January 6th, 2008 in Art
Process and problems of a translation into German demonstrated at Hamlet
The most famous tragedy “Hamlet – Prince of Denmark” of William Shakespeare was, among other works of his, translated into German by August Wilhelm von Schlegel at the beginning of the 19th century. (The translations of the remaining works were later finished by Johann Ludwig Tieck and his daughter Dorothea Tieck.) The Schlegel/Tieck editions are till today by far the most recognized translations of the works of William Shakespeare into german language. Because it was done in such a skilled and aesthetic manner, Shakespeare is regarded as third german classic master after Goethe and Schiller.
Schlegel made huge efforts to translate the tone and rhythm of every verse as exactly as possible, even to the smallest effect of speech. Doing so, he encountered numerous problems, which impaired the results considerably. Because two different languages never match in the tone of their verbs and nouns, the effort to reach the same effect by force leads to an overstraining of the target language. As a consequence, it was necessary to invert words and to omit letters, which led to a deformation of the natural words. The text became a contrived impression.
„ertrueg’ “ instead of „ertruege”
“fliehn” instead of “fliehen”
“Maecht’gen” instead of “Maechtigen”
A other problem was the prevalent monosyllabic structure of English, while German is mostly polysyllabic. (f.e. “or” in contrast to “oder”), which made the german version longer. So it was required not only to omit letters, but to omit whole words. Schlegel called this “compressed translation”.
He also consistently transformed the blank verse of the original to the iambic pentameter with either male or female cadence (ten or eleven syllables). In a lot of cases, this led to a remarkable shift of the content of the text. The soliloquy “to be or not to be” is a good example for these issues. This first line is translated as “Sein oder nicht sein, das ist hier die Frage.” (~ Being or not being that is here the question.). The general matter, to live or to die, is degraded to a current reflection of the main actor, not of general importance, but only in this given situation. Even the meaning of “to be” as living remains cloudy. Below, “this sleep of death” remains only as “this sleep”, “shuffled off this mortal coil” mutates to something like “shuffled off the earthly urge”. And these are only the most noticeable discrepancies.
Despite of all this problems, which could only be evaded by completely disregarding the lyric metre, the quality of the translation and the elegancy of the language are unequalled till today. The translations of Schlegel and Tieck are the standard for Shakespeare in German. As the translation process took place two hundred years after the death of the author, the language is even more understandable and intuitive than the old-english original.
This kind of problems, which were encountered in the translation of lyric verses, can be compared with the problems, which occur today in the process of synchronizing movies for foreign markets. The price of lip synchronization almost always is a remarkable shift in the content of the dialogues.
You can find a newly translated german version of “To be or not to be” here. The main intension was to keep the content translated as accurate as possible and not to omit any word while the fundamental composition and syntax of Schlegel’s translation was maintained. The lyric metre was ignored consciously.
- Norbert Greiner, Grundlagen der Übersetzungsforschung Band 1, Übersetzung und Literaturwissenschaft, Gunter Narr Verlag 2004 (very comprehensive)
- Jerell W. Bullis Jr., The Language of Hamlet, Houston Teachers Institute, 2001
- Schlegel’s original translation
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