Saturday, May 1, 2010

Goethe and Translation

The history of Western literature until the 17th century exhibits a deference to earlier models, primarily those of antiquity. Ernst Robert Curtius, in European Literature and the Middle Ages, portrays the laborious transmission of the legacy of antiquity through the so-called Dark Ages, culminating in the recovery of works of poets, philosophers, and natural scientists in the Renaissance. Whether churchmen or humanists, writers displayed their "legitimacy" as men of letters by tracing their literary debt to earlier writers. It was a "family" thing. A vivid exemplification is Dante's Commedia, in which the Roman poet Virgil leads the Florentine (portrayed above by Delacroix) on his journey through hell and purgatory.

The break in this attachment to tradition, to what went before, occurred quite rapidly in the 17th century and was given expression in the philosophical system of Descartes, which introduced systematic doubt about all inherited knowledge. Cartesianism provided the philosophical framework for the emerging natural sciences, which proceeded on the principle that all the scientific knowledge inherited from antiquity was questionable. By dispensing with what ancient authors had written about physics (Aristotle) or the body (Galen) or the physical universe (Ptolemy), 17th-century scientists revolutionized our understanding of the material world.

After unmasking the supposed scientific ignorance of the ancients, the 17th century next set its sights on the literary achievements of antiquity, especially Homer. This was the so-called Quarrel of the Ancients and Moderns, set off by a panegyric of Charles Perrault, he of fairytale fame. (Cinderella at left, by Carl Offterdinger.) As Douglas Lane Patey has written (in the Cambridge History of Literary Criticism), Perrault attacked the coarse language of the Homeric epics, Homer's indecorous heroes, the indecency of the gods, the outdated science, and all the trivial and repetitious details. Superficially the quarrel was about literature; at stake was the notion of "progress." Clearly the Moderns were the winners.

Yet it was even recognized at the time that the arts -- whether literary or visual -- were not quantifiable in the same way as was, for instance, the circulation of the blood or the movement of the planets around the sun. Thus, in a second phase of the Quarrel, the proponents of the superiority of ancients based their defense on the agreeableness of the very historical and cultural difference and strangeness of the works of ancient authors. They thus began to relativize the notion of universal values. This phase of the Quarrel took place in the early 18th century, with Anne Dacier squaring off against Antoine Houdar de la Motte (what names these French guys had!). Madame Dacier, besides editing or translating important classical or Hellenistic texts -- Sappho, the plays of Aristophanes and Terence, Callimachus, Anacreon -- introduced France to Homer with her 1699 translation of the Iliad. In her preface she responded to the Moderns (I am following Patey here) as follows:

I find ancient times more beautiful as they resemble ours less. What pleases me in Chinese is Chinese manners ... If the heroes of Homer's age do not resemble those of our own, that difference should give us pleasure.

She went on to say that a poet was a representative of his time, and that translations should not elide this difference:

In a word, the poet imitates what is, not what came into being only later. Homer could not have embodied the custom of later centuries; it is for later centuries to recapture the customs of his.

Houdar de la Motte knew no Greek but nevertheless rendered the Iliad in verse (in contrast to Madame Dacier's prose) in 1714, reducing the epic to twelve books and took the liberty, as he wrote in his defense, "to change what I thought disagreeable" in the epic. In other words, he sought to make a work palatable that was otherwise hard to digest for the tastes of the French 18th century. He called his rendering an "imitation," not a translation.

As Patey points out the Quarrel of the Ancients and Moderns resonated throughout the 18th century -- the English version is called the Battle of the Books -- and can be found in essays of the 1790s of Schiller and Friedrich Schlegel. Goethe himself does not address the Quarrel per se, but his encomium on Wieland in 1813, in which he proposes two "maxims" for translation, would almost seem to be reiterating the varying positions of Anne Dacier and Houdar de la Motte:

One [maxim] demands that the author of a foreign land be carried over to us [zu uns herüber gebracht] in such a way that we can regard him as one of our own. The other, on the other hand, requires that we travel to the stranger [uns zu dem Fremden hinüber begeben] and place ourselves in his circumstances and speech, discover his peculiarities.

Later, in the Notes to the West-East Divan, Goethe wrote of three methods of translation. This was in about 1814, as he was entering into the period that marked the incipient beginnings of his concept of world literature. He no longer speaks of the "stranger," but of the "foreign land." The first of the three methods makes the foreign land familiar according to our own way of thinking [uns in unserm eigenen Sinne mit dem Auslande bekannt]. In the second, one indeed attempts to place oneself in the circumstances of the foreign land, but really is only concerned with appropriating [aneignen] the foreignness [fremden Sinn] and portraying it according to our own way of thinking [mit eigenem Sinne]. In the third -- the highest -- the translation attempts to be identical with the original.

Picture credits: Romanticism in Art; the Odysseus Gallery

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