Academic journal article German Quarterly

The Role of Translation in German Studies: With a Medieval Perspective

Academic journal article German Quarterly

The Role of Translation in German Studies: With a Medieval Perspective

Article excerpt


University of Arizona

Most of the comments regarding this large issue do not fully take into account the historical dimension of translation and the need to have translations available to bridge the divide between modern readers/language learners and past writers. Medieval German literature has never been fully accessible to modern readers because even the best translation leaves out some of the fundamental cultural-historical dimensions, the specific idiomatic flair, stylistic features, lexicographic idiosyncrasies, language melody, and so forth. Nevertheless, without translations, most efforts to bring alive ancient or medieval texts for modern readers would have failed. However, translation cannot, and should not, be the panacea for all our linguistic challenges. We need many more translations, but translations alone cannot rescue a specific cultural-literary period from falling into obscurity. Good translators provide important keys to new, or old, worlds, but the reader/listener, or language learner, must walk through the door him/herself and explore the other side on his/her own. In other words, translations can be most helpful and crucial in keeping the interest in medieval or Baroque literature on a high level. But ultimately our students ought to shed these linguistic tools and try to walk on his/her own, that is, to read the original.

I have done my share of translation work (Tristan als Mönch, Moriz von Craûn, Diu Klage, late-medieval German women songs, Mai und Beaflor, Oswald von Wolkenstein), but I remain keenly aware of the shortcomings of every translation. The beauty and individuality of the original language cannot be substituted by any translated text. At the same time, how many medieval German texts, for instance, would remain entirely obscure to the present student generation if they could not be read in modern English translations?

There have always been several approaches to translating, one trying to be as philologically correct as possible (dry and boring); another, endeavoring to render the original in a free-floating style to accommodate modern tastes; third, to cast the original medieval text into an artificially archaic English. None of them proves to be fully satisfying; instead a pragmatic and appropriate translation should strive to be as precise as possible, yet still remain readable. Most importantly, however, a good translation should motivate the reader to tackle the original where true beauty and meaning rest.

Ann Marie Rasmussen

Duke University

And now this is 'an inheritance' Upright, rudimentary, unshiftably planked In the long ago, yet willable forward

Again and again and again.

This two-stanza poem by Seamus Heaney opens his recent, masterful translation of the Old English poem, Beowulf which was written around the year 900 CE. (Medievalists in German departments like myself often teach Beowulf; the linguistic and cultural boundaries of early medieval Europe overlap imperfectly with our disciplinary divisions.) Through the act of translation two great minds, two masters of verbal craft, meet and converse (in your very presence!), their dialogue folding one thousand years of time back onto itself into a transitory yet repeatable moment of "continuous present" (Heaney again).

Perhaps the greatest burden that translation must bear is that it places at its center the work of art itself. This is, I think, translation's precondition, one that stands in tension with the trend to decenter the work of art as the focus of scholarly inquiry. To stay with Heaney's metaphor: medieval poetry, epic, and romance come down to us with pre-given shapes. This is figured, in Heaney's poem, with a historically specific image of a plank-built, that is to say Viking, ship. The metaphor suggests that a work of literature is a built object constructed to have heft, crafted from the stuff of language. When the material, the language, in and from which it was built, has been superseded as a living tongue, the question becomes: does the literature also fade in the distance, at best eking out a shadowy existence as an erudite puzzle for antiquarian philologists? …

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