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Review of Hyperion from Howard Gaskill, in Translation and Literature


From Translation and Literature
Review by Howard Gaskill, University of Edinburgh

Hölderlin’s novel Hyperion (1797-9) is one of the supreme achievements of the Romantic period in Germany, and, in its combination of linearity and circularity, arguably the most successful exemplification of what Friedrich Schlegel called ‘progressive Universalpoesie.’ For a century or more after its publication it remained virtually the only work for which Hölderlin was known. However, one the major later poetry became accessible, it tended to be eclipsed, dismissed as something of a derivative prentice effort. It is only relatively recenetly, essentially since Lawrence Ryan’s monograph of 1965, that the novel’s narrative sophistication has begun to be appreciated, at least within the German-speaking world, which is of course also best equipped to respond to the stunning quality of the lyrical prose. This quality, it has to be said, has hitherto not been much in evidence in English translations. While Hölderlin’s verse has been well served by translators of the caliber of Michael Hamburger and David Constantine, Anglophone readers of Hyperion have had to make do either with Willard Trask’s translation of 1965 (long since out of print), or more probably with the lightly reworked version of Trask which David Schwartz provided in 1990 for Erich Santner’s edition of Hölderlin’s Hyperion and Selected Poems, which is still available. Schwartz, as we are told by the editor, ‘adapted’ Trask with ‘an eye toward preserving the jarring strangeness of Hölderlin’s diction so that it strikes the American reader precisely as strange rather than merely foreign or archaic.’ In fact Schwartz’s interventions are not always for the best, and when Trask translates feebly, which he does on occasion, his is more often than not left uncorrected. Though perhaps not entirely typical, there are pages displaying multiple errors, everything from basic grammatical blunders and gross misunderstanding of imagery to complete omission of clauses (something not uncommon in other translations of the novel I have consulted, such as French and Italian). When Hyperion comes out of a caravanseray (‘Khan’), Schwartz—though not Trask—has him stepping out of a boat (‘Kahn’). Another example, where Schwartz overlooks a veritable howler, comes in the translation of the following sentence: “Wie die Wooge des Oceans das Gestade seeliger Inseln, so umfluthete mein ruheloses Herz den Frieden des himmlischen Mädchens.” This is rendered: “as the ocean swell about the shores of happy islands, so the peace of the heavenly maiden flowed about my restless heart.” Here, subject and object had been reversed, yielding nonsense—it is of course the restless heart which did the flowing. However, such instances f serious error detract less from Trask/Schwartz than the clumsiness of expression, the rhythmical flatness, and a general failure to do justice to the music of the language. These qualities of the translation must, one imagines, have contributed to the neglect of the novel in the English-speaking world. Hölderlin’s Hyperion is a work of great brilliance and beauty, but the reader solely dependent on Trask/Schwartz may be forgiven for not suspecting this.
Thus the case for a new English translation is a strong one, and in fairness to Ross Benjamin I ought to mention that I am working on one myself. In fairness to Hölderlin it should be said also that he is well served by Benjamin’s new version, certainly much better than by its undistinguished predecessors. Benjamin is of course aware of these, though his does not refer to them directly, and is clearly at pains to de different, sometimes perhaps unnecessarily so.  On the final page of the “Translator’s Postscript” the adolescent Nietzsche’s praise of his favorite poet’s novel is quoted: “In the euphonious movement of its prose, in the sublimity and beauty of the figures that appear in it, it makes an impression on me similar to the beat of waves of the troubled sea. Indeed, this prose is music, soft melting sounds interrupted by painful dissonances, finally expiring in dark, uncanny dirges.” And Benjamin himself concludes his Postscript: “The movement between blissful and sorrowful tones is the novel’s principle of composition and the source of the elemental force of its language. To hear and reproduce Hölderlin’s singular music, is the essential challenge that I have sought to meet in my translation.” It is an entirely appropriate aspiration. For as Hölderlin himself makes clear in his Preface to the novel, the meaning of the work is the whole, and in order to translate that meaning one must at least try to approximate its linguistic beauty, which is not just an incidental bonus, but an integral part of the message. It is a tall order.
Critics have noted the use of hexametric cadences in the prose of Hyperion. However, even if he could, it is debatable whether the translator should attempt close rhythmical imitation. There is also the question of Hölderlin’s Swabianisms. These are perhaps not much in evidence in modern editions with their sanitized spelling, but still show in the frequent use of elisions and contracted forms, many of which will also be rhythmically motivated. Perhas acceptable equivalence here might be achieved by the use of contractions in the translation, something which the English language is able to do better than most, but which both Trask/Schwartz and Benjamin avoid, presumably because they are regarded as colloquial and “un-literary.” Yet I would submit that they do not detract from the music of the language, and could indeed be used to enhance it. And there are other devices whereby prose may draw attention to its own “literariness,” one being alliteration. At the beginning of the seventh letter Hyperion writes:

“Smyrna war mir nun verlaidet. Überhaupt war mein Herz allmählich müder geworden. Zuweilen konnte wohl der Wunsch in mir auffahren, um die Welt zu wandern oder in den ersten besten Kreig zu gehn, oder meinen Adamas aufzusuchen und in seinem Feuer meinen Mismuth auzubrennen, aber dabei bleib es, und mein unbedeutend welkes Leben wollte nimmer sich erfrischen.
Der Sommer war nun bald ze Ende; ich fühlte schon die düstern Regentage und das Pfeifen der Winde und Tosen der Wetterbäche zun voraus, une die Natur, die, wie ein schäumender Springquell, emporgedrumgen war in allen Pflanzen und Bäumen, stand jezt schon da vor meinem verdüsterten Sinne, schwindend und verschlossen und in sich gekehrt, wie ich selber.”

In Benjamin’s version:
“Smyrna was now spoiled for me. On the whole, my heart had gradually grown wearier. At times the wish could arise in me to roam around the world or enter some war, or to seek out my Adamas and burn my discontent away in his fire, but that was as far as it went, and my meaningless, wilted life no longer sought to refresh itself.
Now the summer would soon be at an end; I felt already in anticipation of the gloomy days of rain, and the whistling of the wind, and roaring of the rain-fed streams; and nature which surged up into all the plants and trees like a foaming fountain, now stood already before my darkened senses fading and closed and turned in upon itself, as I was.”
Equally faithful, and arguably closer to the literary quality of the original, might be:
“Smyrna had been soured for me now. My heart had grown altogether weary over time. Now and then the wish might rear in me to wander round the world, or find some war to fight in, or else seek out my Adamas and burn away my rancor in his fire; but wish was all it stayed, and my futile sapless life refused to be refreshed.
Now summer soon was coming to an end; already I could sense the dreich dank days, the whistling of the winds, the brawling of the rain-swollen streams; and nature, which like a foaming fountain had surged in every flower and tree, stood already now before my darkened mind, like me dwindling and closed down and turned in upon itself.”

In his Postscript. Benjamin makes the odd-sounding statement: “Akin to Goethe’s Die Lieden des jungen Werthers…the narrative of Hyperion traces its protagonist’s development from youth to maturity through a series of letters.” In fact, as he well knows, Werther’s letters, written as they are from the perspective of the present, document his decline into madness and suicide. In Hyperion’s case there is an appreciable temporal distance between the writing of the letters and the events recounted. The last of these is the epiphany experienced in the German spring, and it is following this that Hyperion returns to Greece and picks up his pen. It is true that at one point the emotional turmoil caused by the writing itself drives him very close to the brink, but the gradual detachment of the narrator from his former self, as he confronts his past life and comments on it in the process, leads him by the end to a degree of equilibrium, even serenity, and a readiness to embrace his poetic vocation, something which he has in a sense already practically realized. The subtitle of the novel is “The Hermit in Greece,” in itself an indication that it is the narrator’s activity and his development while writing which is central to the novel. Hence the distinction between past and present thought is crucial, and one wonders whether it should not be clearly signaled by use of quotation marks for the former. A leitmotif of the novel is the phrase “So dacht’ ich” (“So I thought”), often following a lengthy record of Hyperion’s thoughts “then” and ever more clearly distancing them from the narrator’s “now”—the final words of the final letter are: “So dacht’ ich. Nächstens mehr” (“more soon”). Benjamin chooses not to follow Trask and Schwartz here, which seems a pity (though they are not, to be sure, entirely consistent). Admittedly, Hölderlin himself does not use quotation marks, even for direct speech, except for the beatific vision at the very end, when it is important for him to distinguish between the Hyperion who initially has the experience and the one who eventually articulates it. Yet the history of the novel’s reception shows how easy it has been to overlook the different narrative levels, and it would seem to me entirely legitimate the provide what help one can for the reader in this respect. (Even the odd translator has had problems determining precisely where direct speech ends and the narrative resumes.)
Intertextuality is likely to represent a severe headache for any translator, and Hölderlin’s novel is clearly not short on literary allusions and intertextual markers, although nowadays many will not be picked up without editorial help, and some not even then. He clearly presupposes a knowledge of Werther on the part of his readers, and in fact some seven per cent of Goethe’s novel is itself translation, from Macpherson’s Ossian.  Hölderlin came to know this work in several German translations, one of which—the prose version by Schiller’s friend Johann Wilhelm Petersen (1782)—he virtually learned by heart. This certainly left its mark on Hyperion, as was evident to Hölderlin’s contemporaries (if not to modern editors). The novel abounds in instances of extended similes which are no less Ossianic that they are Homeric. And at one point Hyperion actually uses what had become a kind of Ossianic catchphrase: “Wonne der Wehmuth.” It is used to Petersen and other German translators to render what Hugh Blair called “one of Ossian’s remarkable expressions, several times repeated: ‘joy of grief.’” No poet who knows his Ossian as well as Hölderlin could possibly use “Wonne der Wehmuth” in innocence of its Ossianic associations, and he would certainly have expected his readers to pick up the allusion.  It might not be going too far to see the novel itself as a sustained celebration of the joy of grief. But to his credit David Schwartz does at least recognize the echo and alter’s Trask’s “ecstacy of grief” accordingly. Benjamin has “joy of melancholy,” which, in context, might seem quite good, though “Wehmut” has softened considerably since the later eighteenth century, the real pain and sorrow, indicated by the “Weh” (woe) in the word, tending to give way to tears without fears.
Be that as it may, a general criticism of Benjamin’s translation would have to be that he is not particularly sensitive to the allusive qualities of the text. Perhaps he should not be blamed for missing Ossian, but Luther’s bible is quite another matter. When Hyperion writes of his heart’s dearest melodies being accompanied by the “Schellenklang der Welt,” this must surely call to mind Corinthians and Paul’s “tinkling cymbal” (“Wenn ich mit Menschen—und mit Englezungen redete und hätte der Liebe night, so wäre ich ein tönend Erz order eine klingende Schelle.”) But Benjamin has “clang of the world’s bells.” The gnomic utterance “Aber schön ist auch die Zeit des Erwachens, wenn man nur zur Unzeit uns nicht wekt” is rendered “But beautiful too is the time of awakening, so long as we are not awakened at an untimely moment.” Yet the “zur Unzeit” is most probably an echo of II Tim. 4.2., and I would suggest that a more satisfactory translation could make use of the King James Bible: “But the time of awakening is beautiful too, if only we’re not woken out of season.”
What could perhaps be said to characterize Benjamin’s translation by comparison with Trask/Schwartz is a certain austerity and self-denial. He does not allow himself much if anything in the way of interpretive intervention, and generally tries to cleave as closely as possible to the source. Much can be learned from him in this respect. He is certainly a careful translator, with an excellent understanding of German (if not always of Hölderlin). In the parts that I have examined closely, I have found no blunders, only the occasional passage where I think the meaning is in some degree misconstrued. An example of this might be when Adamas is addressed as “traurender Halbgott, den ich meyne” and here Benjamin translates this as “mourning demigod whom I recall”—here the verb “meynen” is almost certainly an archaism derived from “minnen,” (love), as in Schenkendorf’s famous song of 1813: “Freiheit, die ich meine;” Schwartz has “of whom I fondly think.” On the other hand, his version displays a certain conservatism in its English usage, and it could be objected that he is unadventurous and shy of taking risks, particularly with regard to syntax. Schwartz’ alleged ambition of preserving the strangeness of Hölderlin’s diction is a sound one, even if he does not realize it effectively. Not is it here a matter of choice between domestication and foreignization. After all, the novel is written in highly rhythmical poetic prose, and poetry will always to a greater or lesser degree involve the estrangement of ordinary language and draw attention to itself as a medium. Benjamin’s language might be considered self-effacing, given that it is mediating the first major work of one of Europe’s greatest lyric poets, ancient or modern. But the translation is there, it is the best we have, and it would be churlish not to acknowledge the achievement.

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