No Title
Shama Futehally
GERMAN POEMS FROM GOETHE TO BRECHT by Walter Schweppe Writers Workshop, Kolkata, 1980, 131 pp., 20.00
Mar-Apr-May-June 1980, volume 4, No 3/4/5/6

Walter Schweppe, a former lecturer in German at the University of Dacca, has translated sixteen German poems for this volume. As the title indicates, they range from the 18th to the 20th century. They include several figures who are not only formidable individually, but as varied in their styles and concerns as Goethe, Rilke, Georg Traki and Brecht. I would have thought that the translating of one of these poets alone would have re­quired a long and sustained effort to ‘match’ the translator’s voice to the voice of the poet, but these sixteen poets follow each other in rapid sequence, sounding remarkably similar.

As a failed translator myself, I have no intention of sneering at the problems and sorrows of translation. The translation of poetry must be as a clean sheet of glass, making the original poem visible. Never­theless, regarding this volume, what can I say except that Walter Schweppe’s English versions, for me, constitute bad poetry?

A German speaker informs me that the translations are very literal. This by itself is not necessarily an explanation of their lack of success; the ‘spirit versus letter’ school is giving way to a recogni­tion that translations must be as literal as possible, but in the ‘right’ way, not the wrong way.

The right way would certainly include some sense of the structures of the second language. In most of these poems the syntax is impossible:

And yet are you not he

Within whom utterly ourselves

we’d lose?

(Rilke, Women’s Canto to the Poet)


With looks of gloom gaze at each

other the lovers…….           .

(Traki, Hour’s Song)


the grammar goes haywire:

Sometimes we want to stand

On edge of darkness of fountain

(Heym, Your Lashes)

there are several transparent attempts to grasp the metre by the tail:

He said it already was a quarter

past four . .

Some person practised piano

next door,

(Kastner, Realistic Romance)

Every now and again the reader gets an attractive glimpse of the original poem, as with Rilke’s Love Song:

How shall I hold my soul, that it

may not

Be touching yours?

or Hugo Von Hofmannstal’s ‘Tercets on Transitoriness’:

I still can feel their breath upon

my face

How can it be that those near-

­felt days

Have gone .. .

or Traki’s Winter Evening.

But these glimpses are few and far bet­ween.

Shama Futehally is a freelance writer.

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