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Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749–1832) has the kind of unquestioned preeminence in the German-speaking world that Shakespeare has among English speakers. And yet a number of German-language authors are more widely read outside Germany: Franz Kafka and Thomas Mann, for example. That’s because Goethe’s standing as the colossus of German literature rests above all on his lyric poetry and his poetic drama Faust. A great lyric poet is a master of a particular language, deploying all of its resources with consummate skill—rhythms, forms, sounds, syntax, lexicon. From which it follows that the greater the poetry, the more it resists translation into another language.
Take Goethe’s poem “Um Mitternacht” (“At Midnight”). The three stanzas have a man looking at the night sky at three different stages of life: as a child, a young man, and finally in maturity. The boy sees “Stern am Sterne”: star upon star, pretty but unconnected. Simplicity both of vision and understanding is expressed in monosyllabic language. By contrast the young man sees constellations and northern lights in conflict with each other. The stars have been joined into structures, part real but part imposed as the young man projects his own conflicts onto the night scene, in polysyllabic conceptual language. The third stanza has the mature man looking at the clarity and brightness of the full moon, but to say only that would miss something, because Goethe reverts to monosyllabic language. And that gives the poem a shape and meaning it would not otherwise have: the third stanza doesn’t just complete a linear development through the three stages, because in a crucial respect it goes back to the world of the first stanza, to the simplicity and clarity of the child’s vision, but a heightened version of it. One particular feature of German that Goethe exploits is its ability to make an adjective into an abstract noun by just inflecting it as a noun: English needs a suffix to make “bright” into “brightness” but German doesn’t (hell becomes die Helle). If you translate using the English polysyllabic word you damage Goethe’s poem by making the third stanza more like the second than the first.
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Poetry was part of the way Goethe thought about the events of his daily life. When something happened that raised an issue that seemed worth dwelling on, he wrote a poem about it. But on the way from the event that started things off to the finished poem something would be abstracted that would later capture the attention of people who had no interest in what happened that day. Issues had been distilled, and what emerges is inspired commentary on human life, not Goethe’s life. This lifelong habit meant that Goethe produced an enormous volume of poetry in every conceivable mood and style. There are love poems and philosophical poems, poems in down-to-earth language and poems in exalted and esoteric modes, anguished poems as well as witty or even hilariously funny ones, lengthy ballads and short lyrics, narrative poems and epics, epigrams and elegies. And in all of them, Goethe’s virtuosic command of German is central, which is why one of the world’s greatest writers is little read outside the German-speaking world.
In 1994-95 Princeton University Press sought to remedy this by publishing a series of translations by various hands: Goethe: The Collected Works in 12 Volumes. Matthew Bell, Professor of German at King’s College London, now offers the “more manageable format” of a single large (1,000 pages) volume that is in the main a selection from those Princeton translations.