Friedrich Holderlin’s “Selected Poems” and “Odes and Elegies”

Reviewed by Francisco Guevara

Image of Friedrich Holderlin’s “Selected Poems” and “Odes and Elegies”
Image of Friedrich Holderlin’s “Selected Poems” and “Odes and Elegies”

Translation, according to John Tipton in the afterword to his English translation of Sophocles's play, Ajax, is a kind of forgery: " . . . akin to building a copy of a house seen across a river. We cannot ferry the house over to our side and cannot even cross the river to get a close look at it from all angles. We have to stand on this bank, examine it from the vantage we have, and reconstruct the house with materials at hand."

The difficulty of translating Friedrich Hölderlin's poems into English is rooted in the way he forged the syntax and traditions of both the Greek and German languages into a language foreign to, yet complicit in both. Hölderlin, who lived from 1770 to 1843, spent most of his life in his homeland of Germany unrecognized for his work. He was unrecognizable even to himself, spending the latter half of his life in a tower in Tübingen after being diagnosed with a mental illness. Nevertheless, he is now considered one of the greatest poets of European literature. David Constantine discusses this aspect of Hölderlin's life in the introduction to his English translations of Hölderlin's German translation of Sophocles's Oedipus the King and Antigone:

 

"Abroad," for Hölderlin, meant time as well as place; it meant a combat with and a dwelling in the language of the poetry of Ancient Greece. In 1800, in order to come into full possession of his own poetic language, he risked his identity and the identity of the German language altogether in a slavish translation of the great lyric poet Pindar.. . . producing for the most part a German unintelligible without the Greek, but now and then, by mechanically cleaving as close as possible, hitting on a language truly poetic, strange and beautiful, the true language of elsewhere, poetry at its best; and he wrote, as we might say, in that tongue thereafter.

Recent translations by Nick Hoff and Maxine Chernoff and Paul Hoover have provided a significant contribution to the house Hölderlin built. Their English translations enact the subtle gravity observable in Hölderlin's poem titled, "Die Heimath," translated by all three as "Home":

 

Froh kehrt der Schiffer heim an den stillen Strom

Von fernen Inseln, wo er geerndtet hat;

Wohl möcht' auch ich zur Heimath wieder;

Aber was hab' ich, wie Laid, geerndtet?—

Ihr holden Ufer, die ihr mich auferzogt,

Stillt ihr der Liebe Leiden? ach! gebt ihr mir,

Ihr Wällder meiner Kindheit, wann ich

Komme, die Ruhe noch Einmal wieder?

Apart from the many drafts and revisions that remain unpublished, Hölderlin revisited the poem and its title at least three times. These revisions were symptomatic of his insistence to articulate the "language of elsewhere" throughout his life. Determining what remains of this insistence is a significant dilemma for translators of Hölderlin. The aforementioned poem is an Alcaic ode, a Greek formal constraint frequently used by Hölderlin that follows an exhaling rhythm leading to each punctuation. Michael Hamburger sought to retain this pattern in English prose:

Hoff's translations are rooted in attempts to follow the formal cadence and momentum of Hölderlin's German while still approximating the Greek form:

 

Gladly the boatman turns home to the river's calm

From his harvest on faraway isles;

If only I too were homeward bound;

Yet what harvest have I but sorrow?—

The first line follows a dactylic tetrameter (four poetic feet, each consisting of one stressed syllable followed by two unstressed—like the first two lines of "Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds") somewhat similar to the stress pattern in the first line of an Alcaic ode. The momentum can be observed in the difference between Hoff's use of the word "turns," as it leads to "home." The brevity of "turns" suspends the direction until the next line introduces the origin of the movement.

Hoff's edition, Odes and Elegies, attempts to retain the momentum of Hölderlin's poems by forging their visual and oral rhythm. Form takes precedence in his translations because of how it creates the suspension and drama inherent in Hölderlin's poems. His edition includes facing-page translations and commentary specific to how the formal constraints are informed by historical circumstances, echoes from Hölderlin's other poems, and earlier revisions. While the title of Hoff's edition emphasizes the visual and metered trace of Hölderlin's form, Odes and Elegies also focus on what Hoff calls the "etymological reverberation" in Hölderlin's German, or what Michael Hamburger calls "an extraordinarily small vocabulary... [that] achieved variety by modulation, rather than the multiplicity of themes and concepts."

Chernoff and Hoover's edition, Selected Poems of Friedrich Hölderlin, emphasize diction and syntax to create scale through a lyrical modulation present in the following translation of the first stanza of the poem, "Home":

 

From distant islands, the sailor turns happily

Toward the quiet stream of home, once his harvest is done;

I too would gladly turn home again now,

But what have I gathered but pain?—

While Hoff consciously retain the abstract word "Gladly" as the first word akin to Hölderlin's German, Chernoff and Hoover follow conventional English syntax by beginning with the preposition that defines the movement and setting of the poem: "From the distant islands . . ." They offset this change by shifting the subject from "boatman" to "sailor," expanding the focus from the person vis-á-vis the boat to the body of water. The expanse created between the distant island and the body of water makes the person abstract, which the "I" inevitably takes up. The repetition of the word "home" calls attention to the way the expanse is always already abstract. Hoff makes a similar move by using "homeward" in order to call attention to his repetition of the word "harvest."

In Chernoff and Hoover's edition, the lyric impulse forged with the awareness of English syntax takes precedence over the formal structures of the poems. Therefore, the edition contains a more substantial amount of Hölderlin's oeuvre. While the edition compiles Hölderlin's canonical poems, it also includes the numerous versions of certain poems from Hölderlin's manuscripts that were not previously translated in English. Perhaps the most noticeable flaw of their edition is the paucity of commentary on their engagement with Hölderlin's German and the different versions of his poems, which one assumes would be present especially with the facing-page format. The introductions to both editions skillfully place Hölderlin in historical context. Yet, Hoff's edition dedicates four pages to his approach to translation, apart from the commentary in the last section of the book, while Chernoff and Hoover's cover theirs in one paragraph.

This lack of commentary certainly allows the reader to focus more attention on the echoing nature of Hölderlin's vocabulary instead of the form, yet the presence of Hölderlin's German creates continually unanswered questions for any reader already unfamiliar with German. Their edition has the feel of an introductory survey of Hölderlin's work obstructed by the presence of the German, as opposed to Hoff's edition, which allows the reader to be privy to the conversation between the translator and the poems.

Any house is a perpetually unfinished vessel, for the concept of home, which is to say that a translation can never fully inhabit its own architecture. It is a kind of forgery necessitated by the threat of being on the cusp of impoverishment or loss. Yet, similar to Hölderlin's poem, "Home," with a constant inquiry into its own possibility, the settlement, the dwelling, is to be found not in articulating nostalgia but in posing the unanswerable question, using the "language of elsewhere," and exploring the ways in which these unanswerable questions can be articulated and re-articulated in conversation through place and time. In the end, these editions serve as a way to bring the reader to that end, that riverbank, where one can see the house that Hölderlin built, and the home we perpetually attempt to dwell in.

Francisco Guevara is currently a Teaching-Writing Fellow for poetry at the Iowa Writers' Workshop. His essay, "The re/construction of social space in Conchitina Cruz's poetry collection, Dark Hours," is forthcoming in the anthology, Philippine Studies: Have We Gone Beyond St. Louis?, edited by Priscelina Patajo-Legasto.