In a New York Review of Books essay (2012-04), Coetzee writes witfully about a new translation of The Sufferings of Young Werther (Die Leiden des Jungen Werthers) by 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.
So what? The issue is wonderfully appetizing. Goethe did translate texts from Ossian, but to update Goethe’s piece would maybe to update Ossian’s one as well, thus to transform the original text of Goethe.
In Europe the question of authenticity had no purchase. Translated into German in 1767, Ossian had a huge impact, inspiring an outpouring of bardic imitations. The young Goethe was so smitten that he taught himself Gaelic in order to translate directly into German the specimens of Scots Gaelic he found in The Works of Ossian. The early Schiller is full of Ossianic echoes; Hölderlin committed pages of Ossian to memory.
The most obvious way of translating Werther’s German Ossian into English is by reproducing the English original. This procedure, however, nullifies the numerous changes Goethe made to his source. Goethe normalizes locutions that sound dialectal or ornamentally archaic or simply eccentric; he clarifies the logical relations between sentences by inserting conjunctions; he elides phrases that do no work; he brings down to earth lofty locutions (thus “ascends the deep” becomes simply “rows”); he improves on bland phrasing (“those that have passed away” becomes “grave-dwellers”); he regularizes Macpherson’s irregular (pseudo-Gaelic) word order; he interprets enigmatic Gaelic idioms rather than just reproducing them; and he does some mild bowdlerizing (“white-bosomed Colma” becomes “pale Colma”).
Enjoy reading in as many languages, dans la mesure du possible, and praise the translator’s art. Well, the newly Works that work magazine, edited by typographer+ Peter Biľak, offers an excellent interview of Linda Asher, former fiction editor at The New Yorker and translator of Milan Kundera’s French works : Translation is a human exchange (no full access online).