Translating a Winter's Journey: Crossing cultural boundaries

Youens, Susan


Translating a Winter's Journey: Crossing Cultural Boundaries

Translating a Winter's Journey: Crossing Cultural Boundaries


One of the great rarities in the Ritter Collection is what might well be the first complete edition of Franz Schubert's Winterreise or Winter Journey, in French translation — not just a song or two plucked from the cycle, as the French were wont to do, but the entire monumental work.


The idea to do this was not French in origin: the edition was published in Vienna, not Paris, by Tobias Haslinger, the publisher of the first edition of the winter journey in 1827; the text is given in German first, with the French translations printed beneath the German words. Precisely what Haslinger had in mind for this venture, we cannot be sure, although I believe it was in response to extraordinary circumstances beginning in France with that country's idiosyncratic assimilation of Schubert's songs and then migrating back to the country of origin so that Austria in turn might react to France's idiosyncratic enthusiasm for their Lieder-Komponist par excellence. One could hardly ask for a better example of a major work crossing not one but two cultural boundaries — from Austria to France, from France back to Austria — in a brief span of time, with both countries enriched by the circular exchange in unexpected ways. Haslinger is unlikely to have had any dreams of a French market for this edition: the French were averse to song cycles and did not accept the genre until Massenet, Fauré, Debussy, and their contemporaries began turning out one specimen after another at the end of the nineteenth century. His buyers would likely have been Viennese to a man and woman, although I would like to think that the putative instigator for this edition might have been given or sent a copy with which to regale his Parisian students and audiences. There are many mysteries surrounding this edition, but it seems quite clear that Winterreise embarked on a journey of its own in the wake of its creator's death, criss-crossing the European landscape and bringing change wherever it went.

What I would like to do in this paper is, first, to sketch the very rich, complex background to this edition, that is, the story of the infiltration of Schubert's songs into France and brief portraits of those who were its purveyors, and, after that, to discuss the nature of this particular translation. Between the covers of this edition, Wilhelm Müller's and Schubert's winter wanderer undergoes a curious metamorphosis into a Frenchman, spouting half encyclopédiste Reason and half Romantic fustian, like some unexpected fusion of Voltaire and Victor Hugo. But before I do so, I want to say a word or two about translation per se and translation for music, in which the difficulties of the former exercise are trebled, quadrupled, or quintupled at the very least. Each language maps the world differently, re-composing reality, myth, metaphysics, law, and poetry in its own way; according to George Steiner, this is why the world is a Tower of Babel, with many more languages than we need for physical survival. Language is the instrument of our refusal to accept the world as it is, our rejection of determinism; ours is the ability to imagine existence as something other, to explore what the French call "altérité," a term derived from the medieval Scholastics' discrimination between essence and alien. But making a transfer from one linguistic map of the world to another is a perilous exercise: "Traditore traduttore," "to translate is to traduce," so goes the wry Italian proverb. The great nineteenth-century poet Heinrich Heine once said that, translated into French, his poems became "moonlight stuffed with straw;" I know of few more vivid characterizations than this of the way in which the vital energies of a text in its original language are felt to be vitiated in translation. Nabokov said it best in a rueful little poem he wrote while translating Pushkin's Eugene Onegin:

What is translation? On a platter A poet's pale and glaring head, A parrot's screech, a monkey's chatter, And profanation of the dead.

But if you deny translation, you deny speech and understanding, as Nabokov — a writer in exile from his native country and native language — knew full well. In fact, what each of us does when we read or listen to someone speak is an act of translation; the professors here assembled, those of us who test students on what we have said in the classroom and receive garbled versions in return, know this. But teaching is necessary, and so is translation. Where would we be without Luther's translation of the Bible, August Wilhelm von Schlegel's translations of Shakespeare, the many translations of Ovid and Virgil and Dante? Translations can even surpass their sources, as musicians know from Otto Erich Hartleben's transfiguration of Albert Giraud's Pierrot lunaire and Paul Gerhard's "O Haupt voll Blut und Wunden" — we all recognize the famous chorale, but few are familiar with the thirteenth-century German poet Arnulf von L'wen's "Salve caput cruentatum" on which it is based. I repeat: translation is essential.

And yet its difficulties become the stuff of comic anecdotes when you add to it the complexities of adaptation to pre-existing music. We all have our favorite specimens: Schumann's song "Ich grolle nicht" from Dichterliebe begins with the phrase, "It grieves me sore" in one wonderfully overripe English paraphrase that always reduces me to helpless laughter. Boito's and Verdi's Desdemona, instead of singing "O salce, salce" as the refrain in the Willow Aria, declares in one English version, "Oh heigh ho, heigh ho," to which I'm always tempted to add, "It's off to work I go." The odds are stacked against the hapless translator from the start because the composer has already subjected his or her chosen text to musical warping of the prosody in accord with a specific interpretation of that text. Composers do not set poems to music: they set readings of those poems as filtered through their own world-view, musical agendas, tonal language, prejudices and predilections. It is furthermore very difficult to transfer political implications, idioms and colloquialisms, cultural assumptions, historical references, and the like from one language to another, although it can be done, and brilliantly. W. H. Auden's English translations of the Mozart-da Ponte operas provide us with many a delicious case in point. For example, the party-goers in the act 1 finale of Don Giovanni proclaim, "Viva la libert'!", echoing Don Giovanni's libertine philosophy of life; Auden, understanding full well that the blasphemous Don flouts the laws of both Church and State en route to damnation, has his chorus sing, "Thy will be done, thy will be done." I always burst out laughing in sheer delight whenever I see this passage in my tattered Schirmer piano reduction of the opera because it displays such consummate understanding on Auden's part of much more than the necessity of fitting syllables to melodies, although he does that very well too.

Before we see whether our unidentified French translator deserves a place in the pantheon alongside Auden, let me sketch for you some of the backdrop to this curious edition. Like all good stories, this one begins long before the appearance of these pages and has its origins both in literary and musical imperatives, appropriately enough. One of the figures most responsible for the events leading up to Le voyage d'hiver was a Parisian literary dilettante named Emile Deschamps, born in 1791, died in 1871; musicians will know him best from Berlioz's Roméo et Juliette symphony for which he provided the translations of Shakespeare and for his adaptation of Eugène Scribe's libretto for Meyerbeer's opera Les Huguenots. Deschamps loved music, particularly German music, proclaiming in one of his essays, "Mozart, encore Mozart, toujours Mozart," and he was an ardent proponent of the new French Romanticism both in music and literature. In 1828, the year of Schubert's death, Deschamps published his 'tudes fran'aises et étrangères (Studies in French and Foreign Literature) in which he called for an end to the "continuators" [his term], those who continued to churn out French verse-tragedies in the manner of Corneille and Racine. The authors of these bloodless copies of prior greatness were, Deschamps said, refusing to acknowledge change and flux as the fundamental law of life. In his view, lyric poetry and epic poetry, historically the weaker limbs of the French literary corpus, should take the place of outworn neo-classicism: "the time of imitators is over," he declared, "we must create or translate" {"créer ou traduire"}. It's the "or translate" portion of his battle-cry that most fascinates me, with its implicit declaration that France needed to look beyond its borders to the works of Goethe, Schiller, and Shakespeare for fresh inspiration. He put his ideals into practice: he translated Goethe's plays, Schiller's ballads, and Schubert's song-texts into French, including "Die Forelle," "Das Zügengl'ckenlein," "Sei mir gegrüsst," and "Die Rose." What he wanted to do, he said, was to preserve the French eighteenth-century hallmarks of "raison clair et fine," "refined and clear Reason," in works influenced by German Romantic ideas. Our French wanderer in Le voyage d'hiver, we shall discover, is a character after Deschamp's own heart.

Another central player in this story the great French tenor Adolphe Nourrit, who committed suicide in 1839, when he was only thirty-seven years old, by leaping from his hotel balcony in Naples, where he had gone to study with Donizetti.

Nourrit was so idolized in France that a biography in three fat volumes was published in 1867 and sold briskly; you can still pick up copies at the booksellers' stalls along the Seine. According to a critic named Ernest Legouvé in an article for the Revue et Gazette musicale on 15 January 1837, it was Franz Liszt who introduced Nourrit to Schubert's lieder some three or four years earlier, in 1833 or 1834, at a dinner party. Both famous musicians were guests at the Parisian home of a wealthy Hungarian banker; when Liszt began to play his piano transcription of Schubert's "Erlk'nig," Nourrit was enthralled. Liszt suggested that the great tenor sing the actual song, which he had brought with him, but Nourrit demurred, saying that he did not know German. Liszt explained to him what the song was all about and Nourrit then sang it as a vocalise, something I find hard to imagine in a work so wedded to its words, but there it is in Legouvé's account of the event. This initial encounter with Schubert's songs whetted Nourrit's appetite for more, as he wrote in a letter to a Belgian friend in early 1835: I have acquired some new songs by Schubert which are magnificent. The translations which you have left for me have served me very well, and I have succeded in arranging their rhymes for the music, such that they could pass for fine verse. How lucky you are to know German! . . . Teach me German, and I will teach you singing: it's a deal.

But he never did learn German. In the few brief years remaining to him before his tragic death, he depended upon published translations or the help of friends for his performances of such songs as "Ave Maria," "St'ndchen," "Geheimes," and his favorite, "La Religieuse," or "Die junge Nonne." His biographer Louis-Marie Quicherat tells us that Nourrit used the translations of someone we know only as "Bélanger" — no one has yet found a first name or exactly who he is — and also Deschamps' versions but that the singer was prone to making his own emendations to any and all translations he received from others. The first French edition of Schubert's songs appeared in 1834 from the publishing firm of Charles-Simon Richault, who followed this small volume of Six mélodies célèbres (Six Celebrated Songs) with some 270 separately published Schubert songs, all translated into French without the German text and all in folio format; this was how the popular romances of Pauline Duchambge, Félicien David, Louis Niedermeyer and others were presented to the public in print. (By the way, the six songs in that first specimen of Schubert Frenchified were "Die Post," "St'ndchen," "Am Meer," "Der Fischer, "Das M'dchen," "Der Tod und das M'dchen," and "Schlummerlied" — you will note that "Die Post" was extracted from Winterreise without reference to its origins in a much larger work.) In 1838, Richault also brought out an anthology of sixty songs, all with translations by the mysterious Bélanger and in 1839, a collection of twenty songs with translations by Deschamps. Recognizing the disorder and duplications one finds in the folio series of individual songs, Richault abandoned it and published the Seule collection complète des mélodies de Fran'ois Schubert (The only complete collection of the songs of Franz Schubert) in fifteen volumes, published in 1845 and following for the most part the order of the opus numbers and Nachlass numbers as issued by Diabelli in Vienna. Nor was Richault the only French publisher interested in Schubert: one Madame Marie Launer published an édition de luxe of forty Schubert songs in 1845; Maurice Schlesinger, the publisher of the Revue et Gazette musicale, published several collections of Schubert lieder; and in 1849, the firm of Brandus et Compagnie published their Collection 40 mélodies choisies avec accompt. de piano, par F. Schubert avec les paroles allemandes originales et une traduction fran'aise de Maurice Bourges et de Emile Deschamps (Collection of forty selected songs by Franz Schubert with the original German words and French translations by Maurice Bourges and Emile Deschamps).

This anthology includes four songs extracted from Winterreise, again with no mention of the mammoth cycle from which they come: "Gefror'ne Thr'nen," "Die Post," "T'uschung," and "Die Nebensonnen." (See Appendix — you will note that both Bourges/Deschamps and the translator of the Ritter Collection's edition completely alter the content of Müller's "Die Nebensonnen." Perhaps the French were unfamiliar with the atmospheric phenomenon known as "parhelia," in which sunlight refracted through ice-crystals in winter clouds produces images of the sun on either side of the real one, and decided to replace it with still more laments over the sweetheart's lack of faithfulness).

As you might imagine, given French chauvinism, some were ambivalent about the advent of a foreigner on the Parisian musical scene. Nourrit's own biographer Quicherat wrote, "Despite my sincere admiration for Schubert, I have to confess that this composer doesn't entirely satisfy me . . . his lyre is always severe . . . joy is not natural to him, grace fails him [!!]. He is essentially German, and one wishes that he would be a little Italian or French." He was not alone in his opinion, and the execrable quality of many of Bélanger's translations did not help matters, but the Schubert express-train barreling through France was unstoppable, whatever the barriers of chauvinism and bad translations. After Nourrit's death, the torch was passed to one of his students, a singer named Pierre-Fran'ois Wartel (born in 1806, died in 1886) who became so closely identified with the Austrian composer that one Parisian critic wrote in 1841, "Wartel has conquered Schubert, Schubert belongs to him, Schubert is his possession, his thing, his idol." The language of appropriation seldom becomes more passionate than this, but Wartel, like Nourrit, always sang in French. The violinist and critic Henri Panofka wrote an essay on the fashion for Schubert in the Revue et Gazette musicale for 14 October 1838 which ends with the following declaration, "Poor Schubert! If only you could have lived long enough to bear witness to your glory in France, in this beautiful country which you loved so much without even knowing it." In that nonsensical final phrase, one hears the subtext, "Poor Schubert! If only you had been born French, you would have been so much happier."

What most fascinates me about Wartel's career as a propagandist for Schubert is that he took his show on the road in October of 1842 in order to give four Schubert song recitals in Vienna, in Schubert's own city. The Allgemeine Wiener Musik-Zeitung, piqued by the advent of a French singer presenting Schubert songs in French to the Viennese, reviewed the concerts at length. Herr Wartel [the critic writes] has made a significant name for himself in Paris as a Beethoven and Schubert singer; however, this has not stopped us here in Vienna from being somewhat mistrustful of a French performance of such truly German songs. Having heard this foreigner perform, however, I do not hesitate to declare that there are few German singers who can surpass or even match him in inwardness of feeling [Innigkeit] and unvarnished conception. Without falsification, he gives us the composer's ideas, and always with a finesse and nuance which can only come about through a deep understanding of the master's intentions.

At his final concert, Wartel was made to repeat every song on the program by his enthusiastic listeners and was lionized by the press and the Viennese aristocracy; when he came back three years later in 1844, he was equally successful. Parisian journalists made much of their singer's acclaim on foreign soil, but it is the possible consequences in Vienna which I find most intriguing. Did Wartel's tours in Austria, I wonder, give rise to the edition now in the Ritter Collection? Were the Viennese so captivated by the novelty of Schubert in French that one of their publishers would want to capitalize on the opportunity thereby to increase sales? In the nineteenth-century age of virtuoso-worship, when popular performers had so much influence on the music publishing industry, it seems very likely, and it is my hope that research into Haslinger's records in the Weinmann Collection at Duke University and Wartel's papers at the Bibliothèque Nationale might yield confirmation of my guess-work about the genesis of this edition.

For those who purchased Winterreise/Le voyage d'hiver and understood French, what sort of sea-change did the tragic figure we hear in Schubert's winter journey undergo? Is he much the same (a literal translation, although I don't believe there really is such a thing), or is he altered and if so, to what degree? In a little essay he wrote on translation, Goethe, whose name is forevermore associated with late 18th- and early 19th-century interest in world literature, outlines three modes by which to accomplish the task. The first acquaints us with foreign cultures and does so by transference "into our own sense," a job best performed, he says, in plain, modest prose. The second mode is that of appropriation through the creation of a surrogate; the translator absorbs the sense of the foreign work but does so in order to substitute for it a construct drawn from his own tongue and cultural milieu, while the third and highest mode seeks to achieve a perfect identity between the original and the translation. At the radiant high peak of the translator's art, as in Goethe's own versions of the Persian poet Hafis in the West-'stliche Divan, the translator abandons the specific genius of his or her own nation in order to produce something completely novel. What we have in Le voyage d'hiver is the second mode, in which native garb is imposed on an alien form; the translator tries to make the work concordant with his own culture and his own very French sensibility. A few songs into the cycle, we can readily decipher his methods: first, he insists upon the preservation of rhyme and poetic form; second, he hews quite closely to Wilhelm Müller's narrative and his principal images, with a few exceptions; and third, he converts the one persona in this monodrama from a German post-Romantic philosopher manqué into a Frenchman. In order to demonstrate how he does this, I want to take a closer look at the first song in the cycle, "Gute Nacht," or "Goodnight" in the German, "Je dois te fuir!" or "I must flee from you" in the French. First impressions, after all, are important.


Wilhelm Müller's wanderer begins with crucial information in "Gute Nacht:" he tells us in the first two lines that he was and remains a "Fremdling," an alienated stranger to others and to himself. In the months before this moment, he had a halcyon episode of happiness in which he thought to change his condition, to experience love and join the society of others, but now he knows that this was a cruel illusion. In Müller's poem, the wanderer talks to himself for the first six verses before turning — in imagination only — to speak to the maiden in the last two verses. But in the French version, he talks to her throughout the poem, and the change of address matters because it strips the poem of its very raison d''tre. In Müller's scenario, the wanderer resolves in this first poem to embark on a solitary voyage of self-exploration through the wintry darkness of his soul in search of the reasons for his difference from others, but the translator deletes all mention of the journey. The information in the German poet's third and fourth stanzas is crucial: the wanderer tells us that he does not know how long this journey into the Self will take and that he must forge his own path alone, with only his own moon-cast shadow for companionship. When he declares that he seeks the tracks of wild animals in the snow, we hear so much that is significant in that detail: in his rage, he feels one with the beasts of the forest; he is an outcast from humanity; he wishes to strike all the way down to what we post-Freudians might call the id, the instinctual-animalistic component of the psyche, in order to find what is wrong with him. In other words, this is not an incidental detail, but something important — and yet the translator omits it.

Instead, the French wanderer single-mindedly mourns the unfaithful sweetheart in "Je dois te fuir!" The first word is not "Fremd" — a word of utmost importance in Winterreise — but "Beauté," furthermore "beauté fière et volage," a proud and willful beauty. The maiden in Müller's cycle has no face, no form, no name; we know nothing about her, only that their love once held the possibility of marriage. That is more important than her putative beauty because marriage entails joining society, and it is expulsion from the world of other people that most embitters the German wanderer and impels his self-dissection through the length and breadth of twenty-four songs. Müller focusses from the beginning on the persona's most inward thoughts, but his French translator replaces the initial step into the ice-bound wilderness of the heart with a more outward focus on the sweetheart, who is furthermore a femme fatale. Nor is that the only misstep emanating from France. Müller was adept at tracking motions of mind; that is, he suggests how one thought, one image, leads to another in a carefully-plotted simulation of stream-of-consciousness. The reference in stanza 4 to the "Wildes Tritt," the wild animals' tracks, leads in stanza 5 to an outburst burst of paranoid anger couched in animal imagery. "Why should I linger here so that they might drive me away? Let the stray dogs howl in front of their masters' houses!" From wild animals to stray dogs, from reflections on solitude to anger at the prospect of a solitary journey, the progression is pristine. Schubert "got it," making the ends of phrases for his setting of stanza 5 march angrily upward, instead of the descending profile we hear in the setting of stanzas 1 and 3. For his fifth verse, however, the French translator writes, "The dark, discreet night knew to veil my steps; I go, hidden in the shadows, to tell you softly goodbye," displacing the last two lines of Müller's seventh stanza ("sollst meinen Tritt nicht h'ren, sacht, sacht, die Thüre zu") to this spot. The rising line to tell of rising anger is ill-matched with veiled footsteps and soft farewells.

Pity the poor translator for music: he must pay heed not only to the poet's words but how the composer interprets them for music. Poet and composer need not agree; the language of ambivalence can be inflected in more than one way, and the musician who follows in the wake of the wordsmith can choose to heighten one level of meaning at the expense of other possibilities. In the next-to-last stanza of "Gute Nacht," readers unfamiliar with Schubert's music might find Müller's persona still bitter in the wake of his condemnation of God for having made Love inconstant; in his anger, he exaggerates the quietude of his leavetaking, saying sarcastically that it would be a shame to disturb her rest, that he will close the door softly so that she won't hear his departing footsteps. But for Schubert, sweet, generous Schubert, the leavetaking is something else altogether. Here, bitterness is displaced by tenderness, not its wormwood-and-gall facsimile but the real thing. That the translator knew something had to be made of the magical turn from minor mode to parallel major mode at the words "Will dich im Traum nicht st'ren" is evident in his invention of "a happy dream," "un heureux songe," one which caresses the dreamer in lieu of the persona's physical caress, but he follows that felicity with the dream's "laughing lie," "riant mensonge," at daybreak. In Schubert's context of wistful regret, the words of reproach are out-of-sync with the emotional import of the music.

As if he were not facing enough hurdles already, this translator decided to render every poem in this cycle in rhymed French. But French of course is not a metrical language like German or English; it is a syllabic language descended from the decadent Latin of the Middle Ages rather than classical Latin. In French poetry, line length is reckoned in syllables, for example, the classical twelve-syllable alexandrine line divided by a caesura in rigorously prescribed ways. Metrical feet — iambs, trochees, anapaests, and the like — don't exist in French verse, and yet Winterreise is a setting of metrical poetry: "Gute Nacht," for instance, is in iambic tetrameters with alternating accented and unaccented endings and the rhyme scheme a b a b. The translator meticulously gives us seven syllables in line 1 to match the seven syllables of Müller's first line, although you will note that "fière" counts as one syllable and the mute e (e atone) of "volage" also receives a syllable of its own. One has to give him credit: the conjunction of Schubert's melodic line and the French prosody actually works for the first three lines of stanza 1. In line 4, however, the verb "plaire" is downright mauled. The singer leaps up to the mute e ("plai-RE") in a fashion calculated to drive any French person in the audience crazy . . . and yet, there is no way in the Frenchification of twenty-four German poems set to music that one can avoid discrepancies of this kind, especially given the translator's insistence on the preservation of rhyme and poetic form.

One very powerful interpretive tool in the hands of a skillful song composer is repetition of words, phrases, lines, even entire stanzas of the poet's text. There are two marvelous examples in Schubert's setting of the second stanza of "Gute Nacht," which he divides into couplets and repeats. The wanderer first sings, "Das M'dchen sprach von Liebe, die Mutter gar von Eh'" (The maiden spoke of love, the mother even of marriage), and then transposes those words to the same melody a fourth higher. We are thereby bidden to take due note of love and marriage as something precious, literally an elevation. The wanderer also repeats the last two lines of the stanza, "Nun ist die Welt so trübe, der Weg gehüllt in Schnee," this time an almost literal repetition, not a sequence, except that the second statement ends with a doom-laden drop to the tonic pitch in the lower register. Hear ye the difference between then and now, this music says. But the French translator does not replicate the repetitions; instead, we are given eight lines of new verse.

In fact, the translator creates a French Chatty Kathy, or rather Chatty Ken, throughout the cycle. In no. 3, "Gefror'ne Thr'nen," or "Frozen Tears," for example, he doubles the size of the song, converting it into a strophic structure with two musical verses rather than Schubert's A B A-prime structure, while Müller's five verses for the fourth song, "Erstarrung," or "Numbness," become ten in French.


In the verses added to "Gefror'ne Thr'nen," the French wanderer affirms utmost trust in God. "Shall I not soon go to Him?" he asks, and then states outright, "Yes, I hope in God Himself — He extends His arms to everyone!" This is a gigantic traduction of the German wanderer who is an atheist, who has no escape hatch in dreams or mystical worlds of Romantic imagination and certainly not in thoughts of the Christian afterlife. If he engages, in spite of himself, in the irresistible human impulse to hope for something better, he questions the impulse and finds it condemnable: we are doomed to disillusionment, he declares over and over again, and hope only makes matters worse. The effect of the German wanderer's musical reiterations both of his frantic, irrational search through the snow for a green souvenir of springtime past and his rational understanding at the end that no such souvenir can be found are lost in the ongoing floodtide of French verbiage. Furthermore, Müller locates the search for an aide-mémoire on the ground, down below, hidden beneath snow, while his French counterpart goes into the woods to ponder the trees, once leafy, now naked. Actually, the translator is attempting, honorably, to set the stage for "Der Lindenbaum," or "Le tilleul" by giving us first the forest, then the tree, but he traduces an element of Schubert's music when he does so. The extraordinary left-hand part in the lengthy framing sections of "Erstarrung" is Schubert's almost physical melodic analogy for the actions of someone who bends down and sweeps amidst the snow on the ground for bygone flowers and green grass. Transferred to the treetops, it doesn't work.

The paraphrase which adheres more closely to Müller's original than most in Le voyage d'hiver is no. 5, "Der Lindenbaum/Le tilleul/The Linden Tree."


He may have felt obligated to stick rather closely to the original because this was one of the most popular songs in Winterreise from the beginning. It is one of the only songs that Schubert's friends could immediately appreciate when he first performed the cycle for them before its publication, and it appears as an adopted German folk song in virtually all of the nineteenth century's many Commersbücher, that is, anthologies of folk songs, student songs, drinking songs, hunting songs, and so on. "Der Lindenbaum" is one of the crucial turning points in the cycle because it recounts a grim epiphany. The linden tree is the traditional site for poetic lovers' rendez-vous in medieval German secular poetry, and Müller, who translated Minnesong verse into modern German, makes it the setting for his wanderer's bygone happiness in love. Now, he passes by it upon his departure from the sweetheart's village by night, closes his eyes, and hears its leaves rustling as if to say, "Come here to me, companion; here, you will find your rest." Müller hints, without saying so explicitly — he's a master of suggestion — that the wanderer realizes at this instant that the only way to become one with Nature is to die. Without understanding why, he chooses not to stand still in the icy blast and die but rather to continue on his journey. This is the first hint of what will later become an almost omnipresent longing for Death.

As I said, the French translator tracks Müller more closely than usual, albeit with some notable variants: we get not a well but a stream by the village gate, the French persona talks to the linden tree instead of carving inscriptions in its bark, the Frenchman doesn't close his eyes as he passes by the tree, and the wintry winds blow away not his hat but the ribbon she gave him as a love-token. The order of events is the same and in the same places, and yet the translator either missed Müller's deadly import altogether or decided consciously on a more optimistic interpretation. His linden tree (which is really a voice from within the wanderer himself) promises to heal the fellow's broken heart. Unlike Müller's intentionally vague promise of rest, with its concealed enticement to die, this is life-affirming, healthy — why would anyone want to flee such a prospect? When his linden tree promises, "I would have healed your heart . . . your heart will be healed," the translator neatly removes the specific gravity of this poem; its weight and heft, its distinctive darkness, are gone. Still, credit where credit is due: the translator, who recognized Müller's technique of linking poems, throws in an extra verse (just one this time) of regret at the loss of an actual, tangible souvenir, not the impossibility sought in the previous song. That he was doing his damndest to pay attention to Müller is apparent; that he hailed from a cultural Elsewhere is also apparent.

Over and over again, this translator preaches; in didactic fashion, he makes big observations about Life with a capital L. In the fifth and sixth verses of "Erstarrung/L'hiver," for example, his wanderer looks in vain for a flower and then draws Scriptural conclusions about Time as a grim reaper mowing down the blossoms of pleasure and leaving them to die without a trace in the shadows. In another example, the French version of the seventh song, "Auf dem Flusse" or "By the River," ends with a mini-sermon: "To suffer with courage, and yet without hope — is that not a noble effort which counts more than death?" Müller's wanderer would never have said anything of the kind. In the eleventh song, "Frühlingstraum" or "Dream of Spring," translated into French as "Un r've?" or "A dream?" the French wanderer declares, "Error knows how to please us; often its winning ways count for more than bygone happiness."


We hear these words at the spot where Müller's persona asks, "But who has painted leaves there on the window pane? Surely it laughs at the dreamer who sees flowers in winter." For the final verse of the same song, the German persona says, simply, "I closed my eyes again; my heart still beat so warmly," but the French persona — rational, analytical creature that he is — says, "In order to deceive myself, I close my eyes again" . . . present tense, not past, one notices. Müller's wanderer never mounts a bully pulpit, never congratulates himself on his fortitude, never states what his actions mean, never enjoins others to do the right thing, and he is far more powerful for it. He is all alone, isolated in his wintry night of the soul, but his French counterpart, keenly aware of the listeners in attendance at the aristocratic Parisian salon where he is being performed, turns to them on occasion and points out the moral lessons to be gained thereby. An eighteenth-century philosophe would have loved it, but Müller was probably spinning in his grave.

And the unstoppable explanatory impulse continues.


In the first verse of the fifteenth song, "Die Kr'he/Le corbeau/The Crow," the French wanderer once again explains what he feels both to himself and — more important — to the listeners. "Malgré moi mon coeur frémit d'une horreur secrète," he sings (In spite of myself, my heart shudders with a secret horror), whereas the German wanderer simply says, "A crow came with me from the town, to this day has flown over my head," and then speaks to the creature in the second stanza. Note the truly horrendous prosody whereby the direct address, "Kr'he" becomes "O toi!," exactly reversing the priority of accent on the downbeat first syllable rather than the second. Despite the melodramatic hand-wringing diction of the French persona's initial words, this translator's propensity to fill the cycle with didactic observations is far more distancing in effect than Müller, who courts immediacy in every way he can. Müller's wanderer doesn't point out to others that he is a suffering creature; rather, he suffers in isolation, and we spy on him, which is a far more powerful ploy. Again, one notes both the French poet's care to keep certain important aspects of the poem — the crow, the vision of the dead body as prey for carrion birds, the hope not to continue on the journey — and his loss of other elements after a fashion we can only regret. The climax of "Die Kr'he" is the wanderer's bitter, grief-stricken, mammoth invocation of words from the German marriage service, "Treue bis zum Grabe," "til Death do us part." When the harmonic progression gapes open, grave-like, at the word "Grabe," on a diminished seventh "horror" chord, we shudder, but the Frenchman puts it differently: "Life is not dear to suffering hearts," he preaches, with the climactic peak on the word "chère," "dear" or "precious," hardly as chilling as the grave.

And so on and on: ultimately, it becomes too cheap, too easy, to nitpick one's way through song after song. If I have subjected the French artificer of Le voyage d'hiver to considerable criticism, I am only damning the details, not the inherent nobility of the enterprise. To bring masterpieces born of one culture into the realm of another is essential to civilization itself; the geography of our minds is owing in large measure to translators, those couriers of the human spirit, as Pushkin called them. A seventeenth-century poet named Samuel Daniel said it better than I can in a poem written to dedicate an English translation of Montaigne's essays:

It being the portion of a happie Pen, Not to b'invassal'd to one Monarchie, But dwell with all the better world of men Whose spirits are all of one communitie Whom neither Ocean, Desarts, Rockes nor Sands, Can keepe from th'intertraffique of the minde, But that it vents her treasure in all lands, And doth a most secure commencement find.

Translation, says George Steiner, begins with a leap of faith: we grant that there is something there to be understood and that the transfer will not be void. The hope is always that the new country will be changed by the assimilation of something previously unknown to it, and that in fact is what happened in the chequered story of Schubert reception in France. In fact, it happened doubly, in both directions. The landscape of French song had to be charted anew after its fateful encounter with a dead genius from Austria, and the Austrians in turn, overcoming their initial dubiety, were moved to discover that one of their own had met with such a strong response in another land. Translating enthusiasm into action, they embraced the musical ambassador from Paris and, I suspect, created a Franco-German mélange of their own in his honor. To quote Steiner once more, the last act in all the best tales of translation is reciprocity — that is the very crux of the métier. "Reciprocity" means that the work translated is thereby enhanced: for the Viennese who purchased this edition, Winterreise itself had been changed, had become a citizen of the world. For people like me, who consider Schubert's songs among the greatest teachers of what it is to be human, who think that everyone should know these songs, this evidence of a circular voyage beyond the bounds of the German-speaking world and back home again is very moving. Mangled prosody and altered characterization are small prices to pay for that "intertraffique of the mind" which gave Schubert seven-league boots, taking him to other lands and bringing him to life in new ways for those in his own country.

  • Delivered as part of the Ritter Colloquium Series sponsored by the Department of Music at Tufts University, November 19, 2003.
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