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Faust: A Tragedy by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Trans. by Mike Smith (review)

From: Goethe Yearbook
Volume 21, 2014
pp. 256-258 | 10.1353/gyr.2014.0029

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Mike Smith, author of three volumes of poetry and assistant professor of poetry at Delta State University, has produced a new English translation of the first part of Goethe’s Faust. Given the sheer volume of Faust translations, in prose and in verse, and of annotated English editions, the appearance of a new translation may raise some difficult questions. What, after all, does a new version of Faust offer that cannot be readily found in the dozens of available English versions?

Smith is aware of these possible objections to the mere existence of his book, and he responds to them in his translator’s note, writing that a new version of Faust “may seem difficult to justify” before calling his work “a project that has become deeply personal” (11). This remark speaks to why it is necessary to translate Faust anew: By and large, those for whom Faust is an object of literary-historical interest either read German or will be satisfied with any one of a number of adequately accurate translations. But for those to whom the play offers a chance to be “unsettled,” as Smith puts it, every new version is a new chance to experience the text in a slightly different way, or else a new possible point of entry to Goethe’s creation. Smith testifies that the process of translating Faust can be deeply personal; it should go without saying that to do so is to open the door to the complementary personal experience of reading it. Translation as the multiplier of potential personal encounters with the text: this sounds closely akin to Goethe’s own support of translation as the basis for intercultural communication at the personal and national level, as “ein es der wichtigsten und würdigsten Geschäfte in dem allgemeinen Weltverkehr” (GA 14:933). A new translation is not a competition with previous translations but a reminder of the freshness of the classic text and a renewal and expansion of its presence on our bookshelves and in our minds.

As for the mechanics of this particular translation, Smith lays out some of the choices he has made. His translation is in verse, but it is not a transposition of Goethe’s meter. He writes that he sought “to represent the sense and fluidity of Goethe’s variable line in a thoroughly contemporary idiom. To accomplish this, I have collapsed and broken lines for my own purposes and frequently relied on off-rhyme” (11). I consider this a sound strategy—sailing between the Scylla of slavish duplication of meter and rhyme and the Charybdis of inattention to the text’s poetic resonance. Nevertheless, the off-rhyme is so frequent that the ear must strain at times to catch even a hint of true rhyme. One notable stanza in Faust’s first soliloquy offers nine lines near-rhymed in an ababacdcd pattern, in which every single combination except the third and fifth rhymes is imperfect (the analogous lines in the German rhyme perfectly in pairs, with Smith having inserted a stanza break to disrupt the first pair). Sometimes the orthography points to an extinct aural affinity (“cords” to “words”), but some cases show signs of strain (“inner force” with “universe”). The effect is consistent throughout, but with time the gesture toward rhyme takes on a vaguely poetical quality that reminds readers that we are dealing with poetry, without actually employing metrical properties to any other effect.

Only at a few points does Goethe’s poetry soar out of Smith’s reach, leading to either an unclear reading or a failure to capture the pathos of the image at hand. One such unclear moment comes when Mephistopheles says to Faust: “So ist denn alles, was ihr Sünde / Zerstörung, kurz das Böse nennt / Mein eigentliches Element.” Smith gives us: “So everything that you call sin and call / destruction, all that evil represents / these are my actual elements” (61).

It is as though the translator is held captive by the tempting rhyme between “represent” and “element.” The “represent” should properly refer to the human words’ representation of these various concepts, which Mephistopheles names as his element (and “actual” is misleading; “proper” would capture the...

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