Translating Novalis / Novalis übersetzen

Novalis is the subject of Penelope Fitzgerald’s novel The Blue Flower. That novel, which is on my list of ‘must read again’, has a curious way of placing the reader in 18th-century Germany by rendering German speech and writing in a rather literal way, a kind of translatorese: characters are called ‘the Bernhard’, ‘the Mandelsloh’, ‘Söphgen’.

‘This is my niece by marriage, Karoline Just.’
Karoline was wearing her shawl and housekeeping apron.
‘You are beautiful, gracious Fräulein,’ said Fritz.

Rahel saw that, whatever else, young Hardenberg was serious. She allowed herself to wonder whether he was obliged, on medical advice, to take much opium? For toothache, of course, everyone had to take it, she did not mean that. But she soon found out that he took at most thirty drops at bedrime as a sedative, if his mind was too active – only half the dose, in fact, that she took herself for a woman’s usual aches and pains.

languagehat reported recently that Jeremy Osner of READIN is inviting readers to help produce a translation of Hymnen an die Nacht. He presents George MacDonald’s translation, which he finds unsatisfactory, opposite the German and a working version of his own translation in between.

This is great fun, and would be even more so if one actually wanted to translate Hymnen an die Nacht into English.

22 thoughts on “Translating Novalis / Novalis übersetzen

  1. Thanks for the link, Ms. Marks! I’m not sure I actually want to translate the Hymnen into English, but the practice is definitely improving my understanding of the German.

  2. (grin) Yes, it is. It’s looking to me like the English translation of the prose/free verse sections holds up pretty well and is worthwhile, but of the metered and rhymed portions, not at all — MacDonald’s translation of these portions is pretty dreadful reading, and I don’t seem to be able to improve on it. Not that I’m trying to preserve the meter and rhyme — but without that, it just sounds silly.

  3. As a learner of English, I can confirm that this is a wide-spread feeling, indeed. I suppose it requires a certain proficiency to overcome it. In my experience it boils down to (largely unfounded) fears of pronounciation (Will I be able to understand them and their accent?) and vocabulary (being native speakers, they are more likely to use a word I don’t know).

    I don’t think the communication with the Greeks or Danes are necessarily “better” than with the Irish. It’s just that, in the former case, it is tacitly but clearly understood that English is a second language, a working language for all of them. In particular, not to make too fine a point about it, there is no need to be embarrassed about a few minor mistakes and the like.

    • I didn’t realize, although I should have, that so much research was being done on this, and some of it there in Vienna!

      I can well imagine it’s more relaxed without native speakers of English. What’s more, most of them have no idea what expressions are likely to be harder for others to understand (and these are the people who order machine translation systems). And it is difficult enough in one’s own language with pedants like Lynne Truss for the UK and Bastian Sick for Germany being so popular.

  4. I wonder if this is not a comment on the traditional lack of diversity in Irish society and some sections of English, including perhaps a not insignificant proportion of professional linguists. If everyone thinks and talks as you do, then you don’t need to worry about stuff like registers.

  5. Well, I posted my thoughts on the supposed Global English phenomenon elsewhere. Brief summary (as a native English-speaker myself)– it’s totally bogus, “global English” is vastly overstated and the use of English in whatever variety, for even international business communication is grossly overhyped. Also, other local/region/global languages are already gaining widespread use and even alternate lingua franca status esp as the US is no longer the world’s sole superpower or even economic beacon, as the dollar plummets and US debtor status accelerates. (Esp Chinese, Spanish, Arabic, curiously enough even German in my own travels have been much more widely used in very large and economically important regions). If anything probably Chinese might take the top spot in a couple decades.

    I don’t know the solution, my guess is maybe in a couple decades we’ll just be auto-translating like they do in Star Trek, outside of this, *no way* English in any way is going to “solve” the problem in multiple languages since for far too many people, 1. it’s just too damn difficult and time-wasting to get fluent when they could be focusing on other things, and 2. there are a lot of people who for strong reasons, economic or otherwise, are sternly opposed to it. My full two cents on this:

    As someone who’s worked on projects in over 3 dozen countries over the past two decades– import-export work, so language interaction is definitely one of my specialties– I find this whole idea of global English to be just plain ridiculous. Totally. Utterly. Ridiculous.

    1.5 billion people able to “communicate reasonably well” in English (as cited by the article)? I’d say the true number is maybe, *maybe* 1/4 of that, if even that much. Probably less than 5% of the globe can converse in English at a fluent/professional level, and even when non-native speakers use it with each other, miscommunications abound. It’s often just easier to use a regional lingua franca– since such a language by its nature tends to be foreign to both speakers, as French was early in the 20th century, it tends to be easiest to use a third-party lingua franca with some close kinship to the languages of the parties involved.

    A lot of my work especially in recent years has been done in East Asia, especially in Japan, China, Taiwan, Singapore, South Korea, Malaysia and India. Notice, 3 of these are former British colonies (and Hong Kong, now linked with China, is in that category too). And with the single exception of Singapore, it is very hard outside of the main tourist centers in those places, to find *anybody* who can speak halfway-decent English.

    In Japan, even the people in the hotels and museums generally can’t speak anything remotely resembling intelligible English. Even more so in China– even in the government, banking, business and tourist hubs, I rarely encounter anyone who can speak English at a high enough level to carry on important transactions. Everybody likes to cite those numbers about how many millions of people in China are studying English, but the point is, the vast majority– over 90%– just learn some English grammar, take a test, and never really use English again. IOW, they *cannot* communicate in English, and if you want to actually market something to Chinese customers, you’d damn well better know some of the language. They *do not* actively use English in China, the Chinese nation and periphery there is a big enough market that people don’t really need it to do business and thrive.

    In fact, despite the presence of many English signs in China, for some quirky reason that I still can’t understand, if anything I’ve found German to be at least as commonly spoken as English among the very highly educated in China.

    And Korea? It’s little surprise that Chung Dong-young (a candidate cited in the FT article who’s trying to push early classes there) is losing the election in Korea because these days, young Koreans are much more interested in learning Chinese than learning English. The days of Koreans caught in that ridiculous “English craze,” cutting the membranes of their tongues to reduce their accents, are long gone– Mandarin is the “it language” in Korea now, not English. Same goes for Thailand, as I found out myself last year.

    *Even in Hong Kong* of all places, it’s very difficult these days to find competent English-speakers even in major business zones. It’s been frustrating for American businessmen like me, but it’s the reality. For my own import-export business, whenever I work with someone in Hong Kong, I make sure to have a fluent Mandarin and/or Cantonese-speaker on my staff, b/c English really is not actively used there anymore.

    India and Malaysia– former British colonies (at least half of India), so they must have high English fluency, right? Wrong, dead wrong. With the exception of some hubs in Bangalore and Mumbai, it is very difficult in India to find any region where English fluency is prominent or widespread. All of the top-selling newspapers, TV and radio stations, and books in India are in Hindi, Telugu, Tamil or the other languages that are indigenous to India. The masses largely do not speak it, and even businesspeople and the educated classes tend to prefer doing business in something like Hindi in the vast majority of places, whether or not they also speak English– and the vast majority do not. Same for Malaysia. If anything, people throughout SE Asia and the Pacific Rim are switching toward Chinese for business.

    I found the same thing throughout South America and also in Europe, to my own surprise. Chile is definitely nowhere near becoming English-speaking and in reality has little incentive to be– the vast majority of Chile’s business is with the rest of Latin America, where Spanish is the lingua franca (and of course widely understood in Brazil). I fortunately speak Spanish so that’s been no difficulty for me.

    In Europe? In southern Europe, especially in Spain, Portugal, Italy and even France, very few people speak English, even among the educated classes. English fluency there is abysmal even for basic communication– you have to pick up at least some of the local language to do business there, or know someone who can help you do the same.

    English fluency is indeed better in Northern Europe, but nonetheless even there is greatly exaggerated. I worked in Germany for a long period of time and found very few people with decent English skills. Even the Dutch and Scandinavians, justifiably vaunted for their English skills, aren’t nearly as capable as we often like to pretend. They almost never utilized English amongst each other, and what English they did speak was often riddled not only with errors but just not intelligible.

    As for Eastern Europe and especially Russia, you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone outside the major airports who could communicate in English. German is the reigning lingua franca there, not English. Maybe this is in part because English is not nearly as simple as people like to make it out to be. One Czech customer with whom I was communicating, conveyed to me– to my surprise– that they find German to be easier to learn despite the grammar, since German is more consistent, the grammar doesn’t have so many confusing deviations (like the way we form questions in English), and the spelling is quite regular.

    I used to be one of the people like Michael Skapinker here (the article’s author), cheering on this idea of English as the one true global language. But now, actually having worked in a business where I have to break down language barriers to turn a profit, I realize how ridiculous the idea is.

    Simply put it, if we native English-speakers basically try to pretend that English is the global language, then we are effectively trying to impose a tax on the vast majority of the rest of the world– which is not English-speaking– which we then collect and benefit from. Understandably, others are highly resistant to that.

    If you want to survive in international business, the key is *multilingualism*, and having your branches set up so that there’s one person who can communicate with the chief of staff– and then the local branches communicate and do their business in the local language. Period. (I wouldn’t say that English as a global language today is “unprecedented”– in earlier centuries, French and Latin both had similar levels of international cachet, they just didn’t have modern communications technologies to spread them quite so far and wide. That technology has helped to spread English, but it’s done the same thing for other languages as well.)

    It doesn’t help that the USA these days is by far the world’s biggest debtor, with over $9 trillion in debt, losing two wars simultaneously, and generally making the rest of the world very angry at us. It also doesn’t help that the rest of the Anglophone world is being dragged into these disasters with us– the UK, remember, is also in Iraq, also losing, deep in debt to the point that British banks are having bank runs just like in the 1930’s. Thus, as leaders on all fronts– political, military and most importantly economic– the English-speaking nations are in decline. Just as the power and global sway of the USA, UK and other Anglophone nations declines, so do our currencies, and so does our language as a key for global communication.

    I do agree that English isn’t going to just “disappear,” but it’s not going to be the only game in town anymore, and people like Skapinker need to accept that and get used to it. In 20 years or so, Mandarin Chinese is going to be unbelievably important. As will Spanish. So will German– the German-led EU may well soon become *the* economic beacon of the world, and with that status, so does German’s prestige increase. Already, an increasing fraction of critical technical papers in everything from engineering to computer science is being authored in German, just like in the 1800’s. My friend works in an engineering company and they basically won’t hire anyone anymore unless they have some German ability, or at least a willingness to learn it. And Arabic? Since Arabic is the language of the oil-exporting countries, who in our current commodities-driven age are really becoming if anything the world’s most important economic arbiters, Arabic is darn important too.

    I’d say these 5 languages– Mandarin Chinese, German, English, Spanish and Arabic– will all probably be important global languages in the next 20 years.

    In addition, a few other big languages– French, Japanese, Portuguese and of course Hindi/Urdu– will be extremely important regional tongues. It’s a multilingual future, and any notion of global English as something special above these other languages is just flat-out ridiculous.

    • ‘I used to be one of the people like Michael Skapinker here (the article’s author), cheering on this idea of English as the one true global language.’

      Strange – I read the article completely differently. I don’t see Michael Skapinker as cheering on English as a global language. He just struck me as a journalist who consulted a number of sources, only one of which I’d heard of, summarized them in interesting detail and finished the article sitting on the fence, then collecting his fee or salary. And the possibility of English being in fifth place behind Arabic by mid-century is mentioned in connection with David Graddol in the eighth paragraph.

      As for the lecturer in Vienna, well, people have to take a certain line in their research and that’s the line she’s decided to take.

      This probably proves that I think too much about how people earn their money.

      • MM, reading through again I stand corrected on your point, you’re right that Skapinker isn’t cheerleading anything here. (I admittedly used to be one of the global English cheerleaders myself, hoping that at one point everyone doing business with me in whatever country would be using English– and after years of experience, realize how naive that belief was!)

        I still find fault with some of the numbers cited in the article and the way that English’s *current* dominance is assumed. Skapinger is right to raise doubts about the future of English as a global standard, but it’s not just the future– *even now*, English is nowhere near being a global standard for international communication. To the extent that I and some of my fellow international businessmen once believed this, it’s because we ourselves were monolingual English and we gravitated toward the few places where we really could find lots of foreign English-speakers– as anyone in the trenches realizes, it just ain’t so. Again the notion of “1.5 billion competent English speakers” just sounds ridiculous to anyone who’s worked abroad and found that you don’t find English-speakers *in the vast majority of countries, even in the tourist centers*!

        As an aside, many people have pointed out how much non-native English variants differ not only from native speakers’ English but also from each other– which effectively solves nothing as far as international communication. One could argue, then, that some “international standard English” would have to be adopted but then, we’re right back at the same problem we started with– this international simplified standard would be sneered at by native English-speakers, and there still be massive problems of mutual intelligibility between native speakers and non-native speakers, plus the additional burden of potentially needing to know *both* for non-natives. And non-natives are again tremendously disadvantaged in their productivity to the benefit of native-speakers. It just doesn’t work.

        IMHO, if we’re going to have some international standard “second language” at all, it would have to be some kind of invented language, some Esperanto Plus with greater attention to e.g. Asian languages or something– that would ensure not to burden any particular native-speaker group *too much more* at the expense of others, and it would also prevent some kind of privileged “native speaker class” from rising up to claim it as its own, thus again advantaging itself while disadvantaging the other groups.

        Obviously this method has its own problems, it’s just that I can’t really see anything else on the horizon, especially since even today, “global English” is at best gradually declining with the loss of unipolar status to the USA, and (more accurately) has never reached anything like a global standard status at all. I mean, just over the past 2 months, I was in Korea, South America, China and eastern Europe on business. Even in 3- or 4-star hotels and conference rooms, let alone in transportation hubs, the front desk and managerial staff don’t know English, in most cases not even a rudimentary level– you need to carry a phrasebook around or otherwise try to get some of the local lingo. They’d blanch white if I tried to start an English conversation!

        So until we start getting Star Trek devices to insta-communicate, maybe we need an Esperanto Plus or something else creative. I don’t know, maybe if Britain hadn’t gotten so bloodied in the world wars or stayed out, maybe put down the post-WWII rebellions, something to hold onto its empire longer and not crumble after the wars, then we might indeed have a globe peppered with first-language English-speakers all over the place. But the UK empire fell apart before that, and in the world we live in, global English is just not going to happen, by any means.

        • Brogan. For the length of your comments, you still seem to be a stranger to the term ‘Offshore English’.

          And David Crystal must know the world is not populated by Diplomats, Politicians and Civil Servants.

          Non-hooligan English soccer (‘football’) team supporters in Vienna today for the Austria vs. England friendly find their regional speech patterns are not pulled in the direction of their interlocutors on local transport.

          For an object lesson in equal-ranking communication, Prof. Barbara Seidlhofer ought to catch the tram or underground to Ernst-Happel Stadion tonight.

    • Brogan, very interesting perspective. Regarding “I posted my thoughts on the supposed Global English phenomenon elsewhere.” – where can it be read?

  6. If borders outside Europe are ok, I’d like to mention the famous Grits Line, above or below which one can reside. (For culinary reasons I’d prefer below.)

    • Absolutely. The Grits Line must be mentioned. I can even imagine what it is, although at present all I have are a few packets of Quaker Instant Grits – but that’s all I’ve seen for my education in Europe.

    • This takes me back to the history of the German language lectures and questions about whether rivers separate dialects or merge them. And how garden forks had different shapes in different areas.

    • Not sure what you’re getting at here. ‘Bad French’ is the Telegraph heading, taken over by me, admittedly without inverted commas. My entry makes less reference to anything wrong with the French than the Telegraph one does.

      But as you say, we don’t have enough information.

  7. Mea culpa. I didn’t read the headline in the Telegraph piece. (Headlines are not written by the authors of articles, however — and, as here, the sub-editors who do write them not infrequently get hold of the wrong end of the stick.)

    I’m sorry, too, if I gave the impression that I thought *you* were maintaining there was anything wrong with the French. Au contraire! But yes, inverted commas in the English section of your own headline would have made things clearer!

    • Well, I have weakened on the quotation marks.

      You are surely right about the headline authorship. This one goes even further than the report!

    • I’ve added a note to the entry, quoting Le Monde. Prepositions were ‘de’ (translated as ‘for’) and ‘en’ (‘in’).

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