Reflections on Translations of Wilde and other writers

Dear readers of my blog,

this is what I recently received via e-mail:

“Am reading Goethe’s Maxims and Reflections and came across this quote—which you will like!”

This was my friend Danny Morrison getting in touch while reading a book I have kept on my shelves for upwards of twenty years now, having dated its acquisition in Oldenburg and also the day when I found and copied out a quotation for the Preface to my edition of the essay The Soul of Man Under Socialism.

“Translators are to be regarded as busy matchmakers who exalt the great loveliness of a half-veiled beauty: they kindle an irresistible longing for the original.”

In German, Goethe wrote in his maxim no. 299:

“Übersetzer sind als geschäftige Kuppler anzusehen die uns eine halbverschleierte Schöne als höchst liebenswürdig anpreisen, sie erregen eine unwiderstehliche Neigung nach dem Original.” (Maximen und Reflexionen, ed. Max Hecker, Munich: C. H. Beck, 1989 (1907), p. 71.)

Of course, I do like this quote while the term “busy matchmakers” sounds more respectable than its German counterpart “geschäftige Kuppler”, whereas “kindle” seems appropriate in English, but word for word the idea Goethe has in mind links the “matchmakers” with some excitement (“Erregung”). Such is translation: you lose and gain whenever you translate.

It is quite interesting to discover on a day-to-day basis now when reading the various collections of Goethe’s Maxims and Reflections, for, late in his life, he or others jotted down such aphorisms in little notebooks, how often their insights have seemed to pass into the ideas shared by Irish writers such as Wilde and Joyce. Both, as a matter of fact, had some German and were well versed in the nineteenth century history of ideas, not least through such intermediaries as S. T. Coleridge, Thomas Carlyle, and, in the latter part of the century, Walter H. Pater.

The living or late writers I have translated – no matter whether our relation was a long-lasting or a short-lived one – have always made a point of either calling translation an art in their acknowledgments or in inscriptions into a copy of their book. Or they even went out of their way to state – as did the late Marseilles poet Yves Broussard – that someone who is able to translate poetry has already become a poet himself.

When I heard him say this on a September night outside a fellow artist’s villa in the bourgeois South of Marseilles, I had not yet started to believe in the theory myself. What I did know then, however, was that in learning to translate the often cryptic modern poetry practised by Broussard I had actually learned to write and speak French again that I had come to unlearn when a student at University in Germany. Translated into English, he wrote, transcribed from his manuscript you see reproduced in this post:

“to Jörg W. Rademacher whom I thank for having provided other dimensions for my ‘Measures of Life’”.

Much earlier, Danny Morrison when we first toured Germany and Switzerland with The Wrong Man / Der falsche Mann and West Belfast had quipped following our first reading at Münster:

“A master translator can be defined as a perfect host”, quoting the late George Steiner, making me blush at the time.

Since Oscar Wilde died in 1900, translating his works does not necessarily trigger such revelatory moments, nor does it create long-lasting friendships.

On the contrary, either translators are more or less ignored because it seems convenient to do so, as happened in the article to commemorate the centenary of Wilde’s death published in the weekly Die Zeit which only listed my translation of The Picture of Dorian Gray but borrowed my version of the aphorisms of The Preface without acknowledging my work.

Or translation as such is considered a difficult subject, so that the problems you  eventually solve “brilliantly” when considering the “details” are belittled beside those embarrassments you cause for an unexperienced copy editor who is simply not learnéd enough to oversee a complex thing as a translation-cum-critical edition of a classic work of literature translated from the English practised by a genius like Oscar Wilde. It was no surprise then that when my edition ran out of print in 2005 I was not even asked to re-issue an updated version while the copy editor – 21 years on – still works alongside her boss. Needless to say that the name of the publisher has changed – the owner of the business, too – and that they have kept employing an ever-increasing number of translators.

This is just for the record that doing your work competently and punctually is not enough – you also need to be both present and generally liked on the scene of publishing if you want steady business. Then, however, you may not be content with your work once you look back on it. As a translator-friend recently put it – I was into Wilde rather than talking about him – which may be a problem in general because it means my translations do not cajole their readers but ask them to do their work in finding their way in before they can enjoy Wilde in German.

So, having changed careers soon after realising that publishing well-thought-out translations would neither make my name nor enough money I was lucky to have friends who helped me return to the job of translating Wilde – and of editing his works in English as well.

With The Soul of Man Under Socialism now also published in German and English, readers, individuals, that is, have expressed ideas assisting to refocus the marketing of the book as well as to correct – in some future edition – certain points of detail that matter whenever you dig deep enough and do not care for the mass market in the first place.

In order to be able to issue the second German edition I gave the book to various former ministers of the Protestant Churches, and one of them, quite sensibly so, corrected my reference to a passage Wilde might have alluded to in the New Testament, the Gospel of St. Luke, that is. He is a doctor of divinity, an expert on the New Testament who had never before heard of Wilde’s essay, something he shares with many well-seasoned practitioners of English who are also well-read in the literature.

Not only did several such readers point out to me what I must have taken for granted, dealing with the details of the translation for so many months, that “Individualism” is as much Wilde’s subject as “Socialism”, they also made me aware once more of editorial matters and the first reception of the essay.

The latter is referred to in the first Bibliography of Oscar Wilde where a quote from the Spectator shows how little he was being taken seriously at the time:

“‘The Fortnightly Review is remarkable this month for two of the most paradoxical articles we have recently seen even in magazines. [...] All these literary bullets are shot out in defence of the thesis that men should be themselves, in contempt it would seem, not merely of the public, but of all law which restricts their individualism. The article, if serious, would be thoroughly unhealthy, but it leaves on us the impression of being written merely to startle and excite talk.’” (7 February 1891)

Underlinings in the text are my own. These remarks underscore the image of Wilde as the brilliant outsider who gets away with almost everything – even paradox – because at least the press are still willing to think he just wants to make himself heard and listened to, while the language used is all but peaceful.

Cf. Bibliography of Oscar Wilde, by Stuart Mason, with a Note by Robert Ross, London: T. Werner Laurie, 1914 (Limited Edition Facsimile of the Original Edition, Martino Fine Books), p. 73.

In the same book which I like to consult whenever nothing more is possible or when I feel low at the end of a long day and when I need to recompose myself after all the details of everyday life a reference to The Soul of Man Under Socialism made wide awake late one night. As I used a text first issued by Wilde’s publisher Arthur L. Humphreys in May 1895, I was startled to find a note in tiny letters on p. 404, saying that on “p. 36 of this edition, and in all Humphreys’s later editions, the word ‘occasional’ is omitted in the sentence: ‘a community is infinitely more brutalised by the habitual employment of punishment, than it is by the occasional occurrence of crime.’”

While a sentence with a parallel structure has thus been made stylistically deficient, this is also another case of censorship, though even the sentence as it stands on p. 34 of my edition – since this note in the Bibliography had so far escaped me – is all but tame. So for those who have got a copy of my edition, please add “occasional” to the sentence. Of course, the same correction needs to be made on p. 34 of the German text which now should run as follows:

“eine Gemeinschaft verroht eher durch die gewohnheitsmäßige Anwendung von Strafen als durch das gelegentliche Auftreten von Verbrechen.”

“Errors are portals of discovery”, as Stephen Dedalus says in the ninth chapter of Joyce‫’s Ulysses set in the National Library of Dublin. Here, I need to say that it is not always possible to look even at all the editions on my shelves let alone of the essay before establishing a text on which the translation was eventually based. In checking I did, however, discover that the only English edition in my possession has the original wording restored: The Complete Works of Oscar Wilde, introduced by Vyvyan Holland, Glasgow: Collins, 1983 (1948, 1966), p. 1088.

On first reading the essay – unwittingly almost exactly a hundred years after its publication in The Fortnightly Review – I also underlined this sentence as particularly interesting. All the same, only very systematic comparison of just these two texts would have helped to avoid perpetuating an act of censorship introduced when Wilde was about to be sentenced to prison on 25 May 1895. Humphreys’s first private edition states it was printed on 30 May 1895. As in the case of The Picture of Dorian Gray, this small moment of censorship shows that Wilde had a way with words dangerous first and foremost for himself.

Eventually, these paragraphs on editing, censorship and translating were written first, while my original intention had been to report on Wilde’s own way of dealing with translation, the New Testament, that is, in The Soul of Man Under Socialism. Again, it is an error, an erroneous reference in an endnote, to be precise, that made me consider the text once more.

In endnote 24 of the English text I state that Wilde “‘alludes to the ‘Conversion of Zacchæus’ (St. Luke 19, 1-19)’” ‒ which is wrong, as I might have found out myself, and I am grateful to Gerd Petzke for pointing this out to me. In fact, it is “the rich young ruler” in St. Luke 18, 22 who is told by Jesus:

“Yet lackest thou one thing: sell all that thou hast, and distribute unto the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven: and come, follow me.”

In St. Mark, 10, 21, the wording in the Scofield Study Bible is as follows:

One thing thou lackest: go thy way, sell whatsoever thou hast, and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven: and come, take up the cross, and follow me.”

Finally, in St. Matthews, 19, 21, you read:

“Jesus said unto him, If thou wilt be perfect, go and sell that thou hast, and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven: and come and follow me.”

Closest to the words as according to St. Luke, this version as all the others is quite a far cry from what Wilde writes in his essay:

Calling him a “wealthy young man” (p. 30, l. 9, in my edition), Wilde quotes from the Bible as follows:

“‘You should give up private property. It hinders you from realising your perfection. It is a drag upon you. It is a burden. Your personality does not need it. It is within you, and not outside of you, that you will find what you really are, and what you really want.’” (p. 30, ll. 14-19)

If in the synopsis of the three Gospels shown above I highlight in yellow where they differ from each other, I highlight in red where there is common ground between St. Matthew and Wilde. The quote from the New Testament in the essay, however, reads like Wilde’s own English. He may have translated the passage in a kind of viva voce at which he excelled both at Trinity College Dublin and at Magdalen College Oxford, into English, consulting the original Greek. Incidentally, this is something German Protestant priests were still taught to do before interpreting the Gospel about 35 years ago. Some years ago, I overheard in a teachers’ room that teaching Greek to young Baptist preachers had just been abandoned, and I thought at once what a loss this would be if they could no longer turn to the original Greek.

If Wilde had actually turned to the Greek text, he would have both translated the Gospel and have transposed it to another language and age, adapted it for his own political and esthetic purposes. As a latter-day translator, I might have looked at a French version, which I also own while not using it systematically, but I do not recall having done so when preparing the annotations.

Again, the only reference to be found there is to St. Matthew, and having now outlined the three parallel versions of this moment in Jesus’s life, it has become clear to me that Wilde’s reading owes the idea of “perfection” to St. Matthew. Only in comparing Wilde with the three Gospels, however, do you realise the extent of extrapolation and personal interpretation in what he marks as a quotation.

To cut a long story short, translating Wilde as the text of the Gospel might have induced someone to do who had at once looked up the source, would have been a gross error. For not only would the style adopted by Wilde have been nullified, also the wording of a translation contemporaneous with the time of writing would have been archaic compared to Wilde
’s own diction.

In conclusion, what all this boils down to is that “back to the roots” of a text is necessary whenever you need to correct a detail but it may prove counter-productive if you want to translate a text where a translated quotation is the result of a creative re-writing process on the part of the author. Consulting my fellow translators of the essay into German – at least those whose versions I own – would have yielded the same result: both Christine Hoeppener and Paul Wertheimer (Artemis, 1988) and Georg Deggerich (Haffmans, 1999) rendered Wilde’s quotation from the Gospel in Wildean diction. Neither bothered to comment on the practice, nor did they refer to the Bible in their notes, unlike their French colleague. This means there may well be a lot to discover once someone really sets out to dig into Wilde as translator and re-writer of his sources, not just retracing his plagiarisms and self-plagiarisms.

Before leaving you to have a look at the “Epilogue”, one of the many texts “written to the moment” that have made a writer’s life bearable when there was no other outlet for all the impressions and experience life had in store for them, let me just note that editing and translating may surely come back as a subject soon – certainly if you take advantage of my discussion to spot other passages which deserve a closer look in Wilde’s work. Perhaps there is still too much about Wilde in the air and too little of what it means to be into Wilde for people – not only the general public – to grasp the Iceberg he represents to me.

In fact, as an after-thought while continuing my perusal of Goethe’s Maxims and Reflections, in Walther Killy’s afterword, that is, I come across a similar approach. Those maxims, entitled “The Archives of Makarie” (translation mine), that, according to Killy, appear to be Goethe’s own, are, “in truth, re-writings of texts originating in sources from Greek and Roman antiquity” (p. 288). This is corroborated by many endnotes, so that Wilde, like Walter Pater before him, in his essays may have indirectly followed the German writer’s example of making New Testament sources and other texts his own. To be pursued at greater length at some later stage.

All best wishes, stay hale and healthy,

Jörg W. Rademacher, 30 September 2021


A Portrait of a Wordsmith

 « … Merci encore de tout ce que vous faites (en réalité, un traducteur est un ‘double’  de l’auteur puisque, comme celui-ci, il s’applique ‘dans’ et ‘par’ une certaine langue, avec ses idiotismes, ses tournures particulières, sa musique, ses sonorités, à faire surgir certaines images dans l’esprit du lecteur)... Ce que je veux dire, c’est que la traduction n’est pas un simple travail de transcription, comme on le croit vulgairement, mais un véritable travail de production. »[1]


Energy characterises his mien and body language as I enter the spacious second-floor flat first setting eyes on multi-volume encyclopædias sitting in shelves on the right and on an old-fashioned Xerox machine placed on the left. The flat shows the man: the one is as hospitable as the other is clearly vivacious, a gifted mimic who recounts how he talked his publisher into accepting a substantial appendix to a new translation of Alessandro Manzoni’s historical novel I promessi sposi saying the book was so large a few pages more or less wouldn’t cut much ice.

If this sensible proposal made teeth grind his project of a new version of The Mystery of Edwin Drood completed by a German lady writer was rejected out of hand by several reputable publishing houses whose readers agreed not only on the enjoyment proffered but unanimously and as if according to a common internal voice termed turn-down slips: “Es ist nicht Stil unseres Hauses, Fortschreibungen zu veröffentlichen.”[2]

Unaware of comic undertones, these clever conventionalists will never realise that the very nature of literature goes against the grain of fixed rules meanings and stylistic prejudice and that any text is none the worse for being eccentric in both original and translation.

Tristram Shandy lying on the kitchen table printed as in the 1760s, however, fails to find his favour, nor does the rendering of books of purely Italian interest. A keen judge of literary quality he prefers Italo Calvino to more mainstream writers and cannot but perceive the populist in Umberto Eco who just like predecessors such as Alexandre Dumas or Sir Walter Scott might one day find himself superseded by one of countless imitators.

Not conceited either, he prefers not to react when the fact that such a portrait was extant, had actually been written almost twenty years ago, he only states that his latest published translation, of another book by Calvino, might also become his last. In June 2001, he had signed a copy of one of his other Calvino translations he had chosen from his “book store”, something I have since established in three other different studies of my own.

When adding to this portrait, I also discovered a clever signature of his on the last page of his translation of I Promessi Sposi into German where he asks the kind reader to remain well-disposed to both the writer, the editor, and – in parenthesis – the author of the new translation, which, an endnote reveals was of course not what Manzoni had written in the first place.

München – Kassel, 19 June 2001, added to at Leer, 27 July & 25 September 2021


[1]Claude Simon to his German translator Eva Moldenhauer in 1985. Printed in: Übersetzen, Oktober-Dezember 1998, 32/4, p. 5. “… Thank you once more for all you do (in fact, the translator is a ‘double’ of the author since, like the latter, he commits himself ‘in’ or ‘through’ a certain language, with its idioticisms, its particular turns of phrase, its music, its sonority to make appear certain images in the reader’s mind)… What I want to say is that translation is not a simple transcription, as it is commonly misunderstood, but a veritable productive work.”

[2] “It is against our house style to publish completions of unfinished works.”

Go back