"Love follows knowledge."
"Beauty above all beauty!"
– St. Catherine of Siena

Thursday, July 31, 2014

Poetry: “Pentecost” by Annette von Droste-Hülshoff, Part 2

Almost two months ago I posted on my discovery of theGerman poet, Annette von Droste-Hülshoff and included a poem titled “Pentecost” both in the original German and an English translation.  As I mentioned in the post, a German friend was the one who made me aware of her poetry.  Well, my German friend, her first name being Barbara, read the post, and being an English teacher in Germany her interest was stimulated by the English translation.  She wrote me a nice note with her thoughts on the translation, and I have her permission to post them.  So this was a treat: to have someone who is fluent in both her native German and English, and is very knowledgeable on literature break down in detail a translation of a famous German poem.  I just had to share this.  She starts her letter this way: 

I was quite amazed to see that you had put her poem "Pentecost" on your blog - in English AND German! I had never read a translation of one of her poems before so I was curious whether too much was "lost in translation". As you already stated in your blog, you see a "red flag" when the translator tries to stick to rhyme scheme and meter. So I spent a nice evening comparing, sometimes amazed about the beauty in the English version, sometimes sighing about things that got lost. 

First, here is the original German poem:

Still war der Tag, die Sonne stand
So klar an unbefleckten Domeshallen;
Die Luft, von Orientes Brand
Wie ausgedörrt, ließ matt die Flügel fallen.
Ein Häuflein sieh, so Mann als Greis,
Auch Frauen knieend; keine Worte hallen,
Sie beten leis!  

Wo bleibt der Tröster, treuer Hort,
Den scheidend doch verheißen du den Deinen?
Nicht zagen sie, fest steht dein Wort,
Doch bang und trübe muß die Zeit uns scheinen.
Die Stunde schleicht; schon vierzig Tag
Und Nächte harrten wir in stillem Weinen
Und sahn dir nach.  

Wo bleibt er nur, wo? Stund' an Stund',
Minute will sich reihen an Minuten.
Wo bleibt er denn? Und schweigt der Mund,
Die Seele spricht es unter leisem Bluten.
Der Wirbel stäubt, der Tiger ächzt
Und wälzt sich keuchend durch die sand'gen Fluten,
Die Schlange lechzt.  

Da, horch, ein Säuseln hebt sich leicht!
Es schwillt und schwillt und steigt zu Sturmes Rauschen.
Die Gräser stehen ungebeugt;
Die Palme starr und staunend scheint zu lauschen.
Was zittert durch die fromme Schar,
Was läßt sie bang' und glühe Blicke tauschen?
Schaut auf! Nehmt wahr!  

Er ist's, er ist's; die Flamme zuckt
Ob jedem Haupt; welch wunderbares Kreisen,
Was durch die Adern quillt und ruckt!
Die Zukunft bricht; es öffnen sich die Schleusen,
Und unaufhaltsam strömt das Wort
Bald Heroldsruf und bald im flehend leisen
Geflüster fort.  

O Licht, o Tröster, bist du, ach,
Nur jener Zeit, nur jener Schar verkündet?
Nicht uns, nicht überall, wo wach
Und Trostes bar sich eine Seele findet?
Ich schmachte in der schwülen Nacht;
O leuchte, eh' das Auge ganz erblindet!
Es weint und wacht.  

Annette von Droste-Hülshoff

Once again, here is the English translation:

by Annette Von Droste-Hulshoff

The day was still, the sun's bright glare
Fell sheer upon the Temple's beauteous wall
Withered by tropic heat, the air
Let, like a bird, its listless pinions fall.
Behold a group, young men and gray,
And women, kneeling; silence holds them all;
They mutely pray! 

Where is the faithful Comforter
Whom, parting, Thou didst promise to Thine own?
They trust Thy word which cannot err,
But sad and full of fear the time has grown.
The hour draws nigh; for forty days
And forty wakeful nights toward Thee we've thrown
Our weeping gaze.  

Where is He? Hour on hour doth steal,
And minute after minute swells the doubt.
Where doth He bide? And though a seal
Be on the mouth, the soul must yet speak out.
Hot winds blow, in the sandy lake
The panting tiger moans and rolls about,
Parched is the snake.  

But hark! a murmur rises now,
Swelling and swelling like a storm's advance,
Yet standing grass-blades do not bow,
And the still palm-tree listens in a trance.
Why seem these men to quake with fear
While each on other casts a wondering glance?
Behold! 'Tis here!  

'Tis here, 'tis here! the quivering light
Rests on each head; what floods of ecstasy
Throng in our veins with wondrous might!
The future dawns; the flood-gates open free;
Resistless pours the mighty Word;
Now as a herald's call, now whisperingly,
Its tone is heard.  

Oh Light, oh Comforter, but there
Alas! and but to them art Thou revealed
And not to us, not everywhere
Where drooping souls for comfort have appealed!
I yearn for day that never breaks;
Oh shine, before this eye is wholly sealed,
Which weeps and wakes. 

Barbara continues:

All in all, considering the difficulties of translating poetry, it is a good translation. But in several places, AvD's language is stronger, richer, more consistent in imagery. If you want to know the details - read on. If you don't, just skip the next lines and wait for my next letter, which will deal with your last letter and a few other things. :-) 

“AvD” is Barbara’s abbreviation for Annette Von Droste-Hulshoff.  Next Barbara goes stanza by stanza to highlight where she disagrees with the translation.  Barbara’s analysis is indented, and my comments to her analysis break in below. 

Stanza 1: "The Temple's beauteous wall" - almost a hit, but AvD says "immaculate", a word which has certain religious connotations (as in "Immaculate Conception"). 

Stanza 2: "The hour draws nigh" - So far, I have only encountered the expression "draw nigh" in contexts where it means "approach", and my dictionary says the same. AvD writes, "Die Stunde schleicht", meaning that it creeps or crawls, i.e. time passes very slowly as it often does when you are waiting for something to happen. Moreover, in German there is an alliteration as both words begin with the sound 'sh'.  

Excellent.  There would be no way for one not fluent in German to pick up on those subtleties.    

Stanza 3: You already drew your readers' attention to such alliterations and repetitions. A repetition (also found in l. 1 of stanza 2) is "Wo bleibt ...", which - I must admit - is almost untranslatable. Relatively close translations are "Why does He fail to appear" or "Wherever has He got to", but both are somehow unsatisfactory and useless in a poetic text. These are questions that German people may ask who are waiting desperately for someone to turn up. 
"Though a seal/ be on the mouth, the soul must yet speak out"
The (rather common) metaphor of the seal is not in the German text, and I don't know why it should be used here because a seal on the mouth always means that the person is not allowed to speak, be it that someone else forbade it or the person him- or herself. AvD uses a metaphor in the next line: "the soul speaks out bleeding silently". 
In the following, AvD uses imagery from nature, from the hot desert, which she already described in the first stanza. This imagery from nature is one of the weaker points of the translation. "Hot winds blow" - that's rather plain; AvD writes about a whirlwind whirling the dust through the air ("Der Wirbel stäubt" - I need a sentence to explain her three words!). And now there seems to be water - but the floods ("Fluten") consist of sand only. The translation could give people the impression there was a lake after all, though with a lot of sand in it. But I like the way the actions of the tiger and the snake are rendered. 

Ah, now the insertion of that “seal” metaphor is a significant failure on the part of the translator.  One can accept a roundabout way to translate something that is untranslatable and to simplify the nature imagery, but to create a metaphor where one doesn’t exist is a distortion.  Idioms might have to be glossed over, but metaphors in poetry are the poem’s soul.   

Stanza 4: (Are you still here? I admire your patience ...)
"a murmur" (of people?) - AvD says "Säuseln", which is the sound of a very light breeze so she stays within the imagery of nature. The whirlwind on the ground did not seem to make any unusual noise, but now everyone can hear that the wind is getting stronger "swelling and swelling and rising to a roaring storm" - the storm is already there, not just advancing. Am I too petty here? I suppose I am.
"wondering glance" - "fearful and glowing (fiery) glance(s)". Now there's the beginning of the next group of images - fire.
"'Tis here" - "Perceive" 

No, you did not lose me…lol.  I think the translator was using murmur for the breeze.  A breeze murmurs is a cliché in English, and the translator was being unimaginative.   

Stanza 5: "'Tis here" - "It's Him"
"quivering light" - not strong enough. AvD talks about flaring or flashing flames.
"the future dawns" - "the future breaks (open) - slow versus rapid process. 

"Whisperingly ... is heard" - AvD writes about a silent whisper which is like begging for something. And it is not only heard but - as the "flood-gates" are now open, releasing a lot of water - the words are like a river making its way. But the translator mentions this aspect in the line before. 

Stanza 6: ll. 1f and 3f are questions. 

"Ich schmachte in der schwülen Nacht" - In German, the word "schmachten" has three connotations:
1. feeling a strong hunger, starving
2. being in a dungeon, underfed and robbed of your freedom
3. having a strong craving for your lover 

So we might say that here is a hungry soul waiting for salvation, for a sign of the Lord, for comfort. In the translation the soul is only waiting for "day that never breaks" - an invention of the translator. Moreover, the night is "schwül", i.e. sultry, which brings us back to the imagery of the hot, almost unbearable weather, giving us the impression of a soul that finds its present state almost unbearable. 

I have no idea why the translator did not translator those lines into questions.  Seems like another significant flaw.  And thank you for dissecting the line “Ich schmachte in der schwülen Nacht."  Even with my extremely poor German I can hear the beauty in that line.   

And thank you Barbara for taking the time to write this.  I certainly appreciate it.

No comments:

Post a Comment