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Discussion of Charlotte M. Craig: A. W. Schlegel's Rendering of Shakespearean Idiosyncrasies

Delivered at the 1988 Convention of the Midwest MLA

Note that a revised version of Craig's paper is included in: The Reception of Shakespeare in Eighteenth-Century France and Germany, co-edited by Kenneth E. Larson and Hansjoerg R. Schelle, published as a special issue of Michigan Germanic Studies [15.2 (1989)].


After so much praise for Le Tourneur's, Wieland's, and Eschenburg's prose Shakespeare translations, which accomplished more than one might reasonably expect of them, it is salutary that Professor Craig's paper gives us very detailed reminders of the brilliance of A. W. Schlegel's Shakespeare translation (1797-1801), which accomplished more than any mortal might ever hope for. As I've suggested, translation studies that avoid period generalizations and that focus sharply on the language are very welcome. Puns and jingles, the "idiosyncrasies" on which Professor Craig concentrates, are excellent objects on which to focus, because they present the translator with so many problems. They are a kind of crisis in which we can see how the translator responds under pressure. Translation is almost always a process of prioritizing: deciding which semantic and formal features are most important and which can be sacrificed if necessary. Shakespeare's puns create little "translation dramas" in which we can watch the translator in the process of prioritization.

Of course the first question in dealing with word plays is whether to translate them at all. Professor Craig is quite right that Schlegel's willingness to work so hard on Shakespeare's word plays is significant in itself and represents a changing theory of literature. Wieland's attitude toward Shakespeare's puns is notorious: they irritated him, and drove him to some very intemperate comments in the footnotes to his translation, where he often calls them "albern" ("silly") or even "ekelhaft" ("disgusting"). It has frequently been so entertaining to watch Wieland get upset with Shakespeare in his footnotes (rather like the fun of watching Voltaire wage war upon him) that one can easily miss what is actually happening in the text. More of that in a moment. But it is certainly true that Schlegel was revolutionary in seeing Shakespeare's word plays as meaningful, worth recreating as exactly as possible, whenever possible.

In considering what lay behind Schlegel's new practice Professor Craig very justly mentions Schlegel's debt to Herder. Herder did indeed offer a breakthrough in viewing Shakespeare's texts no longer just as the insights into human nature of an artless genius, but rather as poetry and song, in which the melody, rhythm, and other formal qualities were as constituent of the meaning as the semantic values. This perspective made translating Shakespeare vastly harder, since now what could one give up?

It seems to me that what makes Schlegel's Shakespeare so remarkable is his faith that everything in Shakespeare's text matters, even formal details that seem purely accidental. Professor Craig rightly says that he attempted to recreate the spirit of the text, but I think one could say with equal justice that few translators have ever taken the "letter" of the text as seriously as Schlegel did, attempting to recreate every formal and semantic detail as best he could, positing meaning--to quote from Ulrich Suerbaum--even in formal qualities he doesn't fully understand himself. (My favorite instances of this are in Shakespeare's short lines.) Thus puns and word plays become a crucial test for Schlegel's principles, since they combine the formal (sound quality) and semantic in one unit.

Professor Craig's examples give us an idea of how well Schlegel often succeeded. She seems more positive here than Peter Gebhardt, in his 1970 monograph on Schlegel's Shakespeare, who tends to fault Schlegel for giving up so frequently, above all for taking refuge in recreating sound plays while sacrificing the actual pun, which of course requires the semantic component. But I think Schlegel deserves our sympathetic analysis in viewing his task, just as Le Tourneur does.

Professor Craig emphasizes cases in which Schlegel makes use of German-English cognates to recreate word plays with precision, but she also provides a myriad of cases in which he is able to recreate both sound and meaning games through his linguistic genius alone, along with some good luck, and--I will argue--a little help from his friends and predecessors.

To get a better idea of Schlegel's accomplishment, and to put his views and practice in context, I glanced at some of the passages analyzed here in other translations, those by Wieland and Eschenburg (and for fun, also Le Tourneur), preceding Schlegel, and those by Johann Heinrich Voß and sons (1818-29) and Richard Flatter (1952-55).

One gets an idea of Schlegel's interest and success in capturing Shakespeare's word plays with the jingle from Romeo and Juliet (3.4.8) "These times of woe afford no time to woo." Wieland and Eschenburg merely recreate the semantic values. Thus Wieland: "daß diese Trauer-Tage keine Zeit zu Liebes-Bewerbungen sind." (One also notes the unconcern with rhythm in the line.) By contrast Schlegel: "Die Trauerzeit ist keine Zeit zur Trauung." Schlegel gets no help from cognates here, but from his ingenuity alone.

One step "lower," Schlegel sometimes gives up on recreating both semantic and formal values, but signals the reader that Shakespeare is playing by creating at least a play of sound. Thus in Hamlet's first line (1.2.65) "A little more than kin, / and less than kind": here again, Wieland and Eschenburg give the sense alone. Eschenburg: "Etwas mehr als Vetter, und weniger als Sohn." Characteristically, he adds an asterisk that sends the reader to the bottom of the page, where he prints the English text and explains the pun that he does not recreate. Schlegel, by contrast, sacrifices the exact semantic values to preserve the sound play: "Mehr als Gefreund, nichts weniger als Freund." Flatter, by the way, manages to save both: "Zu viel verwandt, zu wenig zugewandt!"

In several of the cases analyzed here, Schlegel merely borrows from or builds upon Wieland and Eschenburg, who were not so constitutionally opposed to Shakespeare's word plays as one might imagine. Hamlet's pun in 3.2. (Polonius: "I was killed in the Capitol. Brutus killed me." Hamlet: "It was the brute part of him to kill so capital a calf there") becomes in Eschenburg, for example, "Das war brutal genug, ein so kapitales Kalb dort umzubringen," which Schlegel adopts nearly word for word. Eschenburg, on the other hand, once again characteristically adds a footnote, just in case anyone might possibly have missed what was going on!

Another, harder, case of a true pun from Romeo and Juliet (1.4.51): Mercutio begins "That dreamers often lie." Romeo interrupts "In bed, asleep, while they do dream things true." Eschenburg writes: "Daß Träumer manchmal lügen. // Freilich liegen sie im Bette, und träumen indeß oft wahre Dinge," once again with a footnote explaining the pun in English. Wieland here, assuming that "liegen" and "lügen" are close enough that the reader will hear what he is doing, actually recreates the pun exactly: "Daß Träumer manchmal lügen." // "Ja, in ihrem Bette, wo sie oft wahre Dinge träumen." He adds a footnote in which he explains "to lie" in English, and goes on "welches sich zu gutem Glück übersezen läßt." In fact, one can find many instances in which Wieland either does translate the puns successfully, or implies he wishes that he could; I argue that a good part of his irritation with Shakespeare's word play is that he simply finds them so difficult and thus frustrating for a person as fascinated with language as he.

I hope there may be time in the discussion for other examples of cases in which Schlegel borrowed or built upon puns already in Wieland and Eschenburg, often improving on them and in one example, improving even on Shakespeare But quickly a few examples of inventive sound play: in Twelfth Night (3.4.57) Schlegel translates "Why this is very midsummer madness" with the wonderful "Nun, das ist eine rechte Hundstagstollheit." But Eschenburg had in fact beaten him to it 20 years earlier: "O! das ist ja eine wahre Hundstagstollheit!" And Hamlet's famous reply to Polonius "Buzz, buzz!," which Schlegel translates "Lirum, larum," seems to me at least equally lively in Eschenburg's "Wischewasche!"

I by no means want to imply that Wieland and Eschenburg were as interested in Shakespeare's wordplay as Schlegel or as good at it--that would be absurd. But as elsewhere, they are better than their reputation. The real genius here is Schlegel, of which Professor Craig's paper provides proof. Against the odds, he frequently does succeed in his seemingly utopian goal of validating both Shakespeare's formal and semantic features, and recreating them both.


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