Spoor of Desire: Selected Poems
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Friday, July 1, 2011

Wordsworth Speaks German

Ein Schlummer siegelt meinen Geist.
Keine Furcht verwirrt mein Verfahren.
Es scheint mir dass sie fühlt gar nicht
den Druck den irdischen Jahren.
Sie hat nun weder Regung noch Kraft,
nichts hörend, auch nichts sehend,
herumgezogen im irdischen Lauf,
mit Felsen und Baüme drehend.

The target language of literary translation is, of course, ordinarily, the translators’ native language. Yet I was charmed to see an English schoolboys’ book, a slim preparation volume for examinations, called This Way and That which included pieces of Shakespeare and Milton done into Greek and Latin. So, as an experiment or an exercise or a pastime, I offer here a version of Wordsworth’s “A Slumber Did my Spirit Seal.”
The shape of Wordsworth's poem is determined, first of all, by the emphatic common measure and the abab rhymes. To carry over as much as possible of this pattern is the first priority in translating particularly since the same stanza is common in German with very much the same folk associations as in English. I was willing to jettison other considerations and to tolerate some awkwardness to keep the gross structure ballad-like. Even so, the odd line rhymes don't appear in my German, and I bought the ones I do have at considerable cost. Even in the rhythm, I deviated from Wordsworth’s absolute with a few stray syllables here and there, but the same number of stresses per line announce themselves, I think, pretty clearly. I maintained a fairly conversational level of diction, but allowed for such reminders of poetic profundity as Wordsworth’s “diurnal.” (The reminders are more generalized in “mire,” but no less present.)
“Schlummer” seems inevitable — equally cute in English and German. “Geist” is made to order, too. I hesitated momentarily over ver- and be- with “siegeln,” since it seemed a little bare and unusual by itself, but I do think it carries the meaning best as is. (This first line translates itself — I expect to see an identical rendering from someone else.) The going gets more dubious in 1. 2 where I introduced “verwirren” and “Verfahren” without textual justification, solely to set up the coming rhyme. (Better to place the weaker structure first, so the conviction of rhyme will properly carry through when it happens.) “Verwirren” isn't too distracting (in fact, it suggests by contrast the automatically functioning natural world of the last two lines.) “Verfahren,” the rhyme word, is a problem. It implies inappropriate action on the part of the passive speaker and even gives that action some shape (course of action, procedure, method) that corresponds to nothing in Wordsworth. Exactly how intrusive the implication is, how wrong the word, I'm not quite sure. Line three looks good to me — idiomatic, short words with portent peeking through. “Druck” is certainly more one-way than “touch,” which might in another, context have a positive — tender or magical — sound but the sacrifice of the ambiguity seemed justified.
I had packed an extra syllable or two in 11. 2 and 4, but l. 5 does arrive like a mouthful, sounding more rhetorically declarative than Wordsworth's downplayed mystery. The participles of the sixth line are tactical — again I'm preparing for the rhyme — this strikes me as the most obvious infelicity of my version. The link created by the grammar between “sehen,” “hören,” and “drehen,” is satisfactory with regard to meaning, but it's syntactically unlikely. The fact that the whole second stanza refers to “her” at least means that confusion of basic meaning is probably not a problem. The seventh line I'm almost satisfied with. “herumgezogen” sounds grandly German but natural. I repeat “irdischen,” but that seems all right. “Lauf” conveys a cyclic sense. The last line is rather stumbling. I gave up trying to retain all three elements, and the supernumerary stones went over the side. This participle is even worse than the ones before.

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