The Sufferings of Young Werther by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Trans. and ed. by Stanley Corngold (review)
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Reviewed by
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, The Sufferings of Young Werther. Trans. and ed. Stanley Corngold. Norton Critical Editions. New York: W. W. Norton, 2012. 238 pp.

Stanley Corngold’s volume for Norton Critical Editions joins Walter Arndt’s translation of Faust (edited by Cyrus Hamlin) as the second work by Goethe in this important series. Corngold also translated and edited Kafka’s Selected Stories for the series.

To accompany his new translation, Corngold has written an insightful introduction, the flavor of which is manifest in this example: “Note the key terms in this ‘argument,’ for they are original with Goethe: the seat of consciousness is, for want of a more precise physiological or philosophical term, the ‘heart.’ The relation of the self to its intentional object is not that of a concept to a thing but a ‘heart’ to a ‘presence’: the world is ‘present-to’ a type of consciousness other than a conceptual consciousness—one closer to inner sensation than brain or mind” (xii). Rich with perceptive analysis, the introduction as a whole is worth reading even for those well acquainted with Goethe. As “background and contexts,” the book presents relevant excerpts from the correspondence between Goethe and Kestner, lampoons by Nicolai and Thackeray, and helpful sections from Goethe’s autobiography.

To represent the voluminous criticism of the novel, Corngold has chosen interesting essays by Harry Steinhauer, Roland Barthes, R. Ellis Dye, David E. Wellbery, Hans Rudolf Vaget, Dirk von Petersdorff, and Christiane Frey and David Martyn. The Barthes text especially gives readers otherwise unaware of the novel’s influence a good sense of its importance beyond the German eighteenth century. A chronology and a selected bibliography of English-language criticism of the novel, including ten entries from the Goethe Yearbook, bring the book to a close.

Goethe’s first novel has attracted a host of translators, including translations into English by Catherine Hutter (Signet, 1962), Harry Steinhauer (Norton, 1970—like Corngold he translates the title as The Sufferings of Young Werther), Michael Hulse (Penguin, 1989), Victor Lange (Princeton University Press, 1994), and David Constantine, whose translation for Oxford World’s Classics appeared almost simultaneously with Corngold’s.

The perils of translation are historically demonstrated by R. D. Boylan’s early English version (Bohn’s Standard Library, 1854), in which he notoriously has Lotte begging Werther “with broken sobs, to leave her,” not noticing that Werther complies with the request—“bat ihn schluchzend fortzufahren”—by taking up the manuscript to read on. I was saved from a similarly egregious error in my translation of Peter Handke’s A Voyage to the Rivers (Viking, 1997) when my friend and Handke translator into Serbian Zarko Radakovic pointed out that the [End Page 255] new “Gavrilo Princip” Handke was calling for was not a Serbian principle (of law? of business?) but an assassin. In his review of the first edition of Corngold’s translation (New York Review of Books, April 26, 2012), J. M. Coetzee noted that there were two transcription errors in the Ossian section, both of which have been corrected in the paperback edition I am reviewing here.

Corngold decides, like many other translators, to cite Macpherson’s Ossian rather than translating Goethe’s translation of the poems. Catherine Hutter and David Constantine, in contrast, argue that Goethe’s translation produces a better poem than the “original,” and thus they translate Goethe’s text. It is a difficult question. Coetzee’s claim that a decision to cite Macpherson is “a plain error in judgment,” however, doesn’t do justice to the problem. Readings of any of the versions, including Goethe’s German, reveal an awkward and nearly impenetrable text that I would be tempted to excerpt for English readers, reserving the full text for a note.

Corngold stays close to the original text, especially syntactically, while still producing a lovely and engaging English-language version. The novel deserves a passionate and supple English—exactly what Corngold offers. Compare, for instance, the last sentence of the first book in Goethe’s and Corngold’s versions:

Sie gingen die Allee hinaus, ich stand, sah ihnen nach im Mondscheine und warf mich an die Erde und weinte mich aus und...