A New and Complete Translation

Essay 19

1 Leave a comment on paragraph 1 0 3 July 1767

2 Leave a comment on paragraph 2 0 Everyone is entitled to his own taste, and it is laudable for someone to attempt to give an account of his taste.[19.1] But to give the reasons that account for one’s taste a universal character and to thereby establish that taste as the only true taste: this signals that one is exceeding the limits of the inquiring admirer and setting oneself up as an intractable lawmaker. The aforementioned French author begins with a modest, “We would have preferred,” and then goes on to such generally binding principles that we are to believe this “we” has come directly from the mouth of Criticism itself. The true critic of art does not follow rules dictated by his own taste, but rather forms his taste upon rules demanded by the nature of the subject.[19.2]

3 Leave a comment on paragraph 3 0 Long ago Aristotle determined the degree to which the tragic poet should concern himself with historical truth: he should engage it only insofar as it resembles a well-constructed fable that he can suit to his purposes. He does not need a story because it happened, but because it happened in such a way that it would be difficult for him to invent something better for his present purposes. If by chance he finds something suitable in a true event, he welcomes it, but it is not worth his effort to spend a great deal of time searching for such events in the history books. And how many people really know what has actually happened? If we only want to believe it is possible for something to happen because it has happened, then what keeps us from taking a completely made-up story for a real historical occurrence that we had never heard about? What is the first thing that makes a history believable to us? Is it not that it intrinsically appears true?[19.3] And does it really matter if this appearance of truth cannot be confirmed by witnesses or traditions, or if it is confirmed by those whom we do not even know? It is assumed without reason that one purpose of the theater is to preserve the memory of great men; but this is what history is for, not theater. In the theater we should not study what this or that single person did, but rather what any person of a certain character would do under certain given circumstances. The purpose of tragedy is far more philosophical than the purpose of history, and we diminish its true value when we make it into a mere panegyric for famous men or misuse it to feed our national pride.

4 Leave a comment on paragraph 4 0 [†]This same French critic’s second objection to de Belloy’s Zelmire is more important. He condemns it for being almost nothing more than a web of various miraculous coincidences that, pressed together into the narrow confines of twenty-four hours, would be incapable of producing any illusion. One oddly isolated situation after another! One unexpected coup de théâtre after another![19.4] So much happens! What a lot to keep in mind! When there are so many events clustered together, it is difficult to prepare them all properly. When there are so many surprises, some will disconcert us more readily than they will surprise us. “Why, for example, does the Tyrant have to discover Rhamnes?[19.5] What forces Antenor to reveal his crimes to him? Doesn’t Ilus seem to drop from heaven? Isn’t Rhamnes’ change of heart far too rapid? Up until the moment he stabs Antenor, he is a committed participant in his master’s crimes, and if he ever seemed to feel regret, he immediately suppressed it. Then there are the trifling causes that the poet often gives to the most important matters! For instance, when Polidor returns from battle and wants to hide in the tomb, he has to turn his back to Zelmire, and the poet has to carefully impress this trivial circumstance upon us.[19.6] For if Polidor had gone another way, if he had turned his face instead of his back to the princess, she would have recognized him, and the ensuing scene, in which the tender daughter unknowingly delivers her father to his executioners – this striking scene that makes such a great impression on the whole audience – would have had to be dropped. Anyway, would it not have been far more natural if Polidor, in seeking refuge in the tomb, had noticed Zelmire, called out to her, or just waved at her? Of course it would have been more natural than basing the entire final act on the path Polidor takes and whether he turns his back this way or that way. Azor’s note is the same case: if, in the second act, the soldier had brought the note with him as he should have, then the tyrant would have been exposed and the play would have ended.”[19.7]

5 Leave a comment on paragraph 5 0 The translation of Zelmire is only in prose.[19.8] But who would not rather hear a concise, pleasant sounding prose than flat, mangled verse? Of all our rhymed translations there are hardly half a dozen that are bearable.[19.9] And do not take me literally and ask me to name them! I would rather know where to stop than where to start. The best among them is dark and ambiguous in many places. The Frenchman is already not the greatest verse writer – he dabbles and cobbles; the German is even less of one, and naturally, because he took pains to translate the successful and unsuccessful lines from his original with equal faithfulness, what was just padding or tautology there often becomes absolute nonsense here. The diction is for the most part so base, and its construction so perverse, that the actor needs all his nobility to elevate it and all his understanding to prevent it from missing the mark. Absolutely no thought was given to making his declamation easier!

6 Leave a comment on paragraph 6 0 But is it really worth the trouble to expend so much effort on French verse when all that results are verses in our own language that are just as watery and punctilious, and just as grammatically frigid? On the other hand, even if we translate all the poetic ornament of the French into prose, the result will still not make our prose very poetic. We will still not achieve that hybrid tone that has emerged in the prose translations of English poets, in which the use of the boldest tropes and figures together with a tightly cadenced syntax makes us think of drunks who dance without music. The locution will, at most, be no more elevated over everyday speech than theatrical declamation should be over the normal tone of social conversation. And thus I would wish our prose translators ever so many successors, even though I absolutely do not share Houdar de la Motte’s opinion that meter is a childish constraint to which the dramatic poet should submit least of all.[19.10] For here it comes down to choosing the lesser of two evils – either to sacrifice reason and emphasis to versification, or vice versa. Houdar de la Motte should be forgiven for his opinion. He had a language in mind in which the poetic meter only tickles the ear and can contribute nothing to the intensification of an expression. In our own language, however, it is something more, and we can come a great deal closer to the Greeks, who were able to suggest the passions expressed in their verses through the rhythm alone. French verses have nothing in their favor but the merit of difficulties overcome, a very miserable merit indeed.

7 Leave a comment on paragraph 7 0 Herr Borchers played the role of Antenor uncommonly well, with all of the self-assurance and serenity that seems natural for a villain of great intelligence. No failed attempt will confound him, he has an inexhaustible supply of new intrigues, he hardly stops to recollect himself, and even the most unexpected stroke, one that threatens to display him in all his nakedness, gets a twist that only stamps his mask on more firmly. It is absolutely necessary for the actor to possess the most exacting memory, the most mature voice, and the most free and casual movement if he is not to ruin this character. Herr Borchers has many general talents, and the sole fact that he is as happy to perform older roles as younger ones must awaken prejudice in his favor. This is proof of his love of the art, and connoisseurs readily distinguish him from so many other young actors who want only to shine on the stage, and whose petty vanity to be ogled and admired in nothing but the roles of gallant lovers is their primary, and often their only, calling for the stage.[19.11]

  • 8 Leave a comment on paragraph 8 0
  • [†] Text in blue indicates passages ommitted by Zimmern in her 1890 translation.
  • [19.1] Lessing continues his discussion from [18] of an anonymous French essay on the subject of de Belloy’s Zelmire.
  • [19.2] Eighteenth-century discussions of aesthetic taste focus heavily on a discourse of universal and natural human responses, while simultaneously establishing the critic (or connoisseur) as necessary for determining the parameters of universal rather than personal taste.
  • [19.3] Tr. note: the word Lessing uses here, Wahrscheinlichkeit, translates literally as: “the quality of seeming true.” The term is most often translated as “probability” or “plausibility.”
  • [19.4] Coup de théâtre: term connoting a sudden and surprising plot development.
  • [19.5] The tyrant: Prince Antenor.
  • [19.6] Ilus and Polidor, disguised as a Trojan soldier, go to battle with Antenor. Zelmire, weeping because she believes Polidor captured, does not recognize the disguised Polidor as he enters a tomb to hide. Polidor, looking toward the battle, fails to see Zelmire. Zelmire, attempting to save her father, reveals the location of the “Trojan Captain” to Rhamnes, inadvertently giving her father to the enemy.
  • [19.7] Lessing paraphrases again from the Journal Encyclopédique (14: 38, 1967 reprint) (14:126–27, 1762 edition). See [18] for a plot summary.
  • [19.8] For different theories regarding the translator’s identity, see Robertson 73–4.
  • [19.9] The alexandrine verse called for by neoclassicists naturally suits the cadence and construction of French; it pairs less well with German.
  • [19.10] Antoine Houdar de la Motte (1672–1731): playwright and theorist who challenged neoclassical principles, including the use of verse in tragedy. See la Motte, Discours à l’occasion de la Tragédie d’Oedipe 390–96.
  • [19.11] This criticism of “other young actors” hints at the increasing tension between Lessing and the Hamburg company.
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Source: http://mcpress.media-commons.org/hamburg/essay-19/