Saturday, 6 April 2013

Reading Group Report: Imagining Germany: A Journey from Folk Revival to Gothic Horror in Translation

Led by Jayne Winter (Newcastle University)

28 March 2013

Percy Building Postgraduate Common Room, Newcastle University

Departing from our usual focus upon long nineteenth-century English literature, the subject of this month’s reading group was the effects of translation upon the folk ballad tradition in England, Scotland and Germany.  Exploring the ways in which oral culture became appropriated by different nationalities and crucially, different languages, this session was valuable in terms of its questioning approach to ideas of literary heritage.   Concentrating upon texts by the English Thomas Percy, William Wordsworth and Matthew Lewis, the Scottish Walter Scott, and the German Johann Gottfried Herder and Gottfried August Bürger, the session sought to investigate not only the challenges posed by issues of translation, but also what translation itself lends to the concept of the folk tale.

Beginning by focusing upon Herder’s translation of Percy’s poem ‘Sweet William’s Ghost’ (1773), we considered the former’s awareness that this is a manufactured myth, borrowed from English oral tradition in order to be incorporated into German folk culture.  As an admirer of the Ossian correspondences, we discussed how Herder was attracted to this idea of an ancient bardic culture and regarded it as desirable for establishing such a culture in Germany.  It was suggested that, as Germany during this period was fragmented both politically and culturally, Herder’s preoccupation with oral traditions perhaps reflects this desire for a stable national history.  Parallels were also drawn with eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century Italy, as an example of a nation that was displaced linguistically, as well as politically.

Those of us who were German speakers remarked upon the language Herder uses in his translation of ‘Sweet William’.  It was suggested that, rather than reproducing Percy’s poem faithfully, Herder deliberately incorporates vocabulary that makes its themes more archaic in translation.  This implies that he is not only amalgamating an English ballad into German culture, but in turn, transforming it in order to appeal to the Gothic sensibilities of that culture.  Through this process, it was suggested that Herder may be seen as contributing to the reputation German literature would acquire in England; the home of horror stories and Gothic narratives.  Interestingly, it was pointed out that it was England, and Scotland in particular, that held this reputation for Gothic literature in the eighteenth-century German psyche.

Moving on to look at the other texts, we were introduced to the demand for this kind of translated Gothic-esque literature in the eighteenth century.  For example,  Bürger also copied material from Percy’s poems into his Gothic romance ‘Lenore’ (1789), which was then itself swiftly translated back into English by Walter Scott.  Furthermore, Wordsworth made elements of ‘Lenore’ famous in the folk traditions and narrative of several of The Lyrical Ballads (1798/1802), whilst Matthew Lewis appropriated ‘Lenore’ into poems that were proclaimed to be based upon the Germanic tradition. 

We wondered what effect this act of translation from English/Scots dialect to German, and then back again, had on the original poems.  Certainly, Herder’s view on the purpose of poetry was not merely to convince his readers of their ancientness, but also to inspire a new kind of thinking about German culture and the function of literature within it.  Members were interested in Herder’s concept of history, which was seen to share many parallels with that of the Scottish Enlightenment.  Like philosophers such as Adam Ferguson, and later writers such as Thomas Love Peacock, Herder regarded history to be split into distinct ‘stages’, in which poetry must be aligned with particular points in national development.  It was suggested that such an approach contradicted that of other Scottish contemporaries such as Dugald Stewart, who perceived poetry and historical development as having a more dynamic relationship.  Nevertheless, this insight into Herder’s views reflected the wider relevance of his ideas on poetry, translation and national identity.  It also inspired detailed discussions on the affinities between German and Scottish literature during this period.

Overall, this session was valuable for the way that it highlighted the importance of translation and its place in national consciousness during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.  It also introduced our mainly English literature-focused members to ideas that were both prevalent in European thought, and that share parallels with contemporary views of poetry and its purpose in England.  The NENC organising committee would thus like to thank Jayne for a thought-provoking, lively and interesting session.

Leanne Stokoe, Newcastle University



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