Continental Literature, Translation, and the Johnson Circle

By Esterhammer, Angela | Wordsworth Circle, Summer 2002 | Go to article overview

Continental Literature, Translation, and the Johnson Circle


Esterhammer, Angela, Wordsworth Circle


How significant were Johnson's publishing activities in bringing Continental, and especially German, literature onto the horizon for an English readership? To begin answering this question, we need some context for English knowledge of German literature during the Romantic period. In general, both the quantity of material translated into English, and the quality of the translations, are surprisingly limited, given the blossoming of both English and German literature at the time. The bibliographic research done by B. Q. Morgan, F. W. Stockoe, and V. Stockley during the 1920s gives a picture of German works appearing in England in the late eighteenth century; it shows some sensational successes, but also some spectacular gaps. There is a rise of interest in German literature in the decade from 1795 to 1805, that hit its peak in 1799; among other things, this may have been due to a swing of opinion against France and in favour of Germany after the French Revolution, especially when England became allied with Pru ssia against the French. There were spots of local enthusiasm for German literature, manifested in the activity of isolated individuals (such as William Taylor of Norwich) and short-lived periodicals (such as the German Museum in 1800-1801), but this enthusiasm did not outlive the scholar's death or the periodical's demise. The translations that were published represented Baroque poetry and Enlightenment thought much more than the new developments in early German Romanticism, with the notable exception of The Sorrows of Young Werther, first published in English in 1779, and, in 1792, Schiller's Robbers. In the 1790s, one does see instances of German authors enjoying sensational vogue -- Schiller and Goethe, but above all the playwright Kotzebue. Interest drops off again sharply in the early years of the nineteenth century, however, this has been attributed to the effect of a campaign mounted by the Anti-Jacobin against "German" (i.e., Kotzebue's) supposed undermining of religion and morality (Morgan and Hohlf eld 52). Stael's De l'Allemagne, published in London in 1813, had a quickening effect; but British periodicals did not take notice of German literature in any sustained way until the late 1820s, largely through the influence of Carlyle.

In this context, Joseph Johnson's publication of foreign literature is doubly unusual: first in the extent to which he concerned himself with it at all; secondly, in his avoidance of the few types of translations that did seem to assure popular acclaim. From 1788 onward, Johnson's journal, the Analytical Review, or History of Literature, Domestic and Foreign, regularly informed English readers about significant foreign-language publications, scientific and philosophical as well as literary and aesthetic. In addition, Johnson maintained contacts with his counterparts in Germany, France, and America, importing and exporting a variety of volumes for translation.

Johnson's choices of Continental books to publish in English translation -- the main subject of this essay -- show some distinctive patterns that are independent of the most popular trends. Although he was aware of the commercial successes to be made, and although the Analytical Review regularly reviewed the works of Kotzebue and Goethe, Johnson s list avoids these best-selling dramas and novels (with just a few interesting exceptions). As with the rest of his list, in the area of Continental literature he is most interested in promoting the moral and philosophical element in German thought, in an age when this element is still all but unknown among the English public. A revealing contrast is provided by the bookseller James Remnant, Johnson's main conduit to the German book-selling trade during the time that Remnant ran an English-language bookstore in Hamburg (Tyson 137). After returning to London from Hamburg in 1794, Remnant continued his own German import line and chose to concentrate heavily on Goethe, Schiller, and Kotzebue, as well as Kant.

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