The first kind acquaints us with a foreign country in our own terms; a translation in plain prose serves this purpose the best. For, while prose erases all peculiarities of every type of poetic art, and drags even poetic enthusiasm down to the level of common expression, it serves us best for a beginning, since it surprises us with foreign excellences amidst our national domesticity, our common life. Without our noticing how it is happening, it bestows upon us a loftier mood and truly edifies us. This is an effect Luther's translation of the Bible will always produce.
Had the Nibelungen been transferred into sound prose right from the beginning and thus been turned into a Volksbuch (popular book), a great deal would have been won, and the strange, stern, dark, and sinister chivalric mentality would have spoken to us with all its force. Those who have dedicated themselves more specifically to such antiquarian matters can best decide whether such an undertaking is still advisable and possible.
Upon the first there follows a second epoch,3 in which one is indeed able to imagine oneself in the circumstances of the foreign country, yet is only concerned to adopt foreign ideas and reproduce them in one's native style. Such periods I would call parodistic in the true sense of the word. It is mainly witty [geistreich] people who feel compelled to embark on such an undertaking. The French employ this approach in the translation of all poetical texts; examples can be found by the hundreds in Delille's work.4 In the same way in which he makes foreign words palatable to himself, the Frenchman deals with emotions, ideas, even with objects. He demands for each foreign fruit a surrogate that has grown from his own territorial soil.
Wieland's translations are of this kind. He, too, had a peculiar frame of mind and taste, so that he approached antiquity and foreign countries only to the extent that he found his comfort there. This excellent man may be considered representative of his time. His influence was extraordinary, for precisely that which delighted him and the way in which he absorbed it and then passed it on, also appeared pleasant and enjoyable to his contemporaries.
One cannot linger for long in either the perfect or the imperfect, since one transformation must follow upon another without end, and thus we experienced the third epoch, which can be considered the best and last. This is namely the period in which one wishes to make a translation identical to the original, not in such a way that the former replaces [anstatt des anderen] the latter, but rather occupies the place of [an der Stelle des anderen] the latter. Initially, this type of translation encountered the greatest resistance, because the translator who follows his original closely more or less abandons the originality5 of his nation, and thus a tertium quid comes into being, for which the masses slowly have to develop a taste.
Voß6 who can never be praised enough, was at first not able to satisfy his public, until it gradually developed an ear for and became comfortable with this new kind of translation. He who now surveys what has happened, what versatility has come upon the Germans; what rhetorical, rhythmic, and metrical advantages are available to the ingenious and talented youth, how Ariosto and Tasso, Shakespeare and Calderon are presented to us as "Germanized" strangers a second and then a third time—he can hope that literary history will frankly state who the first one was to open this route, amidst many obstacles. Most of von Hammer's works also suggest a similar treatment of Oriental masterpieces. Above all, his approximation of their outer form is to be commended. The infinitely greater qualities of the excerpts of the translation of Ferdusi, which the above-mentioned friend gave us, are readily apparent when compared to the mechanical works such as can be found in the Fundgruben. We consider this manner of restructuring [umbilden] a poet to be the saddest mistake a diligent and otherwise very competent translator could make. Since, however, in each literature these three epochs repeat themselves, return—indeed the three methods of treatment can be practiced at the same time—a prose translation of the Shah Nameh and the works of Nisami would still be worthwhile. We could use it for a first quick reading, accessing the main idea of the text. We would take pleasure in the historical, fabulous, and ethical elements in general, and become increasingly familiar with the opinions and modes of thought, until we could finally associate ourselves with them completely.
One ought to recall the applause we Germans accorded such a translation of the Sakontala,7 and we can ascribe the happiness it evoked in us to the simple prose into which the poem had been dissolved. But now the time has come to grant ourselves a translation of the third kind, one that would correspond to the different dialects and the different rhythmic, metric, and prosaic styles of the original, one which would present the poem in all its peculiarity once again as enjoyable and domestic. Since a manuscript of this eternal piece can now be found in Paris, a German residing there could gain an immortal reputation in our eyes with such an undertaking.
The English translator of the cloud-messenger Mega Dhuta8 likewise deserves all honors, because the first acquaintance with a work like this always leaves a lasting impression on our life. Yet, his translation is actually from the second epoch, being paraphrastic and supplementary, it pleases the Northeastern ear and sensibility by means of the iambic pentameter.
I, on the contrary, owe gratitude to our Kosegarten9 for a few verses directly from the original language, which, sure enough, allow for a completely different explanation.
Moreover, the Englishman took the liberty of transposing motifs, a procedure the aesthetically trained eye discovers immediately and of which it disapproves.
Finally let us briefly explain why we referred to the third epoch as the last one. A translation which strives to make itself identical with the original ultimately approaches interlinearity and thus greatly facilitates an understanding of the original. In this manner we are led to the basic text, even driven to it, and thus at last the whole circle, in which the approximation of the foreign and the native, the known and the unknown moves, has been closed.
1. Walter Benjamin, "The Task of the Translator," Illuminations (New York: Schocken, 1969) 69-82.
2. quoted in Benjamin, 81.
3. epoch: here used in the sense of 'period of time with new characteristic events and developments in certain areas.' At a later point, when talking about his first acquaintance with Mega Dhuta, Goethe uses "epoch-making," which can be read as both 'ringing in a new age,' or 'leaving a very strong impression on a single person' and thus changing his or her perception from that moment on.
4. Jaques Delille (1738-1813): translated Virgil's Georgics and Aeneid as well as Milton's Paradise Lost.
5. Note Goethe's careful displacement of "originality" on to the characteristics of the target language. "Nation" here means "people" as much as "country."
6. Johann Heinrich Voß (1751-1826): a friend of Goethe's during his years in Jena (1802-04), Voß was much admired by Goethe on account of his translations. Goethe visited him in Heidelberg in the years 1814 and 1815. Besides translating the Homeric epics The Odyssey (1781) and The Iliad (1793), Voß also worked on Virgil, Ovid, Hesiod, Aristophanes, and some of Shakespeare's dramas.
7. Sakontala: a classic drama of Indian literature, written by Kalidasa in the first century A.D. A first German translation was published by Georg Forster in 1791, a later one by Johann Gottfried Herder in 1803.
8. Mega Dhuta: an epic poem by the above-mentioned Kalidasa. Goethe is referring to the English edition and translation by Horace Hayman Wilson (1813).
9. Johann Gottfried Ludwig Kosegarten (1792-1860): Orientalist at the University of Jena from 1817 to 1824. He helped Goethe with the "Noten und Abhandlungen" to the West-Eastern Divan.