There have already been a couple of #germanlitmonth reviews of Jeremias Gotthelf’s 1842 novella: Stu’s review of H M Waidson’s 1958 translation and Guy’s review of the brand new translation by Susan Bernofsky.  We don’t need a third so I thought this an ideal opportunity for another translation duel.

Then I read and compared the first paragraph and thought that Daniel Hahn (translation duel moderator extraordinaire) could probably run a week-long seminar on these two sentences alone.

Über die Berge hob sich die Sonne, leuchtete in klarer Majestät in ein freundliches, aber enges Tal und weckte zu fröhlichem Leben die Geschöpfe, die geschaffen sind, an der Sonne ihres Lebens sich zu freuen. Aus vergoldetem Waldessaume schmetterte die Amsel ihr Morgenlied, zwischen funkelnden Blumen in perlendem Grase tönte der sehnsüchtigen Wachtel eintönend Minnelied, über dunkeln Tannen tanzten brünstige Krähen ihren Hochzeitreigen oder krächzten zärtliche Wiegenlieder über die dornichten Bettchen ihrer ungefiederten Jungen. (Gotthelf 1842)

The sun rose over the hills, shone with clear majesty down into a friendly, narrow valley and awakened to joyful consciousness the beings who are created to enjoy the sunlight of their life. From the sun-gilt forest’s edge the thrush burst forth in her morning song, whilst between sparkling flowers in dew-laden grass the yearning quail could be heard joining in with its love-song; above dark pine tops eager crows were performing their nuptial dance or cawing delicate cradle songs over the thorny beds of their fledgeless young. (Waidson 1958)

Above the mountains rose the sun, shining in limpid majesty down into a welcoming but narrow valley, where it woke to joyous life creatures that had been created to take pleasure in the sunshine of their days.  From the forest’s gilded edge the blackbird trilled its aubade while the amorous quail intoned monotonous minnelieder from amid the flowers sparkling in the dew-bespangled grass, and high above the dark firs, lusty crows danced nuptial roundelays or else dawed tender lullabies above the thorny little beds of their unfledged chicks. (Bernofsky 2013)

Points to consider

1) The syntax of the first sentence.  Waidson starts with a standard subject, verb, place construct while Bernofsky sticks to the syntax of the original.  This feels artificial to me but it does emphasise the setting and, more importantly, preserves the mirroring in the second sentence which also begins with place. Waidson 0 Bernofsky 1

2)  Still in the first sentence.  Hills vs mountains.  Surprisingly tricky. The novel is set in Switzerland, where the mountains are high.  However, Waidson maintains in his introduction that the farm, the pivotal location, is set in the valley of the river Grüne which is enclosed by green hills, rather than high rocky mountains. And so he translates Berge as hills.  The counter argument must surely be that if Gotthelf had meant hills, he would have written Hügel?  Ŵho’s to say that Gotthelf was thinking of the place near to his home when he was writing? I think Waidson’s inserting contextual evidence from the author’s life which is unsupported by the text.  Waidson 0 Bernofsky 2

3) Missing words in the first sentence: a friendly, narrow valley (Waidson); a welcoming, but narrow valley (Bernofsky). The latter stays true to Gotthelf’s phraseology and also the inherent contradiction.  Narrow valleys are usually forbidding are they not?  Waidson 0 Bernofsky 3

4) Just when you’re beginning to think this is a walk-over, let’s talk vocabulary choices in the second sentence.  A lot of this is personal preference I know but I much prefer morning song to aubade and love-song to minnelieder.  The repetition of and the plain English of the word song maintains readabiiity and highlights the cheerful ambiance of the valley.  This is not an area where you expect the darkness that is to follow. Waidson 2 Bernofsky 3

5) What about the phrase eintönig Minnelied?  Waidson ignores the adjective while Bernofsky renders it monotonous minnelieder.  I’m not sure about the need for a German word midway through an English sentence although I can see the play with the repeating m.  Yet is the meaning not ambiguous?  Are those songs monotone or are they boring?  Certainly I was startled when I first read it. I had understood the latter meaning ….

6) More vocabulary choices.  Wiegenlieder: Bernofsky’s lullabies triumph over Waidson’s cradle-songs as does unfledged over fledgeless. Waidson 2 Bernofsky 5

I could continue and the score line would swing back and forth.  Bernofsky would soar ahead in a comparison of the translated poem, in which she preserves the rhyme.  In other places Waidson would fight back with readability and vocabulary choices (probably because of my Englishness).  Ultimately though, Bernofsky would win this duel.  If it came down to a decider, lit would be the penultimate sentence.

Denn wo solcher Sinn wohnet, darf sich die Spinne nicht regen, weder bei Tage noch bei Nacht.

For where such a serene spirit is present, the spider may not move, either by day or by night. (Waidson)

For where belief dwells, the spider may not stir, neither by day or by night. (Bernofsky)

The meaning of Sinn can only be derived from its context and I feel that Bernofsky’s choice gets right to the crux of Gotthelf’s terrifying morality tale.