“There are only bad translations and less bad ones”

More on Morgenstern…

More on Morgenstern…

In my recent blog on the mediocre translator I reflected on the strange fact that causes translators to feel they have to justify themselves, especially against the machine. I said at the time that there was a wealth of wisdom in this little 10-liner. So here come a few more insights, gathered from an exchange with my brother Georg.

First of all, as a reminder, here is the poem, again:

Wähle saure Mienen
draußen oder daheim.
Du kannst nur einem Herrn dienen,
dem Original oder dem Reim.

„So heb’s in eine dritte Sphäre!“ –
Als ob’s dann noch das Alte wäre.

Laßt alle Überschätzungen.
So spricht der Gerechte:
Es gibt nur schlechte Übersetzungen
und weniger schlechte.

For the sake of non-German-speaking readers who are not familiar with Morgenstern, it must be pointed out that as a writer of poetry (mostly humorous) his characterization is most likely aimed at translators who are brave enough to try their hand at poetry (even though he himself is best known for his translations of the works of Norwegian playwrights). So, if you are not translating poetry, there may be hope of doing a better than a bad or less bad translation.

The main argument of the poem seems to be that as a translator it is impossible to serve two masters – these being the content (“original”) and the form (“rhyme”). That means, the translator has to choose which of these two to go with. If he/she gives preference to the purely formal aspects, the content may well go out of the window – and vice versa. Morgenstern, in this and many others of his poems, likes to let the rhymes take over, giving little consideration to any message.

In fact, the poem is in itself a marvellous example of precisely that dilemma. If we are looking for an actual, clear message this must be contained in the lines “Du kannst nur einem Herrn dienen // dem Original oder dem Reim”. The two preceding lines make little or no sense, at least at first sight. But they need to be there, in order to provide a rhyme. You might translate “Wähle saure Mienen // draußen oder daheim” by: “Choose a grumpy face // in the open air or at home”. I for one could not see quite what he might be getting at and therefore presumed he chose it just for fun, to provide the rhyme, come hell or high water. An exercise in “language for its own sake”, devoid of meaning.

A clue that this may indeed be the case is provided in another, much more well-known poem of his, provided here with an attempted transcreation plus a more 1.1 translation:

Das aesthetische Wiesel (The Aesthetic Weasel)

Ein Wiesel
saß auf einem Kiesel
inmitten Bachgeriesel.

Wißt ihr,

Das Mondkalb
verriet es mir
im stillen:

Das raffinierte Tier
tats um des Reimes willen.
A weasel
put some teasel
on top of an easel.

Can you give me
a reason?

It was secretely revealedto me
by the moon calf:

The literrate critter
did it just for the rhyme.
A weasel
sat on a pebble
in the midst of a brook’s ripple.

Do you
know why?

The moon calf
divulged it to me

The artful animal
did it for rhyme’s sake.

The last 3 lines clearly state that the sole purpose of the little story about the weasel in the middle of the brook was the rhyme, not the desire to reveal a particular message, or truth. As such it has no informational or emotional content, or deeper meaning.

We are fully within our rights therefore to assume that this could equally apply to the poem about the Mediocre translator.

However, there may be other ways of looking at it. My brother came up with an interesting twist on a possible interpretation, which I instantly liked and found temptingly convincing. He says that the poem on the mediocre translator is a clear reflection of Morgenstern’s intrinsically sceptical and pessimistic view of language, leading him to be convinced that even the best translations are only ever poor and unsatisfactory re-interpretations of the original. Just as language in general is a poor and insufficient vehicle for representing the world as it is.

This sad state of affairs causes the translator to become “sauertöpfisch” – meaning “grumpy” and dissatisfied with his/her endeavours. Looked at in this light, it is suddenly possible to make sense of the “grumpy face” at the beginning (which had left me baffled), and even “draussen and daheim” then falls into place: i.e. the Translator makes a grumpy face wherever he happens to be, since he is in a permanent state of disillusionment and dissatisfaction. Let me reassure you, once again, that we are talking here about translation of poetry! But who knows, readers may come up with their own ingenious interpretations…

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