Monday, 2 September 2013

The New Sorrows of a Young Translator

After two pages I chucked the thing across the room. I’m telling you, guys, you just could not read that shit. Even with the best will in the world. Then five minutes later I’d got hold of it again. Either I wanted to read till the early hours or not at all. That’s just what I was like. Three hours later I’d finished it.
Guys – I was majorly pissed off. The bloke in the book, this Werther, his name was – he commits suicide at the end. Just gives up the ghost. Puts a bullet through his fricking head because he can’t get the woman he wants, and feels mega sorry for himself the whole entire time.
This biting critique of one of the all-time classics of German literature – Goethe’s 1774 epistolary novelDie Leiden des jungen Werther (‘The Sorrows of Young Werther’) – is spoken by the protagonist of another popular German work called Die neuen Leiden des jungen W. (‘The New Sorrows of Young W.’), written by Ulrich Plenzdorf and published in 1973. Plenzdorf’s hero, Edgar Wibeau, is seventeen years old and a self-styled ‘unrecognised genius’. He likes painting abstract pictures, listening to jazz and inventing things, none of which are very compatible with being a factory apprentice in small-town East Germany. Edgar therefore abandons his apprenticeship and runs away to Berlin to become an artist. He holes up in a friend’s empty summer house, where he stumbles upon Goethe’s classic novel. It consists of a series of letters written by an emotional young man called Werther, whose verbose, effusive style Edgar initially finds somewhat ridiculous. Eventually, though, Edgar comes to see Werther as a kindred spirit. Both young men are frustrated by the conformist, restrictive worlds in which they live – in Werther’s case the rigidly class-conscious society of eighteenth-century Germany, in Edgar’s the authoritarian regime of the Socialist German Democratic Republic (GDR) in the 1970s. Both protagonists feel unable to express their creativity, fulfil their ambitions, and live authentic lives within the confines of their respective societies, but Edgar expresses his frustrations in an ironic, slangy, modern idiom which is in stark contrast to Werther’s elevated language and tendency to wax lyrical.
I had to take all this into account when, as part of my final dissertation for the MA in Literary Translation, I translated the first 10,000 words of Plenzdorf’s The New Sorrows of Young W. The two biggest problems I faced were what to do with Werther – a figure well-known to most German-speaking readers but potentially unfamiliar to English-speaking ones – and how to translate Edgar’s GDR youth slang: should I use 1970s or twenty-first-century slang, where in the world should it come from, and could I make it sound convincing? Both problems turned out to be hugely enjoyable to (try to) solve, and both involved some fascinating research.
Plenzdorf’s book is closely tied up with Goethe’s in terms of themes, plot, and characters. Werther, for instance, falls in love with Charlotte, and Edgar with Charlie. Both women are already engaged when Werther and Edgar meet them, and both end up marrying sensible older men. I felt that in order to fully understand and appreciate Plenzdorf’s text, it would be helpful for readers of my translation to know a bit about The Sorrows of Young Werther. I therefore decided to write a Translator’s Preface providing information about the novel for readers who might not have come across it before.
I also had to deal with some direct quotes from Goethe’s text. While living in Berlin, Edgar records several messages to his best friend Willi onto cassette tapes. The messages are all quotations from Werther’s letters, which Edgar uses to express his own feelings and views on the world – in a language, however, that is so alien to poor Willi that he thinks it is some kind of code, and cannot understand a word. Edgar’s mother and father are similarly baffled. I knew that these ‘Wertherisms’ would need to sound as flowery and archaic in English as they do in German to justify the characters’ mystified reactions to them, and to capture the comedy generated in the German text  by the contrast between Edgar’s modern(ish) slang and Werther’s eighteenth-century rhetoric. I decided to lift the Werther quotes from an existing translation of Goethe rather than translating them myself, so that English-speaking readers of my translation might have a chance of recognising them (given that they would be recognisable to many German-speaking readers of the original text). The question was, which of the existing English translations of The Sorrows of Young Werther could supply the antiquated-sounding language I was after? I was thrilled to discover the following passage in a translation by R.D. Boylan from 1854:
Because, on either side of this stream, cold and respectable persons have taken up their abodes, and, forsooth, their summer-houses and tulip-beds would suffer from the torrent; wherefore they dig trenches, and raise embankments betimes, in order to avert the impending danger.
Compare this with a 2012 translation of the same passage by David Constantine:
Friends, on both banks are the dwelling places of placid gentlemen whose summer-houses, tulip beds, and vegetable plots would be destroyed and who therefore in good time ward off the future danger by damming and diverting.
And, forsooth, I compared several different translations but it was Boylan’s – deliciously old-fashioned throughout – that won hands down.
When it came to translating Edgar’s language, however, I went in completely the opposite direction and used contemporary slang and colloquialisms, gleaned from slang dictionaries in print and online as well as from personal experience. As Michael Adams observes, ‘[s]lang is fresh and improvised, for the most part young language’ (2009:88). Slang that was in vogue in the 1970s, I felt, would not sound very fresh or improvised today. Slang also ‘indicates that the speaker is fun-loving, youthful and in touch with the latest trends’ (Coleman 2012:71), and I knew that if Edgar was to strike modern-day readers (particularly younger ones) as being ‘youthful and in touch with the latest trends’, he would need to use youthful, trendy slang.
I had decided when to locate my slang, then – knowing where it should come from was slightly more difficult. I didn’t want Edgar’s voice to sound too localised, as I felt it might be jarring for the reader to hear a German character speaking like a born-and-bred New Yorker or Yorkshireman, for example. I eventually opted for the strategy suggested by Susanne Ghassempur of using ‘a supraregional colloquial language that is universally understood by readers in the target language’ (2011:54). I tried to use slang and colloquialisms that were not strongly identifiable with any particular place (so Cockney rhyming slang was out, unfortunately!)
The work I have done for my dissertation, translating part of Plenzdorf’s text and writing a commentary explaining my translation strategies, has been a lesson in the potential neverendingness of translation. Firstly in the sense that I could work on this project for years – reading and comparing the many English versions of The Sorrows of Young Werther, consulting secondary literature on Plenzdorf and Goethe, researching the historical context of the GDR, poring over slang dictionaries, referring to books and articles on translation theory – without knowing everything there is to know. And secondly in the sense that, as I have realised over the past few months, different people could translate this book (or any book) over and over again forever, and each version of it would always be new, and would never be definitive. Language is always evolving (and slang evolves particularly rapidly). A text can be renewed in translation with each new generation of language users – with each new translator, in fact, since every translator will produce a different interpretation of a given text. The New Sorrows – and Joys! – of every translation can shed fresh light on an original text, and on whole multitudes of new linguistic possibilities.
Adams, M. (2009) Slang: The People’s Poetry, Oxford: Oxford University Press
Boylan, R. D. (tr.) (2009 [1854]) Johann Wolfgang von Goethe: The Sorrows of Young Werther [Online]. Available at: [Accessed 6 August 2013]
Coleman, J. (2012) The Life of Slang, Oxford: Oxford University Press
Constantine, D. (tr.) (2012) Johann Wolfgang von Goethe: The Sorrows of Young Werther, Oxford: Oxford University Press
Ghassempur, S. (2011) in F. M. Federici (ed)Translating Dialects and Languages of Minorities,Oxford: Peter Lang, pp. 49-64
Plenzdorf, U. (1973) Die neuen Leiden des jungen W., Frankfurt: Suhrkamp (the extract quoted here is from page 36 of the original text and is my own translation).