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Storm Over Young Goethe

Corngold’s scholarly concern about anachronism raises a wider issue: With works from the past, how should the language of the translation relate to the language of the original? Should a twenty-first-century translation into English of a novel from the 1770s read like a twenty-first-century English novel or like an English novel from the era of the original?

Werther—the 1774 version—was first translated into English in 1779. The translation is usually attributed to Daniel Malthus, father of the economist, though there are grounds to doubt this. By today’s standards Malthus’s Werther is an unacceptable piece of work: not only has it been translated at second hand, through an intermediate French Passions du jeune Werther, but passages have been omitted, perhaps because Malthus thought they would offend his public. Nevertheless, Malthus’s version affords us a window into how Werther was read in the England of Goethe’s time.

I cite one telling instance. In his very first letter Werther mentions a former woman friend, and asks rhetorically: “Was it my fault that…passion formed in her poor heart?” (Corngold’s translation). Malthus renders these words as: “Am I to be blamed for the tenderness which took possession of her heart…?”

We are in the sphere of the tender passions, and the word at issue is eine Leidenschaft. Leidenschaft is, in every sense of the word, “passion”; but what is “passion”? Why does Malthus mute “passion” to “tenderness” (or why does his French intermediary mute it to tendresse)? We can only surmise that to Malthus the obscure feeling that invades the heart of the young woman in question, given how little we know of her (this is her sole mention in the book), is more likely (or more appropriately) a yielding feeling than a fiery one, more likely (or more appropriately) constant than erratic, and is therefore best rendered as “tenderness.”

Our first impulse may be to say that Malthus mistranslates Leidenschaft; yet his choice of “tenderness” cannot but be deliberate. It may be fairer to say that he here performs an act of cultural translation, translation informed by his embeddedness in the cultural norms of his society, including its norms of feeling (what one feels in one’s heart in given circumstances) and its norms of polite discourse (what one says and does not say in given circumstances).

This, then, is what it comes down to: where we, observing the tender passions at work, see passion predominating, an educated Englishman of the 1770s saw tenderness. A translation of Werther that is true to our twenty-first-century understanding of Goethe, yet in which readers from the 1770s would have felt at home, is an unattainable ideal.

The Sorrows/Suffering of Young Werther has not lacked for translators. Among first-rate modern versions are those by Burton Pike, Michael Hulse, and Victor Lange. Corngold’s new translation is of the very highest quality, punctiliously faithful to Goethe’s German and sensitive to gradations of style in this extraordinary, trail-blazing first novel.

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