Heine's Russia Doppelganger: Nineteenth-Century Translations of His Poetry

By Hodgson, Katharine | The Modern Language Review, October 2005 | Go to article overview

Heine's Russia Doppelganger: Nineteenth-Century Translations of His Poetry


Hodgson, Katharine, The Modern Language Review


ABSTRACT

Numerous Russian translations of Heine's poetry appeared in the mid-nineteenth century. Literary-political debates between radicals and conservatives shaped the reception of these translations, and the strategies adopted by translators. Both sides claimed that Heine represented their views on art, and both overlooked the ambivalence in his writing. Translators had difficulty handling Heine's metre and irony, tending instead to unrelieved sentiment. Humorous verse of the time expresses popular views of Heine's poetry, and of his translators' shortcomings. Early twentieth-century translations by poets such as Aleksandr Blok were able to render with far greater success Heine's irony, his flexible and colloquial style.

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Heine's poem 'Still ist die Nacht, es ruhen die Gasseh' (1) The night is still, the streets are dumb'), (2) written in the early 1820s, describes a nocturnal encounter between the poet and his double. The poet returns to stand under the window of the house where his beloved once lived, only to find his double on duty in his place. To the poet, the double's sighs and hand-wringing seem to be a mocking parody of his own genuine, deeply felt emotions, which leads him to ask: 'Was affst du nach mein Liebesleid [...]?' (p. 167) ('why do you ape the pains and woe that racked my heart on this same spot?' (p. 85)). Readers may feel something similar when confronted by a less than inspired translation of a poem which they know well. A translation, like Heine's double, purports to be the same as the original, but is not and cannot be identical with it. In all probability, some aspects of the original have been omitted, other elements added, and, in mediocre translations, certain features may have been exaggerated in ways which verge on unintentional parody. Certainly Russian literary critics of the mid-nineteenth century believed that some contemporary translations of Heine's poetry came dangerously close to parody. One likened Heine's Russian translators to huntsmen pursuing the poet as their unfortunate quarry, while another commented that if Heine were alive today and knew Russian, he would sue his translators for damages. (3) The idea of Heine's clumsy translators as unwitting parodists inspired humorous verse:

[TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII.] (4)

I read Heine's Book of Songs in Russian translation, read it and was horrified: it's ... it's something like the most vicious parody full of distorted meanings! What coarseness of expression! The ideas cringe shamefully for the sake of the rhyme and the censor. Even I would feel it too disgraceful to sign my name under that kind of thing! ... Thank God I am not great: as soon as I die I will be forgotten and translators will not torment me as they have tormented Heine.

A distinct subgenre of Heine-related parody developed in Russian from the middle of the nineteenth century. Readers were presented with poems which claimed to be translations from or imitations of Heine, but which displayed, in concentrated form, the failings of his heavy-handed translators. Parodies of this kind are not concerned with ridiculing the parodied text, but, as Margaret A. Rose puts it, represent a wish to 'defend the parodied text as having been reduced to parody by its imitation by other writers and poetasters, or by the misreadings of readers or critics's. (5) The main concern of this article, however, is to examine some of the mid-nineteenth-century Russian translations of Heine's poetry which were offered to contemporary readers, and investigate why critics felt the need to defend his work from deliberate or unintentional parody. It will also consider the reasons for Heine's great popularity in Russia from the mid-1850s to the 18708, given the unfavourable critical response to many available translations. The Heine-related parodies are helpful here as an indication of how the poet was seen in the popular imagination. …

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