Translating Goethe; seeking feedback and discussion
Thread poster: jringo_
jringo_
United States
Oct 9, 2013

I am in the process of translating the complete works of Goethe, beginning with his earlier poetry. I would love some feedback.

Goethe has been described as the German Shakespeare. Assuming that comparison, attempting to keep Goethe's form and structure would not translate into English, much as translating Shakespeare's iambic pentameters would not translate into German; it sounds best when spoken in the native language. As such, do not critique the disparities between the German and English structure, simply speak to the poem's effectiveness as an English poem, and its relation to the German outside of structure (if you speak both languages fluently).

http://goingvongoethe.blogspot.com/


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Phil Hand  Identity Verified
China
Local time: 11:53
Chinese to English
English only Oct 10, 2013

Don't speak German, so this is just about the English.


The King of Thule

There was a king of Thule
The rhythm here sounds like a nursery rhyme. I thought of The Grand Old Duke of York. Is that an association you want?
who loved, to the very end,
his maidens challis jeweled
death’s finest ruby red.
I don't understand this. Don't know the word "challis". Should there be an apostrophe in maiden's? So, first problem, have you made the meaning clear to the reader? Second problem, what language are you writing in? In modern English, we don't use the world maiden. If you're translating into 18th century English, you'll have to be more accurate. What does "his maiden" mean? Maiden was an unmarried woman, so not his wife. Do you mean daughter?


At each feast he drank
and spoke of no one else;
From heaven she watched him drink,
so oft he drank to heaven’s health.
Again, the language thing. "Oft" isn't a word. You can't just use "poetic-sounding" words because they fit the meter.

And when death came for him,
he took the cup to hide;
Again, you have to make the meaning clear. What does "took the cup to hide" mean? He hid the cup? He hid with the cup?
He gave away his kingdom,
but none would take what she left behind.

He held a royal banquet,
gathered all his knights
here at Goden’s hamlet,
high on the wanting Cliffs of Kyte.
"Wanting cliffs"? What are they? Hamlet is a bad word, and I can't believe it's a good translation. Why would a king be in a hamlet? It's a very small village. There isn't space in a hamlet to hold a banquet.

And so stood the old dreamer
as he drank the final embers of life,
Drank embers?! Unless there's a really good reason for mixing metaphors, best not.
then threw his lover’s challis
to the foaming waters of the night.
OK, so a challis is a cup? I thought he'd hidden it earlier? How come he's throwing it now?

He watched it drop and drink,
disappearing to the sea.
He saw once more her image blink,
and never drank again.
What image? And I thought he was dying? Of course he never drinks again.


Major comments:
1. I couldn't understand the narrative of the poem. You need to do something to make clear what's happening.
2. Language. There's no call for cod olde English.
3. Form: I like your half rhymes.


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Helen Hagon  Identity Verified
Local time: 04:53
Member (2011)
Russian to English
+ ...
Great idea Oct 10, 2013

What a fantastic project! That's quite a task you've set yourself.

I have to say that I disagree with Phil's comments about old English. Goethe lived and worked a couple of centuries ago, so using old English words makes it sound more authentic, in my opinion, as long as it is properly researched and used correctly.

You do need to watch out for spellings, though, e.g. honied- honeyed, o're - o'er, challis - chalice etc. Also, I'm no poetry expert, but the metre of the translation doesn't seem to flow as well as Goethe's original. It might be worth taking another look at the rhythm and the way the syllables fall in the two versions.

Although I do speak some German, it isn't one of my working languages, and I'm not very familiar with Goethe. So, I'm looking forward to reading more of your posts and learning more about this great poet's work.

Good luck with the rest of the project!


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Kirsten Bodart  Identity Verified
United Kingdom
Local time: 05:53
Dutch to English
+ ...
Oft not a word? Oct 10, 2013

I have known that word for a long time. I grant you that 'often' has been used as an extended form of the original 'oft' since the 14th century and that it has replaced 'oft' altogether in modern English, but Shakespeare used it, so why not Goethe then?

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jringo_
United States
TOPIC STARTER
Great Input! Responses. Oct 10, 2013

Thanks for your input and yes wow so many spelling errors! Thank you for pointing them out!

To address some of the issues:

Phil: You would not have fun if you ever heard me and my friends speak to one another.

This is not Old English, this particular poem is very much in contemporary English. It sounds the way it does for two reasons: 1. What Helen said. 2. Otherwise it would be boring; This is not tech writing.

If this was Old English, you would not understand a single word. For your amusement, here is a poem in Old English http://www.poemsoutloud.net/mp3/oe-wulf.mp3 . You will recognize some sounds, but that is all. Now, if you meant Shakespearean English, you're still wrong. This is not even close to being as clever as that pun filled dialect.

Helen, which poem are you talking about regarding the meter? Or is it an overall statement.
I'll respond as though it's an overall statement, if it is not, correct me:

I agree. However I am trying something different. Goethe seemingly wrote for song (particularly in his older poetics). Contemporary English poetry does not go to (or even sound like) music in the same way. I am trying to bridge the two; to make the poems acknowledge the way Goethe structured his poems yet bring contemporary thoughts on poetry into play.

For example, if you go back to September 17th, Wechsel, Change.

Goethe's poem is incredibly structured and musical. You can hear it when it's read in German,

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fWtEm0RdYK4

however that is not the effect I am going for. My translation is broken into two stanzas, an interjection, and a closing couplet. First stanza all end-stopped, second all run-on, interjection referring to first stanza, couple uniting the two. I'm not going to go into meter. Its structure is itself essentially a meditation on change. It feels much more contemporary this way.

In closing, Goethe started the Romantic lyricists. I would feel as though I were doing a disservice to such invention if I returned to what was already writ. As such, I only use a single structured lyric (iambic pentameter, tetrameter) throughout a single poem when completely necessary. The King of Thule is almost this, though it does change, and at very strategic moments.


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Marie-Helene Dubois  Identity Verified
Spain
Local time: 05:53
Member (2011)
Spanish to English
+ ...
presumably you've found this other translation Oct 11, 2013

There was a king in Thule,
Was faithful to the grave,
Whom she that loved him truly
In dying a goblet gave.

He found no prize more appealing,
Each feast he drained the cup;
To his eyes the tears came stealing
Whenever he held it up.

And when he came to dying,
The towns in his realm he enrolled,
His heir no prize denying,
Except that cup of gold.

And at a royal wassail
With all his knights sat he
In the hall of his father's castle
That faces toward the sea.

The old carouser slowly
Stood up, drank life's last glow,
And flung the cup so holy
Into the flood below.

He saw it plunging, drinking
As deep in the sea it sank.
His eyes the while were sinking,
Not a drop again he drank.




I do agree with Phil in the sense that there are some inconsistencies and parts that could be made easier to understand. It's certainly not an easy task to translate poetry and I admire anyone who sets their mind to doing so. I'm also not an expert in poetry by any means.

I will assume that the translation above, because it tells a clearer and more understandable story, is closer to the meaning of the original. However, I don't understand enough of the original to know this for a fact so it is purely assumption on my part.

First of all, from the first stanza, in the translation above, I understand that this King was faithful to one woman (who gave him a goblet or chalice on her death bed). This is not clear in yours. It is not clear what "the end" means in yours and the fact that you have used "maidens" in the plural doesn't do credit to this King's supposed faithfulness.

Because of this, the meaning is blurred in the second stanza. It is not clear who "she" is, nor who watched him drink from heaven. This is mainly because of the plural "maidens" in the first stanza.
In the translation above, it's clear that this King prized the chalice/goblet that had been given to him by his one-and-only love.

In your third stanza, again it's not clear who "she" is but it is clear that the King is about to die. The fact that you state that he hides his cup (in my opinion you should describe the same object in the same way i.e. if you start off with chalice, it should stay a chalice, otherwise it's tricky to understand that we're still talking about this same much-loved object), doesn't tie in with the next stanza where he appears to be having another feast with the said cup in front of all his men. I think he just squirrelled it away so that his heirs wouldn't get their hands on it. In the translation above, it is clear that he didn't want anyone to inherit his prized possession, which then ties in nicely with the stanza in which he appears to throw it to the sea.

In the fourth stanza, like Phil, I have no idea what "wanting cliffs" are.

I must say that in the fifth stanza, I like "life's last glow" more than "final embers of his life". It seems more natural (although I have no idea how you'd make this fit in rhythm-wise). Perhaps you could do something more along the lines of a light extinguishing, or even "life's last light" going out if you want some alliteration.

I do understand in the sixth stanza that the King never drinking again is an allusion to the fact that he died after throwing the chalice to the waters. I like your version of the sixth stanza better than the one above. However, because it isn't clear from the start who "she" is, it is confusing as it stands because we don't know whose image is blinking in the chalice.


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Tom in London
United Kingdom
Local time: 04:53
Member (2008)
Italian to English
Wonderful Phil Oct 11, 2013

Phil
your comments are wonderful - thanks for putting so much work into them,

Anyhow, since Goethe's works already exist in excellent English translation, I wonder whether this project is even necessary !


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jringo_
United States
TOPIC STARTER
Typos and Puns Oct 11, 2013

Marie-Helene, thank you for your input! I had actually edited the poem since Phil posted the text. I corrected the "maidens"-"maiden's" typo, it is now only one maiden, and she is his, this will clear up much of your confusion. Also I removed the word "wanting" which was a space filler from an earlier edit.

And you are the second person to mention the line "took the cup to hide". Did you consider the pun? If not, perhaps I could do more to draw it out, or I'll have to rework the stanza altogether.

And thank you for comparing it to the translation that already exists! I used that one a lot to help.

[Edited at 2013-10-11 20:46 GMT]


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jringo_
United States
TOPIC STARTER
Uhhh... Oct 11, 2013

Tom in London wrote:

Phil
your comments are wonderful - thanks for putting so much work into them,

Anyhow, since Goethe's works already exist in excellent English translation, I wonder whether this project is even necessary !


That sounds a bit pointed? And in the same vein, meadows have already been painted, I wonder why people are still painting them...


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Tom in London
United Kingdom
Local time: 04:53
Member (2008)
Italian to English
Unlikely Oct 12, 2013

I find the proposition that Goethe was "the German Shakespeare" very sloppy. These two writers are widely distant in terms of the periods in which they lived, the cultural and linguistic contexts in which they did their work, the themes with which they were concerned, and above all in their use of the languages in which they wrote.

I can see hardly any analogies between the work of Goethe and that of Shakespeare, other than vague generalistic suggestions such as that they both had an interest in "classical" references, and so on (but who didn't, or doesn't?) and so on.

And of course whilst Goethe (like all of us) knew the work of Shakespeare and had an interest in it, Goethe was looking back at Shakespeare across several centuries (just as we today - from the standpoint of where language is at now - are also looking back not only at Shakespeare but at Goethe too, seeing Goethe's work through the filter of some 200 years in the development of the German language).

For that reason, any attempt to create translations of Goethe and trying, intentionally, to relate them to the work of Shakespeare would be to found a whole philosophy on principles that are, shall we say, questionable.

If anything the search for linguistic analogues, when translating Goethe, would have to be in the work of equally "modern" English-language Romantics who were roughly his contemporaries, such as Byron, Shelley, and so on. Now THAT would be interesting !

[Edited at 2013-10-12 09:35 GMT]


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jringo_
United States
TOPIC STARTER
What's unlikely? Oct 14, 2013

Tom, thank you for taking the time to flesh out your point.

I believe there may be confusion over the comparison of Goethe to Shakespeare. Remember, I am not making this comparison. I have heard it spoken of by those much more qualified than I. The comparison is:

Shakespeare gave us the English language we use today. Or at the very least, detailed to the extreme the way English is used: We more or less speak in iambic pentameter, deviating from the pattern to create certain effects.

Goethe has been described to me, and I can see this in his writing when compared to contemporary German, as greatly shaping the way German is spoken. In effect doing for German the same thing that Shakespeare did for English.

That is the single connection meant by the comparison. Also, it was just an opener. It carries no weight with my translations. I am absolutely not in any way trying to relate them to Shakespeare. In fact I am trying to make them more contemporary. Most translations of Goethe's poetry that currently exist (that I can find, and I've searched plenty) are from the 18th or 19th century. There are only a few thrown around in the 20th.

The poem we have been discussing is the single most difficult I have so far encountered. As such, please consider the following shorter, less plot driven translations.

Anacreon’s Grave

Where the roses bloom, where the vines tangle with the laurel,
where the turtle-doves call and the evening crickets sing:
What a grave this is, that all the gods with life
would spread beauty over grace. Anacreon’s resting place.
Spring, summer, autumn blessed that lucky poet.
Now, at last, an earthen mound shields him from winter.

Autumn Feeling

Your leaves grow a fatter green
climbing up the trellis by my window.
Your berries swell together
and ripen quicker, shine fuller.
You pulse in the parting glance of the mother sun,
and through the darkened night
you smell of the golden sky.
You cool in the moon’s
breath and your dew,
oh such dew as tears that from these eyes flow,
such tears of love that none can still.


Another

Over the hilltops
is silence.
In all the treetops
You hear
hardly a breath:
The birds are asleep in the trees.

Wait, soon

you, too, will rest.


Or read the 20 or so other poems I've translated on the blog. In all honesty, I do not see where your hostility is coming from. Have I offended you in some way? Please, tell me if I have as I'd wish to make amends.


J


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Tom in London
United Kingdom
Local time: 04:53
Member (2008)
Italian to English
Nothing. Oct 14, 2013

jringo_ wrote:

Tom, thank you for taking the time to flesh out your point.

I believe there may be confusion over the comparison of Goethe to Shakespeare. Remember, I am not making this comparison. I have heard it spoken of by those much more qualified than I. The comparison is:

Shakespeare gave us the English language we use today. Or at the very least, detailed to the extreme the way English is used: We more or less speak in iambic pentameter, deviating from the pattern to create certain effects.

Goethe has been described to me, and I can see this in his writing when compared to contemporary German, as greatly shaping the way German is spoken. In effect doing for German the same thing that Shakespeare did for English.

That is the single connection meant by the comparison. Also, it was just an opener. It carries no weight with my translations. I am absolutely not in any way trying to relate them to Shakespeare. In fact I am trying to make them more contemporary. Most translations of Goethe's poetry that currently exist (that I can find, and I've searched plenty) are from the 18th or 19th century. There are only a few thrown around in the 20th.

The poem we have been discussing is the single most difficult I have so far encountered. As such, please consider the following shorter, less plot driven translations.

Anacreon’s Grave

Where the roses bloom, where the vines tangle with the laurel,
where the turtle-doves call and the evening crickets sing:
What a grave this is, that all the gods with life
would spread beauty over grace. Anacreon’s resting place.
Spring, summer, autumn blessed that lucky poet.
Now, at last, an earthen mound shields him from winter.

Autumn Feeling

Your leaves grow a fatter green
climbing up the trellis by my window.
Your berries swell together
and ripen quicker, shine fuller.
You pulse in the parting glance of the mother sun,
and through the darkened night
you smell of the golden sky.
You cool in the moon’s
breath and your dew,
oh such dew as tears that from these eyes flow,
such tears of love that none can still.


Another

Over the hilltops
is silence.
In all the treetops
You hear
hardly a breath:
The birds are asleep in the trees.

Wait, soon

you, too, will rest.


Or read the 20 or so other poems I've translated on the blog. In all honesty, I do not see where your hostility is coming from. Have I offended you in some way? Please, tell me if I have as I'd wish to make amends.


J


I have nothing to add to my previous post.


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