The Experience of the Foreign: Culture and Translation in Romantic Germany

The Experience of the Foreign: Culture and Translation in Romantic Germany

The Experience of the Foreign: Culture and Translation in Romantic Germany

The Experience of the Foreign: Culture and Translation in Romantic Germany


This book is the first authoritative analysis of the theory of translation in German Romanticism. In a systematic study of Herder, Goethe, Schlegel, Novalis, Humboldt, Schleiermacher, and Holderlin, Berman demonstrates the importance of the theory of translation for an understanding of German romantic culture, arguing that never before has the concept of translation been meditated in such detail and such depth. Indeed, fundamental questions that arise again today, such as the question concerning the proper versus the literal, of the Other to a given culture, the essence of the work of art, and of language, all these issues, and many more, are shown to have been premeditated in a most important manner by these German Romantics.


The present essay is devoted to an examination of the theories of translation by the German Romantics--from Novalis, Friedrich Schlegel, and A. W. Schlegel to Schleiermacher. These theories will be compared briefly with the contemporary ones by Herder, Goethe, Humboldt, and Hölderlin. It is well known that the German Romantics, at least those associated with the journal Athenäum, produced a series of great translations which have turned out to be a durable asset to the German patrimony: A. W. Schlegel (together with Ludwig Tieck) translated Shakespeare, Cervantes, Calderón, Petrarch, as well as numerous other Spanish, Italian, and Portuguese works. Schleiermacher, for his part, translated Plato. This is an enterprise of systematic and highly selective translation. Translations by Goethe, Humboldt, and Hölderlin are also highly selective, but their orientation is considerably different.

All these translations, carried out at the dawn of the nineteenth century, refer historically to an event that has been decisive for German culture, language, and identity: Luther's sixteenth-century translation of the Bible. In effect, this translation marked the beginning of a tradition in which translation henceforth, and up to the present century, has been considered an integral part of cultural existence and, furthermore, as a constitutive moment of Germanity (Deutschheit). This has not escaped the attention of a plethora of great German thinkers, poets, and translators from the seventeenth to the twentieth centuries:


I cannot believe that it would be possible to translate the Holy Scriptures into other languages as gracefully as we possess them in German.


Independently of our own production, we have already achieved a high degree of culture (Bildung) thanks to the full appropriation of what is foreign to us. Soon other nations will learn German, because they will realize that in this way they can to a large extent save themselves the apprenticeship of almost all other languages. Indeed, from . . .

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