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Genesis of a Historical Novel

Friday, February 23, 2007

bonus post: Vitols translates Goethe

Procrastinating my writing chores, I was adding some labels to old blog-posts just now, and came across the post from 2 April 2006, in which I mentioned a verse of Goethe that appears, in translation, as the epigraph to Erich Neumann's The Origins and History of Consciousness. Here is that translated verse:

He whose vision cannot cover
History's three thousand years,
Must in outer darkness hover,
Live within the day's frontiers.

Gabriele Campbell, in a comment to that post, gave the original verse in German:

Wer nicht von dreitausend Jahren,
Sich Rechenschaft kann geben,
Bleibt im Dunkel, unerfahren,
Muß von Tag zu Tage leben.

I don't know who translated the verse for Neumann's epigraph, but I sensed that it was quite feeble compared to Goethe's original, so I just now had a go myself. I don't speak German beyond a crude traveler's level, having studied the language only in a weekly class in grade 4, then using a Teach Yourself book when I was 25, since I had a German girlfriend and wanted to learn her language. I also took a night-school class through the Vancouver School Board that same year. Thus equipped, I tackled Goethe, and came up with something that I think is quite good:

Who won't go back three thousand years
To hear what history has to say,
Remains in darkness, without ears,
And lives from day to day.

I've written almost no poetry in my life--I'm too inhibited and afraid. But, urged by my sense of the power of Goethe's words in his own language, I felt motivated to try to express his thought in my own language. I believe my translation captures something of the force of Goethe's thought and diction.

There: Vitols, the translating poet, is born!


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