A Tragedy
by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
Review by
Robert Wilfred Franson

translated by Walter Arndt
edited by Cyrus Hamlin

Norton: New York, 1976
626 pages

second edition, revised & expanded —
Norton: New York, 2001

737 pages April 2012

Gretchen-in-der-Kirche--August-von-Kreling My favorite edition of Faust

I do not attempt here to review Faust itself, the great masterpiece by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832), but only to recommend my favorite edition. Across twelve thousand lines and the cultural heritage of millennia, the poem's reach is complex and thoughtful, visionary and scintillating. Faust is often challenging to read, and of course a great challenge to any translator. So what makes a good or even excellent rendering of Goethe's aesthetically diverse German poetry into satisfying and stimulating English poetry?

What would seem to be most obvious is that Goethe's poetry must be converted and re-envisioned as English poetry; yet both the need and the possibility of this, for translating any poetry as poetry, has been disputed by theory and by example. Additionally, the tremendous variety of Goethe's verse-forms, some archaic in German at the time he was writing, present as many difficulties as the rigged tests of fairy-tales. Yet if a clear and sensitive translation can be done, why settle for insipid poetry or "literal" prose? Translating in the other direction, would you prefer (for instance) John Milton's epic Paradise Lost to reach non-English speakers in children's jingles or flattened prose — or in some version which attempts to convey the majesty and subtlety of the original?

As I mention in my review of Walter Arndt's translation of Heinrich Heine's Songs of Love and Grief, Arndt is a most exceptional translator. He is strong for verse translation of verse, and notably for trying to recreate the source language's original poetic structure (or "verse forms") in the target language. So Arndt's translations are strikingly poetical; he is not only a sensitive reader of poetic intentions, but as we see in his translations, a fine poet himself in English.

This version of Faust is presented as a "Norton Critical Edition", one of an excellent series of major literature, each with annotated texts plus contemporary and modern criticism. The second edition is expanded and improved in a number of ways, and (even if you have the first edition) I highly recommend it. In replacing all the first-edition modern essays with newer ones, though, there is one omission I particularly regret, and that is Walter Arndt's own insightful eleven-page discussion of why he translates poetry the way he does, both theory and practice; and with some specific illustrations, why he translates Goethe's Faust the way he does.

Here's how Arndt leads off, sharply opinionated and rather distinctive in his own voice:

Faust is a work of poetry, i.e., one in which cognitive import and formal-aesthetic impact depend on one another and are intimately blended. Without the latter, the former loses not just its verbal bloom but some of its nature: Faust tends to become a petulant or bombastic fantast, Gretchen a prattling petit-bourgeoise, Mephisto a cheaply cynical ward-heeler of Hell, not unlike Ivan Karamazov's seedy visitor, to whom he stood godfather. The impact of the roving, dazzling, enigmatic world drama, and within it the import, is brought to bear upon the reader through a great wealth and variety of scanned and rhymed forms, and in that vigorous, idiosyncratic, often slapdash hand which makes, one fancies, any six consecutive lines of Goethe unmistakable. To me it is axiomatic, therefore, that Faust must be brought into English with as near as possible the same formal opulence and the same signature.
Walter Arndt
"Translating Faust"
Faust, Norton Critical Edition - 1976 edition only
Read the whole poem

Do also note, that according to Arndt, only about a quarter of all Faust translations into English are of the entire poem, that is, including Part II with its eight thousand lines — two-thirds of the whole, containing many unique riches. If you've only seen an opera of Faust — that's Part I. If you've only read Part I, enjoying amongst much else the famous "Walpurgis Night" section with its gathering of witches, you haven't seen anything until you've encountered its truly fantastic counterpart, the "Classical Walpurgis Night" in Part II. The former is to the latter, imaginatively, as Gretchen is to — well, Helen of Troy.

Part II opens with Faust awakening upon a flowery mountain meadow as dawn illumines the blue sky. His thoughts soon turn to striving and attainment, but human passion dazzles like the over-bright sunrise, so admiring a waterfall's shining leaps and sprays must stand in artistic symbol for the fiery reality:

Thus also, as we yearningly aspire
And find at last fulfillment's portals parting,
Wrung within tender reach our prime desire,
There will erupt from those eternal porches,
Dumbfounding us, exorbitance of fire;
We only meant to kindle up life's torches,
And flame engulfs us, seas of torrid blazes!
Love? Hatred? Which? envelops us and scorches,
Sends pain and joy in vast alternate phases,
Till we gaze back upon our homely planet
And shelter in most young of youthful hazes.

So, sun in back, my eye to weak to scan it,
I rather follow, with entrancement growing,
The cataract that cleaves the jagged granite,
From fall to fall, in thousand leaps, outthrowing
A score of thousand streams in its revolving,
From upflung foam a soaring lacework blowing.
But in what splendor from this storm evolving,
Vaults up the shimmering arc, in variance lasting,
Now purely limned and now in air dissolving,
A cooling fragrance all about it casting.
This mirrors all aspiring human action.
On this your mind for clear insight fasten:
That life is ours by colorful refraction.

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
"Charming Landscape"
Faust, Part II, 4704-4727
translated by Walter Arndt


© 2012 Robert Wilfred Franson

Gretchen in der Kirche
(Gretchen in Church)
by August von Kreling

Z. B. Matkowska's review of
A Picaro in Hitler's Europe
a memoir by Walter Arndt

R. W. Franson's review of
Songs of Love and Grief
by Heinrich Heine
translated by Walter Arndt

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