Translation / Performance

I am not good at German. I am painfully aware of this, because I can measure my ability in this language against my skill with French, and so tell, with depressing accuracy, that I have the level of a first-year undergraduate. This has been making life hard for me recently, as I decided to include German material in my last chapter, the one on how the acting of Shakespeare is seen from abroad in the eighteenth century.

I chose to do this because I couldn’t choose not to: without doubt, some of the best observation of English performers in the period is undertaken by German writers. One needs only look into Lichtenberg’s letters for an example. As well as detailed observation, these writers are also very interesting thinkers, and rarely content to deliver a merely descriptive account.

This at least makes the process of deciphering their work far more interesting than it would otherwise be. I’ll give a few examples, in German and then in English (in case my translation is off) to show you what I mean.

First, from Lichtenberg, who stands head and shoulders over most other writers of this time. Here he is talking about Macklin’s Shylock:

Die ersten Worte, die er sagt, wenn er auftritt, sind langsam und bedeutend! Three thousand Ducats. Das doppelte th und das zweimalige s, zumal das letzte nach dem t, das Macklin so leckerhaft lispelt, als schmeckte er die Dukaten, und alles, was man dafür kaufen kann, auf einmal, geben dem Mann, gleich beim Eintritt, einen Kredit, der nicht mehr zu verderben ist. Drei solcher Worte so, und an der Stelle gesprochen, zeichnen einen ganzen Charakter.

Which runs like this in English:

The first words he speaks, when he comes onstage, are slow and full of meaning! “Three thousand Ducats”. The doubled ‘th’ and the twofold ‘s’, especially the last one after the ‘t’ – which Macklin lisps so deliciously that it is as if he tasted the ducats and everything that can be bought with them – suddenly give a credit to the man, from the moment of his entrance, which can no longer be ruined. Three such words, and spoken in such a position, show a whole character.

After that morsel, here’s another, this time from Helfrich Peter Sturz, who came to England as part of a diplomatic mission, but managed to pass a lot of his time with the English literati. Again, I’ll begin in German, with his description of Garrick just after a particularly physical performance of Richard III:

Ich sah ihn einst nach vollendeter Rolle Richards, wie den sterbenden Germanicus auf Poußins Bilde hinterrücks quf einer Ruhebank gelehnt, mit zeichender Brust, bleich, mit Schweißtropfen bedeckt, und mit herabgefunkener, behender Hand, ohne Sprache.

And in English:

I saw him once after he had finished playing the role of Richard reclining on a bench, like the dying Germanicus in Poussin’s picture, with heaving breast, pale, covered with perspiration, his hands limp and quivering, speechless.

To finish, I’ll quote from August Wilhelm Iffland’s autobiography. He never went to England, and, as a bit of a francophile, had a rather mixed attitude to Shakespeare. He does, however, report something that Konrad Ekhof (one of the early, famous performers of Hamlet in Germany) said of the playwright. Again, it is a rather mixed compliment.

Eckhof fürchtete die Folgen der Shakspearischen Stücke auf Deutschen Bühnen. Er sagte mir einst: “Das ist nicht, weil ich nichts dafür empfände, oder nicht Lust hätte, die kräftigen Menschen darzustellen, die darin aufgestellt sind; sondern weil diese Stücke unser Publikum an die starke Kost verwöhnen, und unsere Schauspieler gänzlich verderben würden. Jeder, der die herrlichen Kraftsprüche sagt, hat dabey auch gerade nichts zu thun, als daß er sie sage. Das Entzücken, das Shakspeare erregt, erleichtert dem Schauspieler alles. Er wird sich alles erlauben, und ganz vernachlässigen.” So sagte er, und leider hat er nicht sehr Unrecht gehabt. Wie oft ist Geschrey für starken Ausdruck, Grobheit für Kraft, Roheit für Natur, und Uebertretung all und jeden Wohlstandes für Eigenheit gebraucht worden!

In English, with difficulty because of the “an die starke Kost” (do comment if you can do it better than me):

Ekhof feared the consequences of Shakespearean plays on German stages. He said to me once, “This is not because I have no sympathy for them, or have no wish to represent the powerful men who are set out in them; rather it is because these plays will spoil our public with a rich diet and will completely ruin our actors. Everyone who speaks the noble, strong speeches of Shakespeare, has in this matter nothing to do other than to say them. The charm, that Shakespeare arouses, relieves the actor of everything. He will get away with everything, and totally neglect what he is doing.” So he said, and – sadly – he was not wrong. How often has shouting been used for strong expression, crudeness for power, rudeness for nature, and offence to all and every civility for uniqueness.

Enough of this parade. I want to conclude with an idea, which is also a defence of my ill-equipped forays into a culture which is still so alien to me.

First, I believe quite strongly that there is an affinity between the process of translating and the process of performing. Both are about giving new life to an object, and, in this, it is often peculiarly satisfying to be translating accounts of performance. It’s as if I am myself participating in a ritual.

The second, and stronger reason is that reading eighteenth-century German accounts is full of salutary reminders. They remind me, for instance, that the past is itself a foreign country. Indeed, Garrick’s stage is as strange to me as it was Sturz, Lichtenberg and Iffland (if not even more so). In one respect, therefore, I have more in common with the visiting foreigner than the habitué of Drury Lane.

I hope only that that common ground means I don’t do these German allies too much of a disservice in my thesis.

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