Jun 2007 Journal

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Amor als Landschaftsmaler

Goethe remains one of the giants of European literature least known and understood in Britain. Is he as a Romantic, as his celebrated early novel Die Leiden des jungen Werther (The Sufferings of Young Werther) and his vividly passionate early poetry suggest? Or the greatest of the German Classical writers (a category none too clear in British minds), creator of the dramas Faust, Iphigenie auf Tauris and Torquato Tasso, the Wilhelm Meister novels and Die Wahlverwandtschaften (Elective Affinities)? The sheer breadth of his production also defies categorisation for, unlike Shakespeare, Calderón or Racine, he is not to be classed primarily as a dramatist, nor, like Cervantes, Balzac or Tolstoy, as a novelist, nor as a writer of verse, like Dante or Heine.

One of the best ways of familiarising British readers with this towering and multi-talented figure is translation. But translating poetry is notoriously difficult. As Derek Glass showed in his bibliography of Goethe translations, Goethe in English, many have tried, but few have genuinely succeeded. The most acclaimed translations of Goethe’s poems are those by David Luke, though Professor T. J. Reed of Oxford kindly sent me an article in which he makes out a strong claim for John Whaley’s translations.

Poetry lovers should welcome the appearance of Love as Landscape Painter,* David Black’s translations of some 40 of Goethe’s poems. Black, who is neither a professional translator nor a specialist in German literature, relies instead on an intuitive sensitivity to the poetic qualities of Goethe’s verse, both in its sublime mastery of rhyme, rhythm and diction and in the lyrical profundity and complexity of the sentiments it expresses. His translation of the opening of the title poem of his book, Amor als Landschaftsmaler, demonstrates this with subtle beauty: ‘Once I sat upon a rocky outcrop,/ Staring at the mist with eyes unmoving’.

Black tackles even the most famous poems. ‘Who rides so late when the night is wild?/ It is the father with his child./ He holds the boy in the crook of his arm,/ He clasps him safely, he keeps him warm’ plunges us into the Erlking’s terrifying realm; the initial question draws the reader into the narrative, the horse’s hoof-beats of the rhythm drive it forward. Erlkönig is an example of the directness that characterises much of Goethe’s poetry, not only the early love poems – ‘Es schlug mein Herz, geschwind zu Pferde!/ Es war getan fast eh’ gedacht’ – but also the late poetry with its reflective, philosophical dimension: ‘If you will not dare this danger:/ Perish, and become! -/ You remain a haunted stranger/ In earth’s deepening gloom’ (Selige Sehnsucht/ Ecstatic Longing). Of comparable quality are Black’s versions of challenging poems like Das Göttliche (The Godlike) and Dauer im Wechsel (Permanence in Change).

The core of Black’s book is his translation of the 22 Roman Elegies. ‘Speak to me, stones!’, he begins the first elegy, ‘Let me hear your voices, lofty palazzi!/ Streets! have you nothing to say? Genius loci, wake!’ ‘Streets! have you nothing to say?’ renders ‘Straßen, redet ein Wort!’ boldly and punchily. Black keeps to the demanding requirements of Goethe’s chosen form, the elegiac couplet, while allowing the verse to flow freely. His translation of the famous lines from the fifth elegy, celebrating sensual pleasure alongside artistic creativity, shows this: ‘Yet how is it not learning, to scan that delectable bosom,/ Or when I slither my hands pleasantly over her hips?/ Then I understand marble; then I discover connections,/ See with a feeling eye, feel with a seeing hand.’

But sometimes poetry’s magic wanes in translation: ‘Do you know the land that blooms with lemon trees?’ does not quite capture the yearning musicality of ‘Kennst du das Land, wo die Zitronen blühn?’ (Mignon’s Song). Perhaps no English version ever can.

*D. M. Black, Love as Landscape Painter: Translations from Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (Fras Publications, 2006, ISBN 0-9549941-4-0, available from The Atholl Browse Bookshop, Blair Atholl PH18 5SG, £8.50)

Anthony Grenville

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