That Old Goat!


On Translation

Robert Walser’s scrupulous art of translation.

Robert Walser

Today is International Translation Day, an occasion of particular piety among the few who observe it. Translation, that glorious service to culture and human understanding!

There are failures, too, though. Some are of the sort that plague most any endeavor in this vale of tears: inadequacy, incompetence, ineptitude. A New Yorker cartoon, beloved in translator circles, shows someone approaching a horror-stricken writer and saying, “Do you not be happy with me as the translator of the book of you?” 

Some are cases of the capable but incompatible: not every good translator can translate every good book. They say poetry is what gets lost in et cetera, but humor might be even more often misplaced. Not getting the joke is a common form of not catching the music. 

And sometimes, when a translator totally hijacks the original, the failure is so dramatic, its lapses from the source text so catastrophic, that it’s hard to tell if it might not be a success after all. Is what we have here a terrible translation, or fake-terrible, or fake-fake-terrible?

In the mid-1920s, Robert Walser, approaching fifty and particularly prickly, struck up a “friendship” in Bern with a younger Swiss writer, Alfred Fankhauser, by swearing that he had never read a line Fankhauser had written and never would—a promise that he, and posterity, seem to have kept. Their time together, consisting mostly of drunken ribbing, didn’t last long, but while it did Fankhauser ventured to suggest that Walser was the only man alive capable of bringing the lush and flexible musicality of the great fin de siècle poet Paul Verlaine into German. Walser did not take it as a compliment: “What!” he bellowed. “Translate that old goat? I’m supposed to carry that guy’s bags for him?” While playing the proper, upstanding citizen appalled by Verlaine’s tormented life and libertine sexuality, Walser was also venting his spleen at a more famous writer. This is, after all, from the man who called Thomas Mann an “imperialist” and once asked Hugo von Hofmannsthal in a café: “Can’t you forget for five minutes that you’re famous?”

Perhaps Fankhauser was thinking of the Walserian leaps of imagery in Verlaine’s “Parisian Sketch,” in which the sky is gray, the breeze weeps (pleurait) like a bassoon, and a stealthy tomcat meows strange and harsh. Or of this lovely poem*, Verlaine’s most famous:


Il pleut doucement sur la ville.  
—Arthur Rimbaud 

Il pleure dans mon coeur
Comme il pleut sur la ville;
Quelle est cette langueur
Qui pénètre mon coeur?

Ô bruit doux de la pluie
Par terre et sur les toits!
Pour un coeur qui s’ennuie,
Ô le chant de la pluie!

Il pleure sans raison
Dans ce coeur qui s’écoeure.
Quoi! nulle trahison?…
Ce deuil est sans raison.

C’est bien la pire peine
De ne savoir pourquoi
Sans amour et sans haine
Mon coeur a tant de peine!


The rain falls softly on the city.
—Arthur Rimbaud

The tears are falling in my heart
The way the rain falls on the city;
What is this languorous dart
That pierces through my heart?

Oh, gentle sound of the rain,
On the ground and on the roofs!
For a heart feeling boredom’s strain,
Oh, the song of the rain!

Tears are falling for no reason
In this, my heartsick heart.
What! there was no treason?
This grief is for no reason.

Truly, the hardest sorrow
Is not even to know why,
No love, no hate—today, tomorrow—
My heart is filled with so much sorrow!

Walser, in any case, must have had those poems in mind when he had what we might call a change of heart. In 1925, he tackled the task of the translator thus:

Hier wird sorgsam übersetzt
das Gedicht von Paul Verlaine,
wo der Regen hat genetzt
jene Dächer an der Seine.

Ganz Paris steht grau in grau,
nach der Sehnsucht ich mich sehne.     
Sieh’ mal an, ich mach’ miau,
ähnlich wie einst Paul Verlaine.

O du mehr als schon genug
übertragenes Gewähne,
einst vor zwanzig Jahren frug
ich auch sehr nach Paul Verlaine.

Stimmungsvoll ist zweifellos,
was ich dehne da und dehne,
punkto Neuigkeit war groß
unser Papa Paul Verlaine.

Gebet eine Zwiebel mir,
daß die Träne mir auch träne,
die einst unsrem Paul Verlaine
rinnelt’ auf das Schreibpapier.

Höchste Zeit ist’s, wie ich meine,
daß man endlich Robert Wals
sich uns auch mal vorstellt als
ein Verdeutscher von Verlaine.

Here is a scrupulous translation
of a poem by Paul Verlaine,
the one about the inundation
of the roofs along the Seine.

All of Paris gray on gray now,
I long for longing in the rain.
Looky here, hear me meow,
much as once did Paul Verlaine.

Oh you flight of fanciful stuff
already translated more than enough,
twenty years back I too did deign
to be interested in Paul Verlaine.

Moody and atmospheric, doubtless,
is what I here take up again;
great too with respect to newness
was our Papa Paul Verlaine.

Lord, send me an onion
to bring forth tears of also mine
like those that, for our Paul Verlaine,
on ink-covered paper once did run.

Now it is high time, I’m just sayin’,
for at last our Robert Wals
to show his face when duty calls
and put into German Paul Verlaine.

This poem was one of Walser’s now-famous microscripts, written in incredibly tiny handwriting for his own amusement and potential later use, and laboriously deciphered only decades after his death. He never published it or showed it to anybody; it never went anywhere, in public or private. Taking his hostility toward Verlaine, Fankhauser, and the rest and turning it into a chuckle—into a virtuosic exercise in rhyme, too, quasi-signed with three-quarters of his name—seems to have been enough for our man Wals.

If a scrupulous translation falls in the forest and no one is there to hear it, does it still bring the original across? Maybe so. The word somewhat loosely translated here as “scrupulous” is sorgsam, full of Sorge (worry, concern, solicitude): painstaking and attentive, careful, gentle. Translations are always sorgsam—acts of loving care, even if not exactly gentle; taking pains of some sort, however unhinged. The private, unpublishing scribbler, too, is offering himself to us (sich uns vorstellt) as a translator—or at least it’s high time he did.

*(All translations into English in this column are mine.)

Damion Searls, the Daily’s language columnist, is a translator from German, French, Norwegian, and Dutch.