Thursday, February 16, 2023

Translating Lessing

I've previously blogged about Gotthold Ephraim Lessing's play Nathan the Wise, one of the most famous dramas to come out of the German Enlightenment.

Lessing was a towering figure, not just for his plays, but also for his theoretical writings. His book Laocoon is an important meditation on the nature of art, and he compiled much of his thoughts about the stage in the Hamburg Dramaturgy.

One of the problems with Lessing, though, is that most English-language translations don't do his plays justice. Recently, I acquired a copy of Nathan the Wise, or Nathan der Weise, in German.  As I began reading the original, I tried to see if I could translate the play into English verse.

Lessing's play was written in German blank verse--unrhymed iambic pentameter. Blank verse usually sounds rather natural in English, as English poetry (as exemplified by old ballads) tends to be concerned with the number of emphasized syllables, though not necessarily with the total number of syllables per line. That's why dramatic poets like William Shakespeare often throw in extra syllables or leave out a syllable here or there.

The verse in Nathan the Wise can be more regular in terms of the number of syllables, but Lessing seems less concerned about where the emphasis of a line lands. In translating the beginning of the play, I tried to remain faithful to this. The result is a verse that sounds almost like plain prose, though it still meanders about a bit, as Lessing's language can do.

Below is a selection of my translation. I'm not sure if I'll ever finish translating the play, but if you're thinking of doing a production of Nathan the Wise and are looking for a fresh new translation, let me know! I might decide to speed up my work on the piece...

First Act

First Scene: A Hall in Nathan's House

NATHAN enters as if arriving from a trip. DAJA comes toward him.

DAJA: Oh, here he is! Nathan! — Thanks be to God,
        That you at last have come back to us now.

NATHAN: Yes, Daja; thanks to God! But why at last?
        Had I a need to come back before now?
        And could I have come back? For Babylon
        Is from Jerusalem, the way that I
        Was forced to take, now left, now right, a good
        Two hundred miles winding out of my way,
        And collecting debts is most certainly
        No business that can be taken lightly,
        Or easily accomplished.

DAJA:        O Nathan!
        How miserable, miserable you would
        Have been if you'd been here. Your house…

NATHAN:                    Is burned.
        So I have seen already. — May God grant
        That I have heard the worst of all it now.

DAJA: All could have easily burnt to the ground.

NATHAN: Then, Daja, we'd have built a new one, and
        One much more comfortable.

DAJA:                 That's true,
        But Recha would have been burnt up with all
        The house!

NATHAN:     Burnt up? Who? My Recha? Not she? —
        That I'd not heard. — I would not then have had
        A need for any house at all. — Burnt up?
        With all? Ah-ha! But she is well! Speak up!
        It's really all burned up! Oh, just speak out!
        Kill me and torture me no longer now. —
        Just truthfully, is she burnt up?

DAJA:           If she
        Had been, would you have heard the news from me?

NATHAN: So why do you torment me, then? — Recha!

Want to hear how the scene ends? Let me know! Contact me, and I can send you more of the translation.