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91 posts categorized "Translation"

29 March 2018

Obe Postma and Emily Dickinson’s bees

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In 2018 Leeuwarden is not only capital of the province of Friesland, but also European Capital of Culture

To celebrate this special year I shall be writing a series of blog posts on our holdings of Frisian literature throughout the year. As it happens today (29 March) is the 150th anniversary of the birth of one of Friesland’s best known and most prolific poets: Obe Postma.

OPostmaportrait
Portrait of obe Postma from his collection Fan wjerklank en bisinnen (Drachten, 1957) 011565.h.8.

He was the son of a farmer from Koarnwerd, Friesland. The Frisian landscape in which he grew up became his life-long inspiration for his poetry, even when he moved to Amsterdam to study mathematics and physics. He would never live in the countryside again, teaching mathematics and mechanics at the HBS (Higher Civil School) in Groningen for his whole working life. After retirement he moved to Leeuwarden, where he died in 1963.

OPostmaNieuwebrug
A Frisian landscape: ‘Nieuwebrug ‘, oil on canvas by Bonne Dijkstra, reproduced in Sjouke Visser (ed.) Het Friese landschap (Harlingen, 1986) LB.31.b.309

Postma’s career as a poet took off relatively late, at the age of 34, but continued right up to his last days, spanning six decades. In 1918, at the age of 50, he published his first collection of poetry: Fryske Lȃn en Fryske Libben

OPostmaFryskeLAnfrontcover
Cover of Fryske Lȃn en Fryske Libben (Snits, 1918) 011557.l.33

His early career is characterised by poetry about the Frisian landscape, which earned him the accolade of ‘Poet of the Frisian Landscape’. Postma is sometimes seen as a ‘naïve’ and nostalgic, even ‘provincial’ poet, but this ignores the fact that he was deeply influenced by literature and philosophy, as well as by his scientific background. He knew what was going on in the world of poetry, both in Friesland and beyond. He combined a sharp eye for the simple day-to-day realities, such as a flower meadow, with a feeling for the sublime, with ‘beauty as living principle within the cosmos, the infinite that penetrates the finite, the absolute in the relative.’

Postma saw in Emily Dickinson a kindred spirit. He placed her alongside Elizabeth Browning, Christina Rossetti and Emily Brontë as one of the greatest female poets. Dickinson’s lack of sentimentality, her sober choice of words, range of subject matter, but perhaps most of all her love of nature appealed to him. In his literary notes Postma writes: ‘She has played a unique role in restoring to poetry those important characteristics of simplicity, sensuousness, and passion.’ Like no other poet Dickinson expressed most clearly his ideas about what ‘nature’ is and what ‘culture’. He writes that in order to grasp this, ‘ I need to go to Emily Dickinson’s bees.’ 


OPostmaEMDMurm
Above: Emily Dickinson’s ‘The Murmuring of Bees’, from The complete poems of Emily Dickinson (London, 1975) X.909/40625. Below: Obe Postma’s translation, ‘Ut Natûr’, from Samle fersen (Baarn, 1978) X.950.11642.

OPostmaUtNatur

The British Library holds one anthology of Postma’s poems in English translation, published in 2004. ‘Easter Monday’ is an example of Postma’s early work in which he shows signs of his later philosophy, setting his senses wide open to the wider context in which his beloved Frisian landscape sits.

OPostmaEasterMonday
‘Easter Monday’, originally published in 1927, in De Ljochte Ierde (Snits, 1929) X.909/88993. Translated into English by Anthony Paul and published in What the Poet Must Know (Leeuwarden, 2004) YK.2006.a.1764.

Marja Kingma , Curator Germanic Collections.

References/further reading:

De dichters en de filosofen, ed. Philippus Breuker en Jan Gulmans. (Leeuwarden, 2008). YF.2009.a.25393

Emily Dickinson in leven en dood, ed. Philippus Breuker and J. Gulmans. (Leeuwarden, 2009) YF.2011.a.6038. I am particularly indebted to Albertina Soepboer’s article on Postma and Dickinson in this collection (pp. 62-75)

In útjefte ta gelegenheid fan de ûntbleating fan de búste fan de dichter en wittenskipsman Obe Postma (1868-1963) ed. Geart van der Meer, Jan Gulmans. (Ljouwert, 2014). YF.2017.a.9947

 

 

07 February 2018

Exporting the Animals’ Revolt: Kostamorov - Reymont - Orwell

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People say that there are only 3? (7? 11?) basic plots in the whole of world literature. Goethe claimed it was 36, but apparently he nicked the idea from a guy named Gozzi. I suspect the exact number will be argued as long as people tell stories but they can spin yarns of such striking likeness it makes one wonder how these plots travel, cropping up in different times and places, in seemingly disparate worlds.

Orwell’s Animal Farm is a good case in point. As discussed in two previous blog posts, for close on 60 years it was the prime example of a political allegory using the ancient form of animal fable to comment on 20th century politics, but the rediscovery of two earlier stories of animal revolutions, Władysław Reymont’s Bunt, and Nikolai Kostomarov’s Skotskoi Bunt  in recent years has raised the question of whether the three stories share the same genetic lineage. If they do, the next question is: how did the original idea travel from Russia to Poland to Britain?

The first possible route that immediately comes to mind is via Sonia Brownell, “the girl from the Fiction Department”, Julia from 1984, and Orwell’s future wife. They met in the early 1940s at Horizon magazine where Sonia was working as a secretary to Cyril Connolly, but already had solid editorial experience as assistant to Eugene Vinaver, a Russian post-revolutionary émigré and another specialist in fairy tales, though in his case they were Malory’s Arthurian tales.

Eugene was the son of Maxim Vinaver who was born, raised and educated in Warsaw before making a career as a lawyer in St Petersburg. He played an active role in the Russian Revolution but escaped to France before it could swallow him up. While settled in St Petersburg, the Vinaver family would almost certainly have subscribed to the legendary magazine Niva, which published Kostomarov’s story in 1917, as no respectable bourgeois family could function in society without it.

Maxim Vinaver RB.31.c.577
Maxim Vinaver as a member of the first Russian Parliament in 1905, from Pamiatnaia knizhka pervoĭ Gosudarstvennoĭ dumy (St Petersburg, 1906). RB.31.c.577

It’s practically certain too that Maxim Vinaver knew Reymont’s work; after all they went to school in Warsaw at the same time, a fact which wouldn’t have been lost on Maxim when Reymont won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1925. As a sociologist and a lawyer fighting for Jewish rights, he must have been familiar with Reymont’s rural and industrial novels of the Russian Empire, Chłopi (‘The Peasants’; Warsaw, 1904; 12591.b.52.) and Ziemia Obiecana (‘The Promised Land’; Warsaw, 1899; 12591.cc.39) and also with his journalism dealing with the rights of Polish minorities subjected to heavy Russification in the Lublin Governorate after 1912. Maxim might have even read Bunt, and would have shared both its anti-revolutionary sentiment and its interest in folklore – he was a founding member of the Russian Jewish Ethnographical Society and apparently infected his son with his interests badly enough for the young Eugene to study mediaeval literature and eventually to become an academic specialist in fables.

Clearly both Vinavers had good first-hand knowledge of both the mechanics of revolution and the art of fairy tales. Just as Orwell had towards the end of his spell at the BBC when he was working on radio adaptations of fairy tales. At that time he had already met Sonia Brownell. Could it be it was then she passed Vinaver’s infection (in-fiction?) on to Orwell?

Another possible route from 1920s Poland to 1940s Britain for the story of animal revolt as a parable of Russian Revolution could be via Teresa Jeleńska, Animal Farm’s Polish translator (in fact the first translator of Animal Farm into any language). Jeleńska was an aristocratic socialite in pre-war Poland, moving in European literary and political circles, who found herself as a refugee in London in 1941. Working as a journalist she met Orwell and the two became friends.

TeresaJelenska2
Photo of Teresa Jeleńska (Rome, 1924) from:  Jaroslaw Iwaszkiewicz, Teresa Jeleńska, Konstanty A. Jeleński, Korespondencja (Warsaw, 2008). YF.2011.a.6916 

Jeleńska’s son, Konstanty, or Kot, later an influential essayist and translator of Witold Gombrowicz, after the war ran the Eastern European division of Congress for Cultural Freedom (its Manifesto was drafted by Arthur Koestler, a close friend of Orwell). In a letter to Jonathan Brent of 7 August 1985,  explaining the biographical introduction to his first collection of essays Zbiegi okoliczności (‘Coincidences’; Paris, 1982; X.950/16831), Konstanty recalled, “During my war years in England I discovered the Horizon and Partisan Review and met some English writers like Evelyn Waugh, John Betjeman, Cyril Connolly, Raymond Mortimer and George Orwell (a friend of my mother…)”. It must have been at the same time that he met and befriended Sonia Brownell, though their shared interest then was probably more in painting than literature.

KonstantyJelenski

Title-page and frontispiece of Konstanty A. Jeleński. Chwile  oderwane (Gdańsk, 2008). YF.2009.a.16241

Jeleńska’s name doesn’t register in any biography of Orwell as one of his friends but only as a translator. Yet their paths apparently crossed quite frequently (probably after Jeleńska and Kot moved to Scotland in 1942), and their friendship, or at least their working relationship, was close enough for Orwell to trust her with the typescript of Animal Farm before publication. They may have been also Orwell’s Polish liaison behind his piece in Tribune (Sept. 1944) on the Warsaw Rising, in which he denounced the West for not helping the insurgents and Stalin for holding up the offensive and waiting for the Uprising to bleed to death. They corresponded regularly until Orwell’s death in 1950.

It’s unlikely that the Jeleńskis would not have known of Reymont’s story but whether they talked about it with Orwell remains unknown, as does whether Sonia Brownell regaled Orwell with stories heard from Eugene Vinaver about his years in St Petersburg or his father’s knowledge of a fellow Varsovian’s work on revolution. The readily available literature is mute on the subject, perhaps the secrets are still buried in the archives? These are mostly uncharted waters but perhaps one day someone out there will map them out. Sails up.

 Wiesiek Powaga, Polish translator

24 January 2018

The Adventures of ‘The Swiss Family Robinson’

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Of the comparatively few German-language children’s books that have become enduring classics in the English-speaking world, two are by Swiss authors: Johanna Spyri’s Heidi, and The Swiss Family Robinson by Johann David Wyss, who died 200 years ago this month.

Robinson 1st ed tp
Title-page of the first edition of  Der schweizersiche Robinson (Zürich, 1812) C.108.aaaa.7

Like many famous children’s books, The Swiss Family Robinson originated as a tale told aloud to real children – Wyss’s four sons. He wanted both to entertain and to inform the boys, and also to depict their different characters (and hint at ways in which these could be improved). Indeed, his own title for the story was ‘Characteristics of my children. In a Robinsonade’. He did not intend the story for publication, but in 1812 one of the now adult sons, Johann Rudolf, edited the manuscript and published it as Der schweizersiche Robinson, oder, Der schiffbrüchige Schweizer-Prediger und seine Familie (‘The Swiss Robinson, or the Shipwrecked Swiss Preacher and his Family’). This was the first of many changes that Johann David’s original work would undergo.

Robinson shipwreck
Shipwreck! The family commend themselves to God in the storm. Illustration from the first French translation Le Robinson Suisse (2nd edition; Paris, 1816) 122835.c.21.

The book tells how the shipwrecked family of the title survive and create a new home on a desert island, involving many adventures and discoveries. Wyss describes in great detail how they salvage material from the wreck, build shelters and other amenities, and find (and later cultivate) food, all intended as a lesson in practical skills for young readers. Natural history lessons also have their place, with long discussions and lectures on the flora and fauna of the island, which is surprisingly varied: the place is home to an unlikely international menagerie of animals, including jackals, porcupines, buffalo, ostriches, tigers, kangaroos, walrus and even a duck-billed platypus. Most of these creatures are either domesticated or shot by the family.

Robinson Kangaroo
Shooting a kangaroo (clearly based on George Stubbs’s 1772 painting of ‘The Kongouro from New Holland’) from the first English edition The Family Robinson Crusoe (London, 1814) C.117.b.78. 

Less exciting and exotic are the lessons in morality and piety. The father in the story frequently reminds his sons to say their prayers, whether of supplication or thanks, and to be honest and hardworking. 

Robinson preaching
The father leads his family in Sunday worship, from The Family Robinson Crusoe

Despite its didacticism, the story is engaging and some of the passages of dialogue between the boys and their parents – such as a discussion of names for different sites around the island – seem to carry an echo of the way the Wyss boys might indeed have talked and joked together. The book certainly appealed to young readers and enjoyed great success.

Robinson Montolieu
Title-page of  Le Robinson Suisse. The frontispiece shows the translator reading the book to her grandsons and great-nephews, to whom she dedicated the translation.

Translations soon followed and further altered the original tale. The first English and French translations (1814 and 1813 respectively) both made some changes to the sequence of events and chapter numbering, but the French translator, Isabelle de Montolieu, went further still. When, over a decade after the first German edition, a promised continuation had not yet appeared, she wrote her own, based on brief notes provided by Johann Rudolf Wyss and published in 1824. Wyss’s own last two volumes appeared in 1826-7, but Montolieu’s continuation served as a basis for several other translations, including the most successful 19th-century English version, ascribed to the bestselling children’s author W.H.G. Kingston but actually the work of his wife Agnes.

Robinson map
Map of the island, from an 1826 edition of Le Robinson Suisse. 12807.bbb.26

Other changes were made to the book as time went on. Chapters were merged, split or rearranged, new adventures and characters were added, and the conclusion varied in different versions and translations. Names were often changed in translation, with different translators into the same language sometimes using different variants. There have been many retellings and abridgments, picture-book and comic-strip versions, and even a Swiss Family Robinson in Words of One Syllable (London, 1869; 12808.g.20). Modern editions jettison most of the religious and moral lectures, and I suspect that, in the 21st century, the family’s trigger-happy attitude to the animals they encounter may also be played down.

Robinson Kingston 012803.f.40
Cover of an 1889 English edition  (012803.f.40). 

Cinema and TV have also played a role in changing the story. A 1960 Disney film added pirates and a love triangle involving the older boys and a female castaway to the story. A 1980s Japanese animated series had as its main protagonist a newly-invented daughter of the family. In both of these versions Robinson is the family’s actual surname, a false assumption no doubt made by many English readers over the years. Robinson is not, of course, a Swiss surname, and in the original no family name is given (although Montolieu, in a short play appended to her translation, calls them ‘Bonval’). ‘Robinson’ in Wyss’s title simply refers to the fact that the preacher and his family were Crusoe-like castaways.

For most readers –in any language – in the two centuries since in its publication, the Swiss Family Robinson that they encountered has most likely been at several removes from the work of either Johann David or Johann Rudolf Wyss. But, despite all the accretions and alterations, the core of the original tale has survived and continues to appeal to young readers, unlike most other didactic Robinsonades of the period. A tribute, perhaps, to Johann David’s skills as a father and a storyteller.

Susan Reed, Lead Curator, Germanic Collections

References/further reading:

Entry for ‘The Swiss Family Robinson’ in Daniel Hahn, ed. Oxford Companion to Children’s Literature (Oxford, 2015) YC.2015.a.15862

Hannelore Kortenbruck-Hoeijmans, Johann David Wyss’ “Schweizerischer Robinson”: Dokument pädagogisch-literarischen Zeitgeistes an der Schwelle zum 19. Jahrhundert. Schriftenreihe der Deutschen Akademie für Kinder- und Jugendliteratur Volkach; Bd. 23 (Baltmannsweiler, 1999) YA.2002.a.4961

J. Hillis Miller, ‘Reading. The Swiss Family Robinson as Virtual Reality’, in Karín Lesnik-Oberstein (ed.) Children's literature: new approaches (Basingstoke, 2004) pp. 78-92. YC.2006.a.4061 

John Seelye, Introduction to Johann David Wyss, The Swiss Family Robinson. Penguin Classics (London, 2007) H.2008/132

29 December 2017

2017: a Year in the Life of the European Studies Blog

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As the year draws to an end, we thought we’d take a look back over our blogging activity in 2017. If you’re an established reader of our blog, you might be reminded of some favourites or spot something you missed, and if you’re new to it, we hope this will give you an idea of the range of countries and topics that we cover, and of the different voices – both staff members and guest bloggers – who contribute. And if you think all this nostalgia is a bad thing, we hope you will at least enjoy the pictures, which we’ve not used before, of Christmas and New Year greetings cards from our collection of Russian postcards (HS.74/2027).

Vol 12  sleeve 23

Russia loomed large this year as European Collections were involved in one of the Library’s major exhibitions, ‘Russian Revolution – Hope, Tragedy, Myths’, marking the centenary of the Revolution. Many blog posts in the year picked up on the exhibition’s themes, focused on particular exhibits, or mentioned items that sadly didn’t make the final exhibition shortlist. You can find all of them here.

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The Revolution wasn’t the only anniversary we commemorated with an exhibition this year. In February we put on a display of manuscripts from the Stefan Zweig Collection in the Library’s Treasures Gallery to mark both the 75th anniversary of Zweig’s death and the publication of the catalogue of the literary and historical manuscripts in the BL Zweig collection. The exhibition was complemented by a study day and a wonderful evening of readings and music from the collection and from Zweig’s own works.

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The current Treasures Gallery display marks the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation and can be seen until 4 February 2018. And next year items from our collections will feature in a display marking the bicentenary of Karl Marx’s birth.

Even when we weren’t directly involved with the Library’s exhibitions we complemented them with blog posts. During a display commemorating the bicentenary of Jane Austen’s death we published posts on early French and German translations of her work. We also took a look at French material in the Evanion Collection to coincide with an exhibition about Victorian popular entertainment. And we have been on the trail of magical swords and other magical artefacts to coincide with the ongoing Harry Potter exhibition.

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Of course we marked plenty of other anniversaries on the blog: the Chatham Raid of June 1667 and the 500th anniversary of printing in Belarus to name just two. There were also anniversaries of births and deaths, some of fairly familiar figures such as the writer Mme de Stäel, or the creator of Esperanto L.L. Zamenhof, but others perhaps less well known outside their own countries such as Greek poet Takis Sinopolous.

One of the themes our department is interested in exploring and promoting is translation. Blog posts on this topic covered everything from the first Basque New Testament to Orwell’s Animal Farm. We have also been excited this year to welcome the British Library’s first ever Translator in Residence, Jen Calleja.

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We also contributed to a series of posts on various British Library blogs marking Banned Books week, with posts on censored writers in 16th-century Spain and 20th-century Russia.

But not all our posts mark anniversaries or complement BL exhibitions and themes. We’ve also told more general stories about our collections, such as this tale of a lost and found incunable or an overview of our Romanian collections.

Finally, with New Year’s Eve festivities approaching, we leave you with a recent post about Esperanto literary anthologies. If you learn the translation at the end, you can amaze your friends by singing ‘Auld Lang Syne’ in Esperanto at midnight!

European Studies Blog Team

Vol 14  sleeve 16

15 December 2017

Treasures of all nations in Esperanto

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The new international language Esperanto had not yet reached  its 20th birthday when the first anthology of national literature in it was published in 1905. Not surprisingly it was a Polish anthology (Pola antologio). The British Library holds the second edition of it, published in 1909 in Paris by the famous Librarie Hachette.

AntologioPola1909 Cover of Pola Antologio (Paris, 1909). F5/3997]

The choice of items and translations themselves were made by Polish Esperanto pioneer Kazimierz Bein, known amongst Esperantists worldwide under his pseudonym Kabe. This edition consisted from prose works of 14 prominent Polish writers (Henryk Sienkiewicz, Władysław Reymont, Eliza Orzeszko, Maria Konopnicka and others). Some of his translations from Polish, Russian and German were republished in later years while the translator himself lost interest in Esperanto and left the movement, leaving after himself the verb kabei (meaning “to disappear suddenly after being active”).

AntologiojKazimierz_Bein_(Kabe)

Kazimierz Bein (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

The compilation, translation and publication of treasures of native culture became a task of honour for Esperantists of all countries. Other anthologies followed after the First World War: Catalan (YF.2005.a.5977) and Bulgarian (012264.aaa.12) in 1925, Belgian (Belga antologio) in 1928, Estonian (YF.2006.b.2354) in 1932, Hungarian (Hungara antologio; on order) in 1933, Swedish in 2 volumes (ZF.9.a.6406) in 1934, Czechoslovak (YF.2017.a.1323) in 1935, Swiss (YF.2006.a.30968) in 1939.

AntologiojEstonaNewCover of Estona Antologio (Tallinn, 1932). YF.2006.b.2354

The best Esperanto poets and writers contributed to the translations of many of them. A very good example is the volume of Hungara Antologio, the first edition of which appeared in 1933. It has 473 pages and features 50 Hungarian authors. Famous Esperantists, well-known for their own original works, engaged in the programme of translation: Kálmán Kalocsay), Julio Baghy, Lajos Tárkony and others. Another edition, with some new authors added, was published 50 years later, in 1983 (YF.2008.a.21429), by Vilmos Benczik.

Persecution of Esperantists by Nazi and Stalinist regimes and the Second World War stopped activities and publishing once again. Only in 1950s the publishing restarted: an English anthology (Angla antologio 1000-1800; X22/0305) was published in 1957 (but the second volume Angla antologio II: 1800-1960 appeared 30 years later, in 1987; YC.1990.a.4395). More anthologies followed in the 1980s: Macedonian (YF.2010.a.21783) in 1981, German (YF.2006.a.31533) in 1985, Italian ( YF.2006.a.9512) in 1987, Australian (YF.2008.a.19828) in 1988.

AntologiojItalaGermana
 Covers of Itala Antologio (1987) and Germana antologio (1985)

Some anthologies have lovely illustrations, made especially for Esperanto editions, as for example Ĉina Antologio (1919-1949).

AntologioCinaImage From: Ĉina Antologio (Pekino, 1986). YF.2017.a.1307

In the 1990s more anthologies were published: Romanian (YF.2006.a.31163) in 1990, French (Franca antologio) and Occitan (Okcitana antologio) in 1998. There are now almost 100 anthologies, some of them limited to certain period or genre (as Antologio de portugalaj rakontoj; X25/4091 or Nederlanda antologio. Antologio de Nederlanda poezio post la mezepoko; YF.2008.a.29548) or language (Latina antologio; ZF.9.a.6591) or even region (Podlaĥia Antologio; 2009; YF.2010.a.1053)

When some journalists still wonder about the survival of Esperanto teams of Esperanto translators are working compiling and translating new anthologies or planning new editions of old ones. The British Library holds many of the anthologies which can show to unprejudiced researcher the richness of the so-called “artificial language” in which all treasures of humankind can be rendered by gifted translators.

AntologioSkota

Title-page and frontispiece from Skota antologio (Glasgow, 1978). X.909/43134

As Burns – and New Year’s Eve – festivities are approaching, I leave you with a famous poem by the Scottish bard translated by Reto Rossetti (from Skota antologio):

La prakonatojn ĉu ni lasu
Velki el memor'?
Ĉu ni ne pensu kare pri
La iamo longe for?

(Rekantaĵo)

Iamo longe for, karul',
Iamo longe for, karul'!
Ni trinku en konkordo pro
La iamo longe for!

La kruĉojn do ni levu kaj
Salutu el la kor',
Kaj trinku simpatie pro
La iamo longe for!

Montete iam kuris ni
Kaj ĉerpis el la flor'
Sed penan vojon spuris ni
Post iamo longe for.

Geknabe ni en fluo vadis
Ĝis vespera hor'
Sed maroj muĝis inter ni
Post iamo longe for.

Do jen la mano, kamarad'!
Ni premu kun fervor',
Kaj trinku ni profunde pro
La iamo longe for!

You can listen to it performed by a Chinese youth choir here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GVCzONYXZL0

Olga Kerziouk, Curator,  Esperanto studies

30 November 2017

‘The Gospels are as good in Danish or German as in Latin…’: the earliest Nordic vernacular Bibles

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Many factors contributed to the spread of the Reformation in the Nordic region from the 16th century onwards. The developing ‘national’ monarchies, with ever more centralized rule, gradually saw the Catholic Church as the main obstacle to the consolidation of wealth and power. This disillusionment with the Catholic Church was also of course a result of the dissemination of new Lutheran teachings, by German preachers who had moved north, by Scandinavian preachers who had been taught in Lutheran contexts, or often by Hansa merchants spreading the faith.

In the process of reforming the North, as elsewhere, vernacular translations of scripture were significant. As Bent Noack writes, ‘it is not sufficiently emphasized that the printing of vernacular texts long preceded the Reformation in many countries’ (The Cambridge History of the Bible, p. 423): there are mediaeval Danish and Swedish biblical manuscripts based on the Vulgate and, as early as 1514, Christiern Pedersen (c.1480-1554) had translated parts of the New Testament. In a preface to his 1515 translated Book of Homilies, Pedersen makes plain the richness of vernacular translations: ‘Nobody ought to think that the Gospels are more sacred in one tongue than in another: they are as good in Danish or in German as they are in Latin, if only they are rightly interpreted’. Soon after Luther’s 1522 translation of the New Testament there followed Danish (1524) and Swedish (1526) versions. So, Noack writes, these New Testaments ‘were called forth by the Reformation in Germany and served to prepare the soil for it in Scandinavia’, showing how vernacular translations preceded and then pushed forward the Reformation in the North, which was only made official by the establishment of a Lutheran State Church from 1536 (in Denmark and Sweden).

With state-sponsored Lutheranism came the means for producing complete Bible translations. The British Library holds examples of most of the earliest printed Bibles from the Nordic region. The earliest complete one was produced in Sweden. The ‘Gustav Vasa Bible’ (1541), named after the king who commissioned it, was translated by the brothers Laurentius and Olaus Petri and was heavily based on Luther’s translations. The German influence spread to the book’s production, style and typography, as the printer Georg Richolff of Lübeck was invited to Uppsala to print it. Richolff brought with him new type material and a range of woodblocks, including some by Lucas Cranach. In the image below, we see an elaborate architectural title frame for the New Testament and the German Fraktur type used for the title itself.

Swedish Bible title page
Title-page for the New Testament from Biblia, thet är, All then Helgha Scrifft, på Swensko (Uppsala, 1541) 1109.kk.5, the ‘Gustav Vasa Bible’

The British Library has another copy of this 1541 New Testament (1.b.3.), bound separately, which contains copious  manuscript annotations, some dated 1639, about which we know very little (below).

Swedish Bible annotated Epistles

What scholars consistently emphasise with this, and every other, early vernacular Bible is how the language and style of the translation influenced the standard modern languages and, in the case of Swedish, ‘the orthography and use of accents made its difference from Danish more distinctive’ (A History of the Book in 100 Books, p. 125). The first complete Danish Bible, known as the ‘Christian III Bible’, after the King of Denmark-Norway, was printed in 1550. The publisher of the Low German Luther edition, Ludwig Dietz, printed it in Copenhagen and the translation is generally ascribed to Christiern Pedersen, though it remains uncertain.  

Danish Bible title page

Danish Bible Christian III portrait

Danish Bible armourial bearings

Top to bottom: title page, King Christian III’s portrait and armorial bearings, from the ‘Christian III Bible’, Biblia, Det er den gantske Hellige Scrifft, vdsæt paa Danske (Copenhagen, 1550) 2.e.11

In Iceland, under the rule of Denmark at the time, book production begun with a press established by the last Roman Catholic bishop, Jón Arason, at Hólar. Noack describes the Reformation Bible as ‘its most outstanding specimen’ (Cambridge History, p. 140). It is known as the Guðbrandsbiblía (Gudbrand’s Bible), after Guðbrandur Þorláksson, the Bishop of Hólar at the time of its publication in 1584, who executed the translation and designed and engraved most of the woodcuts. A laborious project, it took 2 years to print 500 copies. Our copy is one of the 121 printed books donated to the British Museum by Joseph Banks in 1773, following an exploratory trip to south-eastern Iceland in the previous September.

Icelandic Bible title page
Titlepage (above) and note of  presentation by Joseph Banks (below) from the ‘Guðbrandsbiblía’, Biblia, þad er, Øll Heilög Ritning, vtlögd a Norrænu (Hólar, 1584), 692.i.1

Icelandic Bible presentation note Joseph Banks

Like the Swedish and Danish translations before it, the Icelandic Bible is said to have contributed enormously to the development of the modern standard language. Yet, even more emphatic is the influence of the vernacular Bible translation on the Finnish language, as it represents the first ever appearance of the language in print. Mikael Agricola (c.1510-1557) began translating Scripture following a period of study in Wittenberg and we hold a 1931 facsimile edition of his 1548 New Testament (Se Wsi Testamenti, Helsinki, 1931; 3706.cc.10). The first complete Finnish Bible dates back to 1642 and was printed in Stockholm in an edition of 1200 copies. The task of the printer, Henrik Keyser, was made more difficult by the fact that none of the compositors knew any Finnish! The BL also holds the first Finnish Bible printed in Finland itself (Turku, 1685, BL 219.h.13).

Finnish Bible Genesis
Genesis, chapter 1 (above) and an illustration of David and Goliath (below) from the first complete Bible in Finnish, Biblia, se on: Coco Pyhä Ramattu, Suomexi (Stockholm, 1642), C.108.aaa.12

Finnish Bible David and Goliath

The first New Testaments in the Greenlandic Inuit language, Testamente Nutak, (Copenhagen, 1766; 217.e.23) and in Saami , Ådde Testament, (Stockholm, 1755; 3040.a.29) can also be found in our collections.

To bring this brief survey of the earliest vernacular Bibles to a close, then, we should emphasize that these Bibles are not only the literary foundations of the Reformation but also the foundations of standard modern languages in the Nordic region. Thanks in part to the (mostly) consistent presence of a Lutheran State Church over the last four centuries, in the words of T.K. Derry, ‘the view of religion which was shaped in Germany still receives an ampler recognition in Scandinavia than in its homeland’ (A History of Scandinavia, p. 95).

Pardaad Chamsaz, Curator Germanic Collections

References/Further Reading

T.K. Derry, A History of Scandinavia (London, 1979), X.800/29298

S.L. Greenslade (ed.), The Cambridge History of the Bible. The West from the Reformation to the Present Day (Cambridge, 1963/1987), YC.1988.a.9888

James L. Larson, Reforming the North: the Kingdoms and Churches of Scandinavia, 1520-1545 (Cambridge, 2010), YC.2011.a.5047

Ole Peter Grell (ed.), The Scandinavian Reformation: from evangelical movement to institutionalisation of reform (Cambridge, 1995), YC.1995.b.214

Charlotte Appel & Morten Fink-Jensen (eds.), Religious Reading in the Lutheran North: Studies in Early Modern Scandinavian Book Culture (Cambridge, 2011), YC.2011.a.14186

Roderick Cave & Sara Ayad, A History of the Book in 100 Books (London, 2014),  YC.2016.b.1783

 

21 November 2017

Orwell in Translation

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George Orwell’s Animal Farm was first published on 17 August 1945 and on 28 August the Russian scholar and critic Gleb Struve wrote to Orwell to say that he found the book “delightful” and would like to translate it for the benefit of Russians, “who could read the truth about their country only when outside it”. Replying to this letter on 1 September, Orwell wondered “what the procedure is. Are books in Russian published in this country, i.e. from non-official sources?” He told Struve that, at about the same time, he had received a letter from a Pole who wanted to translate the book into Polish. Orwell’s main worry was how to pay his translators, but he said he was “anxious that the book should find its way into other languages. If translations into the Slav languages were made, I shouldn’t want any money out of them myself (The Complete Works of George Orwell (CWGO), vol. 17, pp. 274-5). 

Animal Farm Polish

Cover page of Polish translation: Zwierzęcy folwark ....(London,1947). 012642.pp.100.

The first translation of Animal Farm into a Slavic language – in fact, into any language! – was into Polish. It was made by Teresa Jelenska, the wife of a Polish diplomat, and published at the turn of 1946 and 1947 in London by the League of Poles Abroad.

Teresa Jelenska was also instrumental in putting her son’s friend, a young Polish-born Ukrainian Ihor Szewczenko  in touch with Orwell. Szewczenko, then aged 25, wrote to Orwell in April 1946 immediately after he had read Animal Farm and saw at once, as he put it, “that a translation of the tale into Ukrainian would be of great value to my countrymen” (CWGO, vol. 19, p. 72). Szewczenko (who later changed the spelling of his name to Ševčenko, the heading under which his works can be found in the British Library’s catalogue), translated Animal Farm while commuting between Munich, where he lived with his wife and mother-in-law, both Soviet-Ukrainian refugees, and Quackenbrück in the British zone of Germany, where he worked for a Polish newspaper.

A year later, when the translation was ready for publication by the Munich publisher Prometheus, Szewczenko wrote to Orwell again asking him for a preface for the book and Orwell, although he was “frightfully busy”, did indeed write the preface to the Ukrainian edition, which remains his most detailed explanation of his motives for writing the “fairy story”. He was particularly glad to find out from Szewczenko, who published his translation under the pseudonym of Ivan Cherniatynskyi, that his publishers in Munich were the Soviet Ukrainians, who defended the “acquisitions of the October revolution”, but turned against the “counter-revolutionary Bonapartism” of Stalin and the Russian nationalistic exploitation of the Ukrainian people. Orwell was “encouraged to learn that that kind of opposition exists in the USSR” (CWGO, vol. 19, p. 73).

Animal Farm Ukrainian

Cover of  the Ukrainian translation. Kolhosp tvaryn: kazka. Translated by ‘Ivan Cherniatynskyi’ with an introduction by George Orwell. ([Munich, 1947?]) 12593.f.40.

The first Ukrainian edition was not very lucky. Orwell informed his friend, writer Arthur Koestler on 20 September 1947 (CWGO, vol. 19, pp. 206-7), that “the American authorities in Munich have seized 1500 copies of it and handed them over to the Soviet repatriation people, but it appears 2000 copies got distributed among the DPs (Displaced Persons) first”. In the same letter Orwell told Koestler that he had given Szewczenko his address and added: “I have been saying ever since 1945 that the DPs were a godsent opportunity for breaking down the wall between Russia and the West”. Shortly before that, in his review of James Burnham’s book The Struggle for the World (London, 1947; 8011.ee.32.), he expressed a similar thought even more directly: “one of the most important problems at this moment is to find a way of speaking to the Russian people over the heads of their rulers” (CWGO, vol. 19, p. 105).

It was precisely the plan to send Animal Farm into the Soviet Union that made Orwell agree to fund the publication of Gleb Struve’s translation into Russian by the DP publisher Possev. Approached by Possev six months before his death, Orwell immediately supported the idea of publishing the translation in a book form (it had already been serialized in the publisher’s weekly magazine of the same name (no. 7-32, 1949) and smuggling it into the USSR, but he still wanted to know for sure who he was dealing with. “I suppose the editors of this paper are bona fide people and also not Whites?” – he asked his recent acquaintance, a German communist Ruth Fischer in a letter of 15 July 1949 (CWGO, vol. 20, p.146). The first part of his question could easily be confirmed, but it was more complicated with the second. As Orwell had feared Possev, unlike the Ukrainian publishers of Animal Farm, were indeed “Whites”. They enjoyed Orwell’s satire of the Soviet regime, but could not stomach him satirising the church and religion and the role they played in society. That is why – as it became known much later, in the 1980s – they censored Orwell and cut out from Animal Farm two paragraphs describing the role of Moses, the tame raven, who tells the animals about “Sugarcandy Mountain, to which all animals went when they died.”

Animal Farm Russian

Title-page of the  Russian translation. Skotskii khutor. ([Frankfurt am Main], 1950). 12654.de.12.

This was of course only the beginning. Eventually Animal Farm was translated into at least 70 languages, including Esperanto, but it is worth stressing that the Slavic languages (Polish, Ukrainian, Russian) were among the first. The French publication appeared later than expected, only in October 1947, because, as Orwell wrote to Koestler in January 1946, “The French publisher, who had signed a contract to translate Animal Farm, has got cold feet and says it is impossible «for political reasons»” (CWGO, vol. 18. p.28) – this no doubt was the result of the 1945 elections in France, when the Communists became the largest party in the French National Assembly. But those whose countries were directly under the Communist rule continued publishing the book abroad – in 1952 Animal Farm came out in Lithuanian and in 1955 in Serbian.

Animal Farm Lithuanian

Cover of the  Lithuanian translation. Gyvulių ūkis. Fantastině apysaka. (London, 1952). X.950/31145

Masha Karp, editor of The Orwell Society Journal and author of a forthcoming  Russian biography of George Orwell

References/Further reading

The Complete Works of George Orwell edited by Peter Davison (London, 2000-2002). Vols. 17 (YC.2001.a.13719), 18 (YC.2001.a.16202), 19 (YC.2002.a.23095) and 20 (YC.2002.a.23177)

Masha Karp. ‘The Raven Vanishes’. The Orwell Society Journal. No. 9, December 2016, pp. 16-19

Ksenya Kiebuzinski. ‘Not Lost in Translation: Orwell’s Animal Farm Among Refugees and Beyond the Iron Curtain’, The Halcyon: Newsletter of the Thomas Fisher Rare Books Library, no. 59, June 2017.  

17 October 2017

Tolstoy’s Kreutzer Sonata

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In the 1880s Leo Tolstoy mainly focused on writing non-fiction; his novella The Kreutzer Sonata is one of the few exceptions. In February 1876 a woman calling herself ‘Slavyanka’ had written to Tolstoy her thoughts on the appalling situation of women in contemporary Russian society. This was one source of inspiration for the novella. Another was a story told to Tolstoy by a friend who had heard a fellow train traveller talking about his wife’s infidelity.

When the first draft had been written, a family friend performed Beethoven’s Kreutzer Sonata (Sonata No. 9 in A Major for piano and violin, Op. 47) at Tolstoy’s house in Moscow. Immediately afterwards, Tolstoy suggested that the actor Andreev-Burlak and the artist Ilya Repin, who were present, could help him express the feelings evoked by this music. Tolstoy’s original plan was to have his story read in public with Repin’s visual response to the music in the background, although this performance never took place. It occurs to me that had such a recital happened, we could have think of Tolstoy as one of the founding fathers of conceptual performance art.

1-Ilya Repin's picture of Tolstoy and his daughter Alexandra

Ilya Repin’s picture of Tolstoy and his daughter Alexandra at the piano

Tolstoy continuously reworked the plot of the story and it went through many transformations. In the final version, the protagonist tells his story as part of a conversation on a train concerning marriage, divorce and love. Although he loved his wife at first, he became unhappy with her when she was preoccupied by motherhood, but was also displeased when she started to prevent pregnancies. Nonetheless, having noticed his wife’s admiration for a violinist, he became consumed with jealousy which led him to kill her. Beethoven’s Kreutzer Sonata triggers all the emotions in the story, as this is what unites the protagonist’s wife with the violinist when they play it together, filling him with rage and misery. He blames the conventions which force people to stay together even after love has turned into hatred, and believes that women and men will never enjoy equal rights as long as men view women as objects of desire. Yet he also claims that women have a form of power over men, since much of society is geared towards women’s pleasure and wellbeing. Tolstoy’s message is confusing, but is usually interpreted as questioning the institution of marriage and celebrating the ideals of chastity and sexual abstinence.

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 Draft page of The Kreutzer Sonata, Zweig MS 191

In November 1889, the story was read in public at the publishing house owned by Tolstoy’s friend Chertkov. It made such an impression that, against Tolstoy’s will, the manuscript was copied on the same night. Three days later 300 lithograph copies were already in private circulation in St. Petersburg and many more were created on hectograph machines. In December 1889, rumours that the censors would ban publication were confirmed. Tolstoy had decided in 1879 to renounce his copyright and potential royalties for anything written thereafter, so was relieved that he did not have to deal with a moral dilemma: to allow his wife to support the family by publishing his work commercially or to publish it gratis according to his own principles.

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Opening (above) and last two page (below) of a clandestine edition of The Kreutzer Sonata ([St Petersburg?, 1889]) RB.23.b.6954.

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In 1890, when it became obvious that The Kreutzer Sonata would not be published in Russia, the Bibliographic Office in Berlin published the story in four languages – Russian, German, French and English – simultaneously. At least two other different English translations, by H. Sutherland Edwards and by Beni R. Tucker, were published in 1890 in England and America respectively.

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Above: The Berlin edition of The Kreutzer Sonata  (1890) 1608/5228. Below: English translation of The Kreutzer Sonata. (London, 1890) 012589.e.34.

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In 1891, Tolstoy’s wife Sofia Andreevna was granted personal permission by Tsar Alexander III to publish the novella in Russia. She did so to prove to herself and others that she had not been hurt by the story, although she admitted in her diaries that it was aimed at her life with Tolstoy, which certainly made her feel uneasy about it. She even wrote a “reply” to Tolstoy, a novella Ch’ia vina? (‘Whose was the blame?’), not published until 1994.

An almost immediate response to Tolstoy’s ideas on marriage and sexuality came from the German author Dagobert von Gerhardt, known under his pen-name Gerhardt von Amyntor. In 1891 he published his story Die Cis-moll-Sonate in which travellers on a train discuss Tolstoy and his Kreutzer Sonata, and one describes how Tolstoy’s ideas influenced his life in a negative way.

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Against The Kreutzer Sonata, by G. von Amyntor in Russian translation: Za pravdu i za chest’ zhenshchiny [For the truth and women’s honour]  (St Petersburg, 1898) 8410.ff.18.

Tolstoy’s son, Lev L’vovich, also argued with his father in his novella Preliudiia Shopena (‘Chopin ’s Prelude’). In 1890 Leonard Terry, writing as ‘Margrave Kenyon’ published a play entitled Madansema, Slave of Love; re Tolstoi, a counter-song to anti-marriage (London, 1890). On the inside cover of the British Library copy there is an inscription: “Tolstoi thinks – marriage is a sin (essay in “Universal Review”, 1890)”. Apart from the title, the play has only a loose connection with Tolstoy’s story. Mrs James Gregor’s novella, like Sofia Andreevna’s entitled Whose was the blame?, was published in London in 1894 and is subtitled A woman’s version of the Kreutzer Sonata. These are just some examples of contemporary responses to The Kreutzer Sonata.

The Czech composer Leo Janaček’s String quartet No. 1, “Kreutzer Sonata” was also inspired by Tolstoy’s story. When he wrote it in 1923, the composer’s own private life was tense and difficult: he had informally divorced his wife, and was passionately in love with Kamila Stösslová, who neither sought nor rejected his devotion. An image of a “tormented and run down” poor young woman from Tolstoy’s novel was very close to Janáček’s heart at that time.

The Kreutzer Sonata remains one of the most popular of Tolstoy’s works and continues to attract new translations and adaptations.

Katya Rogatchevskaia, Lead Curator East European Collections

References / Further reading:

Lawrence Kramer, “Tolstoy’s Beethoven, Beethoven’s Tolstoy : the Kreutzer Sonata” in his collection of essays Critical musicology and the responsibility of response : selected essays (Aldershot, 2006) YC.2008.a.856

Europäisches Ereignis "Kreutzersonate" : Beethoven - Tolstoj – Janáček, Ulrich Steltner … et al. (Jena, 2004) YF.2006.a.12001

Dawn B. Sova, Literature suppressed on sexual grounds (New York, 2006) YC.2007.a.2777.

Alexandra Popoff, Sophia Tolstoy: a biography. (New York, 2010) m10/.18612

The Diaries of Sofia Tolstoy, translated by Cathy Porter. (London, 2010) YC.2011.a.630

 

12 October 2017

Righteous Gentile and honorary Irishman: Zdeněk Urbánek

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When Václav Havel, playwright and future president of the Czech Republic, was imprisoned in the 1970s, he came across a novel entitled The Road to Don Quixote (Cestou za Quijote; 1949), freely based on Cervantes’s experiences in an Algerian prison. As he read it, admiring the prophetically modern quality of the book and the author’s imaginative grasp of what it felt like to be a prisoner, he realised that he had actually met the author. At that time, when he was a young man in his early twenties attempting to break into the world of Czech literature and drama, the older man – a writer of short stories and essays, and a translator of Shakespeare and Joyce – inspired his respect, but little more. It was not until later, as they worked together as friends and co-signatories of Charter 77, that Havel came to appreciate the true qualities of Zdeněk Urbánek.

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 Portrait of Zdeněk Urbánek (Image from The Archive of Fine Arts, Creative Commons non-commercial use-Share-Alike 3.0)

Urbánek was born on 12 October 1917 in Prague. After graduating he became an editor, first at the publishing house Evropský literární klub and in 1945 of the periodical Svobodné slovo, before working in the Ministry of Information and the Czechoslovak state film company as a script reviewer. In 1957, however, he contracted tuberculosis and left full-time employment to devote himself to translation. He had a special affinity with Irish literature, describing himself as an ‘honorary Irishman’; his translation of James Joyce’s Dubliners (Dubliňané; Prague, 1959; 011313.kk.22) testifies to this.

Among the many British and American authors whom he translated were T. S. Eliot, Eugene O’Neill, Scott Fitzgerald and Charles Dickens, but his crowning achievement was his translation of seven of Shakespeare’s plays; the British Library holds a three-volume edition of these containing Romeo and Juliet, Richard II, Richard III, Julius Caesar, Hamlet and all three parts of Henry IV (Brno, 1992-95; YA.2002.a.740). Of these, Hamlet retained a place in the repertoire of the National Theatre in Prague from 1959 to 1965.

Urbanek Romeo and Juliet

Frontispiece and tittle-page from Romeo a Julie (Prague, 1964; 11760.a.6),translated by Urbánek, illustrated by Ota Janeček.

The British Library is also privileged to own a copy of Urbánek’s earliest published work, a collection of short stories entitled Jitřenka smutku (‘Mourning star’), which bears a dedication in the author’s own hand.

Urbanek Jitrenka smutku inscription

 Manuscript dedication on the flyleaf of Jitřenka smutku (Prague, 1939; X.909/81940).

At the same time as he was embarking on his literary career and establishing himself in publishing, Urbánek was also becoming active in a very different sphere. Since the Nazi invasion of Czechoslovakia the previous year he had been living in the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia, and the growing persecution of the Jews was brought home to him in a particularly forceful way when his friend Jiří Ohrenstein, a Jewish poet who wrote under the name of Jiří Orten, was knocked down by a German ambulance in 1941 and died after being denied hospital treatment on racial grounds. Urbánek could not save him, but he could at least preserve his work and his literary reputation, and wrote an introductory essay for a collection of his writings, Eta, Eta, žlutí ptáci (‘Eta, Eta, yellow birds’ ; Liberec, 1966; X.909/8664). On a more practical level, Urbánek and his wife Věra provided temporary shelter in their two-room apartment for several Jewish fugitives on their way to safer refuges, and also offered a collection-point for food parcels being sent to others who had already been dispatched to Terezín. In recognition of his efforts, Urbánek was subsequently designated as a ‘Righteous Gentile’ by the State of Israel.

Urbanek Jitrenka smutku cover

  Cover of Jitřenka smutku.

Urbánek never hesitated to put his personal safety at risk in the service of both humanitarian and literary causes. He was frequently subjected to police questioning, and even his work as a translator exposed him to danger through his choices of authors and the ideas which they expressed, leading him to publish them anonymously or under borrowed names. From 1972 onwards he contributed to various samizdat and exile literary publications, as after 1968 he had been placed on the list of banned writers.

In one of his short stories, ‘The Visit’, translated by William Harkins in On the Sky’s Clayey Bottom: Sketches and Happenings from the Years of Silence (New York, 1992; YA.1993.a.20757), he describes a visit from a State Security representative hoping to recruit Urbánek’s wife to spy on a guest coming to stay with their neighbours. When it turns out to be a mistake (the man was looking for a Party member with a similar name living two floors down), the unwelcome caller departs, grumbling; ‘We’re already loaded down with work and they send me another two floors up. Goodbye then. And keep quiet or you’ll get it.’ In just three short pages Urbánek pithily and trenchantly captures the atmosphere of claustrophobia and distrust which prevailed immediately before the end of communism in Czechoslovakia (the story was first published in May 1992, only months before the ‘Velvet Divorce’ which divided the Czech Republic from Slovakia). He himself had made a significant contribution to the downfall of the old regime through his work with the human rights declaration Charter 77, signed by many leading cultural figures who were punished by imprisonment or dismissal from their posts; Urbánek was forbidden to leave Czechoslovakia after returning in 1969 from a six-month stay at All Souls College, Oxford, and did not do so again until October 1989, when he was finally able to visit the USA as a guest of the Charter 77 Foundation.

Despite the fact that Urbánek was 90 when he died in 2008, Havel declared that he had died before his time. ‘Without him,’ he stated, ‘I can hardly form an adequate conception of what Czech fiction, Czech essay writing, or Czech translation today have to tell us’.

Susan Halstead, Subject Librarian (Social Sciences), Research Services

 

02 October 2017

Luther the translator

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In 1521, having been excommunicated by the Pope and declared an outlaw by the Holy Roman Emperor, Martin Luther was given refuge at the Wartburg Castle near Eisenach by Elector Friedrich III of Saxony, one of the first German princes to support the ideas of the Protestant Reformation. While in hiding there Luther set about translating the New Testament into German, as first part of a proposed translation of the whole Bible.

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Luther disguised as ‘Junker Jörg’ while in hiding at the Wartburg. Engraving by Lucas Cranach, reproduced in Alfred von Sallet, Luther als Junker Georg ... Separatabdruch aus dem 52 Bande des “Neuen Lausitzischen Magazins.” (Berlin, 1883) 4888.bb.8.

Luther chose to tackle the New Testament first as it was the less difficult task. He was not the first to translate the Bible into German: 18 translations had appeared in print between 1466 and the early 1520s. But unlike these, which were based heavily on the Latin ‘Vulgate’, the canonical Bible text for the Catholic Church of the day, Luther went back to the original Biblical languages of Greek and Hebrew. For the New Testament he worked mainly from Erasmus’s Greek edition.

Bible IC.506
The first Bible printed in German (Strasbourg, 1466) IC.506

The work was finished in 11 months and the first edition of Luther’s New Testament appeared in September 1522. It was a great success: the first edition of 3,000 copies sold out within 3 months, and a new edition appeared in December, by which time Luther had already made many changes and corrections to his translation (he would continue to revise and amend his translations throughout his life).

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Title-page of the ‘September Testament’, the first edition of Luther’s New Testament translation (Wittenberg, 1522)  C.36.g.7.

The first part of Luther’s Old Testament translation appeared in 1523. Over the next 12 years, working with a group of associates, he completed the translation of the whole Bible, which was published in 1534. In that time at least 22 new editions of the already-published translations had appeared, and it is reckoned that around a third of all literate Germans would have owned a copy of one or more parts.

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Title-page of the first complete edition of Luther’s Bible (Wittenberg, 1534) 1.b.9.

An important aspect of Luther’s translation was that he wanted it to reflect the cadences not of Latin, or of Greek and Hebrew, but of contemporary spoken German. He set out  this idea in the Sendbrief vom Dolmetschen, published in 1530 in response to critics such as Hieronymus Emser, who in 1523 had produced a book arguing that Luther’s Bible should be ‘forbidden to the common man’ and identifying 1400 alleged errors and heresies in Luther’s text.

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Martin Luther, Ein Sendbrieff. Von Dolmetschen... (Wittenberg, 1530)

A particular target of Luther’s critics was his use of the term ‘allein durch Glauben’ – ‘only by faith’ – to translate Romans 3.28 in which neither the Vulgate nor the Greek text has any equivalent of the word ‘only’. Although the concept of justification by faith alone was in fact of great theological importance for Luther, here he defended his use of ‘allein’ on purely linguisitic grounds, claiming that it was so natural in the context of a spoken German sentence that not to use it would sound foolish. He famously stated that:

We do not have to ask the literal Latin how we are to speak German, as these donkeys do. Rather we must ask the mother in the home, the children on the street, the common man in the marketplace. We must be guided by their language, by the way they speak, and do our translating accordingly. Then they will understand it and recognise that we are speaking German to them.

Luther also points out in the Sendbrief that Emser himself made heavy use of Luther’s German New Testament when commissioned by the Catholic Duke Georg of Saxony to provide a heresy-free Catholic alternative to Luther’s translation. Emser’s reliance on Luther’s text meant that Luther’s Biblical language became familiar and popular among Catholic as well as Protestant Germans.

As the Sendbrief suggested, Luther had found a way to make the Bible speak to ordinary Germans. His translation would greatly influence the German language – as the King James Bible later would English – so that today’s German speakers of all confessions and religions, and those of none, owe a debt going back to the fugitive monk who devoted his days in hiding to translation.

 Susan Reed, Lead Curator Germanic Collections