Meister Remastered: Carlyle’s Interpretation of the Translator’s Role
The Translator Translated
Seemingly countless are the rhetorical figures that have been employed in attempts to define the role of the translator and the act of translation. Goethe once likened translators to mediators among merchants engaged in international trade, but, trading metaphors, also saw them as the prophets of their people (Norton 19-20). According to their functions, translators have been referred to as “pioneer,” “midwife,” and “teammate” (Nida 153); more recently, A. K. Ramanujan has called the translator an “artist on oath” (62), whereas Christopher Middleton suggested the analogy of the “mime” who “takes possession of a total structure by bringing countless small and subtle perceptions into an imaginative configuration” (27). When one writes about the task of the translator, anything, it seems, is deemed preferable to a statement such as the one made by Theodore Savory in The Art of Translation (1960): “What can the translator do? Frankly, there is no text-book answer: he can but do his best” (27).
In an introduction to his translation of Pindar, Abraham Cowley wrote: “I am not so much enamour’d of the Name Translator, as not to wish rather to be Something Better, tho’ it want yet a Name” (qtd. in Steiner 254). In lieu of clear and comprehensive definitions, a great number of lexical alternatives have been proposed, among them Dryden’s “paraphrase” and Roman Jakobson’s “transmutation” (Steiner 253-61). Translations have been called “transpositions, reenactments, interpretations” (Ramanujan 62), “re-presentation” or “double interpretation” (Lewis 37), or “version making or imitation or refraction” (Heaney 20), or, damn it all, “transluciferation” (Waldrop 225). According to Frederick Ahl,
“Translation” is too mild a word to capture the violent process whereby a text written in one language and time is taken apart and rebuilt in another. Perhaps “metamorphosis” comes closer. For such radical changes in sense and sound occur during the process of translation that the end product is generally no longer intelligible to the author of the original or his cultural community. The recreated work belongs to its new language and culture—and, very largely, to its recreator. (173)
The substitutions for and the wordplay involving “translation” do not merely suggest diverging viewpoints; they also signal a certain helplessness among theorists and practitioners when it comes to capturing the nature of the interlingual trade, as well as the duty and responsibility of those who engage in it. Joseph Graham argues that
[w]e have no definitive theory of language or meaning and no definitive criteria for translation either. What we know is tentative at best, neither full nor final but fragmentary and temporary. We have common examples of translation and we can designate others as appropriately similar. But we have no real definition, no description with enough empirical substance or logical force to say just what it is about translations that makes them what they are. (23)
Yet despite the fact that this ongoing “search for definitions” has led to an “increase in confusion rather than clarity” (Lefevere, “Introduction” 8), translators continue to perform their tasks based upon principles not always disclosed or apparent, while critics, imposing their own standards or following established models, keep on judging them.
Writings about the role of the translator fall into three main categories: a relatively small number of abstract or philosophical Writings about the role of the translator fall into three main categories: a relatively small number of abstract or philosophical essays, such as Walter Benjamin’s “Die Aufgabe des Übersetzers”; a larger number of practical manuals and experienced-based suggestions written by and for translators; and the myriad of reviews which apply labels such as “competent,” “inadequate” or “felicitous” to the particular performances under scrutiny, based upon more or less perspicuous concepts of what an ostensibly good translation ought to look and sound like.
In the case of Thomas Carlyle, who introduced British readers to selected writings by Goethe, there certainly exists quite a profusion of reviews and critical essays, from the remarks of Carlyle’s contemporaries in the 1820s and 1830s to book reviews occasioned by the publication of a reprint of Carlyle’s translation of Wilhelm Meisters Wanderjahre in the 1990s. Granted, such assessments—which range from Emerson’s accolades and Susan Howe’s mild approval of Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship as being “on the whole [. . .] an admirable translation, always excepting the verse” (102-3) to Paul F. Casey’s fierce accusation that Carlyle’s version of Lehrjahre has robbed “generations of English readers of the subtle beauty of the original” (494)—may be of considerable value to those interested in the reception of Carlyle’s translating efforts. More recent reviews, meanwhile, comparing Carlyle’s versions of Goethe’s novels to twentieth-century translations by Winston, Waidson, or Blackall and Lange, may generate new interest in Carlyle as a translator who, Wulf Koepke suggests, furnished “a very readable English text that still conveys the flavor of Goethe’s style” (113).
However welcome, such assessments are commonly limited to evaluations of Carlyle’s translations of Goethe’s Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre (Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship, 1823-24) and Wilhelm Meisters Wanderjahre(Wilhelm Meister’s Travels, 1825) in relationship to the original texts based upon more or less clearly defined principles culled from various theoretical models. Frequently, alternative translations are consulted to measure the relative success or failure of Carlyle’s efforts. As a result, critics often impose methods and standards on Carlyle’s translations without considering whether similar methods and standards have actually governed the process of translation under discussion.
Dealing with Carlyle, whose translations mark the earliest stages in the career of one of the most influential thinkers of the Victorian era, critics have the opportunity to retrace the process of translation based upon a translator’s own interpretations of his role the self-assessments of his performances as stated in his personal and public writings. To be sure, Carlyle himself, while probably influenced by Goethe’s views on languages and Weltliteratur, never attempted to advance a theory of translation; nor did he propound detailed practical guidelines on how translators ought to perform their task; and the comments he shared with friends, colleagues, and the English reading public whenever other translations of Goethe’s works became available in England lack the sophistication of his critical essays or the intrigue of Sartor Resartus. Nevertheless, studied carefully and compared to Carlyle’s versions of Lehrjahre and Wanderjahre, these scattered statements about translation acts performed by himself and others may afford opportunities to recover, if not Carlyle’s theory of translation, so at least his perception of the translator’s role, the scope and nature of the task and, through a descriptive rather than normative approach, to document an experience which “involves one of the most complex intellectual challenges known to mankind” (Nida 155).
More often than not, Carlyle’s at times incongruous statements seem to contradict his techniques; occasionally, his remarks appear evasive, secretive, or downright deceptive; yet this does not mean that these documents ought to be dismissed as evidence of Carlyle’s attitude toward his role and position. After all, the act of translating is not exclusively an artistic and intellectual challenge, but also a political one, a power struggle in which the translator interprets his place in literature and calculates his moves to establish his work—and, shedding anonymity—himself in the literary arena. Language, as J. Jorge Klor de Alva puts it,
encodes power relations. The translation of literature, always more than a strict linguistic or interpretive exercise, is no exception. It is subject to power plays and responds to tactical moves that serve the personal and collective interests of the original author, the translator, the audience, or (where relevant) the publisher or reviewer. (143)
Close attention to Carlyle’s words—and his silence—about the translator’s roles in their relation to his performances will disclose some of the interlocking elements of this power struggle: mastering—or re-mastering—Goethe’s novels, Carlyle was not entirely bound in service to the original texts of Lehrjahre and Wanderjahre, their author, and the English reading public, but managed to reap considerable benefits from this Apprenticeship, which enabled him to continue his philosophical and philological Travels in relative and hard-earned independence.
In his introduction to Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship and Travels (1899), H. D. Traill remarks that “[w]hat determined Carlyle’s choice of this particular work of Goethe’s is still, and after the explanations of various biographers, not quite apparent” (vii). The motivations behind Carlyle’s decision to translate both Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre and its sequel (the only longer works by Goethe that Carlyle translated) remain largely undetermined, primarily because Carlyle, while dedicating the majority of his essays written during the 1820s and early 1830s to German literature in general and to Goethe in particular, rarely commented on his experience of relating to these novels and to their author in his capacity of translator. Although his interest in Goethe is indisputable, few observers, as C. F. Harrold puts it,
would have predicted that he would find in Wilhelm Meister’s search for a well-rounded self-culture a ray of hope for the crumbling certitudes of Calvinism, and a gospel of action capable of galvanizing the energies of nineteenth-century England.1
Even if Carlyle became attracted to Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre because it stood in “contrast to the sustained pessimism that characterized most of his reading” and enabled him to find “a surprising amount of confidence and hope” (Ikeler 74), the intimacy of such a reading experience does not necessarily translate into the equally intimate if public-oriented act of rendering the novel into English.
The motivations and methods that informed the process of translation long remained hidden behind the label “Goethe” that stuck to the anonymously produced Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship and German Romance (in which Wanderjahre first appeared before the English public during the 1820s); and the difficulties in distilling evidence of Carlyle’s involvement in those productions from his remarks about the process are in no small part due to the silence in which the translator bottled up “the Meister business,” the “choicest part of which,” according to his Reminiscences, were “£180 of payment” (242). Even in his “Translator’s Preface” to the first edition of Meister’s Apprenticeship (1824), where personal reflections, albeit anonymously shared, might be expected, Carlyle does not seize the opportunity to elaborate on the translator’s role and to shed light on any personal involvement in the translation process; instead, he is uncommonly self-effacing, even cryptic, when describing his responsibilities and his experience: “Respecting my own humble share in the adventure, it is scarcely necessary to say anything” (Works 23: 10). Is the translator’s share in the adventure really quite so “humble”? What, one wonders, is the “adventure”? And why is it scarcely necessary to say anything about it?
Discussing “The Role of the Translator,” Nida asserts:
Since the translator himself is the focal element in translating, and thus there cannot be any completely impersonal objectivity in his work—since he is a part of the cultural context in which he lives—his role is central to the basic principles and procedures of translating. (145)
In Carlyle’s comments about translating Goethe’s work, however, the influences of personality on the translation process remain, for the most part, unacknowledged. Granted, early in his career as translator, which as G. B. Tennyson reminds us began in 1819 (Sartor Called Resartus 67), Carlyle applied his knowledge of German to projects that not only “afford little hint of the power that was to come [. . .] in his translation of Wilhelm Meister” (68), but that also provided few opportunities for personal input or artistic involvement. In March 1821, Carlyle remarks that “[t]ranslation is not, after all, too desirable an occupation. It is nearly as unintellectual as dyking [building walls]” (Sanders and Fielding 1: 342). Carlyle refers here to the task of accurately rendering a French study on geography into English, a performance that one might expect to be more mechanical and less inspiring than the act of “literary translation,” which Seamus Heaney once described as an “aesthetic activity” of “sense giving” and “form feeling” (20). After the recent challenge of Schiller’s Geschichte des Dreissigjährigen Krieges, a portion of which Carlyle tackled in December 1820 and later incorporated into his Life of Schiller (Tennyson, “Carlyle’s Earliest German Translation” 52), the return to purely scientific subject matters may have indeed made the task at hand appear comparatively pedestrian.
Yet even when he refers to the ambitious project of translating Goethe’s Lehrjahre, Carlyle refuses to profess any intellectual commitment on the part of the translator. Instead, he clearly distinguishes between what he sees as the passionate, all-consuming art of writing and the dispassionate, time-consuming act of translating, as the following passage from one of his letters to Jane Welsh, dated 15 April 1824, illustrates:
It is not unpleasant work, nor is it pleasant. Original composition is ten times as laborious. It is an agitating, fiery, consuming business when your heart is in it: I can easily conceive a man writing the soul out of him; writing till it evaporate “like the snuff of a farthing candle,” when the matter interests him properly. I always recoil from again engaging with it. But this present business is cool and quiet [. . .]. (Sanders and Fielding 3: 59)
It was not unusual for Carlyle to relate such “business” matters to his wife-to-be, Jane Welsh, who, despite her admission that she did “not understand this translating work at all” (2: 444), became herself the translator of several German folk tales. On 12 October 1823, claiming his own translation of Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre to be “going on like steam-machinery” (2: 449), Carlyle responded to Welsh’s scholarly frustrations with comments that are patronizing, perhaps pacifying, but hardly profound:
I confess it is a sorry task I have set you [. . . ]. Translating is a weary business; the turning of a sentence gives no scope to the better faculties of the mind: it helps to still the conscience and that is all. Nevertheless you must proceed. Despise not these small beginnings; there was a time when Milton did not know his alphabet, and Rome was once a hamlet. (2: 448)
Carlyle once again emphasizes the mechanical and mundane nature of production, contrasted sharply with the ultimate value and significance of the finished product; the path between the “small beginnings” and the worthy end, although likened to the momentous process of turning the English alphabet into Paradise Lost, is not retraced. Instead, by arguing that the “better faculties of the mind” are not engaged, but numbed during the process, Carlyle reduces the art of translation to one of unintellectual version-making, far removed from the conscious act of interpretation.
Welsh, on the other hand, appears far more eager to explore the active decision-making processes, the diverse and seemingly contradictory tasks of the translator:
I have no notion how far the original form of expression should be preserved in a translation; or how far I may alter it according to my own idea of a good style—the consequence is that every sentence of my translation looks detached from the rest, and constructed in a different manner—Do you understand what I mean? (2: 452)
Anyone dealing with translations, with considerations of preserving and altering of text, of balancing artistic freedom and textual fidelity, will understand exactly what she means here; yet despite his entreaty “Do tell me all about your difficulties, and your progress”2: 448), which triggered the response quoted above, Carlyle never entered into any discussion about the mental processes involved in being “busily engaged every night in translating Goethe’s Wilhelm Meister” (2: 443). And if this engagement was really “going on like steam-machinery,” what, one wonders, was Carlyle’s “humble share” in keeping the engine stoked?
Of course, there are those oft quoted outbursts during which Carlyle, himself in need of venting steam, complained about his work. On 18 September 1823, for example, while in the midst of translating Lehrjahre, Carlyle writes: “There are touches of the very highest most etherial [sic] genius in it; but diluted with floods of insipidity, which even I would not have written for the world” (Sanders and Fielding 2: 434). A few days later (21 September 1823) the disgruntled translator refers to Goethe as the “gre[atest ge]niu[s that has] lived for a century, and the greatest ass that [has l]ived for th[ree. I] could sometimes fall down and worship him; at other times I could kick him out of the room” (2: 437). These instances only prove—if proof were needed—that the business of translation is neither cool nor quiet, and demonstrate the range and extent of the remarks, personal or public, Carlyle was willing to share about the process of translation.
Even in his correspondence with Goethe, which began in June 1824, was occasioned by the publication of Apprenticeship, and which lasted until Goethe’s death in 1832, Carlyle never discussed his experiences of rendering Goethe’s into English. Goethe, whose involvement in translation was lifelong and who established his own theory of translation in his West-Östlicher Divan (1819)1, frequently shared his views on the subject with his translator in whose expertise he trusted and whose assistance in determining the merit of English renderings of his works by other translators he occasionally solicited; yet Carlyle’s responses are generally uninspired. After having symbolically and literally surrendered the translation of Lehrjahre to the author of the original in June 1824, an act to which Goethe responded several months later, Carlyle did not reestablish contact until the publication of Wanderjahre. Consequently, the potentially valuable connection to the author had no effect on the translation process, which unfolded without ever becoming unwrapped.
Carlyle’s misology with regard to his intellectual commitment to the task of rendering Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre and its sequel is conspicuous; it signals a refusal to openly avow any personal influences on the text produced. Professing instead to “supply” the readers of Apprenticeship with “correct impressions” of Goethe’s mind (Works 23: 5), Carlyle consistently plays down the interpretative qualities of translation. While such a refusal may be interpreted as a sign of “[i]ntellectual honesty [which] requires the translator to be as free as possible from personal intrusion in the communication process,” even Nida allows that a translator “inevitably leaves the stamp of his own personality on any translation he makes” (154).
Describing his experience translating Robert Walser, Christopher Middleton once asked: “When you translate a writer’s work, where is the writer?” (23); reading Carlyle’s Wilhelm Meister, a translating “adventure” shrouded in silence, one might wonder instead, “Where is the translator?” It remains to be seen whether the sparsity of allusions Carlyle made about his personal share in the “cool and quiet” business of translation is indeed a mark of intellectual honesty.
Shaping and Sharing
“In one respect,” translator Denis Donoghue observes,
the translator is a modest fellow; he wants to walk by placing his feet in the footprints left by someone else. In another respect, he is a braggart, he claims to carry over [. . .] someone else’s meaning from that someone’s language. (248)
Carlyle appears to have been determined to sketch his portrait of the translator with a few clear lines; and it is indeed the portrait of a “modest fellow,” an artisan who is entrusted with the responsibilities of providing a service and who, after having performed his task, becomes infinitely less significant than the results of his labor. The translator’s duties, Carlyle seems to argue, are defined, first and foremost, by the demands of the text to be rendered; any obligations to serve the reader appear to be secondary.
In his “Translator’s Preface to First Edition of Meister’s Apprenticeship,” Carlyle identifies his primary responsibility as faithfulness to the original:
Fidelity is all the merit I have aimed at: to convey the Author’s sentiments, as he himself expressed them; to follow the original, in all the variations of its style, has been my constant endeavour. (Works 23: 10)
Even though Carlyle’s choice of words (“aimed at,” “endeavor”) implies “fidelity” to be an ideal, rather than a practical model actually followed during his work, the improbabilities of realizing the established goals, if addressed at all, never lead Carlyle to abandon them for a less constrictive approach. And while Carlyle grants that “rendering the ideas of Goethe, often so subtle, so capriciously expressive, the meaning was not always easy to seize, or to convey with adequate effect”; that there “were tints of style [. . .] so slight as almost to be evanescent: some of these I may have failed to see” or to “do justice” (23: 10-11), the very consideration of such matters is attributed to mere fastidiousness and quickly dismissed: “But what work, from the translation of a German novel to the writing of an epic, was ever as the workman wished and meant it?” (11).
The concept of fidelity, defined as the act of following and approximating an original text in sentiment and style, presupposes not only that all changes in style, as perceived by the translator in the source language, have an equivalent in the receptor language, but also that the translator can, with proper knowledge of the source language, arrive at the encoded sentiments of the original author. The existence of a definitive, extractable message remains incontestable. The phrases “to convey” and “as he himself expressed them” suggest, once again, a notion of translation as transfer from the source, not interpretation through the receptor. This concept comes close to the extreme view taken by Nida that a translator “must exert every effort to reduce to a minimum any intrusion of himself which is not in harmony with the intent of the original author” (154).
Fidelity alone, Carlyle seems to argue, can guarantee a successful transfer; infidelity, an improper decoding of the original text, can only result in an inferior product. In his preface to Apprenticeship, for example, Carlyle alludes to such a case of infidelity when he complains that the
German Werter [sic], with all its faults, is a very different person from his English namesake; that his Sorrows are in the original recorded in a tone of strength and sarcastic emphasis, of which the other offers no vestige, and intermingled with touches of powerful though, glimpses of a philosophy deep as it is bitter, which our sagacious translator has seen proper wholly to omit. (Works 23: 4)
Carlyle seems convinced that a smooth transfer is possible, as long as the translator is determined to “follow the original, in all the variations of its style” as they are “recorded” in the original. Seeing the translator as one “who imports into his own country any true delineation” (23: 2), Carlyle expresses little doubt that a translator’s fidelity can prevent Wilhelm Meister from being significantly altered in the process.
As a result of a translator’s efforts to “do justice” to the text, the original author has been served as well. In a letter to Goethe, dated 22 January 1831, Carlyle remarks about Lord L. Gower’s translation of Faust that it “is now universally admitted to be one of the worst, perhaps the very worst, of such a work, ever accomplished in Britain: our Island, I think, owes you some amends; would that I were the man to pay it!” (Norton 254). According to Carlyle, fidelity, remaining true to the original, is a duty that stems from the translator’s respect for the source, as well as its author whose sentiments are encoded in the text to be rendered. In the business of translation, it is the translator’s responsibility to “pay” the author by means of successful transfer, what the community of the receptor language “owes” to the original author. This debt to the author is also emphasized in the preface to Apprenticeship in which Carlyle argues that “there is none that has been more unjustly dealt with than [. . .] Goethe” (Works 23: 4). Thus far, any debt owed to the English reader who is believed to have received inferior products in the past has not been acknowledged. Indeed, rather than being served by Carlyle’s confidence in fidelity and his approach of transfer as opposed to interpretation, the English readers of Apprenticeship and Travels may have been “unjustly dealt with” as well.
Paul F. Casey objects to the very first sentence of Carlyle’s version of Lehrjahre, arguing that
“Das Schauspiel dauerte sehr lange” is fraught with significance for the symbolic development of the paragraph, the chapter, and the entire novel. The symbolic extensions . . . are totally disregarded in Carlyle’s rendering: “The play was late in breaking up.” (493)
Casey’s critique, however, is not so much based on an assessment of Carlyle’s view of the translator’s role, but rather on imposed standards which, to Casey, make Carlyle’s translation “offensive to twentieth century scholarship” (488); and the question whether alternative translations of the sentence under scrutiny, such as “the play lasted very long,” or “the play went on for a long time,” retain the alleged symbolic significance of the original depends largely on the reader’s acceptance of Casey’s interpretation of Goethe’s novel. Casey’s argument that Carlyle’s knowledge of German was not sufficient to perform the translation (489), on the other hand, while insufficiently supported, is at least established as being in opposition to Carlyle’s own concept of the translation process, namely to its insistence on fidelity. After all, the governing principle of fidelity can hardly be implemented without a thorough knowledge of the receptor language.
“I have studied to present the work exactly as it stands in German,” Carlyle insists in his preface to Apprenticeship (Works 23: 10). The sufficiency of such studies, however, is very much doubted by C. T. Carr, who points out that Carlyle,
was largely self-taught, although he had taken a few German lessons . . . in return for French ones, and he had no contact with native speakers of German. He then had to rely entirely on dictionaries and had no other means to gauge the precise significance of German words. (227)
Practicing German, Carlyle started with a “clay slate,” “Thonschiefer” being the first word to appear in Carlyle’s writings, namely in a letter dated 15 February 1819 (Tennyson, Sartor Called Resartus 20); reading Goethe’s works was, as might be expected, a comparatively daunting task that caused Carlyle to complain of his own “unfortunate brain” which at first felt “entirely desiccated with the labour of . . . scratching Teutonic characters” (Sanders and Fielding 1: 196). Within the frame of four years, Carlyle may not have been able to leap from essays on geology to the summits of Goethe’s prose without occasionally losing footing and slipping into the gaps in his knowledge of German language and culture. Apprenticeship, as C. T. Carr points out, “abounds in errors of translation” (227)2, deviations from fidelity that Carlyle so often deplored in his reviews of other translations.
On 1 January 1828, Goethe, whose knowledge of English was limited, asked Carlyle to judge how far the translation of Torquato Tasso by Charles Des Voeux could be considered English (“in wiefern dieser Tasso als English gelten kann”) (Norton 37). In is response, dated 18 April 1828, Carlyle declared Des Voeux’s translation to be “trivial, nay altogether unworthy” (87) and gives several, and perhaps equally trivial, examples of Des Voeux “mistakes” (88). While the translation is dismissed as “unworthy” because it strays from the original, this lack of fidelity is argued to be based upon “mistakes,” rooted in the translator’s inadequate transfer of words from source to receptor language; matters of interpretation, the existence of words and phrases that allow for diverging readings, are not considered.
In keeping with this approach, Carlyle’s own translations are virtually free from footnotes suggesting alternative readings; judged to be “mistakes,” other versions are eliminated during the process of translation, as is any hint of the process itself. In Carlyle’s correspondence with Jane Welsh and other contemporaries, a few traces of this process are preserved, such as the changes in the first stanza of the Harper’s song (“Wer nie sein Brot in Tränen ass”) from Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre, the original of which Carlyle himself judged to be “mediocre” (Sanders and Fielding 2: 434). Even though critics have always been quick to point out the ineptitude of this particular translation (Carr 226; Casey 493), a later revision, in which the last line of the first stanza reads “He knows ye not, ye heavenly Powers” (Works 23: 167) rather attests to Carlyle’s earnest attempts at fidelity.3 And yet, a few allusions to the difficult task notwithstanding, Carlyle discloses none of the decisions involved in version-making process, leaving English readers as unaware of these changes as they are of any evidence of friction in the transfer.
When Apprenticeship and Travels were republished in 1839, Carlyle prefaced the new edition by remarking that he had “made many little changes” (23: 1), thus indicating improvement without raising suspicion about the severity of the mistakes in the previous edition. Furthermore, since the first edition had “long been out of print” (1), the readers of this subsequent edition were hardly in a position to identify such corrections and to determine their extent or significance.4 Subsequent editions, published in 1858 and 1871 introduce further changes; yet, as Olga Marx points out, neither of these revisions offer a new preface, thus giving the impression that they are mere reprints of the 1839 edition (55).
In Carlyle’s business of translation, the reader-consumer is left with little more than the provider’s promise to serve, based upon a vague notion of fidelity, an undisclosed contract existing between the provider and the original text.
In a letter to Carlyle dated 20 July 1827, Goethe describes the translator’s position in this business (“Geschäft”) as one distinguished by influence, prestige, and power:
Wer die deutsche Sprache versteht und studi[e]rt befindet sich auf dem Markte wo alle Nationen ihre Waaren anbieten, er spielt den Dolmetscher indem er sich selbst bereichert.
Und so ist jeder Übersetzer anzusehen, dass er sich als Vermittler dieses allgemein geistigen Handels bemüht, und den Wechseltausch zu befördern sich zum Geschäft macht. Denn, was man auch von der Unzulänglichkeit des Übersetzens sagen mag, so ist und bleibt es doch eins der wichtigsten und würdigsten Geschäfte in dem allgemeinen Weltwesen. (Norton 19)
As mediators in the intellectual exchange between nations, Goethe suggests here, translators not only render an important and honorable service, but are also in the fortunate position of enriching themselves (“sich selbst bereichern”). Rather than being bound to the text, the translator engages in a free trade beneficial to all. To Carlyle, on the other hand, who is determined to “follow the original,” the translating trade seems to be defined by restrictions of the text and obligations toward its author; for the reader, this concept of fidelity may have resulted in the loss of some of the more fragile objects of the trade.
The “Germans are yet utterly unknown to us” (23: 3) remarks Carlyle in his preface to Apprenticeship, a novel rich in allusions to notable Germans, historic events, and customs, as well as to German art and literature of the seventeenth and eighteenth century (such as Die Römische Oktavia, Wieland’s Agathon, or the Ebersdorfer Gesangbuch). It is unlikely that Carlyle, whose “knowledge of the German nation as a whole was never very rich” (Harrold 9), had either time or resources to aquaint himself with some of the more obscure material while preparing for his translation of Lehrjahre, whereas his familiarity with German life and literature increased considerably during his translations for German Romance, for which he consulted the works of the Romantic critic Franz Horn (Vida 22-24). Yet aside from the preface to Lehrjahre in which he deplores English misconceptions about Germans as “timid, dreaming, extravagant, insane race of mortals” (Works 23: 3), Carlyle provides little guidance that might have afforded his contemporaries a better understanding of German society and culture.
Dealing with allusions or cultural references, the translator has several options: providing explanatory notes, finding an equivalent in the receptor language and culture, or omitting such confusing material altogether. When his fellow translator Jane Welsh was faced with this decision, Carlyle offered the following words of advice:
Some phrases and allusions in the original will here and there obstruct you; but do not linger over them; we will decipher them between us, or find means of blinking them in a plausible way. (Sanders and Fielding 2: 387-88)
Welsh, of course, was not dealing with the prose and poetry of Goethe. Would Carlyle have suggested “blinking” or cheating otherwise? Or did he, perhaps, silently employe similar methods?
In Apprenticeship, Carlyle refrains altogether from providing any notes that openly acknowledge the translator’s editorial functions; a quietly added “of Lessing” to Goethe’s mention of Emilia Galotti (Works 23: 391) best demonstrates the extent of Carlyle’s concessions to the ignorance of his readers. In his preface to the novel Carlyle argues that it cannot be
expected that many will take the praiseworthy pains of Germans, reverential of their favourite author, and anxious to hunt-out [sic] his most elusive charms. Few among us will disturb themselves about the allegories and typical allusions of the work; will stop to inquire whether it includes a remote emblem of human culture, or includes no such matter. . . . (23: 6)
Not even Carlyle, who has vowed to follow the original faithfully, seems to count himself among those few: although he occasionally uses substitutions, such as the replacement of the German “Hanswurst” (Lehrjahre 15, 26) with the more familiar figure of “Harlequin” (23: 45, 57), and imposes deletions, as “Chaumigrem,” the villain of one of the most popular novels of the seventeenth century (Bahr 20), disappears from a list of characters, Carlyle does not “disturb” himself about this aspect of his task and the problem of rendering obscure details remains generally unaddressed. And whereas the translator’s decisions to explain, change, or delete a few German particulars only resulted in distortions unlikely to trouble even the most captious critic, the less consumer-oriented approach of minimizing editorial guidance led Carlyle to generate several potentially alienating passages. It appears that due to Carlyle’s text worship, acculturation is occasionally sacrificed on the altar of fidelity.
The introduction “Goethe” in the fourth volume of German Romance, in which the translation of Wilhelm Meisters Wanderjahre appears, adds an interesting footnote to this discussion. In fact, the note in question—the only one in German Romance that refers directly to Goethe’s novel—illustrates at once Carlyle’s awareness of his responsibilities toward the reading public and his reluctance to grant access to the decision-making process:
Wanderjahre denotes the period which a German artisan is, by law or usage, obliged to pass in travelling, to perfect himself in his craft, after the conclusion of his Lehrjahre (Apprenticeship), and before his Mastership can begin. . . . This word Wanderjahre I have been obliged to translate by Travels, after in vain casting about for an expression that should more accurately represent it. Our mechanics have a word much nearer the mark: but this was never printed; and must not be printed, for the first time, here. (Works 23: 32)
This footnote significantly adds to the reader’s understanding of the novel, its connections to Lehrjahre, as well as its eponymous hero. Yet whereas Carlyle’s definition of the concept behind “Wanderjahre” is clear and precise, his description of the decision-making process involved in the translation of the word “Wanderjahre” is confusing and evasive. The alternative translation, although alluded to, has been expunged, cancelling also the reader’s opportunity to weigh the options—and to question Carlyle’s ultimate decision.5
Furthermore, the provision of this note does not necessarily signal a change in Carlyle’s view of his role as translator, which has heretofore been defined by his relationship to the text, not the reader. The general nature of the information, as well as the format of German Romance, in which translations are introduced by biographical sketches of their original authors, enabled Carlyle to provide the footnote separately from the text of Travels that follows without drawing any further attention to the scholar responsible for the translation. Apparently, Carlyle’s view of translation as transfer, rather than interpretation, did not permit such intrusions. The prefaces and introductions, on the other hand, allow him to assume the role of reviewer. It is here that he seizes the opportunity of declaring Wilhelm Meister to be a “hero is a milksop, whom, with all his gifts, it takes an effort to avoid despising” (23: 6), a remark that not only interprets the novel’s main character but potentially influences a reader’s response to the text to follow. The possibility that the milksop is the translator’s creature, rather than Goethe’s, just as the English Werther whom Carlyle decries as such a “very different person” from his namesake, is never considered.
The single footnote in the introduction to Travels notwithstanding, Carlyle’s comments and performances of the translator’s role—as opposed to that of the reviewer or interpreter—are generally marked by efforts to humbly disappear, or rather, to appear humble. Despite the complexities of the task, which reveals itself to be one of transforming rather than transferring, of shaping Apprenticeship rather than sharing Lehrjahre, Carlyle maintains that the “duty of a translator is simple and distinct” and that “to alter anything was not in [his] commission” (23: 10).
Years earlier, the very notion of performing this role in silence and obscurity had troubled Carlyle, who complained about translating that
besides the money that springs from it, no other benefit, no increase of reputation or even notoriety, is attached to it in any sense. Original composition, then, is better in most points, inferior only as it is more difficult—which is but another reason for setting about learning it without delay. (Sanders and Fielding 1: 342)
To be sure, the anonymous translator of Lehrjahre was not humble enough to tolerate a proposal by George Boyd who offered “willingly enough to publish the continuation of Meister, on condition (the Turk!) that I would take a certain sum and make it his,” as Carlyle complains in letter to his mother, dated 20 July 1824 (3: 110). Yet while transforming Lehrjahre, Carlyle not only continued the assignment—”a task which I have undertaken formally and must proceed with, tho’ it suits me little” (2: 437)—but also discovered his invisibility to be beneficial. After all, the translator’s task, although “often a thankless one,” Nida suggests, “has its own rewards” (155).
Serving in silence and laboring in anonymity, Carlyle was served by the process of translation, since it enabled him to quietly prepare for the “agitating, fiery, consuming business” of original composition, to gather ideas for projects such as “Wotton Reinfred” and Sartor Resartus, and to develop the literary skills he had been so eager to learn “without delay.”
Can a translation be read by itself, independently of its original? Casual readers, ignorant of the origins of a work, may certainly read a translation without perceiving it as such. They may even stumble across words or passages that appear awkward or foreign without necessarily identifying these stylistic anomalies as the results of the translating process. After all, peculiar phrases or weird wording may be features of a stylistic experiment. Critics, however, are often on the lookout for such apparent irregularities and commonly attribute them to the translator’s struggle—and failure—to produce a text that is at once faithful and autonomous. For such are the demands of the critic who judges translations based upon their dependence on an original, as well as on their independence from it.
In After Babel, George Steiner provides this serviceable survey:
The theory of translation, certainly since the seventeenth century, almost invariably divides the topic into three classes. The first comprises strict literalism, the word-by-word matching of the interlingual dictionary, of the foreign-language primer, of the interlinear crib. The second is the great central area of “trans-lation” by means of faithful but autonomous restatement. The translator closely reproduces the original but composes a text which is natural to his own tongue, which can stand on its own. The third class is that of imitation, recreation, variation, interpretative parallel. It covers a large, diffuse area, extending from transpositions of the original into a more accessible idiom all the way to the freest, perhaps only allusive or parodistic echoes. (253; emphasis added)
Although Carlyle’s comments about having studied “to present the work exactly as it stands in German” at times suggest an attempt at “strict literalism,” his translations fall into the “great central area of ‘trans-lation,’” and were commonly judged upon the principles of fidelity and autonomy. Even the advent of normative translation studies and deconstruction in the 1970s, which successfully questioned and undermined such restrictive approaches, had no influence on the reception of Apprenticeship and Travels, since it appears to have coincided with a waning interest in Carlyle’s translations.
From the 1820s to the 1970s, Carlyle’s critics demanded that in addition to being bound to Goethe and the original text, an obligation Carlyle readily concedes, the translation be equally restricted to the stylistic demands and literary traditions imposed upon original works in the receptor language. As a result of such conflicting demands, critics generally evaluated Carlyle’s translations by comparing them to Goethe’s novels while pretending to be ignorant of Goethe’s originals in order to judge the translation itself as an original to determine its level of autonomy. Tied to this crux, the translation is bound to be considered a failure. According to Marx, for example,
there are cases, where the translation is too obviously a translation, devoid completely of that fluency of expression which is commonly considered the attribute of original composition. (15; emphasis added)
Carlyle, himself a reviewer, performed his translation with an awareness of this double bind. In his preface to Apprenticeship, he admits that, as a result of being governed by the principle of fidelity, he cannot pride himself
in having always imitated [Goethe’s] colloquial familiarity without falling into sentences bald and rugged, into idioms harsh or foreign; or in having copied the flowing oratory of other passages, without at times exaggerating of defacing the swelling cadences and phrases of my original. (Works 23: 11)
By pointing out several manifestations of the “disfigurement of a translation” (Works 23: 8), Carlyle expresses not only a lack of confidence in his own abilities, but in the traditional notion of translating as copying which seems to be as inadequate as the results it yields. Seen as the product of a mimetic process, the “imperfect copy” Carlyle returns to Goethe is not a close replica, but at best a simulacrum.
Without a doubt, the translation of poetry suffers most from the restrictions of the critical approach outlined above. Discussing the late-twentieth century translator’s options in dealing with poetry, Lefevere remarks:
In the rhyming translations, rhyme and metre reveal themselves as tyrannical forces and many important features of the original have to be sacrificed to their demands. The rhyming translator fights a losing battle against self-imposed restrictions. The target text reads more often than not like an unintentional parody of its source. (388)
In the case of Carlyle, who had to deal with the incidental lyrics of Lehrjahre during a time when the Romantic lyric poets enjoyed considerable influence and popularity, such restrictions were hardly self-imposed. Unlike earlier translators of German literature, such as Coleridge and Scott, Carlyle is a writer hardly known for his accomplishments in verse; translating poetry, Goethe’s original must have seemed doubly foreign to him.
The struggle to balance the demands of the text in its source language and the literary traditions of the receptor language—a struggle about which Carlyle was even more reserved than he was about his difficulties translating prose—is perhaps best documented by the following, lesser known song from Lehrjahre:
You never long’d and loved, / You know not grief like mine: / Alone and far removed / From joys or hopes, I pine: / A foreign sky above, / And a foreign earth below me, / To the south I look all day; / For the hearts that love and know me / Are far, are far away. / I burn, I faint, I languish, / my heart is waste, and sick, and sore; / Who has not long’d in baffled anguish / Cannot know what I deplore. (23: 276-77)6
It is tempting to remark that Mignon’s “baffled anguish” is shared by translator and reader alike. Yet while the song, judged by the principles of fidelity and autonomy, loses “every shred of its original charm and melody” as well as the “mood of the dreamy nostalgia evoked by Goethe” (Marx 55), it gains by being read as a response to these conflicting demands, as the lament of a translator toiling in seclusion, torn between two “foreign” realms: the text he aspires to and the one he seems destined to end up with.
The sense of intermediacy expressed here is achieved at the price of infidelity as Carlyle inserts the line “And a foreign earth below me” into Goethe’s original composition. The inserted line means a departure from Goethe’s simple rhyme scheme; as a result, quiet weeping turns into bitter complaint. In his prefatory remarks to German Romance, Carlyle recommends Goethe’s poetry for being “brief, sharp, simple, and expressive” (Works 23: 26); yet with the exception of the line “Alone and far removed,” which may be considered a close approximation, Mignon’s solitude has been invaded by words (77 compared to Goethe’s 48), at times hurled at the reader in quick succession (“I burn, I faint, I languish”), in what may be interpreted as Carlyle’s attempt to drown not only Goethe’s simple yet expressive voice, but also the anticipated censure, the critics’ objections to the translator’s inability to capture it in so many words.
About Goethe’s language in prose, Carlyle remarks that it is
perhaps still more pleasing [than in his poetry]; for it is at once concise and full, rich, clear, unpretending and melodious; and the sense, not presented in alternating flashes, piece after piece revealed and withdrawn, rises before us in continuous dawning, and stands at last simultaneously complete, and bathed in the mellowest and ruddiest sunshine. (23: 26)
Carlyle was intent on preserving what he described as continuous dawning by trying to adhere to the German syntax, rather than rendering its intricately woven phrases “piece by piece.” Yet while difficulties in following the principles of fidelity and autonomy are most pronounced in the translation of verse, the differences in German and English syntax can prove quite problematic. As Susanne Howe puts it:
One may manage the technical difficulties of this pretty fairly, and produce a smooth-reading version that is faithful enough, in all essentials, to the original. And yet nine times out of ten it will be utterly faithless by creating a false impression of simplicity; a kind of ingenuous, childlike quality that is leagues removed from the German. In reading Carlyle’s translation of Meister, it seemed to me that he fell into the other pitfall, that of trying to convey all the sonorous and profound effects of German prose as Goethe uses it, and often, therefore, slipping of necessity into blurred and confused English. (102)
In fact, Carlyle often preserves Goethe’s ambitiously structured sentences by trimming them at the same time, aided by multiple embeddings and liberally applied colons or semicolons:
Accordingly he scarce took notice of the circumstance, when told that a judicial sentence was about being executed in the Castle-yard; the flogging of a boy, who had incurred suspicions of nocturnal housebreaking, and who, as he wore a peruke-maker’s coat, had most probably been one of the assaulters of the Pedant. (Works 23: 219)7
Similar techniques of rendering German syntax may be noticed in the translation of Wanderjahre which, as a result, has been observed to be the “wordiest” among several of the novel’s English versions (Hardin, “Goethe’s Collected Works” 227).
On the other hand, critics have also pointed to differences between Carlyle’s translations of Lehrjahre and Wanderjahre, the latter of which, if “not always completely accurate” (Hardin, Introduction viii) is often judged to be superior. Yet far from being restricted to the observation that Travels, which Carlyle’s himself “reckon[ed] somewhat better translated than its forerunner” (Norton 8), is “not marred by so many gross errors as the Apprenticeship” (Carr 228), a comparison between both translations, rather than the comparison of each translation to its original, can afford opportunities of tracing Carlyle’s development as a writer.
The two translations, Marx noticed, are
very unequal, as [Apprenticeship], in spite of numerous infidelities, . . . reads well, while [Travels], disclosing a far more intimate knowledge of German, suffers from literal translations of compound adjectives and from an adherence to the movement of the German sentence that destroys the rhythm of English prose. (8)
Whether the translation “suffers” from an increasing German influence that “destroys” its prose is debatable; the differences between both translations, however, are indisputable.
“People ask whence came Carlyle’s strange style,” Hugh Walker wrote in Literature of the Victorian Era (1910), and intimated that despite “its German colour there is evidence for the belief that it is just the nervous speech of his father lighted by the rays of genius” (31); even a cursory comparison between Carlyle’s translations and his subsequent writings, however, may suffice to shatter this belief quite effectively. Of particular interest in this context are Carlyle’s translations of German compounds. G. B. Tennyson, discussing the influences of Carlyle’s studies in and translations from German on the composition of Sartor Resartus, argues that Carlyle’s
language shows the effects of concentration on the German idiom and on German philosophy and the effects of the release of an energetically figurative and allusive turn of mind. (Sartor Called Resartus 124)
As the passage from Apprenticeship quoted earlier serves to illustrate, Carlyle’s sentences abound with peculiar Germanisms such as “Castle-yard” or “peruke-maker.” Whether judged to be autonomy-failures or fidelity-testimonies, Carlyle’s un-English word-composites are not mere manifestations of the balancing act of producing a translation both faithful and readable, as Carr’s comparison between Apprenticeship and Travels suggests:
In the Apprenticeship Carlyle tended to resolve the German compounds into English phrases whenever no accepted English compound was available, but in the Travels these circumlocutions are much rarer. (228)
Since his translation of Lehrjahre demonstrates that Carlyle was capable of finding expressions more attuned to the English language, his use of compounds in Travels appears to be deliberate. Yet was this stylistic choice governed by a desire to imitate or innovate? Marx, after having censured the translator for his “errors,” grants that
it is highly probable that Carlyle wished to give not only an impression of the synthetic character of the German language in general, but more particularly of the free creative use of words that characterized Goethe’s old age. (73)
Explored in the context of Carlyle’s prose, however, the compounds in Travels attest not so much to the “synthetic character of the German language,” but rather to the synthetic character of Carlyle’s style. After all, whereas Goethe’s “hülfsbedürftigen Personen” or “Trinkgeld” (Wanderjahre 29, 402) are unlikely to strike any German reader as peculiar, Carlyle’s “help-needing persons” or “drink-money” (24: 208) are certainly not standard usage in English. Occasionally, Travels even exhibits compounds when Goethe’s original does not: Goethe’s “obern Steine” (45), for example, is rendered as “top-stones” (224). Claiming that the “bad influences” of “French precision” had “polished and attenuated, trimmed and impoverished, all modern languages” (Works 23: 26) Carlyle appears to have found enriching alternatives in such Germanisms. As Tennyson points out in his thorough study of Carlyle’s style, German compounds, as well as loan-translations from Latin with their “metaphors close to the surface, provided the perfect material for Carlyle to exploit” (Sartor Called Resartus 270). As Carlyle’s Teufelsdröckh remarks about human language: An unmetaphorical style you shall in vain seek for: is not your very Attention a Stretching-to? (Sartor Resartus 57).
Thus, in the translation of Wilhelm Meisters Wanderjahre, with its “hill-water,” “after-feelings,” and “music-makers” (Works 24: 231, 332, 366), Carlyle’s hyphenates, hardly the crossbreeds of compromise, insinuate themselves as early experiments in hybridization.8 Despite Carlyle’s insistence that the “duty of a translator is simple and distinct,” the evolution of Carlylese—from the “half-marvellous” and “doubly-beautiful” of Travels (216) to the “Didactico-Religious” and “Metaphysico-theological” of Sartor Resartus (12, 60)—suggests a process of translation in which the borderline between humble service and bold self-assertion reveals itself to be illusory.
“Illudo Chartis,” Carlyle exclaimed only a few months after finishing his translation of Wanderjahre, the process of which was perhaps all along designed as the prelude to a long-lasting and influential literary career. In a letter to Jane Welsh, dated July 1, 1823, which may be read as a struggling translator’s credo packaged as a mentor’s motivational message to his frustrated protégé, Carlyle suggests:
the undertaking [of translating German tales] will be very advantageous for you, whatever the fortune of it; you will gain by it a complete acquaintance with German, and train yourself more and more in the art of writing English. I have often been surprized at the easy elegance with which you already compose; you want only practice of sufficient extent to make you a style of your own and to give you the power of employing it with a felicity which there will be a thousand to envy for one there is to imitate. (Sanders and Fielding 2: 387)
Carlyle argues that through the process of translation—which, as it turns out, is understood to be one of appropriation, rather than approximation—writers can fashion a particular style, later claim it as their own in original compositions which may subsequently be subjected to imitation by others. Thus, original and translation are not seen as existing in binary opposition, but as interconnected and interdependent stages in a creative continuum. Considered in the scope of a writer’s artistic development, the translated text appears to be all but a by-product, the public success or failure of which becomes negligible (“whatever the fortune of it”).
More than once during the process of translating Lehrjahre, Carlyle predicted that Apprenticeship would “never sell,” but was “determined to print and finish” it nonetheless (2: 434). Yet the translator-prophet who proclaimed that “[n]o mortal will ever buy a copy of it. N’importe” (2: 437) was twice mistaken: the public not only read the printed and finished product, but the translator’s anticipation of a limited or less than favorable reader-response also became an important influence on the production.
Retail and Retailoring
“Gilt eine Übersetzung den Lesern, die das Original nicht verstehen?” Benjamin once asked (9), immediately dismissing the very notion. Even though Carlyle considered Übersetzen, the translating process with its underlying motivations and methods, to be a solitary occupation, it was certainly understood that the publisher, commissioning the Übersetzung, intended the translated text for an English readership. Playing on paper, Carlyle enjoyed far more artistic freedom than he ever meant to make known; yet his awareness that the finished works must appear before the critics, the publishers, and the readership may very well have forced him into becoming a team player.
In a letter to Carlyle, dated 24 March 1824, Jane Welsh, who always seemed eager to explore the process of translation in all its complexities, remarked about Apprenticeship:
I do not know yet what to think of it. I cannot separate your interest in it from Göethes [sic], or my opinion of it from what is likely to be the opinion of the public. I wish however it had not been so queer. (Sanders and Fielding 3: 48)
In his preface to the first edition of Apprenticeship, Carlyle expresses his thoughts on the reception of the translation thus:
That [Apprenticeship] will be equally successful in England [as it was in Germany] I am far indeed from anticipating. Apart from . . . curiosity, intelligent or idle, which it may awaken, the number of admiring, or even approving judges it will find can scarcely fail of being very limited. To the great mass of readers, who read to drive away the tedium of mental vacancy, employing the crude phantasmagoria of a modern novel, as their grandfathers employed tobacco and diluted brandy, Wilhelm Meister will appear beyond endurance weary, flat, stale and unprofitable. (Works 23: 6)
Yet far from acknowledging the effects of such an anticipated response on his translation, Carlyle instead attempts to influence the reader’s response to the text to follow. The readers of Apprenticeship are unlikely to be insulted by Carlyle’s comment, since they, by selecting the work, are already removed from the “great mass of readers.” The work, Carlyle seems to argue, is designed for a discriminating circle of sophisticated readers; “for those who cannot do without heroical sentiments [. . .] there is nothing here that can be of any service” (23: 6).
Instead, Carlyle appeals to the scholarly reader. The “quantity of thought and knowledge embodied in a style so rich in general felicities,” he continues,
cannot wholly escape an observing reader, even on the most cursory perusal. To those who have formed for themselves a picture of the world, who have drawn out [. . .] a philosophy of life, it will be interesting and instructive to see how man and his concerns are represented in the first of European minds: to those who have penetrated to the limits of their own conceptions, and wrestled with thoughts and feelings too high for them, it will be pleasing and profitable to see the horizon of their certainties widened, or at least separated with a firmer line from the impalpable obscure which surrounds it on every side. Such persons I can fearlessly invite to study Meister. (23: 7-8)
Even the initiated are reminded that “it is with Meister as with every work of real and abiding excellence, the first glance is the least favorable” (23: 8). Quite clearly, the translator has taken great pains in preparing the reader for the text to follow, implying that those not appreciative of its qualities must lack both intellect and an open mind.
Carlyle seems careful not to put much emphasis on either plot or characters of the work and does not refer to Apprenticeship as a novel; many of Goethe’s “performances” in “the Romance department,” he remarks in his introduction to Travels, are “but ill represented by so trivial a title” (23: 20). After all these efforts to recommend Apprenticeship for the “philosophical discussions it contains; its keen glances into life and art; the minute and skilful delineation of men” (7), Carlyle once more cautions “the curious sceptic [. . .] to read and weigh the whole performance, with all its references, relations, purposes; and to pronounce his verdict after he has clearly seized and appreciated them all” (8).
Such prefatory remarks are not necessarily indicative of Carlyle’s doubt about the value of Goethe’s work or its translation, but have to be considered in the context of the predominant attitude toward German literature in the 1820s, as well as the dramatic changes in public taste in pre-Victorian England.
After a period of considerable interest in German literature, English translations of which were frequently based on “mutilated versions from the French” (Roe 91), the
rise of German literary influence was to receive a rude check when political developments—the French Revolution and the consequent tension between France and England—made German literature suspect of revolutionary tendencies. (Schirmer 165)
Even after Carlyle’s translations of Lehrjahre and Wanderjahre, several of Goethe’s works remained untranslated until the 1840s and 1850s (DeLaura 169).9 Many of the cultural and intellectual connections to the continent being severed, English literature of the early nineteenth century developed in relative isolation. In his preface to Apprenticeship, Carlyle comments:
Now it must no doubt be granted, that so long as our invaluable constitution is preserved in its pristine purity, the British nation may exist in a state of comparative prosperity with very inadequate ideas of Goethe; but at the same time, the present arrangement is an evil in its kind; slight, it is true, and easy to be borne, yet still more easy to be remedied, and which therefore ought to have been remedied ere now. (Works 23: 5)
Carlyle is careful not to emphasize the great popular success of Werther toward the end of the eighteenth century because the novel itself seems to have been in part responsible for the “inadequate ideas” about Goethe, who, Carlyle assures his readers, now “smiles at this performance of his youth” (23: 4). What had intrigued the sophisticated reader only a generation ago was now subject to ridicule and contempt. When Carlyle entered the translation business, the attitude of the general reading public toward secular literature was marked, as Maurice Quinlan puts it, by a
strong disapproval of indelicacy. It considered some situations too improper for discussion. It tabooed words and expressions which had once appeared in the vocabulary of the most respectable authors. Standards of taste had always been subject to change from period to period, but never before had good taste in literature been so easy to define. To the typical reader of the Victorian era it meant simply freedom from any degree of coarseness. By 1825 this criterion was well established. Contemporary writers had learned to comply with the strict demands of the reading public, and no reputable publisher would have dared to print a book which dealt with indecorous situations or contained gross language. (272)
And what Carlyle’s contemporary Francis Place applauded as “advances” and “improvements” in “manners, morals” and “dress” (14-15) may very well have been the result of several repressive acts passed by Parliament due to which, for several years after 1817, “there was probably less freedom of expression in England than at any time in the preceding century” (Markun 251). In such a climate of bowdlerizing and censorship, literary imports from Germany, as Carr suggests, appeared to be particularly suspicious:
German literature, never distinguished at any period of its history for its refinement, was generally regarded by English critics at this time as crude and vulgar. In particular they objected to the all too frequent references to food and drink, to the frank descriptions of love-making and to the irreverent treatment of religious subjects. Most translators of German novels apologized for these crudities and it was common practice to omit episodes or tone down certain passages which might offend English good taste. (223)
The preface to Apprenticeship, in which the translator both anticipates and influences reader-response, already reveals that such considerations of public taste, of manners and morals, entered into the private relationship between Carlyle and Lehrjahre, a work that, after all, contains several potentially offensive scenes of love-making and merriment. “[M]y business here is not to judge of Meister or its Author, it is only to prepare others for judging it,” Carlyle insists (Works 23: 10; in his preface to Apprenticeship and elsewhere he entreats the English reader to approach German literature with an open mind:
On the general merits and characteristics of these works, it is for the reader and not me to pass judgment. One thing it will behove him not to lose sight of: They [Richter, Goethe, and others] are German Novelists, not English ones; and their Germanhood I have all along regarded as a quality, not as a fault. To expect, therefore, that the style of them shall accord in all points with our English taste, were to expect that it should be a false and hollow style. (21: 4)
Yet the anonymous translator of Goethe’s Lehrjahre did not entirely distance himself from the censorious public, admitting that in “many points, both literary and moral, I could have wished devoutly that he had not written as he has done” (23: 10). In fact, Carlyle’s personal responses to the novel appear to be very much in accord with his image of the general reader.
During the act of translating, Carlyle declared to Jane Welsh:
When I read of players and libidinous actresses and their sorry pasteboard apparatus for beautifying and enlivening the “moral world,” I render it into grammatical English—with a feeling mild and charitable as that of a starving hyaena. (Sanders and Fielding 2: 437)
To Alexander Carlyle, Carlyle wrote that Lehrjahre “is a most mixed performance, and tho’ intellectually good, much of it is morally bad” (3: 96). As a result, he deemed it necessary to
write a fierce preface, disdaining all concern with the literary or the moral merit of the work; grounding my claims to recompense or toleration on the fact that I have accurately copied a striking portrait of Goethe’s mind, the strangest and in many points the greatest now extant. What a work! Bushels of dust and straws and feathers, with here and there a diamond of the purest water! (3: 43)
While not as fierce as planned, the preface, both caveat and disclaimer, certainly stresses the humble share of the translator whose business was not to judge, but to convey; after all, Carlyle insists, to “change anything was not in my commission.” Still, the public taste—reflecting in part Carlyle’s own sense of propriety—appears to have impinged upon the translator’s objectivity, since even the translator allows that there are “a few phrases and sentences, not in all amounting to a page, which [he has] dropped as evidently unfit for the English taste” (Works 23: 10).
The expunged phrases and sentences, which, according to Marx, “amount to three or four pages” (28), include explicit references to the female body, to sexual arousal and advances, even though Carlyle’s general approach was to tone down rather than delete such material.10 By alluding to those measures in his preface, Carlyle, for once, hints at his editorial influences; the changes are neither seen as incompatible with the claim of fidelity, nor are the instances in question identified within the text of Apprenticeship. While Marx holds that it is “important to discover [. . .] to what extent Carlyle’s expurgations were determined by English taste and how largely they were due to his personal propensities” (29), Carlyle’s personal letters and his preface to Apprenticeship suggest this division between public and private realm to be as artificial as the strict separation of original and translation. As a translator who deems certain elements of the text to be translated fit or unfit for the English reader, Carlyle prepares the translation for public judgment by anticipating a response fashioned after his own concept of propriety which in turn is informed by existing moral standards.
Anticipated reader-response also influenced the translation of Wanderjahre. In fact, despite the relative success of Apprenticeship, Carlyle even considered not translating its continuation. In a letter to his publisher, dated 5 July 1824, Carlyle weighed his options:
My friends here are full of compliments about the success &c [sic] of Meister; many of them are advising me (with Mr Blackwood) to go on in translating German works, as a province of literature at once unoccupied and likely to be profitable as well as instructive. (Sanders and Fielding 3: 102)
In order to assure marketability and profit in a trade still impeded by prejudices against German literary goods, the project had to be considered with care. Carlyle continues:
Their persuasion, aided by my own judgement of the case, have so far prevailed upon me that I now write to consult you upon the subject; conceiving myself bound to take your advice at least in a part of my project before proceeding any farther with it. The part I allude to is an idea I have long had of translating a Continuation of our present work by Goethe, entitled Wanderjahre, [ . . ]. a book I think about half as large as the Apprenticeship, and likely to be even more interesting, as it was written only two years ago, and after much controversy on the subject in Germany [. . .] . Procter (Barry Cornwall) has been very strenuously advising me to undertake a new version of Werter: but to this I feel little call; tho’ Blackwood says it is better than Meister, and would sell better. My own opinion on the first of these points is widely different [. . . ]. In regard to Werter, I have already hinted that unless you thought it likely to be very useful as a commercial speculation I have little care about it. As to the Life [of Schiller] I confess my feeling that were it shorter it might please me (as well as the public) very much. (3: 102-3)
Bound to the publisher, Carlyle feels compelled to base the selection of works to be translated at least partially on pleasing the public as a way of ensuring the product’s success on the market. Despite his pronounced dislike of Goethe’s Werther, Carlyle did not altogether reject plans for a new translation, until, more than one year later, on 25 November 1825, in a letter to William Tait, Carlyle finally declared: “Curiosity is dead on the subject of Werter” (3: 401).
Critics like Rosemary Ashton claim that Carlyle preferred Wanderjahre to Lehrjahre because of its “overt moral education,” already expressed in the novel’s subtitle, “Die Entsagenden” (“The Renunciants”) (88); as a result the “brief omissions in the Travels are of a different character from those in the Apprenticeship” (Marx 37). As the letter to his publisher reveals, Carlyle believed Wanderjahre to have been “written only two years ago,” and consequently expected it to be a work more solemn and subdued than its predecessor. Of course, Goethe’s work, in its 1821 version, includes material written in 1807 and conceived even earlier (Reiss 225); yet its sexually charged folk tales, such as “Die Neue Melusine,” in which a Freudian such as Eissler can readily discern a “menstruation theme” (805), are so highly stylized and symbolic as to render them inoffensive to a readership accustomed to lower references to bodily functions into euphemistic sarcophagi. Despite such ostensible attributes of Wanderjahre, Carlyle nonetheless questioned the feasibility of importing the work to England.
In a letter to publisher James Hessey dated 6 August 1824, Carlyle expressed his doubts about the novel’s marketability thus:
I have determined on accepting your offer with regard to Schiller. [. . .] I hope you will put it in a decent dress as to paper and typography; and let us have a handsome portrait in front. Wilhelm Meisters Travels will not do. It is full of genius: but in the state of a fragment, and unfit for the English market. (Sanders and Fielding 3: 118-9)
For Life of Schiller, an attractive print might have been a sufficiently decent dress. Wilhelm Meisters Wanderjahre, on the other hand, was in need of more extensive tailoring, so that on 19 August 1826, exactly two years after he declared it unfit for the English market, Carlyle could pronounce Wanderjahre, fashioned into Wilhelm Meister’s Travels, to be “by no means an uninteresting or peculiarly un-English book” (4: 123)—without having turned it into anything less fragmented and disjointed. How then was this remarkable transformation accomplished? Did Carlyle merely change his mind, or did he indeed change Goethe’s novel into something more suitable for the English public?
In a letter to John Taylor, dated 29 July 1824, Carlyle still judged Goethe’s Wanderjahre to be “a very special work. I am not without some serious thoughts of putting it into an English dress to follow its elder brother” (3: 117). Considering Carlyle’s developing affinity for things and thoughts sartorial, which may have been inspired by Goethe’s “Wort von dem lebendigen Kleid der Gottheit” (Strich 289), the clothes metaphors here are neither surprising nor insignificant. In Sartor Resartus, Professor Teufelsdröckh (translated, of course), would claim: “Language is called the Garment of Thought: however, it should rather be, Language is the Flesh-Garment, the Body, of Though” (57).
A work to be translated, on the other hand, which already has its Flesh-Garment, needs to be tailored and fitted. As Carlyle’s metaphor of the “English dress” suggests, the flesh-garment is not stripped or skinned during the process of translation. It is kept intact as a result of the translator’s fidelity, but needs to be made fit and suitable for the tastes of those who are meant to set their eyes on it.
The fabric and fashion imagery seems to have appealed to Carlyle, since it provided an alternative to the mimetic approach which made his translation of Lehrjahre appear to be such an “imperfect copy.” The translation was the product of a creative process, after all:
[O]ne feels over it, as a shoemaker does when he sees the leather gathering into a shoe; as any mortal does when he sees the activity of his mind expressing itself in some external material shape. (Sanders and Fielding 3: 59)
It is uncertain, of course, how carefully the rhetorical figures Carlyle employed in his letters were conceived; yet, richly suggestive and sufficiently pliable, the shoemaker simile is one of the more satisfying of Carlyle’s comments on translation. As his earlier bricklaying and wall-building simile and his dress metaphor already suggest, Carlyle implies that the process of translation is an act designed to immure or enfold that which is in need of protection. Goethe’s un-English original is not copied but covered, a term used here in a number of senses as suggested by Richard Sieburth: “protection, concealment, and mastery” (239).
All these implications are maintained Carlyle’s dress metaphor. Making a text fit or suitable is a creative process which serves the needs of the artist, the foreign body as well as the domestic public meant to accept it. The tailor-translator appears to be in a position of considerable power. To modify the German proverb “Kleider machen Leute” (literally, “clothes make people”), translations make, fashion, or reinvent original texts. Yet since wrapping the text in lingual folds leaves only the translation to be viewed, felt over, and judged, the word-garment needs to meet the domestic standards of literary fashion. As it turns out, the dress-making imagery only repackages the demands of fidelity and autonomy which Carlyle did not manage to escape.
Carlyle’s image of putting Goethe’s text in English dress brings to mind Benjamin’s “Königsmantel in weiten Falten” which, in relation to the untranslatable core of the original is at once “unangemessen, gewaltig und fremd” (15). To Carlyle, the translation of Lehrjahre also appeared inadequate. Looking at it, the translator observed that “it hung, in many places, stiff and labored, too like some unfortunate buckram cloak round the light harmonious movement of the original” (Works 23: 1). Yet, unlike Benjamin, Carlyle does not concern himself with doubts about an untouchable and untranslatable core or tenor that, according to Derrida (translating Benjamin and translated by Graham) is “only promised, announced and dissimulated by the translation” (194). Carlyle, after all, is certain that Goethe’s text, expressing the sentiments of its author, could be transferred “exactly as it stands in German.” Given the appropriate fabric and proper sewing skills, the tailor-translator, knowing the original’s Flesh-Garment to be regal, sets out to make this body visible and sightly through dress. It is his task to fashion the king’s attire in a manner that would allow the English public, unable to tell one foreign body from the next, to perceive the foreigner as royalty. Desiring the English reader to unfold only the body’s superior qualities, the tailor-translator feels entitled and obligated to conceal everything unseemly or unkingly behind carefully draped layers of clothing.
On occasion, Carlyle’s draping of Goethe’s Wanderjahre is quite involved. Marx points to the “[s]triking, tho not unexpected” omission of “Die Pilgernde Törin” in Travels (37); yet what is striking here is the fact that the story has not been expunged entirely. Carlyle’s Travels covers the story with the following passage—again without identifying it as a translator’s note:
The quaint, fitful and most dainty story of “The Foolish Pilgrimess,” with which our two friends now occupied their morning, we feel ourselves constrained, not unreluctantly, by certain grave calculations, to reserve for some future and better season. (24: 372)
Rather than merely deleting the story—which is not quite as quaint as here suggested—and every reference to it altogether, vestiges of it remain. The translated title is the fold of the king’s layered dress into which the story itself can be sunk. As much as Carlyle complaint about the disjointed and fragmented storytelling in Wanderjahre, his editing techniques here do not suggest that smoothing out ostensible wrinkles in the narration was his main concern.
It appears instead that Carlyle accepted the project of translating Wanderjahre because he not only realized its fragmented and disjointed storytelling—which employs an editor who interjects remarks and even defines unusual vocabulary—to be advantageous to the silently operating translator, but also discovered his growing predilection for such techniques, many of which were used in Carlyle’s subsequent writings. Yet soon after Carlyle had completed his translation of Wanderjahre and returned to review writing, commissioned work which enabled him to pursue his own experiments in fiction (“Illudo Chartis” and “Wotton Reinfred”), Goethe himself picked up the fragmentary Wanderjahre anew and reconstructed its narrative frame.
The Business Wrapped Up
In “Die Aufgabe des Übersetzers,” Benjamin describes the relationship between original and translation thus:
So wie die Äusserungen des Lebens innigst mit dem Lebendigen zusammenhängen, ohne ihm etwas zu bedeuten, geht die Übersetzung aus dem Original hervor. Zwar nicht aus seinem Leben so sehr denn aus seinem “Überleben.” (10)
The translation, Benjamin argues, is one manifestation of the original’s evolution and survival in the future. Yet even though Carlyle repeatedly referred to himself as a starving “hyaena” (2: 433, 437) while he carried on with his work, Goethe’s Wanderjahre was hardly carrion. As Trunz reminds us, the final version of Wanderjahre, published in Germany in 1829, is a significant revision and expansion of the 1821 edition (548-50) on which Carlyle’s translation is based.
Carlyle was hardly ignorant of Goethe’s intentions to revise the work, as he tells the author in a letter dated 17 January 1828:
I have just learned that you proceed with unabated diligence in the correction of your Works: and what especially contents me, that we are soon to expect some further improvement, perhaps enlargement of the Wanderjahre; and at all events a Second Part of Faust. In the Wanderjahre, so choice a piece of composition does it seem to me, I confess I see not well what improvements are to be made; so beautiful, so soft, and gracefully expressive an embodiment of all that is finest in the Philosophy of Art and Life, has almost assumed the aspect of perfection in my thoughts; every word has meaning to me; there are sentences which I could write in letters of gold. Enlargement, indeed, I could desire without limit: and yet the work, as it stands, has the singular character of a completed fragment, so light yet so cunningly is it joined together, and then the concluding chapter, with its Bleibe nicht am Boden haften, as it were, scatters us all into infinite space; and leaves the work lying like some fair landscape of an unknown wondrous region, bounded on this side with bright clouds, or melting on that into the vacant azure! (Norton 65-7)
On 3 November 1829, responding to a packet from Goethe that contained this expanded version of Wanderjahre, Carlyle writes:
Especially glad was I to find my old favourite the Wanderjahreso considerably enlarged: the new portions of the Book it was my very first business to read, and I can already discover no little matter of reflection in that wonderful Makarie and the many other extensions, and new tendencies which that most beautiful of all fragments has hereby acquired. (155)
Such cordial remarks about the 1829 version of Wanderjahre notwithstanding, Carlyle chose not to follow his master during his further literary travels.
Ten years later, in his 1839 “Preface to Second Edition of Meister’s Apprenticeship and Meister’s Travels, Carlyle informs the English public about Goethe’s revision. After having told the reader about the “many little changes” made in the translation of Lehrjahre, Carlyle merely remarks:
I have changed little or nothing: I might have added much; for the Original, since that time, was as it were taken to pieces by the Author himself in his later years, and constructed anew; and in the Final Edition of his Works appears with multifarious intercalations, giving a great expansion both of size and of scope. (23: 1-2)
Nor is his review of these changes favorable. Indeed, Carlyle— whose name is by now attached to the translator’s preface—even dares to ridicule Goethe’s work as he describes the range of appendages it has suffered in this incongruous list:
Not Pedagogy only, and Husbandry and Art and Religion and Human Conduct in the Nineteenth Century, but Geology, Astronomy, Cotton-spinning, Metallurgy, Anatomical Lecturing, and much else are typically shadowed forth in this second form of the Travels; which, however, continues a Fragment like the first, significantly pointing on all hands toward infinitude; not more complete that the first was, or indeed perhaps less so. (2)
Carlyle, seems to argue that Goethe had become more loquacious yet far less lucid in his old age, thus justifying the translator’s non serviam. Carlyle’s tone is patronizing as he suggests that it
will well reward the trustful student of Goethe to read this new form of the Travels; and see how in that great mind, beaming in mildest mellow splendour, beaming if also trembling, like a great sun on the verge of the horizon, near now to its long farewell, all these things were illuminated and illustrated: but for the mere English reader there are probably in our prior edition of the Travels already novelties enough; for us, at all events, it seemed unadvisable to meddle with it farther at present. (2)
By now, Carlyle had long wrapped up the translating business and was content to appeal to the “mere English reader,” rather than the scholar he had invited to study his Apprenticeship. As a result, what the readers of the 1830s—and indeed throughout the nineteenth century (Hardin, Introduction xiii-xv)—came to know was a translation that only covers about one third of Goethe’s final version Wanderjahre, the so-called “Ausgabe letzter Hand.”
If, as Barbara Johnson argues in “Taking Fidelity Philosophically,” “the crisis in marriage and the crisis in translation are identical” (141), the “Preface to Second Edition of Meister’s Apprenticeship and Travels” may be read as the divorce papers by which the ties between Carlyle and Goethe’s texts are severed after a long period of estrangement. Despite his awareness that the revised translation of Lehrjahre “still hangs” like “some unfortunate buckram cloak,” the translator, tired of mingling and meddling, finally decides that it “may now hang” (Works 23: 1).
Finalizing his divorce from Goethe’s texts by writing his 1839 preface to Apprenticeship and Travels,” Carlyle claimed that “the Author is one whose secret, by no means worn upon his sleeve, will never, by any ingenuity, be got at in that way” (Works 23: 2). This is a caveat that the elusive Carlyle owes scholarly readers who, determined to figure out his translation acts, scrutinize the notes and sketches of the man who performed them. Though ostensibly served, the readers of Carlyle’s translations are marginalized; they are asked to accept the result of the translator’s labors and to “excuse its errors” (11), but are left in the dark about the complexities of the translation process. His readership unfamiliar with the source language and his critics denied access to the motivations and methods that informed the translation, Carlyle reserves for himself the right to experiment and the privilege to interpret. His refusal to let others in on his work may explain the attacks from critics who made it their task to seek out the flaws and infidelities of Carlyle’s performances.
Carlyle’s self-representation as a quiet and humble servant crumbles under the persevering chisels of suspicious critics intrigued by the conflicting roles of servant and master in which the translator is cast. “Translators,” as Lefevere suggests,
are the artisans of compromise. Paradoxically, this position gives them the kind of power that is wielded most effectively by the most ostensibly weak. Since they are at home in two cultures and two literatures, they also have the power to construct the image of one literature for consumption by the readers of another. They share this power with literary historians, anthologizers, and critics. The production of translation is an activity sui generis; the study of translations should be subsumed under the more encompassing heading of rewriting. Translators, critics, historians, and anthologizers all rewrite texts under similar constraints at the same historical moment. They are image makers exerting the power of subversion under the guise of objectivity. (Translating Literature 6-7)
Among literary critics and translation theorists, the translator is still primarily seen as a schemer and pretender, an Arsene Lupin entrusted with the jewels of literature; some are out to trip him, others trace his steps to study his stratagems. For Carlyle, who has been called a “wanderer among ideas” (Harrold 18) and argued to have read Goethe’s works “creatively and transformed what he found to suit his own needs” (Moore 29), the maneuvers of re-mastering Lehrjahre and Wanderjahrewere important exercises in mastering the art of appropriation which was to become such an important element in his works.
1. For a brief survey of Goethe’s translation theory, see Steiner, 256-60.
2. Carr offers a short list of Carlyle’s “mistranslations” (227). Many of them, however, such as the confusion of “Opfer” and “Oper,” may be attributed to misreadings, rather than a lack of basic vocabulary. For a more comprehensive and meticulous comparison, Olga Marx’s chapter on “Errors in Translation” (13-27) is an indispensable tool.
3. Carlyle’s earlier version of the song’s first two stanzas appears in a letter to Jane Welsh from September 18, 1823; the first stanza reads:
Who never ate his bread in sorrow, / Who never spent the darksome hours / Weeping, and watching for the morrow, / He knows you not, ye gloomy Powers. (Sanders and Fielding 2: 434)
In Goethe’s original version, the first stanza reads:
Wer nie sein Brot mit Tränen ass, / Wer nie die kummervollen Nächte / Auf seinem Bette weinend sass, / Der kennt euch nicht, ihr himmlischen Mächte. (Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre 139)
4. For a list of “Changes Introduced in the 1839 Version,” see Marx (60-69).
5. In a letter to his publisher dated 5 July 1824, the “word much nearer the mark” is “Trampship” (Sanders and Fielding 3: 102-3), but the Scotticism, which reveals the translator’s background, was never considered for publication.
6. The original song in Lehrjahre reads as follows:
Nur wer die Sehnsucht kennt, / Weiss, was ich leide! / Allein und abgetrennt / Von aller Freude, / Seh ich ans Firmament / Nach jeder Seite. / Ach! der mich liebt und kennt, / Ist in der Weite. / Es schwindelt mir, es brennt / Mein Eingeweide. / Nur wer die Sehnsucht kennt. / Weiss, was ich leide! (249)
7. The original version from Lehrjahre reads: “So merkte er kaum auf, als man ihm die Nachricht brachte, es solle in dem Schlosshofe eine Exekution vorgehen und ein Knabe gestäupt werden, der sich eines nächtlichen Einbruchs verdächtig gemacht habe und, da er den Rock eines Perückenmachers trage, wahrscheinlich mit unter den Meuchlern gewesen sei” (191).
8. In Wilhelm Meisters Wanderjahre, the phrases are “Bergwasser,” “Nachgefühlen,” and “Diejenigen, die Musik machen” (55, 282, 404).
9. Although it had been translated from a flawed French version as early as 1824, Dichtung und Wahrheit was first translated from the German in 1848. Other first translations of Goethe’s works include Theory of Colours(1840), Egmont (1841), Correspondence between Schiller and Goethe (1845), Letters from Switzerland (1849), Elective Affinities (1854), and West-Östlicher Divan (1877) (DeLaura 169).
10. Marx’s chapter on “Omissions and Softening of Goethe’s Expressions” provides several examples (28-42).
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