Songs and Translations – The Translator’s Lot. Part 1

Could your correspondent claim to come from a line of fine wordsmiths? Perhaps yes. Great grandfather Andrew served with the Sydney Morning Herald from 1873 until retirement as Editor in Chief in 1885. His oevre can be found in the National Library, in the form of cutting books. Andrew also wrote under the pen-name Nova Cambria, with which pseudonym he covered philosophical, scientific and literary subjects. Grandfather Robert (whom I shall refer to as RRG) was an equally gifted writer, trained in Classics at Sydney University, this being the, then, way into the legal profession. A lover of poetry, he was awarded the English Verse University Prize in 1887, 1889 and 1890. He continued to write poetry throughout his life. His legal opinions, many of which are contained in Volume 2 of Opinions of Attorneys-General of the Commonwealth of Australia, had, according to that eminent jurist Sir Ninian Stephen, “an elegance and economy not all legal writing displays.” And lest anyone point to the size and length of that inestimable doorstop, The Annotated Constitution of the Commonwealth of Australia, let it be known that co-author Sir John Quick was known to lack skills of précis. Above all, RRG was a poet – one who could express music as well as ideas in words.

Sadly your correspondent acknowledges that reflected glory matters nought, and certainly brings with it no skills of erudition. But rather than wallow in the thoughts of an intellectual equivalent of “three generations clogs to clogs”, the idea occurred to allow something to be expressed, so to speak, from the grave.

This first “guest blog” expresses some ideas about that often vexed question: Should poetry and songs be translated into the tongues of other than the writers? This is RRG’s “Translator’s Preface” to “The Book of Songs” by Heinrich Heine, published by Edward A Vidler in Melbourne, 1924.

“To those who ask what need there is for yet another translation of Heine’s songs, I can only “stand mute”, and submit to the peine forte et dure of criticism.

But to those who take the uncompromising stand that the thing ought never to be done at all, I plead leave and license from the poet himself. In one of his letters to Alexander Dumas, Heine refers to Goethe’s complacent boast that “the Chinese paints, with trembling hand, Werther and Lotte on glass”, and claims that he, Heine can boast a more marvellous fame – he has been translated into Japanese! And Lord Houghton (I have read somewhere) has vouched for the fact that Heine once confided to a lady that he was “anxious beyond measure to be well translated into English”.

Well translated? There is the rub. Henly, in his essay on “The Villainy of Translation” says: “Heine had a light hand with the branding-iron, and marked his subjects not less neatly but indelibly. And really he alone were capable of dealing adequate vengeance upon his translators”.

That is not encouraging; and a translator stands in need of encouragement. The charm of poetry is elusive always, and is apt to vanish under his hand. And the strange beauty of Heine’s lyrics is specially hard to capture.

The very simplicity of the songs is the translator’s despair. If, to eke out the metre or the rhyme, he is driven to any awkward inversion, any elaboration, or worse still any “padding” – all is ruined. The least suggestion of affectation or preciousness – and goodbye to Heine!

This volume had its origin many years ago in an attempt to provide adequate English versions for a few of Schumann’s settings of Heine’s songs. The fascination of the task grew, until there came of it the ambition to make a complete version of the Book of Songs. And when the manuscript had been laid by for more than the nine years enjoined by Horace, the temptation to publish became irresistible.

I have omitted only a few early poems which, though they appear in his collected works, the poet’s maturer judgement excluded from the last separate editions of the Book of Songs revised by himself. And even of those I have restored a few lyrics which could ill be spared. The only other omission (one which goes without saying) is Heine’s own translation from his idol, Byron – for Heine also was among the translators.

I have had no theory of translation-except to be without one. The way of the translator is hard enough without that additional burden. What I have tried to do in the case of each individual poem is first to live familiarly with it in the original – to feel the whole of its charm before attempting to communicate it. And then the difficulties begin. Mere verbal equivalence, difficult as it often is to achieve, is very little; there are the harmonies of sound and form – the sly double meanings, sometimes quite untranslatable – the mysterious individuality of each song – and the easy swing of the free and often irregular rhythm. Perhaps, after all, the best that a translator of poems can hope is to give such an echo of his author as will send the reader back to the full enjoyment of the original.”

This, 1924, philosophy of translation developed, in later years, to be expressed in the Preface to “Schubert and Schumann – Songs and Translations”, published first in 1946 by Melbourne University Press (now Melbourne University Publishing). The preface begins: “These translations are primarily intended for singing…….”. Should the issue of singing in other that the tongue of the poet or librettist be of interest, your correspondent will oblige with Part 2 in due course.

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About johnofoz

An occasional correspondent, with particular interest in music.
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