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Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Translating Der Erlkönig and such

Motivated by today's NYT crossword puzzle, I present here, for further discussion, my thoughts on the chances and pitfalls of translating German texts into English--and vice-versa.

Here's the comment I put on the puzzle blog: Der Erlkönig (The Erlking): A Lied (art song) by the greatest composer of such songs in German, Schubert, using as lyrics the perhaps best known ballad by the greatest German poet of all time, Goethe... The ballad/song has not lost its appeal to the present day. Nabokov quotes the first two lines in my favorite Nabokov book, Pale Fire; Hilary Hahn has a wonderful version of it for solo violin; and Kraut Rock is also not immune to its allure.

Among the versions I found on youtube, I liked this audio-only version by the great basso A. Kipnis because of the clarity of his diction. If you do not know the lyrics, here is the German text together with a (workable, if flat-footed) prose translation.

This brings me to the present thread. For starters, please read some of my general thoughts on translation and take a look at my own prose line-by-line translation of this gem by Goethe.

11 comments:

Heika said...

Hi Ulrich, I love this poem and I just read the Wikipedia version. It's worse than unbearable. It's a disgrace seeing those lovely lines turned into that rhyming drivel. Translation is tricky and I never knew until I read Gass's book on Rilke how different translations of the same poem could be. Heika

miriam b said...

Ulrich, your masterful translation begs the question: Do you translate professionally? IMHO you owe it to the reading public to do so. I'm looking forward to your comments on Borges'poem.

Wade said...

Ulrich, I'm digging your translation. That stuff fascinates me. I love looking at two different takes on the same text, whether it's poetry or prose, and seeing how radically different they can be. Your sensibility is the correct one, I think, wherein you seek to capture the essence of the original at the expense of sacrificing literalness (and literalness is certainly worthless in translating poetry.) I've seen some interesting discussions of various transalations of Proust (who I admit I can't read no matter who translates it) and an interesting revisitation of Constance Garnett's Russian translations, which I've always suspected were missing something. There are some translations so excellent that I have to believe they elevate the original. A couple come to mind: Gregory Rabassa's translations of Garcia Marquez (I think they had a falling out, and I think GGM has suffered for it) and the beautiful Fitzgerald translation of The Odyssey (I haven't read his Iliad translation but will someday.)

mac said...

@wade: I have to agree with you, sometimes the translation is better than the original. I first read "Winter of our discontent" in a Dutch translation and just loved it. A few years later I read it in English and it felt a little flat. It's quite a dilemma for a translator to make the choice between literal translation and improving on it. Now I'm going to read Ulrich's work.

mac said...

Lovely translation, Ulrich. Poetry is by far the most difficult to do, and your version felt the most natural. You should probably do more of this, there seems to be a need.

Ulrich said...

Thank you all for your kind words.

@miriam b: No, I do not do this professionally. As some of you may know, I'm a retired Professor of Architecture. Retirement allows me to indulge a little in things I couldn't do before.

@wade: I read such good reviews of the new War and Peace translation, in comparison to Garnett's, that I bought it and am working slowly through it.

Actually, I do have a more ambitious translation plan: My favorite opera is Salome by Strauss, libretto a lovely German translation of the Wilde play (written in French). The standard English translation that comes with it is pretty awful. Aside from a host of inaccuracies, it suffers from the same disastrous decision I complained about w.r.t. to the Wikipedia Erlking, the use of hast's and thou's, i.e. archaic verb inflections, throughout. It again has the effect of turning completely natural German into something completely artificial--one should compare how Salome and Herod talk to each other in English and German! Do these translators believe that archaic language makes the work somehow more "artistic"? It makes me just shudder.

The short of it: Doing a translation of the Salome libretto and making it available on the web is on my to-do list (where it joins about 1000 other things I plan to do).

Ulrich said...

One more thing: I trust that all of this talk about translation hasn't prevented any one of you from appreciating the ballad itself, without which we wouldn't even have this discussion.

I have read or listened to it many, many times and I still get goosebumps when I hear the boy cry, with increasing panic, Mein Vater, mein Vater.

miriam b said...

Lord Alfred Bruce Douglas is responsible for the hideous standard translation of the French play into English. I happen to own that book, and I think it might interest some of the gang to check out side-by-side versions of Wilde's original French and Douglas's hatchet job. The French is so pure and elegant. I agree that the archaic pseudo-Biblical language in the English version is a dreadful notion. Anyway, let me share this:

http://etext.virginia.edu/subjects/salome/salomeframe.html

BTW, "back in the day" my college maintained a bulletin board from which one could pluck FREE tickets to a variety of events in MYC. Thus I was able to attend gratis a performance of Salome with Ljuba Welitsch in her definitive role, albeit from the nosebleed region of the Met and with the aid of opera glasses. This was very long ago, and doubtless there's no longer a free lunch. I forgot to look for that bulletin board last time I was at the school for a reunion, but I did reminisce about that performance with a person who also happened to attend.

This jogged my memory:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KHQFndKBbQ8&feature=related

miriam b said...

Ulrich, I'd love to see you tackle a translation of Harzreise im Winter. I think Marian Anderson's rendition of the Alto Rhapsody is THE classic one. I have a 78 rpm recording of it somewhere which I can't find, but I do remember two things about it: It unfaiiingly moves me to tears; and the translation on the jacket sucks. Unfortunately I do remember parts of that translation. Mind you, I don't consider myself fluent in German, but still I think that "dem Balsam zu Gift ward" doesn't equate with "that balsam too is deadly". Somehow the "zu" seems to have gone astray.

Speaking of translation, I have a book which belonged to my father when he was a youngster. I thought that it would be a good exercise for me to try to read it (it's in Russian). My rationale: it's a kid's book and so it shouldn't be hard, even though my Russian is rudimentary. And the old orthography isn't too much of a hurdle. Well, on the flyleaf I saw that the author's name (phonetically) was "Evelina Sherp". Googling this along with the title (The Story of the Weathercock) I found that Dad's book was in fact a translation from English to Russian! The author was Evelyn Sharp, an early British feminist, and the illustrator was Charles Robinson, one of the Golden Age figures in that field. Dad's book was published in 1909, the year he came to the States, at age 9.

Rare copies of the original book seem to be available, but I'm not going that route. Too broke. It does look like an interesting tale and I may decide to wade through it. I too am retired, and I also have gazillions of projects in the works.

Ulrich said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Ulrich said...

@miriam b 2:26pm: In the youtube clip you provide, one can hear one of my favorite lines of the opera:
Nichts auf der Welt ist so weiß wie dein Leib ,
(nothing in the world is as white as your body) which Salome sings to Jokanaan (John the Baptist in the NT). I love the line b/c it demonstrates, to me, what German is capable of. Note the alliteration, Welt-weiß-wie. Then note the sequence of vowels similar in "timbre": i .. e e i .. ie ei ei (German "i" is pronounced like English "ee", sometimes long, sometimes short; "ie" is a long "ee", and "ei" is like English "i"). Finally, the rhythm: DA da da DA da da DA da da DA. A line like that just wants to be sung!
And all of this is achieved with utter simplicity--everybody on the street could speak like that.

The French original
Il n'y arien au monde d'aussi blanc que ton corps.
definitely has a musicality of its own, albeit one dominated by dark vowels. In comparison, the Douglas translation
"There is nothing in the world so white as thy body"
manages to fall flat even on a simple sentence like this: Did he think that Jokanaan would be seduced by that?

In any case, this is a perfect transition to the post on "The awful German language" that I'm preparing--it should be ready tomorrow, if all goes well.