Coleridge's Art of Translation

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With his English version of Friedrich Schiller's Wallenstein in 1800, Coleridge established himself as translator early in his career. Throughout the following years he continued in his role as interpreter and commentator on German literature and philosophy. Mays's edition of Coleridge's Poetical Works identified over a hundred translations among Coleridge's poems, half of them from the German. (1) Some of the translations are no more than a couple of lines, a brief distich or epigram. Some, like the The Piccolomini and The Death of Wallenstein, are several thousand lines. Counting lines is easy; counting poems, however, is difficult. Determining the boundaries separating a translation from a variation on a theme is complicated when there is more than one source, or when a borrowed poem is integrated into the poet's own work. Coleridge himself suggests that we distinguish what is "translated" from what is "transferred." He introduces this distinction between "translated" and "transferred" in talking about the importation of oriental tales into European literature during the period of the Crusades. (2) By "transferred" Coleridge means a re-telling, such as was presumed to be at work in the transmission of folk tales and ballads.

During his walking tour of Wales in 1794, Coleridge became interested in Welsh popular ballads, and recorded this "translation":

  If, while my Passion I impart,
  You deem my words untrue,
  O place your Hand upon my Heart--
  Feel how it throbs for You.
  Ah no!--reject the thoughtless Claim
  In pity to your Lover!
  That thrilling Touch would aid the flame
  It wishes to discover! (PW 1:124)

As Mays points out, "It is possible that C[oleridge] heard it sung [...]. But it is more likely that he worked from the translated version in Edward Jones's Musical and Poetical Relicks of the Welsh Bards" (1784; 2nd ed. 1794). In other words, the poem may not be translated but rather adapted from a translation. In terms of Coleridge's distinction, not "translated" but "transferred." In 1800, when Coleridge noted his intent to produce "Translations of the Volkslieder of all countries," including "Welsh poets" and a "Series of true heroic Ballads from Ossian," it was likely that he had in mind poetic retelling rather than strictly literal "word for word" renditions ("Memoranda for a History of English Poetry" 1800; SW & F; 1:108).

In translating Wallenstein, Coleridge claimed a strict fidelity to the original: "In the translation I endeavoured to render my Author literally wherever I was not prevented by absolute differences of idiom; but I am conscious, that in two or three short passages I have been guilty of dilating the original; and, from anxiety to give the full meaning, have weakened the force" (PW 3:205). Mays's dual-language edition shows that Coleridge's claim is more than his actual practice reveals, and rightly so. Indeed, the merit of Coleridge's translation is that he is not strictly bound to the original. Coleridge himself calls attention to the liberties he takes with Thekla's song (II.vi) and offers a prose translation as a footnote to his verse translation (PW 3:378-381).

When Coleridge claimed in the Biographia Literaria to translate "as nearly as possible, word for word," his purpose was to refute Abraham Cowley's advice against attempting a literal translation of a Pindaric ode: "If (says Cowley) a man should undertake to translate Pindar, word for word, it would be thought that one madman had translated another; as it may appear, when he, that understands not the original, reads he verbal traduction of him into Latin prose, than which nothing seems more raving." (3)

Upon hearing lines from Cowley's translation of Pindar's "Olympian Ode 2," Coleridge's audience agreed "that if the original were madder than this, it must be incurably mad." Coleridge then gave his own literal translation of the same lines, "and the impression was, that in the general movement of the periods, in the form of connections and transitions, and in the sober majesty of lofty sense, it appeared to them to approach more nearly, than any other poetry they had heard, to the style of our bible in the prophetic books. …