Friday, October 22, 2010

Schiller Recalled

The other day Brigitte remembered a difficult essay assignment in her school days. It came when she was in what here we would call middle school, thus when she was in her earliest teens. The assignment, furthermore, came on the first day of school one year. The professor assigned the title of the theme. It was a single sentence: Das Leben ist der Güter höchstes nicht—Life is not the highest of the goods. At her young age this theme was challenging—and more. She recalled her agonized efforts to produce something fitting. The sentence in German has a more poetic, unusual word-order than my version in English. And discussing it we speculated that it must be a famous line. And, Yes, that turned out to be true. It occurs in the last verse of The Bride of Messina, the work of Johann Christoph Friedrich von Schiller who, alongside Goethe, is Germany’s most famous poet:

I stand here shaken, know not if I ought
To pity or instead to praise his lot.
This one thing do I feel and clearly know:
Life is not the highest of the goods;
But of evils surely guilt’s the greatest.

We have minimally two complete works of Schiller on the shelves in German—none in translation. When such things appear, I set myself to work. Much later, on an impulse, I consulted Bartlett’s hoping to find the line. Not there. Then I turned to the older The Oxford Dictionary of Quotations. Not there either, but in that work the few quotations actually included showed both the German and the English.

The featured quote in both is the first stanza of “Ode to Joy”—which Beethoven who, alongside Bach, is Germany’s greatest composer, set to music. The translation in the Oxford version is somewhat baroquely decorated; the text in Bartlett’s is much better. The translators try to render Schiller’s seven to eight-syllable beat but don’t always succeed. This set me scribbling. The results are here, the original first:

Freude, schöner Götterfunken,
Tochter aus Elysium,
Wir betreten feuertrunken,
Himmlische dein Heiligtum.
Deine Zauber binden wieder,
Was die Mode streng geteilt,
Alle Menschen werden Brüder
Wo dein sanfter Flügel weilt.

Translation in Oxford Dictionary of Quotations (unattributed)

Thou radiance sprung from God Himself,
Thou daughter of Elysium, Joy,
Thy shrine we tread, Thou Maid Divine,
Though light’s excess our sense destroy.
What harsh world-use has rent apart,
Thy healing spells restore again;
Where’er Thy gentle wings may rest,
Brothers we find our fellow-men.

Translation in Bartlett’s, by Theodore Spencer

Joy, thou spark from Heav’n immortal,
Daughter of Elysium!
Drunk with fire, toward Heaven advancing
Goddess, to thy shrine we come.
Thy sweet magic brings together
What stern Custom spreads afar,
All men become brothers
Where thy happy wing-beats are.

Herewith then my own, which preserves Schiller’s beat and sticks close to his wording:

Joy, the lovely spark divine,
Daughter of Elysium,
Fire-drunk we enter here,
Heavenly, your holy home.
Your magic’s power binds again
What custom strict divides,
All join a single brotherhood
Where your gentle wing presides.

In the background of this post lingers another experience, a recent and quite strikingly insightful essay in the New York Times by Michael Cunningham on the subject of translation that Brigitte found and we both delighted in reading and discussing. I’ve long held Cunningham’s view (and we share it, no doubt, with many other writers) that all writing is translation. The first captures the inspiration from on high. And when a piece of writing is rendered into another language, the act of translation is, once more, the capture, by a kind of incarnation, of something ineffable. As Cunningham puts it, “The translator is translating a translation.” But reading is translation too; the reader will behold what her or his inner powers are able to catch of something that barely touches down and then flies off again.

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