Nineteenth Century Spiders

Back when I was translating Friedrich Schleiermacher‘s great essay on translation, which dates from 1813/15, I spent a lot of time reading around in Samuel Coleridge’s Biographia Literaria. Coleridge is such a wonderful prose stylist, and I used him as a resource for my translation. In particular, I looked at how he put his sentences together, what sorts of opening gambits he used to introduce ideas, and I borrowed a phrase here, a structure there, just enough to mark my translation of Schleiermacher as belonging to an earlier period. I wasn’t trying to “fake” an older text, but to keep the reader aware that this text belonged to the early 19th century. I was inspired to do this after reading an earlier translation of the same essay by Douglas Robinson that throws around 20th century translation theory terminology like “source language” and “target language,” with the result that Schleiermacher winds up sounding hideously naive. Reading Schleiermacher in this translation, I found myself wondering why he was writing as if he’d never heard of Saussure.

So now I’m just starting work on a wonderful horror story from the 19th century, Jeremias Gotthelf’s «Die schwarze Spinne» (The Black Spider), which will be published next year by New York Review Books Classics. This is one of the most frightening stories I’ve ever read. In it, a young woman brings calamity to her community by accidentally – oops – promising a newborn to the Devil. Gotthelf was a minister, and I get the feeling he wrote the story to frighten his congregation into keeping the faith. The spider of the title is like Freddy in the Nightmare on Elm Street movies – it’s everywhere at once, it can be as big as a cottage or disintegrate into a swarm of infinitesimally tiny beasties. It is the embodiment of everything in us that is wicked or weak. Did I mention than I am pretty severely arachnophobic? I still remember the giant-spider nightmares I had as a child. So this is the worst possible, i.e. the perfect book for me to translate. I’m hoping that my fear will make the descriptions of the spider particularly graphic. We shall see. Meanwhile, I’m priming myself for the project by reading up on some period literature. I started with Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto, which is gothic in all the worst ways but quite nicely written on the sentence level, which makes it a good model for me. And now I am rereading one of my favorite books of all time, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, and keeping a log of useful phrases that might help me with Gotthelf. Here are some of them: “the want of,” “repair the faults of,” “he is remarkable for,” “made me desirous to,” “unallied to the dross of human nature,” “madly desirous of,” “compassed round by,” “body forth,” “obliged us to the inclemency,” “I might have X but that Y,” “yet he might [=could] not have X, had she not Y.”

It’s astonishing to me how much the English language has changed in the last 200 years. These phrases now seem so quaint by contemporary standards. And I’ll have to be careful not to use too many of them in the translation – just enough to signal to the reader that the story she is reading comes to us from another age.

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