Thursday, March 26, 2009

Books Received: Odes and Elegies by Friedrich Hölderlin


My main question concerning this new translation (which has been highly praised by Harold Bloom, no less) was: can it be any better than Michael Hamburger's excellent Selected Poems and Fragments (Penguin Classics, 1998)?

Comparing the two translations side by side, it seems to me that sometimes Hamburger has the better approach and sometimes Hoff. As is often the case, I found myself wanting a little bit from each translator -- a line here, a line there -- my own remix.

To show you what I mean here's a brief example from Hyperions Schiksaalslied (Hyperion's Song of Fate), the final lines -- which, incidentally, are inexactly quoted in the original German at the end of Samuel Beckett's Watt (Beckett read Hölderlin very carefully):

Hamburger:

But we are fated
To find no foothold, no rest,
And suffering mortals
Dwindle and fall
Headlong from one
Hour to the next,
Hurled like water
From ledge to ledge
Downward for years to the vague abyss.


Hoff:

Yet it's our lot
To wander homeless;
Suffering men fade away,
Fall blindly
From one hour to the next,
Like water thrown
Year after year,
From rock to rock,
Down into the great unknown.

Hamburger is a little arch, but "Downward for years to the vague abyss" is a more striking conclusion than "Down into the great unknown". On the other hand, Hoff's "Suffering men fade away" is wonderful. I would suggest we need both translations -- the consciously "poetic" Hamburger and the more modern and spare Hoff -- if we are to get any closer to this important but difficult poet.

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