Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Coetzee on tender passions, Corngold's Werther

In his introduction [to his new translation of The Sorrows of Young Werther] Stanley Corngold spells out some of the procedures he follows. He does each page "cold," then checks it against extant translations (he lists the seven he has principally used). He follows Goethe's German closely, even at the risk of sometimes sounding foreign. He takes pains not to use words that were not part of the English language by 1787. [...] 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? [...]

I cite one telling instance. In his very first letter Werther mentions a former woman friend, and asks rhetorically: "Was it my fault . . . passion formed in her poor heart?" (Corngold's translation). [Daniel] Malthus [in his version of 1779] 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" [...] 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.

[Nonetheless!] 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. 
-- J. M. Coetzee in The New York Review of Books (V.LIX, No.7, p.21), reviewing The Sorrows of Young Werther by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, translated from the German by Stanley Corngold (Norton, 2011).

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