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  • Translating Nietzsche's Zarathustra into English
  • Gregory Whitlock (bio)

Friedrich Nietzsche's Thus Spoke Zarathustra remains one of the greatest works of world literature to have been read from beginning to end by so few readers. It suffers a reputation as being nearly incomprehensible, and the inference has been frequently drawn that it must be nearly untranslatable. But very few people beyond the actual translators have gained a view of the actual problems that arise when working with the text. Zarathustra's world is contained within the various styles of the book. Poor quality early translations obscured the meaning even for those positively disposed toward the book. What is needed, then, is a deeper understanding of the challenges, strategies, failures, and successes of its translators. Hopefully that need will be met here.

Five passages from Thus Spoke Zarathustra have been selected and the original German text supplied in each case. How six translators approached the passages, and what problems were encountered with each, is considered. [End Page 59] The goal is to give the reader insight into the challenges of translating Zarathustran style into English. Even the reader without any knowledge of German should be able to follow this discussion and make valuable inferences from it.

The passages were not chosen at random from the text, but according to specific principles. First, one passage should illustrate how each translator approached the fundamental dimension of über/unter and the related concepts, especially Ubergang, Untergang, Hinübergehenden, Untergehenden, Ubermensch and Uber-Held. Second, two passages that Walter Kaufmann pointed out as problematic should be explored in detail: one is a coinage while the other is a troublesome philosophical term. Third, passages should be taken from each of the main segments; Prologue, Speeches and part 4. Finally, at least one passage should be taken from one of the seven songs in Zarathustra. Using said principles, I selected a passage from Prologue 4 announcing the Ubermensch; a passage from "On Higher Man" in part 4 containing the coinage Pöbel-Schwindhunde; a partial stanza from the song in "Among Daughters of the Desert" in part 4; a passage from "The Return Home" in part 3 containing the difficult term Menschenwesen; and finally, an especially challenging passage from "On Poets" in part 2 where the text Bälge has been mistaken by some translators as Bälger with rather bizarre consequences.

When we look at how the six major translators of Zarathustra approached these passages, we find problems concerning proper editions and text; problems of consistency in translating the same word in the same way; problems preserving the punctuation, cadence, tone, and mood of the original; problems presented by Nietzsche's plays on words and by coinages; problems with an original text that contains a grammatical confusion; problems with difficult philosophical terms; problems in choosing the primary meaning of an ambiguous term; and others.

Whom should be chosen as a major translator? This is a rather easy question to answer, since the English-only reader of Nietzsche's Thus Spoke Zarathustra has a remarkably small number of good translations to choose from. Alexander Tille's version (1896) has become, probably justifiably, almost extinct. The early twentieth-century translation by Thomas Common (based in part on Tille's effort), featured as the Modern Library translation and used in the collected works, still may be found, but was largely supplanted by [End Page 60] Walter Kaufmann's translation in 1954, published by Viking Press from 1966 until the present. R. J. Hollingdale published his full translation in 1961, which was frequently reprinted into the 1980s. The Kaufmann and Hollingdale translations soar heads and tails above the quality of the Common translation by almost every standard. Clancy Martin published his translation in 2005 for Barnes and Noble Classics. He became well-known for criticizing Walter Kaufmann's translations for changing Nietzsche's punctuation, altering the meanings in the text, and "dampening metaphors." Martin argued that a translator should remain as close as possible to the cadence, punctuation, paragraphing, and "meaning" of the original text. As he admitted, Martin borrowed much from Common, Kaufmann, and Hollingdale, despite his criticisms of each. Also in 2005...


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