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The Spike Victoria University College Review 1944



There have been experiments of late to translate without rhyme and without measure, concentrating on the essence of the original, and it seemed as if translating could in this way by the use of modern versification be reduced to a technical exercise. Cecil Day Lewis translated Virgil's Georgics (1942) according to this maxim and Michael Hamburger (1943), as well as Frederick Prokosch (1943) translated poems of Hoelderlin. If the procedure could have been successful it would herald great possibilities for the future, for scholars with a knowledge of modern versification could then have translated world literature without difficulty into all languages required, perhaps even Esperanto.

But the Georgics without their strong metrical pattern become completely uninteresting, much more uninteresting than the back numbers of a farmers' weekly. Virgil in the formless verbosity of the thirties is not Virgil. Nor can a completely correct word-for-word rendering of Hoelderlin, with no style except whatever lingered there from the original by complete accident, be called Hoelderlin. These books are very commendable and extremely tasteful cribs.

page 17

Another modern theory by which a man with poetic taste is capable of translating anything from Germany, and was first enunciated by the great poet Stefan George. His procedure was imitating the word-music of each line of the original as closely as he could in his German. He has imitated by many poets in Germany and abroad. The catch of the matter was, that George was completely at home with the intention of his models, who were usually contemporaries. He consequently had a deep feeling for the subtleties of their word-music. But when translating Baudelaire, or Shakespeare or Dante, Stefan George did not apply his theory and gave renderings which are often extremely free.

Carol North Valhope and Ernst Morwitz, who produced the only readable translation of eGorge's poetry followed the rule of their Master, and as might have been expected, they failed. They did not fail through lack of understanding of Stefan George or through lack of versatility. They just failed because they were followers of George, and were not capable of approaching George's intentions as separate personalities. So even their clever procedure did not help them: the provision to his rule which George had taken for granted—a translator must also stand on his own feet as a poet-was their undoing. It is interesting that Ernst Morwitz has made a beautiful translation of Sappho into German—he was capable of this because his being a pupil of Stefan George did not prevent him from approaching Sappho with an independent mind.

This causerie begins to look like a catalogue. Yet I must mention one more modern experiment in translation: Leishman and Spender's rendering of Rainer Maria Rilke. This will probably stand as the most important translation of recent years, because nobody can deny it to have a definite literary value as well as a profound understanding of Rilke. Stephen Spender, as well as Leishman, has a sense of style which the other poets of the thirties lack.

There is one flaw which prevents this work horn being a really great translation: the too intellectualist approach of the translators. It is of course better to have a slightly wrong approach than none at all, like Ruth Speirs, but it remains unfortunate. Rilke touches things, his wisdom is intuitive, he never formulates. The essence of the translating gentlemen is that they always formulate, that nothing has significance to them until it is clipped of its wings and safely formulated. When Spender writes great poetry, it is because his sincerity reaches a greatness, but what was sincerity to the earth-hating Rilke? There is an interesting instance in the sonnets to Orpheus, where Rilke writes, typically:

Libeling de Winde zu spielen
Wie das Gerat das gelang.

And Spender and Leishman translated, typically:

Lost by the lightly profiling
Proudly accomplished tool.

Curiously enough the translation contains two adjectives and two adverbs belonging to them, whereas the original docs not use the formulating effect of a single adjective, a single adverb.

The translation of poetry then will never become a mass trade, conducive to the preservation of world peace. It will remain the domain of just a few adventurers, and it will contribute to all national literatures just a little.

Erik Schwimmer