Translating German Novellas into English

A Comparative Study

by Marc J. Schweissinger (Author)
©2014 Monographs VIII, 275 Pages


Translation of fiction is always interpretation. This book discusses the challenges facing translators of fictional works from German into English using as examples English translations of canonical German novellas by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Theodor Storm, Gerhart Hauptmann, Thomas Mann and Franz Kafka.
The author addresses the difficulties of translating in the poststructuralist era, when every fictional work potentially has a large number of interpretations and, therefore, at least the same number of possible translations. Considering interpretations of the original text in detail not only improves the reader’s understanding and ability to criticize the translated text, but it will also provide valuable insight into the possible intentions of the writer. An initial linguistic observation of a target text can therefore lead to a fruitful connection between the linguistic and literary analysis of translated works. This book offers new perspectives on the delicate negotiation of translating source texts for a contemporary audience while maintaining the values, ideas and hidden meanings from the source in relation to its original époque.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author(s)/editor(s)
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Preface and Acknowledgements
  • CHAPTER I – Introduction
  • CHAPTER II – Johann Wolfgang von Goethe: Die Leiden des jungen Werther
  • CHAPTER III – Johann Wolfgang von Goethe: Novelle
  • CHAPTER IV – Theodor Storm: Der Schimmelreiter
  • CHAPTER V – Gerhart Hauptmann: Bahnwärter Thiel
  • CHAPTER VI – Thomas Mann: Der Tod in Venedig
  • CHAPTER VII – Franz Kafka: Die Verwandlung
  • CHAPTER VIII – Summary
  • Bibliography
  • Index
  • Series Index

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Preface and Acknowledgements

This book has been written for multiple purposes; it is written for profound thinkers, scholars, intellectuals, and students of literature who study German literature as a foreign language, as well as for students of translation, translators and would-be translators. My aim from the beginning was to evaluate translation on a much higher level than has been the case so far. Translations of canonical literary works are hardly ever discussed, or only cursorily in prefaces, introduction, short notes or epilogues. That translation can have a great impact on how the source text is perceived in the foreign culture is hardly ever mentioned. This book will make the case for a careful consideration of translated literature and argue against the idea that they are mere replications of the source text. Moreover, any translator or student of translation studies is always concerned with choices she or he has to make, to convey the work to the target culture. With this book, I intend to give the translator some tools to deal with a source text, and discuss choices she or he can make translating the original and how this might affect the perception by the reader of the translation and the original.

In listening to public speeches, university lectures, seminars, or classes at the secondary school, high school or grammar school level, we accept too quickly the idea that literature in translation has the same value as the original and is supposed to be an equivalent in reality. This is hardly ever the case. In fact, in the intensive study of literature in translation, we will inevitably comes to the conclusion that every translation needs its own interpretation and has it flaws and weaknesses – in many cases, not so much because of the translator but rather because of the target language itself, which offers many solutions, though differing from those in the original, to describe the scenery, conversation, discussion, etc. This has a great impact on the interpretation of the text. We will learn that the slightest manipulation or modification suddenly conveys the message in a totally different manner in the target text. Realising these problems is the first step in becomingy ← vii | viii → an extraordinary translator. It is the aim of this book to raise awareness of translation problems dealing with canonical fictional works, and how every translation unconsciously or purposely influences the perception of the original and thus needs to be evaluated carefully.

I especially thank the following publishers for giving permissions to reproduce copyright material: Thomas Mann, Death in Venice and Other Stories, translated from the German original by David Luke (London: Vintage, 1998); Thomas Mann, Death in Venice, translated from the German original by Helen Tracy Lowe-Porter (London: Penguin, 1971); The Metamorphosis and Other Stories, translated from the German original by Stanley Appelbaum (New York: Dover, 1996). Every effort has been made to trace copyright holders and to obtain their permission for the use of copyright material. I apologise for any errors of omissions in the above list and would be grateful for notifications of any corrections that should be incorporated in future reprints or editions of this book.

Finally, this book has been a long time in the making, and there have been numerous persons who have offered extensive and invaluable help, not least my publisher’s editors. However, the one individual who read and commented on the manuscript in its entirety – and read most parts of it many times over – and whose friendly encouragement and accurate criticisms was vital, is David A. Coats. I would like to thank David and Sigrid Coats for their help and advice and essential editing work.

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Translating German literature into English has always been a challenge, especially when very well-known and highly regarded novellas are the focus of the activity. This book aims to be helpful for the student of translation studies and literature with a focus on German, German literature and literature in translation. It will be shown that these topics are closely related, although as an area of research this has not been scrutinised enough. I intend to analyse the difficulties and challenges the translator is confronted with when it is necessary to deal with works that are well known and perceived as canonical German literature – and even described as ‘world literature’ by some.

The translator will be regarded in this book as an artist. He or she is someone who recreates a fictional work for his own cultural circle, or someone who imports certain perspectives from another cultural sphere into his or her own language. Certainly, English and German cultural traditions are related and both can be seen as genuine European cultures. However, the translator as a creative force or conveyer of cultural values from one country to the other is still not treated with the necessary respect. We hardly ever discuss his or her work in public; we hardly ever value the enormous work of transposition. (The word ‘transposition’ in the context of translation means a change in word order, grammatical structure, voice, or different tenses or parts of speech. It is needed to some extent in virtually all well-formed translations.) Although the translations analysed here will be discussed critically, they will nevertheless be treated respectfully as works of art.

The idea of analysing translated literature is not well-established in the research community, despite ground-breaking works by André Lefevere, for instance, in his excellent essay on translation of Brecht’s works into English. In his Mother Courage’s Cucumbers: Text, System and Refraction ← 1 | 2 → in a Theory of Literature, published in the 1980s, he compares different translations of certain well-known plays by Brecht.1 Several Brecht plays that are considered almost canonical, such as Mutter Courage und ihre Kinder, as well as several attempts at translating these works from German into English and their failures and difficulties, are discussed. But Lefevere restricts himself to a discussion of rather narrow translation problems. In this book, I will go one step further, avoiding too-simplistic discussions about obvious translation mistakes and instead dealing with cultural differences and options and dangers the translator faces.

I will analyse, in their chronological order of publication, only a few outstanding novellas, such as Johann Wolfgang Goethe’s Die Leiden des jungen Werther and Novelle, Theodor Storm’s Der Schimmelreiter, Gerhart Hauptmann’s Bahnwärter Thiel, Thomas Mann’s Der Tod in Venedig, and finally, Franz Kafka’s Die Verwandlung. All are specific works of canonical German literature, and each is connected in a certain challenging way to a particular period of German literature. I will discuss the difficulties, challenges, and boundaries a translator faces when he or she attempts to translate these works into English. Fortunately, there are outstanding translations into English, by creative and sensitive translators, which are well known and read by many.

Translation is always interpretation, especially if one has to translate literature. Literature is often ambiguous in its message, and often much-loved because it remains open to interpretation. While dealing with the source text, the translator him- or herself becomes here, as mentioned, a creative force. Either the translation remains as close as possible to the original, or the source text is translated as freely as possible or necessary. In translation studies today, we have certainly moved away from the idea that Nabokov defended so convincingly in 1955, while writing his essay on the translation of Pushkin’s Onegin into English. Nabokov emphatically tells us: ‘The person who desires to turn a literary masterpiece into another language, has only ← 2 | 3 → one duty to perform, and this is to reproduce with absolute exactitude the whole text, and nothing but the text. The term “literal translation” is tautological, since anything but that is not truly a translation but an imitation, an adaptation, or a parody.’2 An unreflected belief in the possibility that absolute equivalence between target und source text is achievable comes across here. Initially, this seems to be one-sided and naive. But one of the most influential works today on translation, written by the Canadian linguists Jean-Paul Vinay and Jean Darbelnet, dealing with the methodology of translation, was published only three years after Nabokov’s work. At the time Nabokov wrote, a methodology of translation had not been intensively developed and discussed. Insofar as Nabokov’s position on translation today seems to be naive and unreflecting with respect to the art of translation, we have to bear in mind that translation studies were neither a well-known nor a well-developed scholarly activity at the time, and are still not considered by some to be a worthy and fully accepted research area today. In fact, in our case, we need to study target language and source language intensively before we track down untranslatable terms; however – for instance in Chapter IV of this book, on Theodor Storm’s Der Schimmelreiter – I will examine a problem related to untranslatable diction from German into English.

This study will investigate works of prose, since studying the translation of poetry would include difficulties that I do not wish to discuss in this book. The challenging work of analysing poetry hardly ever finds two similar interpretations of a poem in the original language. Experts argue in endless contention about the supposed meaning of just one sonnet by Shakespeare. To understand poetry in its original language is, in many cases, a lost cause, or at least invites innumerable interpretations, each with its own justification to be taken seriously. The study of it in translation would be immensely more difficult. Roman Jakobson even states: ‘… poetry by definition is untranslatable. Only creative transposition is possible …’3 ← 3 | 4 → Indeed, the translator has to deal with so many different challenges, such as rhyme schemes, verses, meter, and suspension of grammar rules, that she or he may be happy to transform the meaning of the poem from one language into the other. It might even be possible to argue that some writers dealing with translation of poetry use the original only as a template for the creation of a new poem in their own native tongue.

Prose fiction, at least, can be described in general terms with certain consistent ideas. We can analyse the content and ask, ‘what is the topic of the fictional text?’ Poetry, in contrast, can be so hermetic that we cannot find one common general term to describe it. Moreover, translated poetry has been debated far more often than prose, as Susan Bassnett states: ‘One explanation for this could be the higher status that poetry holds, but it is more probably due to the widespread erroneous notion that a novel is somehow a simpler structure than a poem and is consequently easier to translate.’4 Bassnett’s position initially seems logical. But we ought to distinguish between the different forms of prose as well. Compared to a novel, a novella is written differently. Certainly it is not as compact as a poem, but compared to a novel, the structure is dense; every single paragraph, every single sentence, every single word or even morpheme is chosen carefully, and in many cases the novella includes poems as a key moment, symbolising and summarising the meaning of the whole novella in a few stanzas (see the discussion of Goethe’s Novella, Chapter III). If the whole structure of the novella follows the traditional rules, the result is very close to well-known forms of poetry. I would not choose the term hybrid for a novella, but the term comes very close to describing it. Moreover, in a novella, we will find only a few vital and complex characters, highly developed;5 every word – even the slightest gesture – is significant and meaningful for the translator.

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Finally, prose fiction will be understood and translated in a manner different from poetry. This is only logical, but it is hardly ever mentioned. The target text depends on the translator’s perspective regarding the character construction in the original. His or her perception of the actions, thoughts and utterances of the characters in the original will influence his translation. A careful translator of novels, novellas, short stories, or fairy tales, etc., must first get the general idea of the content of the work, and then decide how she or he views the subtle distinctions of the various characters. It is essentially mandatory for the translator to be aware of both the denotative and connotative levels of the original. As we will see, his or her decision about how the concept of the character in the original is to be understood will ultimately influence the reader’s perception in the target text. In poetry, in contrast, character construction is not very important or influential, except perhaps in ballads, where we can find two or even more different characters, and where the translator can indeed adjust his work to the general content, rhyme, verses, and meter. It was not just by chance that Goethe described the ballad as the original condition or location for any kind of fiction – either poetry or prose.6

Unfortunately, as noted, translation studies today have not achieved the degree of recognition we would wish for. For instance, if we would like to study a German novella, we rely on a certain limited number of translations that are provided to us without comment. We can easily find and buy an English translation of Goethe’s Novella. But nobody will tell us why the translated version we will study later in this book consists of two different parts. The poems were translated by W. H. Auden, a poet himself, while the prose text was translated by lesser known translators. No explanation for this procedure is available, nor can a general catalogue be found that tells us about the quality, advantages, and disadvantages of this or any other specific translation. The fact that translation is always interpretation, and therefore needs explanation, has not found its way into the consciousness of a broad public.

← 5 | 6 →

So, what are the necessities for the right understanding of literature in translation? The modern reader should at least have the opportunity to consider that there are different translations available for individual works. We consider Jorge Luise Borges’s critique in ‘The Translators of the Thousand and One Nights’7 to be one of the high points when it comes to translation studies, since he compares different translations of this work. His approach ought to be standard procedure when we face the challenge of reading a literary work in translation. The modern reader should have the opportunity to choose from various sources to develop, at the least, if not a better understanding of the challenges of translation, an ability to understand that translation is interpretation, and that there is a difference between a literal and a free translation. In fact, this book will include certain aspects of translation that will familiarise the reader with the ideas of narrow and free translation of literature. At the same time, it tries to avoid defending one or the other solution, as Nabokov does so vehemently, with literal translation as the only option.

The book focuses solely on so-called canonical texts of German literature, dating back to the eighteenth, nineteenth, and twentieth centuries. The advantage here is that we can usually attach the work to a certain period of literature. We are able to perceive certain stylistic signals in the German original, and compare them with the translation. For instance, Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther belongs both to the periods of sensibility and to storm and stress. So we can ask whether we find both ideas and styles of writing represented in the novella, and what is the translator’s function, duty and endeavour here? Do existing translations do justice to the original, or are they attached closely enough to the source text? This question immediately implies a follow-up question: ‘what do we actually expect from a translation of fiction, does it need to be literal, as Nabokov demands so emphatically, and what actually is a literal translation?’ Whether ← 6 | 7 → a translation may be literal or not, are there any translations that do not need borrowing, transposition, modulation, equivalence and adaptation?


VIII, 275
ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2014 (March)
fiction interpretation poststructuralist era
Oxford, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Frankfurt am Main, New York, Wien, 2014. 272 pp.

Biographical notes

Marc J. Schweissinger (Author)

Marc J. Schweissinger is Language Tutor in the School of European Languages, Translation and Politics at Cardiff University. He studied German philology and history at the University of Kassel, where he later taught courses in German literature and linguistics as a lecturer. He has published in both English and German in the fields of modern German literature, German language and translation studies.


Title: Translating German Novellas into English
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286 pages