Coleridge's Art of Translation

By Burwick, Frederick | Wordsworth Circle, Summer 2007 | Go to article overview

Coleridge's Art of Translation

Burwick, Frederick, Wordsworth Circle

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 ( 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." (BL 2:86-7; PW 1:926-7). Coleridge modestly presents himself as superior to Cowley in translating Pindar, but his caution is against the mistake of poets in thinking they must aggrandize the style of the original.

The test of good style, Coleridge argued in his Lectures on European Literature of 1818, "is whether you can translate the phrase into simpler terms, regard being had to the feeling of the whole passage." In a well-crafted style it should not be possible to "substitute other simpler words in any given passage without a violation of the meaning or tone" (LL 2:237). Coleridge considered it a rule "that whatever is translatable into other language in simple terms ought to be so in the original or it is not good" (LL 2:451). The best style, however, is perfection in its own language: "one criterion of style is that it shall not be translatable without injury to the meaning" (LL 2:237). He asserted the same principle in the Biographia: "the infallible test of a blameless style; namely, its untranslatableness in words of the same language without injury to the meaning" (BL 2:142; cf BL 1:23). Or even earlier in the Lectures of 1811-12: "whatever without injury could be translated into a foreign language in simple terms ought to be so in the original or it is not good" (LL 1:366).

The measure of a good translation is its degree of invisibility, the degree, that is, that intervention of a mediating language vanishes and leaves the reader with the sense of responding directly to the original. Coleridge praises Johann Heinrich Voss for just such achievement as translator: "Voss, scarcely less celebrated as a Scholar & Philologist, than as an original Poet, & combining both excellencies as the first of Translators--His versions of Homer & Virgil are such that his countrymen may fairly claim the unique glory of having the Iliad and the Georgics in German; for you have only to abstract your conscious attention from the different sound of the words themselves, in order to forget that it is a Translation which you are reading ("On Greek Metre" [1820] SW & F 2:863).

In a letter William Blackwood (Oct, 1821), proposing to write "The Life of Holty, a German poet, of true genius, who died in early manhood; with specimens of his poems, translated, or freely imitated in English verse." (SW & F2:916-7), Coleridge comments on the challenges of style: the good style requires of the translator a high degree of rigor while the lesser style allows the translator more freedom. For example, "Johnson's style has pleased many from the very fault of being perpetually translatable; he creates an impression of cleverness by never saying any thing in a common way" (LL 2:237). This distinction between "translated" and "transferred," however, does not necessarily carry with it an implicit appraisal of the merit of the original. Holty is "a true genius," his poems are nevertheless to be "freely imitated." The better the style the less translatable it becomes. Therefore a superior style resists direct translation and can only be adapted. Nevertheless, as Coleridge also asserts, the superior translation ought to adhere to its source in order to recreate the impression that one is reading the original. Bad poetry, on the other hand, is readily translatable and may actually be transformed into good poetry-a reminder that Coleridge also intended to write "a History of bad Poetry in all ages of our literature." (4) Although he claimed it as desideratum, Coleridge seldom strove for "word for word" rendition of a foreign poem. On a few occasions, apparently hoping to turn "a sow's ear into a silk purse," he expended his efforts on adapting bad poetry.

The distinction between "translated" and "transferred," is a curious variation of Coleridge's desynonymization of "copy" and "imitation." (5) A "copy," after all, would entail "word for word" fidelity, while "imitation" would include a broad range of variations. Coleridge's practice was very much involved with the latter, which includes a spectrum of nuances--such as "influenced by," or "inspired by," or "adapted from." Coleridge's "The Picture; or, The Lover-'s Resolution" is "influenced" by Salomon Gessner; his "The Blossoming of the Solitary Date-tree" is "Influenced by medieval German love poetry"; his "The Wanderings of Cain" is an "imitation" of Gessner's The Death of Abel, his "Homesick" is "adapted" from Samuel Gottlieb Burde. Indeed, Coleridge wrote a whole series of "Adaptations": of Daniel's "Musophilus," of Daniel's "Epistle to Sir Thomas Egerton," of Donne's "To Sir Henry Goodyere," of Donne's "Eclogue 1613, December 26." A more complicated composition is the poem which began with lines which the poet "involuntarily poured forth" from the top of Scafell, then recognizing that "the Ideas & c" were "disproportionate to our humble mountains" and "accidentally lighting on a short Note in some swiss poems," he claimed that he "transferred myself thither, in the Spirit, & adapted my former feelings to these grander external objects" (CL 2:864-5). (6) Coleridge did not acknowledge that "short Note" accompanied Friedericke Brun's "Chamounix beym Sonnenaufgange" which enabled Coleridge to transform his effusion on Scafell into "Hymn before Sun-rise in the Vale of Chamouny" (PW 2:717-723). By this account, her poem was not "transferred" into his, but rather he was "transferred ... in the Spirit" into the scene described in her poem.

Coleridge also translated translations, such as "Lines from the Bhagavad-Gita, from Creuzer." On occasion, Coleridge himself is the author of the source text and the author of the translation. These acts of self-translation pose a different set of questions about authorial mediation. On the birth of Hartley Coleridge, he wrote "Sonnet: to a Friend, who asked how I felt, when the Nurse first presented my Infant to me." Two years later he wrote to his wife from Ratzeburg that he had translated his sonnet into German: "The Gentry and Nobility here pay me an almost adulatory attention--there is a very beautiful little Woman, less I think than you--[...] I have quite won her heart by a German Poem which I wrote. It is that sonnet 'Charles! My slow heart was only sad when first'--& considerably dilated with new images & much superior in the German to it's former dress--It has excited no small wonder here for it's purity and harmony" (October 20, 1798; CL 1:429). The conciliatory "less I think than you" may not have appeased Sarah, but even if the German woman were less beautiful, Coleridge readily claimed that his German translation was more beautiful. In comparing the original to the translation, and finding the translation superior, Coleridge affirms an "Open Sesame" that allowed him to enter the cavern of a poem and emerge with a treasure superior to the poem as he found it.

Coleridge also indulged a peculiar genre of metrical meddling, translating the rhythms not the language. He performed this revision on a passage from Salomon Gessner's Daphnis (1754), supposedly sung by Phillis to the flute:

  Du brauner Hirt, der du die Lammer in dem Buchen-Thal hutest; ach!
  wann ich bei dir vorubergeh, und ein nicht verlornes Schaf suche, wann
  ich dann unter dem Blumen-Kranz hervor dich seitwarts anblike, und so
  freundlich-lachelnd dich gru[beta] e, ach! warum verstehst du mich
  dann nicht? Heut sah ich mich im klaren Wasser und blikte unter dem
  Blumen-Kranz hervor, wie ich dich anblike, und lachelte, wie ich dir
  zulachle; ich mu[beta] es nur selbst gestehn, mein kleiner Mund
  lachelle lieblich, und mein braunes Auge sollte dir viel viel sagen,
  und doch du bioder Hirt! und doch verstehst du mich nicht. (Schriften
  5 vols Zurich 1770-2- II:38; PW 1:542)

While in Gottingen during the early month of 1799, Coleridge transformed Gessner's prose into fourteen lines of verse:

  Du brauner Hirt, der du die Schafe
  Zum Buchenhaine treibst,
  Ich gehe gem bey dir voruber
  Und such ein nicht verlornes Lamm;
  Dann blick ich unter meinem Kranze
  Dich seitwarts freundlich an.
  Warum willst du mich nicht verstehen
  Ich sehe mich in klarem Bache
  Und lachle so mir zu,
  Als unter meinem Rosenkranze
  Mein Auge dir zu lacheln pflegt,
  Wie vieles sagt dir doch mein Auge?
  Ach! Allzubloder Hirt!
  Warum willst du mich verstehen? (PW 1:542-3)

A similar metrical adaptation, "Pastoral from Gessner," Coleridge also translated into English and published in the Morning Post (Dec. 21, 1821; CN 1:396; (7) PW 1:673-4). Always attentive to the rhythms of language, Coleridge may have indulged this experiment simply to exercise his German. His metrical paraphrase, however, is also a critique of Gessner's passage, introduced as a song yet unable to become one. Coleridge noted elsewhere that "a true poet will never confound verse and prose, whereas it is almost characteristic of indifferent prose writers that they directly but silently, should be constantly slipping into scraps of metre" (LL 2:236). Matthew Scott, in his essay on Coleridge's Wallenstein, comments on the "Master/Slave dialectic that translator's must naturally fall into." (8) Coleridge often rebelled against that subservience, discovering his dislike for the poet and assuming authority over the poem. Coleridge would grow discontent with the process of translating, sometimes shifting from the "word for word" rigor to a free adaptation, other times abandoning the project altogether, protesting against the faults of the original. An example of the former is the translation of E.T.A. Hoffmann's Der golden Topf which Coleridge transformed into "The Historie and Gests of Maxilian." (9) An example of the latter is the translation of Salomon Gessner that he undertook in July, 1802. Coleridge had completed translating about half of Gessner's prose poem, Der este Schiffer, into blank verse, "but gave it up under the influence of double disgust, moral & poetical" (March, 1811; CL 3:313). Mays estimates that Coleridge must have completed the first book and then left the second as a draft (PW 2:900-1). The moral disgust was aroused by Gessner's eroticism; the poetical simply by the realization that his translation was significantly superior to the original.

His conviction that in translating he was creating a work better than the original provided an easy transition into assuming full authorial control. Two of Coleridge's poems had their origin in a similar process of disaffection with Gessner's work. One of these was "The Wanderings of Cain," which commenced as a translation of Gessner's Der Tod Abels ("The Death of Abel"; PW 1:358-9). The second was "The Picture; or, The Lover-'s Resolution," influenced by Gessner's "Der feste Vorsatz" ("The Fixed Resolution"; PW 1:711-717). (10) Again, it is a case of translating prose into blank verse, or, to resort again to counting, Gessner's fortyfive lines are transformed into Coleridge's 186 lines. Part of that amplification, as Mays notes, is Coleridge's echoing of lines from a poem by Anna Letitia Barbauld. In Gessner's erotic idyll, the wandering narrator, indulging in the lush delights of erotic melancholy, follows the course of a stream through a landscape strikingly similar to that which Coleridge describes. Bidding farewell to the dark and the fair, to stately Melinde and "kleine Chloe," Gessner's narrator comes upon a maiden's footprint in the sand; melancholy vanishes, and he follows the maiden's trace ("Spur"), thinking how passionately, if he finds her, he will embrace and kiss her ("O! wenn ich dich fande, in meinen Arm wurd ich dich druken, und dich kussen!" ('Oh! If only I found you, how I would hug you and kiss you!'). (11) From Gessner, Coleridge develops the motif of a self-reflexive landscape, at once exterior and yet also a mirror of the narrator's mood and desires. His longing for a "stately virgin's" presence becomes exteriorized. The scene also seems to replicate memories, as in Gessner's lines: "noch gestern hupftest du froh im weissen Sommer-kleid um mich her, wie die Wellen hier im Sonnen-Licht hupfen" ("yesterday you danced happily about me in your white summer dress, just as the waves here in the water dance in the sun light"). As in Gessner's poem, Coleridge's trope is that the very act of abjuration becomes a conjuration. The lovelorn narrator seeks refuge from his self-torment in the wild depths of the woods:

  here will I couch my limbs,
  Close by this river, in this silent shade,
  As safe and sacred from the step of man
  As an invisible world--unheard, unseen (11.51-54)

Even in this "invisible world" he is pursued by the very images that he strives to negate.

  The breeze, that visits me
  Was never Love's accomplice, never raised
  The tendril ringlets from the maiden's brow,
  And the blue, delicate veins above her cheek;
  Ne'er played the wanton--never half disclosed
  The maiden's snowy bosom, scattering thence
  Eye-poisons for some love-distempered youth. (11.58-64)

Coleridge did not need to derive from Gessner the strategy of reaffirming presence while insisting upon its absence, for he had used the same adjuration/conjuration in "Lewti, or The Circassian Love-Chant," Coleridge's reworking of Wordsworth's "Beauty and Midnight: An Ode" (PW 1:457-61; I:254; CN 3708, 315n, 218n.). The "eye-poisons" of wanton images arise in spite of disclaiming their truth. The stream, too, is said not to reflect the teasing images which torment the fictional lover, who, of course, is not the narrator. The absent images are nevertheless described in attentive detail:

  no pool of thine,
  Though clear as lake in latest summer-eve,
  Did e'er reflect the stately virgin's robe,
  The face, the form divine, the downcast look
  Contemplative! Behold! her open palm
  Presses her cheek and brow! her elbow rests
  On the bare branch of half-uprooted tree,
  That leans towards its mirror! (11. 72-79)

So insistent is the mind's projection that the lover cries out, "Behold!" As if it were not enough to delineate the very look and gesture of the image that is not there, he has the phantom image return his gaze and then teasingly cast flowers into the water, dispelling her own non-existent presence:

  he now
  With steadfast gaze and unoffending eye,
  Worships the watery idol, dreaming hopes
  Delicious to the soul, but fleeting, vain,
  E'en as that phantom-world on which he gazed,
  But not unheeded gazed: for see, ah! see,
  The sportive tyrant with her left hand plucks
  The heads of tall flowers that behind her grow,
  Lychnis, and willow-herb, and fox-glove bells:
  And suddenly, as one that toys with time,
  Scatters them on the pool! Then all the charm
  Is broken--all that phantom-world so fair
  Vanishes, and a thousand circlets spread,
  And each mis-shape the other. (11. 81-94)

The lovelorn poet, like a mime who manipulates imaginary objects, has played with images which he has mentally projected onto the surface of the pool. The image of the maiden, too, becomes a mime whose gesture, plucking "the heads of tall flowers that behind her grow," acts out the beholder's desire for her touch. Since she exists here only as image of his unrequited love, she naturally reenacts the lover's recollected experience of a "sportive tyrant" who even as a merely mental phenomenon disrupts his image of her. The poet advises his alter ego, the "poor youth" who has witnessed his dream dashed, to wait and watch.

  The stream will soon renew its smoothness, soon
  The visions will return! And lo! he stays:
  And soon the fragments dim of lovely forms
  Come trembling back, unite, and now once more
  The pool becomes a mirror (11. 96-100)

The "half-uprooted tree" and "each wild-flower" reappear as inverted images, but the image of the maiden is no longer there. Although neither she nor her image were present in the first place, only now does the lover confront the visual evidence of her absence: "He turns, and she is gone!" As if she had just at this moment fled through the "woodland maze," he runs off to seek her vanished form in vain. His fictional counterpart, the poet declares, may well devote his "mad love-yearning" to the vacant pool, which will no doubt requite his "sickly thoughts" with a bewitching image of his beloved, "her shadow still abiding there,/ The Naiad of the mirror!" (11. 110-111). At the close of this digression, the narrator repeats his denial of its truth: "Not to thee, / O wild and desert stream! belongs this tale" (11.111-112). The stream, as reflector of images, thus becomes a personified poet. Since the wild stream has had "no loves," it could scarcely be guilty of generating false images. This denial not only continues the imaginary projection, it also strangely implicates the narrator's own lovelorn lot.

If Coleridge had adhered more closely to Gessner's conventional trope, he would have described the maiden casting her flowers into the pond then leaving her lover alone in the woods. To narrate the same events as seen reflected in the water might call attention to the mimetic description. The latter strategy, even as metaphor for poetic representation, could nevertheless reinforce, rather than undermine, the claims of visual presence. The phenomena of reflected images, after all, could effectively enhance descriptive verisimilitude. The poet might thus have it both ways. And Coleridge certainly does retain this double advantage even when he proceeds to negate the entire scene and all of its participants: there is no lover, no mistress, no reflection, no river. A positive narration presents absences as if they were present. Coleridge presents absences and insists upon their absence. The net result, as Coleridge well knows, is much the same: we "believe" the latter neither more nor less than the former. The negation, however, deftly calls attention to that process of indulging illusion which Coleridge referred to as "the willing suspension of disbelief for the moment which constitutes poetic faith." As he distinguished it from delusion, illusion involves self-awareness. By allowing his fictional lover to lapse into "sickly thoughts," he thematizes both illusion and delusion.

Having unfolded and refolded the re-doublings of the absent image, Coleridge goes on in this poem to reaffirm the illusions of presence. "This be my chosen haunt," he declares, "emancipate/ From passion's dreams" (11. 118-119). The river inside his text is now said to be real, and inside his text he commences to "trace its devious course" as if the traces were the thing itself. Not surprisingly, his tracing leads him through a terrain in which the supposedly objective representation is transformed by subjective response. The reflection of a "soft water-sun" is said to be "throbbing" as if it were "heart at once and eye" of the imagined river. Overshadowed by clouds, the reflected images become "the stains and shadings of forgotten tears,/ Dimness o'erswum with lustre." The river is then described as running through a "circular vale," with a cottage "close by the waterfall." Here the poet claims to discover at his feet a picture of the very scene he has just described.

  But what is this?
  That cottage, with its slanting chimney-smoke,
  And close beside its porch a sleeping child,
  His dear head pillowed on a sleeping dog-
  One arm between its fore-legs, and the hand
  Holds loosely its small handful of wild-flowers,
  Unfilletted, and of unequal lengths.
  A curious picture, with a master's haste
  Sketched on a strip of pinky-silver skin,
  Peeled from the birched bark! (11. 152-161)

The ekphrastic description of the "curious picture" is more minutely detailed than the poet's description of the "original" scene in the lines immediate preceding. Coleridge thus makes the painted image seem more real than reality, in marked contrast to the emphatic unreality of the phantom reflections in the imaginary river. The depicted image is no will o' the wisp, and the painting itself is a palpable object.

  Yon bark her canvass, and those purple berries
  Her pencil! See, the juice is scarcely dried
  On the fine skin! She has been newly here;
  And lo! yon patch of heath has been her couch--
  The pressure still remains! (11. 162-167)

Reversing his rhetorical tactic, Coleridge affirms the picture as strongly as he previously had denied the reflection. Yet even this latter image is revealed amidst absences and traces. Only the signs remain behind. The poem ends with the poet, now with picture in hand as well as image in mind, in quest of a maiden who still is no longer there (PW 1:369-74; CN 3708, 3995, 4227).

In giving close attention to "The Picture," a translation that ceased to be a translation, and became very much Coleridge's own poem, I delineate the characteristics of one species of Coleridgean composition: Gessner's theme and imagery are retained but amplified. As he sought to gain access to the untranslatable, Coleridge generated an entire spectrum of poetic strategies with varying degrees of appropriation and intervention: from translated to transferred, seldom word-for-word, more often freely adapted. To some degree, acts of appropriation intrude in all his translation, even where he claims to adhere closely to the original. Much of his translation is self-translation, asserting his identity into the alterity of the text. He was less preemptive when he sought to communicate lines that he regarded as cultural artifacts, a drinking song or a nursery rhyme. For Coleridge, all translation and adaptation was a cultural enrichment. In the presence of a strong poet, such as Schiller or Goethe, he overcame the sense of subjugation, through his subjective "entering into" the mind of the other, his creative empathy or Mitgefuhl. With a lesser poet, such as Gessner, he simply made the poem his own. But even here, in the "transferred poem," there was a cultural exchange, a shared awareness.


(1) Poetical Works (= PW), ed. J. C. C. Mays, The Collected Works ..., 16 (2001), 3:1558, 1563, 1581, 1639.

(2) Lectures 1808-1819: On Literature (= LL), 2 vols. ed. Reginald Foakes, The Collected Works ..., 5 (1987) 2:402-3.

(3) Biographia Literaria (= BL) 2 vols., ed. W.J. Bate, W.J. and James Engell, The Collected Works ..., 7 (1983), 2:86.

(4) "Memoranda for a History of English Poetry" (1800), Shorter Works and Fragments (= SW & F) 2 vols., ed. H.J. Jackson and J.R. de J. Jackson, The Collected Works...., 11 (1995), 1:108.

(5) In English "translated" and "transferred" have drifted apart semantically, but in Latin, as James McKusick reminded me, "translation" and "transfero" were interchangeable as synonyms.

(6) Collected Letters.... (= CL), 6 vols. ed. Earl Leslie Griggs (1956-1971) 2:864-5.

(7) The Notebooks.... (= CN), ed. Kathleen Coburn (1957-2002), 1:396.

(8) MATTHEW SCOTT, "The Circulation of Romantic Creativity: Coleridge, Drama, and the Question of Translation," Romanticism On the Net. 2 (May, 1996). Also, Joyce Crick, "Coleridge's Wallenstein: Two Legends," MLR. 83 (Winter, 1988): 76-86 and "Some Editorial and Stylistic Observations on Coleridge's Translation of Schiller's Wallenstein," Publications of the English Goethe Society, 54 (1984): 37-75.

(9) Julian Knox, "Coleridge's 'Cousin-German': Narrative Alter-Egos in the 'The Satyrane Letters' and 'The Historie and Gests of Maxilian," paper present at the Coleridge Summer Conference, Cannington, 2006.

(10) For the comparison of Gessner's poem and Coleridge's, I am indebted to Susan Luther, "Coleridge, Creative (Day)Dreaming, and 'The Picture'," Dreaming 7, 1997); Gessner, Salomon. Samtliche Schriften in Drei Banden (1762), ed. Martin Bircher (1972-74).

(11) Gessner, "Der feste Vorsatz," Samtliche Schriften, 120-24.

Frederick Burwick

University of California

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