Retranslating the German Classics

I was just talking with star translator (and author) Joel Agee, who confided in me that he’s flirting with the idea of doing a new translation of Goethe’s iconic play Faust. Now, trumpeting someone’s just-barely-hatched plans is not something I would ordinarily do, but in this case I’m making an exception, because I would like all of you to immediately start dreaming and praying (whatever works for you) that this comes to pass, and if you know Agee, please do everything in your power to egg him on. Publishers, take note! Granting organizations, ditto! If you read Agee’s phenomenal translation of Heinrich von Kleist’s masterpiece Penthesilea – the work that inspired me not to drop out of graduate school, just so that I could do more work on Kleist – you will know what I am talking about. The difficulty of translating Kleist’s early 19th-century verse dramas – nearly every line of which displays a knife-sharp precision of language and tone, with irony and pathos intricately interwoven to stunning effect – far exceeds that of most any other translation project one might encounter. Kleist is for the brilliant, the bold and/or the foolhardy. Agee, with his skills, was just the man for the job. The play in English couldn’t have come out better. And now he’s thinking of a Faust. Admittedly, for true lovers of Kleist, Goethe is a difficult character. Goethe was a generation older than Kleist and had been thrust onto the public stage at the tender age of 25 with his international bestseller The Sorrows of Young Werther, and soon he found himself all but universally revered in Germany. He was a powerful figure both in the literary world and on the stage – he ran the Hoftheater in Weimar for many years – and was perfectly positioned to launch the careers of young writers. In Kleist’s case, he preferred not to. Kleist’s thorny sensibility and love of nasty moral dilemmas displeased the Prince of Poets, whose aesthetics were more based on the harmony principle (though he loosened up a bit in his last major work, the posthumously published Faust II). So it’s easy for die-hard Kleistians to hold a grudge. But Goethe remains the iconic writer of late-18th-century Germany, and his Faust – the story of a scholar who makes a pact with the devil in his search for knowledge and worldly pleasures – is deservedly canonical, a truly magnificent work, and I would love to see what Joel Agee can do with it in translation. If you’re in a position to help make this happen, please act now!

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