Reading: Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

I’ve read the following works by Goethe:

  • The Sorrows of Young Werther and Selected Writings, translated by Catherine Hutter (16 Jun 2007)
  • Faust, Part I, translated by Peter Salm (20 Jun 2007)
  • Goethe’s Faust, Part One and Selections from Part Two, translated by Walter Kaufmann (18 Nov 2007)
  • Faust (Part Two), translated by Philip Wayne (12 Apr 2009)

I’ve read three different translations of (parts of) Faust and can compare them. The following pivotal passage is from Part One, but it is quoted in the preface to Wayne’s translation of Part Two, so I have all three translators’ versions.


If ever I should tell the moment:
Oh, stay! You are so beautiful!
Then you may cast me into chains,
then I shall smile upon perdition!
Then may the hour toll for me,
then you are free to leave my service.
The clock may halt, the clock hand may fall,
and time come to an end for me!


If to the moment I should say:
Abide, you are so fair–
Put me in fetters on that day,
I wish to perish then, I swear.
Then let the death bell ever toll,
Your service done, you shall be free,
The clock may stop, the hand may fall,
As time comes to an end for me.


If to the fleeting hour I say
“Remain, so fair thou art, remain!”
Then bind me with your fatal chain,
For I will perish in that day.
‘Tis I for whom the bell shall toll,
Then you are free, your service done.
For me the clock shall fail, to ruin run,
And timeless night descend upon my soul.

Salm’s prose translation is presumably the most literal of the three, if a bit, well, prosaic. Of the two verse translations, Kaufmann’s is much closer to Salm’s than Wayne’s is. Based on that, and on what German I know (which is precious little, but even I know the difference between an hour and an Augenblick!), I’d say Kaufmann’s translation is the best of the three, retaining the poetry of the original (as Salm does not) without straying too far from the original meaning (as Wayne seems to). Unfortunately Kaufmann didn’t translate the entire play, and his “selections” from the second part are no substitute for the whole shebang. Although I’d consider it the worst of the three translations, Wayne’s Part Two was still a more intense aesthetic experience than either of the other two books, thanks to the content. Later I hope I can find an uncut translation as skilled as Kaufmann’s abridged one.

Other major works by Goethe that I want to read later:

  • Elective Affinities
  • Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship
  • Dichtung und Wahrheit

1 Comment

Filed under Translation

One response to “Reading: Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

  1. Pingback: Mandelbaum vs. Ciardi as translators of Dante | Bugs to fearen babes withall

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