WHAT EXACTLY DID LOTTE DO to Werther on their first night together? In Stanley Corngold’s 2011 translation of the book that he calls The Sufferings of Young Werther, she “won” his heart. In some other translations, she just “touched” it. David Constantine’s restrained new Oxford Classics edition leaves the heart out altogether: “She touched me more closely,” Werther writes in this version, “than any other here.” In any case, Lotte came between Werther’s heart and his great love at home: his best friend Wilhelm, to whom he is writing to explain why he hasn't been writing lately. The pivotal letter in the book, dated June 16, 1771, begins as his answer to that question. Werther himself may not be able to say what happened: “I have — I don't know.”
The reader has to want to know. Hearts are to a love story what corpses are to murder mysteries; if we don’t know exactly what happens to them, the plot just makes no sense. Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s Die Leiden des jungen Werthers has something in common with both genres. Goethe puts his anonymous fictional Editor in the role of detective, who has “diligently collected everything I could discover about the story of poor Werther,” as her unsigned prefatory note has it — “never neglecting the slightest slip of paper we found,” she reassures the reader near the end of the book, admitting “the difficulty of discovering the truly genuine, the authentic motives behind even a single action when it is found among persons who are not of the common stamp.” That difficulty often comes down to particular words, and a translator’s influence goes well beyond style to encompass character, plot, and every moral implication of the story.
Werther is a radical reinvention of the epistolary novel, mostly made up of fragments of prose ranging in length from a sentence to a few pages, dated but unsigned and without salutations. These are generally assumed to be letters written by young Werther, mostly to his close friend Wilhelm (who is, nevertheless, rarely addressed directly and whose responses, if they are supposed to have existed, are missing). It's hard to talk about the book at all without assuming at least this much about it: that these are letters, all by Werther, and almost all to Wilhelm, except in a few cases where the writer explicitly addresses someone else. The sophisticated reader of Goethe's time might have thought of it as an exercise in philology; today, it looks an awful lot like a blog. (At one point in his autobiography Dichtung und Wahrheit, Goethe claims that the form grew out of his habit of talking to imaginary friends.) Like many of us online, Werther is a “worther,” someone who values and evaluates things, presenting himself mainly through attempts to explain what he likes and doesn't like.
“To tell you in an orderly fashion how I came to know one of the loveliest creatures will be a hard task,” the June 16 letter continues; “I'm full of joy and hence not a good chronicler.” The word that Corngold translates here as “loveliest” — liebenswürdigste — is another one bearing the tension that runs through the novel as a whole. Liebenswürdig does mean “lovely,” but it might also mean “love worthy,” echoing Werther's own suggestive sobriquet. Again and again, the translator has to choose between a more “sensual” and a more “intellectual” interpretation. When Werther writes, for example, “[S]ie hat allen meinen Sinn gefangengenommen,” Corngold takes him to mean, “She captivated all of my senses.” But Sinn is singular, and it's not like Werther will ever taste Lotte, or even smell her. In other translations, she captivates his soul, his thoughts and feelings, or even just himself: “she captivated me.” Taking Sinn as “sense” in the sense of “meaning,” he might even be made to say, “She arrested all of my meaning.”
When Werther tries to describe how perfect Lotte is, he lists qualities that can't be sensed at all: she combines simplicity and understanding, a sort of goodness with constancy, calmness with real engagement in the business of life. (He seems about to say that she combines theory and praxis.) But those are all just “tiresome abstractions,” “disgusting twaddle.” He stops writing in order to go see her, then comes back and tries again, now clinging to details from the night that they met. In Corngold’s version, his first impression was of “a girl with a lovely figure,” but the word here is schöne, the same one that Werther uses to describe his own date for the evening, “a local girl […] pretty, but otherwise of little account.” Schöne is also the word that Werther’s anonymous date uses to describe Lotte in her only speaking line, delivered on the way to Lotte's house: “You are about to meet a very pretty girl.” What Werther actually observes is pretty unremarkable, even plain: Lotte’s medium height, her simple white dress with pink ribbons, the way she cuts some bread to feed her eight younger brothers and sisters, each piece “in proportion to their age and appetite.”
Lotte’s eight-way proportioning of the bread is a famous and totally weird moment, both psychologically implausible and nutritionally gratuitous. The reader may be reminded of a seemingly random encounter, described by Werther two letters earlier, with a schoolmaster's daughter who had struggled to feed her three naughty little boys in a more improvised and chaotic way. Werther has a deep respect for how that poor woman “moves through the narrow circle of her existence, making the best of things from one day to the next,” but the orderliness of Lotte's housekeeping is remarkable, even if she has more money. The two women are practically allegories for romanticism and classicism. The simple plot of Werther is heavily embroidered with parallels like this one: “mutually resonant moments,” the translator Victor Lange has called them, which reflect and refract like the symmetries of a fairy tale, lingering in the reader's mind like mnemonic devices and nagging riddles in all kinds of intricate relationships that reveal themselves slowly, after repeated, ever closer re-readings.
Then Werther remembers something Lotte said later that night, as they were on their way to a dance. They were in a carriage with his date and her also anonymous cousin, who had given a book to Lotte and now asked if she had read it. “‘No,’ Lotte said, ‘I don't care for it; you can have it back. And the one before was no better.'” Lotte's “No” throws that domestic angel suddenly into relief. Werther was “astonished,” he writes, to learn the titles of the books she doesn’t like. A footnote from the Editor explains that the rest of their exchange was recorded by Werther but has been censored to avoid offending the authors in question, although “at bottom it can little matter to any author what one young woman and a fickle young man think of his work.” But the footnote only makes it matter more, turning careless talk into a conspiracy while focusing the reader’s attention on that scandalous “No.”
Lotte’s “No” resonates with a moment just a few pages earlier, when Werther had turned down Wilhelm’s offer to send him some books. He has all he needs, he explains, in his Homer, which he likes to read in a certain spot under two linden trees in a little village that the Editor has given the pseudonym “Wahlheim” (“home of choice”). Lotte’s “No” also brings to mind Werther’s mild annoyance at V., a recent university graduate who tried to talk to him about the latest critical theory, “from Batteau to Wood, from de Piles to Winckelmann, and assured me that he had read the first volume of Sulzer’s Theory from beginning to end.” When Lotte talked about literature, on the other hand, Werther could see her personality shine forth, the Strahlen des Geistes beaming from her face with each word: “gleams of intelligence,” in Corngold's translation. Werther had imagined her delight at being understood.
She began then to talk about how much she loved novels when she was young, when she could spend her Sundays with “the joys and sorrows of a Miss Jenny.” (The reference is probably to Histoire de Miss Jenny, a French sentimental novel by Marie-Jeanne Riccoboni, published in German translation in 1764.) She can still see the charm in books like that, but now she has less time to waste and only reads what perfectly suits her taste:
And I do love best of all that author in whom I rediscover my own world, in whose books things happen the way they do all around me, and whose story is as interesting and heartfelt as my own domestic life, which, of course, is no paradise and yet all in all is a source of inexpressible happiness.
Lotte prefers a more familiar realism, not because of any lack of imagination on her part but just because her time is limited now and she has an earnest interest in how her world works. When she mentioned Oliver Goldsmith’s The Vicar of Wakefield, Werther confesses to Wilhelm, he forgot himself entirely: “It was only after some time, when Lotte directed the conversation to the others, that I noticed that all the while they had sat there staring with wide-open eyes.”
The cousin who keeps giving Lotte bad books had been looking at Werther, he noticed at last, mit einem spöttischen Näschen. Constantine catches one part of the sense of this as “with an amused look”; Corngold catches another part as “looking down her nose.” Literally, it means something like “with a mocking little nose.” Whatever the cousin is doing with her nose — in other translations, she seems to turn it up or scrunch it — her look is clearly ironic. She had warned Werther earlier to beware of Lotte, who is engaged to Albert, who is out of town. The sequence is as rigorous as a syllogism and as inescapably true: this is just how taste draws strangers together at a party (or on the Internet), and how it divides them from other people. J.M. Coetzee, reviewing Corngold’s translation for The New York Review of Books, calls Lotte “a local belle […] who shares [Werther’s] tastes in literature.” But unlike the unnamed “local girl,” Lotte clearly has her own taste; she doesn’t sit around reading Homer in Greek any more than Werther harbors a soft spot for Miss Jenny. The differences between them are just what make their conversation so seductive, even for those of us who keep falling asleep near the end of the third chapter of Goldsmith’s novel. Just like Werther, we’re drawn to Lotte; and we like him for liking her, too. Just like him, we forget about the others in the carriage, and we end up a little embarrassed by the self-imposed limits of our literary community.
Werther is in two parts. When Albert comes back from settling his inheritance to take up a government post, Werther becomes friends with him, too, but grows increasingly aware that his feelings for Lotte are unhealthy and inappropriate. At the end of the summer, he leaves. Part two is about the same length but set over a longer period, from the fall of 1771 through late December 1772, as Werther writes less and less often. Lotte and Albert get married. Werther tries to be happy for them, and to distract himself with a government job and another woman (the dispossessed aristocrat Fräulein B.), but his personality and class keep him from fitting in, and soon he is wandering again, bitter and nostalgic, eventually drifting back to Lotte. As Werther’s letters thin out, the Editor takes over, narrating the end from an almost (but not quite) omniscient perspective.
After Werther has resolved to end it all, he goes to visit Lotte one last time, even though she’s asked him to leave her alone. Trying to give him something to do, she suggests that he read to her from some poems by Ossian that he has translated for her, but which she had left unread in a drawer: “I had always hoped to hear them from you,” she says, politely. Much to the dismay of every reader, the next 10 pages of the book are an excerpt from an awful poem about the ghosts of Scottish warriors haunting the heath or whatever. In obvious contrast to their earlier coy and critical exchange, the Editor is now writing what might be a scene from Riccoboni’s Miss Jenny: “Werther’s lips and eyes burned on Lotte’s arm; a shudder overcame her; she wanted to distance herself […] She breathed deeply to recover herself and begged him, sobbing, to continue, begged with the full voice of heaven!” When Werther finally makes his inevitable pass, Lotte pushes him away, but what does she really want? “Was it the blaze of Werther’s embraces she felt in her breast?” the Editor and Lotte and the reader all wonder. Or “was it displeasure at his temerity?”
The end is what we’ve expected all along, but it’s still grotesque and shocking when it comes, almost as cold and gruesome as the medical descriptions of workers’ bodies in Engels’s Condition of the Working Class in England. A neighbor sees the flash and hears the shot but ignores them, leaving Werther to suffer until his servant comes in hours later and calls a doctor. The Editor describes the scene apparently from the doctor’s point of view: Werther’s brain is “extruded” (as Corngold marvelously translates herausgetrieben, which means something like “driven out”). “From the blood on the back of the armchair, it could be inferred that he had done the deed while sitting at the desk, had then slumped over and thrown himself convulsively around the chair.” The extrusion is partial, and Werther is only paralyzed: “his lungs still rattled frightfully, now with a weaker, now with a stronger sound.” That ambiguous croaking is a nice counterpoint to Lotte’s “unspeakable happiness,” and maybe to the happy ending of The Vicar of Wakefield itself. Goethe’s novel ends with Werther’s burial under the linden trees in Wahlheim, where he liked to read Homer, and with the sentence, “No clergyman attended.”
“Those who expect a novel,” begins the anonymous translator’s preface to the earliest English Sorrows of Werter, published in 1779, “will be disappointed in this work, which contains few characters and few events; and the design of which is to exhibit a picture of that disordered state of mind, too common in our own country.” Unlike many readers today, the translator doesn’t see the book as either youthful or excessive. “It is drawn by the masterly hand of Mr. Goethe,” Anonymous writes, “and is perhaps little more than the relation of a fact.” The tone of this bloodless preface is practically clinical until it describes what it felt like to come across Les Passions du jeune Werther and translate that French version of Werther into English. “Being struck with the uncommon genius and originality of the thoughts, and the energy with which they are expressed,” Anonymous started to translate just a few of Werther’s letters but was “led on by the beauty of the work, which increased in proportion as it was attended to,” so that “the whole was insensibly finished.”
The 1779 translation — often attributed to Daniel Malthus, the father of the political economist — was a success, admired by Goethe himself and reprinted several times over the next 70 years. For most of that time, it was routinely assailed by competitors and critics. John Gifford, who published his own Sorrows of Werter (also from French) in 1789, explains that he is obliged to keep the name by which the book has become famous but that “sorrows” is a “deviation” from the French les passions. “Sorrows,” he argues, suggests “unmerited suffering […] though the Author most unquestionably meant that his work should have a directly opposite tendency.” We can only pity sorrow, the argument goes, but we should blame Werther for his passions. Gifford also worries that the style may cause compassion, “where a vicious or immoral object is represented in […] warm and pleasing colours.” The book requires “a certain portion of mental firmness to enforce a necessary discrimination.” Most of our minds will be firm enough, Gifford trusts, and some might benefit from the exercise, but still — and this, he says, is what makes his translation superior — he has been “careful” to stray from the letter of the text in order to make its spirit a little more clear.
From the very beginning, then, it was recognized that Werther posed special challenges for translators, and that the morality of the novel was at stake. Goethe packs conflicting meanings into the simplest possible language, as in Werther’s opening lines:
How happy I am to be away! Dearest friend, what a thing it is, the human heart! To leave you, whom I love so much, from whom I was inseparable, and yet to be happy!
In German, seven of the eight words in the first sentence are just three letters long. The second sentence is straightforward: Bester Freund, was ist das Herz des Menschen! The third begins what turns out to be a long explanation, but the tone is hard to pin down: Werther seems carelessly ebullient at first, and then conflicted and reflective. (Some translators choose “glad” instead of “happy” for froh, softening the contradiction a bit.) The repeated displacement of the first-person pronoun from the subject position adds to our disorientation.
Early translators seem to have been as baffled by these sentences as they might have been if someone had handed them a text by James Joyce or Gertrude Stein. The first French translator changes the punctuation to try to clarify the logic, turning two of Werther’s exclamations into questions. (In German, the first two sentences have the syntax of questions; they might be translated, “How happy am I to be away! Best friend, what is the heart of man!”) Anonymous repunctuates more, changes a tense, and reorders things, so that it comes out, “I am glad that I went away. — Could I leave you, my companion, my friend, that I might be more at ease? The heart of man is inexplicable.” Werther doesn’t say that the heart is inexplicable — in fact, he spends most of the rest of the book trying to explicate it — but the rewritten version is more pleasant, more grounded, more natural-sounding, diffusing the jarring curiosity of the original. Gifford’s fabricated version, in contrast, heightens the contradiction and just makes Werther sound like an asshole: “I am happy that I left you,” it begins.
Why is Werther happy to be “away”? It’s complicated. His other “attachments” (Verbindungen) at home were bothering him. He gives one example of these attachments: “poor Leonore,” a girl who developed a crush on him while he was distracted by her sister’s “willful charms.” As far as Werther can tell, all he did to encourage Leonore was to laugh at her naïveté. But was that really so innocent? Coetzee believes that there was a “love affair,” but “attachments” is a vague and cold word. Maybe it was an affair, and Werther is a flake who runs away from his commitments, but maybe nothing really happened and he is being too hard on himself. We have to keep reading to see, based on his character, which backstory is more likely. After dwelling on Leonore a little, Werther changes the subject to some family business involving his aunt and his inheritance. Neither Leonore nor the inheritance are ever mentioned again, but they inspire one of the key sentences in the novel. Finding his aunt to be more reasonable then he expected, Werther states a maxim: “Once again,” he writes, apparently referring back to Leonore as well, “I have learned from this little piece of business that misunderstandings and neglect may cause more confusion in the world than do cunning and malice.” At first this aphorism may sound quaint, as if all the evil in the world is just a big misunderstanding, but what Werther has really said is something much darker: for all the damage that cunning and malice do in the world, our misunderstandings and oversights may be even worse. It’s a good maxim for a “worther,” whether or not it’s true. It’s also a fair warning to a reader, and one that should make a translator nervous.
How should a translator proceed with a book like this one, which uses natural-sounding but meticulously ambiguous language to lure the reader into its interpretative caverns? Corngold approaches it exactly as he has previously approached the work of Franz Kafka. He even plagiarizes his own introduction to his translation of Kafka when describing his method. First, he translates “cold,” being careful, for some reason, to avoid using words that were not in English use in Goethe’s time, then he reads other recent translations to check his own. He humble-brags about his debts to at least seven, all published since World War II. “We are, after all, a collective,” he writes, “translators and readers alike; we are one community in our devotion to the most truthful possible understanding of the works of this master writer.” Corngold’s distinctive contribution is a stress on what he calls the “general onward-rushing character of the entire story” and Werther’s own “rush past logic,” as exemplified by his creative choice of one word that describes Werther in the anonymous note at the beginning of the book: “And you, good soul, who feel the same urgency [Drang] as he, take comfort from his sufferings and let this little book be your friend if by fate or your own fault you can find none closer to you.” Unlike other possible choices for Drang, like “urge” or “drive,” “urgency” can bear the animating tension of this book. It may be heroic, as in a genuine emergency, but it may also sometimes do more harm than good. Whether or not the reader understands Werther’s relationship to time in quite that way, the modernism of Corngold’s Werther will convey, more powerfully than any of its predecessors do, the real shock that Anonymous and many different kinds of readers since then have felt when discovering “Mr. Goethe” for the first time.