On ‘Translating’ Hölderlin

As a graduate student in comparative literature, I was warned, at times strenuously, about the philological and moral dangers of reading literature in translation. Even in the poststructuralist academy the text was still the text, suffused with a Benjaminian ‘aura.’ There was no substitute for the spiritual substance (what Muslim scholars call baraka) to be gained from contact with an author’s original words. But in the heedlessness of youth I read a lot of translations, and some of my favorite writers, from Tolstoy, to Lermontov, to Yasunari Kawabata and WG Sebald, wrote in languages of which I know little or nothing.

My favorite poet in any language, Friedrich Hölderlin, I know almost exclusively through translations—-albeit excellent ones—-by Michael Hamburger, David Constantine, Christopher Middleton, Nick Hoff, and others. Hölderlin wrote in German, of course, and not just any German but a formidable, syntactically contorted idiom barbed with Swabian regionalisms, recondite classical and biblical references, and an esoteric vocabulary of quasi-philosophical terms that often seem to have no fixed or definite meaning. To make matters worse, he became schizophrenic in his early thirties while he was writing his most ambitious work. Understanding Hölderlin, therefore, poses considerable challenges even to the educated native speaker. So it was the height of folly and want of scholarly tact that led me to undertake to translate even a few of his poems, yet that is what I did.

My familiarity with German is admittedly slightly better than the average tourist’s. I can read a newspaper with the help of a dictionary, order a meal, and follow conversations on everyday topics as long as I am not called on to contribute much. I know how to ask for directions. I can usually get to the Bahnhof, and, usually, when I get there, I can buy a ticket without lapsing into English more than half a dozen times. The post office, with its more complex bureaucracy, exceeds my competence. When reading poetry in German I can often decipher a few stanzas without referring to the English on the facing page. This gives me an illusion of greater fluency than I really possess, the way one can imagine that one understands the dialogue in a foreign film while reading the subtitles. For a few years in high school I enjoyed an undeserved reputation for being good at languages because of my knowledge of French and Spanish. But this ability apparently stops at the Rhine. I have struggled with German for years. My one attempt to learn a nonwestern language, Arabic, was a decisive checkmate. My attainments as a linguist are, in a word, modest.

My ambitions, however, were not. The first poem by Hölderlin I attempted to translate was ‘Patmos,’ which is not only one of his longest and most difficult but shows clear signs of incipient madness. The ostensible subject of the poem is the Apocalypse of John, whose visionary experience took place on the island that gives the poem its title—-an opaque enough choice in its own right, and Hölderlin weaves such an impenetrable tangle of theological and mythological associations around this source material that no commentary that I know of has been able to fully unravel it. ‘Patmos’ meanders through an imaginative geography that spans from Germany to the Greek islands to the Holy Land. The poem’s diction is densely metaphorical; images spin wildly into one another in a kaleidoscopic confusion. Its religious syncretism is similarly baffling. For Hölderlin, Christ was ‘the son of the highest…the storm-bearer’: Zeus, in other words. He was therefore ‘Heracles’ brother’ and also Dionysus’s. Indeed these three ‘demigods’ tend to fuse into a trinity that is both imitation and parody of the orthodox Christian trinity. Yet one should not be led to think that Hölderlin saw any irony in his conception of this ‘lower’ trinity. Christ, like the Greek demigods, is for him a mediating figure whose direct contact with mortals is a token of divine concern for human existence and whose death and disappearance is evidence of a great religious catastrophe in man’s historical existence, one from which we have not emerged.

For Hölderlin, historically speaking, the present is fallow time, a hiatus between the ideal society of the past (Greece) and its anticipated future reestablishment. Hölderlin called this long-awaited rebirth the Hesperidian age (a term derived from Virgil’s ‘Hesperia,’ the western paradise in the Aeneid). His vision in ‘Patmos’ is a Christian-romantic challenge to the contemporary order issued in a spirit of radical disaffection. In the great elegy ‘Bread and Wine’ he expresses the situation of lost immanence with greater clarity:

My friends we have come too late. Though the gods are living,
Over our heads they live, up in a different world.
Endlessly they act and, such is their wish to spare us,
Little they seem to care whether we live or do not.

The gods, and the full existence their presence permits, have vanished. ‘Patmos,’ then, is a visionary work in the deepest sense. What it describes is a dream of returning to the great moment of crisis when man and divinity were severed, the final moment of the gods’ direct appearance among mortals.

I did not so much translate this complex work as rebuild it, following plans laid out by earlier architects and my own intuition. To my mind this is neither an act of creative plagiarism nor an anti-aesthetic reproduction (such as homophonic translation) though it has affinities with both. Readers will note many borrowings from Christopher Middleton’s masterful rendition of the poem. I openly acknowledge my debt to the better craftsman. Yet as the saying goes, copying one book is plagiarism, copying several is research. My appropriation of Middleton’s phrasings, where I deemed appropriate, was based on a sense that they could not be improved upon, a conclusion I arrived at after comparing all the extant English translations I could find (those of Christopher Middleton, Michael Hamburger, Richard Sieburth, David Constantine, and Scott Horton) with my own results arrived at independently based on my own knowledge of German, the use of a dictionary, and occasional consultation with a native German speaker.

The end result is a synthetic and critical retranslation of a poem that has received original renderings, in part or in whole, by hands no doubt more capable than mine. Yet I do not disclaim the results. Many translators ‘translate’ works with less knowledge of the original language and texts. Nearly all collaborative translations rely on some version of the method I used: when two translators work together, one is typically a native speaker who produces a rough and ready paraphrase of the original, while the other renders it into polished and idiomatic prose or verse in the target language. There are also translators who collaborate more indirectly: Pound muddled through Cathay with hardly any knowledge of Chinese using notes prepared by the Sinologist Ernest Fenellosa. My version of “Patmos” thus draws on a familiar practice.

In producing translations of poems by Baudelaire and Paul Éluard, both of whom wrote in French (the one foreign language in which I can claim expertise), I followed a more ‘authentic’ or conventional practice of writing early drafts without referring to existing English versions. But even here purity was not the ideal solution. I revised my translations after comparing them with published versions by Samuel Beckett, Mary Ann Caws, and others. I find my current versions satisfying in part because they incorporate a critical knowledge of the work of other translators.

No translator works in a void, especially in our time—-even less so when translating well-known poems from western languages into English. To invoke Schiller’s categories, no translator at this point can affect to rely on ‘naïve’ genius; we are all practitioners of a ‘sentimental’ art that requires us to take account of history and precedent. I use sentimental in the same sense as Schiller to denote a purposeful striving after artistic effect, as opposed to the naïve poet (such as Homer, in Schiller’s view) whose art is arrived at unreflectively and spontaneously. Hölderin too was in this sense a follower of the ‘sentimental’ school who deliberately imitated the Alcaic and Asclepiadic meters of Greek verse. My translation is thus, after a fashion, also a tribute.

(Above excerpts from Hölderlin, Friedrich. Poems and Fragments. Trans. Michael Hamburger. London: Anvil, 2004.)

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For the Landgrave of Homburg

Near and
Hard to grasp is the God.
But where danger is,
Deliverance also beckons.
Eagles dwell in darkness
And across chasms go
The fearless sons of the Alps,
On bridges lightly built.
Wherefore, since the peaks of time
Cluster high all around
And loved ones dwell near,
Languishing on most distant
Mountains, give us pure water,
O give us wings and a true mind,
That we may venture out and return.

Thus I spoke
And a spirit fast beyond all measure
Carried me far from my own house
To where I never thought to go.
The forest shadows lengthened
And in the twilight as I went
Over rivers of my homeland
Yearning, countries there were
I never knew; but soon
In the first sheen rose
Mysterious in golden haze,
Then rapidly full-grown
With sunlight’s paces, fragrant
With a thousand peaks,

Asia, before my vision, all in bloom
And dazzled I peered to find
One thing I knew, being not
Familiar with the spacious lanes down which
Pactolus travels gold-besmirched
From Tmolus,
And where Tauros stands,
And Messogis, and
The garden full of flowers,
A calm fire, but in the light
Higher up the blush of silver
Snow and, stuff of life immortal
On walls unapproachable,
Primordial the ivy grows,
And borne aloft
By living columns of cedar and laurel
The solemn god-built palaces.

But round the gates of Asia
Murmur, passing this way and that
On the sea’s uncertain plain
Shadowless roads enough
Though my seafarer knows
The islands. And since I had heard,
That among
Those near at hand
Was Patmos,
Much I desired to put in there
And be close to its dark cave.
For not like lordly Cyprus,
With its abounding waters,
Nor like any other island
Does Patmos dwell,
But still hospitable
In her poorer house is she,
And if a stranger comes
From shipwreck or grieving
For his lost homeland or
Distant friend
She listens, and her children,
Voices of the hot thicket,
A trickle of sand, earth
Splitting in a field, her sounds,
They hear him and a loving echo
Flows from his lament. Thus did
She care once for the god-beloved
Seer who in his blessed youth

Had walked
With the Son of the Highest, inseparably,
For the storm-bearer loved the simplicity
Of the boy and he, that very one,
Saw the God’s face clearly
When at supper they sat assembled
And it was the mystery of the vine,
And the Lord in his great soul
Calmly foreknowing, spoke of his death
And of all-surpassing love.
Of goodness abounding and more
He spoke enough, and of joy,
Seeing how the world rages.
For all is good. Whereupon he died.
Much might be said of that.
And they saw his triumphant look,
They, his friends, saw him most glad
At the end,

Yet they mourned, now
That night had fallen, and were astonished
At the great destiny they harbored
In their souls, these men
Who loved to live in the sun
And wished not to leave
The sight of their Lord
Or their native land. It was driven
Down deep, this was, like fire
In iron, and beside them walked
The shadow of him they loved.
So he sent them strength
Of spirit, and the house shook
And the storms of god thundered
Above their heads, all-knowing,
Where they gathered, heavy-hearted
Heroes of death,

And in valediction
He appeared to them once more.
Then the sun, in his majesty,
Went out, and he himself broke
The straight-shining scepter in holy agony
Knowing all should come round again
In good time.
For it would not have been
Well to break off then, or later,
The work of men; and bliss it was
To live in the now,
In the loving night, and keep eyes humbly fixed upon
The abyss of wisdom. And deep in the mountains
Now the living images come to fruition,

Though it is also terrible, how far and wide
God unendingly scatters all that lives.
And from his dear friends
How he, the holy spirit,
Turned his face away
And went alone, far over the mountains,
Once twice known; and it was not foretold, but
There, that very moment, the distant, vanishing God suddenly
Looked back, seized them by the hair
As they begged him to stop; as though with golden ropes
Bound now henceforth
They joined hands with one another
In naming evil—-

But when he dies then
To whom beauty most clung, making
This fleshly form a miracle, to whom the heavenly ones
Pointed, and when, a riddle ever after to each other,
They cannot embrace
Who once lived as one
In memory, and when not only the sand or only the willow
Is taken away but the temple
Pulled down, when the
Demigod himself and his disciples
Are scattered like dust
And even the Highest
Averts his gaze, when not a shred
Of immortality is seen in heaven or upon
This green earth—-what then?

It is the cast made by the sower
When he scoops wheat into the shovel
And sweeps it in an arc clear over the threshing floor.
If the husk falls at his feet, and
The grain does not reach its goal,
It is no bad thing if some is lost,
The live sound of voices fades.
Divine work is just like ours, the Highest does not want
All things at once.
True, the shaft bears iron
As Aetna glowing resins,
So might I have the means
To make an image, and likewise
To show Christ as he was.

But suppose someone spurring himself on,
And on the road, morosely babbling, set upon me
Defenseless, amazed at this fool,
A mere stool trying his hand at figuring God—-
In visible wrath I once saw the Lord of heaven,
Not that I am anything special but
Could still learn. They are kindly but hate most,
As long as they reign, falseness which
Nullifies our shared bond of humanity.
For even they do not rule; it is fate
That rules, and their wheels take fire
Of their own motion, now speeding to an end.
When heaven’s parade passes on exultant,
Even strong men call to the son of the Highest,

A beacon like the sun, and here is the trumpet
Of song pointing downward;
Nothing is what it seems. It wakes the dead
Who are not yet rotten. But many timid
Hoot owls still lurk about in the dark,
Wanting to avoid the piercing ray,
Not wanting to bloom,
But a golden halter curbs their mettle
In any case. But when,
As from darkly arched brows,
Forgetful of the world,
A glowing power seeps from the Book,
They may yet learn to be glad of grace
To come in that quiet gaze.

And if the gods of heaven now
Love me well as I believe,
How much greater is their love
For you, because
One thing I know is that the will
Of the eternal father means
Much to you. His sign is silent
In the thundering sky. And one stands underneath it
His life long. For still Christ lives.
But the heroes came, his sons, all,
And the Book came from him,
And the lightning stroke illuminates
The acts of the earth, even now,
In a ceaseless race. He is yet there. For known to him
Are all his works
From the beginning and for all time.

Too long, too long indeed
Have the gifts of the gods remained invisible.
For they must nearly guide our fingers,
And shamefully we give up the ghost.
For they clamor for a sacrifice, every one,
And if one be omitted
Good never came of it.
We have served our mother Earth
And lately, even the sunlight, unwittingly,
But the father, who rules,
Loves most of all that care be taken
In wielding of the pen, and speaking words
That endure. This end my song pursues.


Friedrich Hölderlin (1803), trans. Robert Huddleston