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Translating German Novellas into English

A Comparative Study


Marc J. Schweissinger

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.
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CHAPTER III – Johann Wolfgang von Goethe: Novelle


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Johann Wolfgang von Goethe: Novelle

I included this prose fiction, because it was written by a much older Goethe than the Sorrows of Young Werther. Moreover, the late eighteenth-century concept of the work was in poetic form. Finished and published in 1828, this work is in an entirely different style. Firstly, it is not an epistolary novella as was Werther; therefore, the highly involved style, presented as deriving from a young and troubled letter writer, is replaced by a more neutral third-person storyteller. Secondly, we still find a faint resemblance to the old poetic style of the first version; in fact, there are even some poems included. This adds a specific challenge to the translation. Thirdly, there is not just one protagonist, with his perspective more or less the sole point of view. Instead, the translator has to deal with the oddities of many different characters, and every literary scholar knows that the better the storyteller is, the more he creates character-related peculiarities, especially when he is as good as Goethe.

The chief difference between both novellas is indeed the style. Right from the start, a neutral storyteller – who is not involved at all, as Werther is – appears in Goethe’s Novelle. In addition, the style has changed, the vocabulary is much more advanced, and the sentence construction is much more complex in the Novelle. The translator faces different obstacles; the challenge lies in the different tone and approach. The...

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