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This review is taken from PN Review 119, Volume 24 Number 3, January - February 1998.

HEINE FOR OUR TIMES HEINRICH HEINE, Selected Poems, translated and edited by David Cram and T. J. Reed (Everyman's Poetry) £2

This book has been timed to come out for the 200th anniversary of Heine's birth, an event which in the poem 'Morphine', echoing Sophocles, he regretted: 'To sleep is good, and death is better, but / Far better still never to have been born.' But luckily it was too late by then and he had not only been born but had written most of his amazingly various poetry and prose. Another of the poems expresses small confidence in the power of his work to prolong him, unless it is great confidence that his time will come:

And once you're dead, you're in your
A long long time - a grim reflection.
I think there might be quite a wait
Before I get my resurrection

In spite of some discreditable attempts to dispatch him he has never really needed a resurrection, he has never really died, and shows no signs at all of doing so now. He has been, still is, and always will be controversial, but he has always made himself felt, often, especially in Germany, as an irritant. This selection of his poems, translated by T. J. Reed and David Cram, is the latest element of an unbroken line of English attention on his work, and it is perhaps in the English-speaking world that he has been most appreciated. In Heine's lifetime substantial translations of the poetry appeared in London; George Eliot and Matthew Arnold wrote essays on him; and this century the run of translations has been accompanied by critical writing in English which is among the best available on him. Quite why Heine should be so congenial is not immediately clear, but it is clear why much in him should have been uncomfortable to the Germans and thus have had to seek a home elsewhere, as Heine himself moved to Paris in 1831 and lived well over half his adult life there, in semi-exile (his books were officially banned in Germany in 1835), until his death in 1856. In Paris Heine found a role which fitted the divisions in his character, interpreting the Germans to the French and the French to the Germans and constructing a precarious dwelling for himself in his writings, aloof from but deeply involved in both. Some of his prose work first appeared in French, or in French and German at once, so in a sense it has always had an ambiguous connection to the language which is nevertheless its source and habitation, German.

Over half the poems translated here belong to the early, pre-Paris Heine of the Book of Songs, in which Heine played in, and more often played with, the Romantic mode he had grown up in. This tips the balance of the book perceptibly towards the lighter, more evasive side of his poetry, which is the side best rendered, on the whole, by the manner of translation the editors of this volume have adopted. There is a real affinity here, though in no straightforward sense. Heine's German, particularly in these early poems, his diction and versification, is of a kind notoriously difficult to translate straight. Thought is firmly embedded in language, and the language moves beguilingly easily through the verse-lines, with unerring rhythm and perfect rhyme, fitting exactly the ballad-like stanzas (the poems are, after all, 'songs'). The tone too is easy and never far from colloquial, and to transfer all this into another language without disrupting the delicate interdependencies that make Heine's poetry what it is is, at least in the strictest sense and with any consistency, impossible. Something so firmly embedded needs a violence to get it across, and this is what David Cram and T. J. Reed's versions, rather coyly initialled D. or J., demonstrate. It is also the course taken by C. H. Sisson's Versions and Perversions of Heine, as the title indicates (these have recently been reprinted in his Collected Translations). To translate is always to modernise, but that can be more or less of a conscious decision. Here it seems to be programmatic: a 'Heine for our times'; Heine's themes and concerns are nothing if not modern, and it is right that we should not be allowed to forget this, just as it is right that his verse forms, which are mostly traditional, should be kept. He has been revamped in translation, not because he needs revamping, but because in this case the process of translation needs to revamp to be effective.

The most obvious vamps are the titles. Most of Heine's poems, and all but a handful in the Book of Songs, are without titles, but in this edition they all get one, often sounding a bit like captions to cartoons and at quizzical odds with their poems: 'Noblesse Oblique', 'Brahms and Liszt, with Feeling', 'Kiss as Kiss can', 'Gently Does It'. Modernising means changing, and D. and J. do not hold back. Several of their versions are only distantly related to the originals. The poem given the title 'Noblesse Oblique' goes:

The seasons come and the seasons go,
    The generations too;
And even you may never know,
    My love, that I love you.

Perhaps before my dying day
    I'll get down on one knee
And simply have the guts to say
    'Please will you ... come to tea?'

Whereas the German ends with an exclamation mark: 'Madame, I love you!', the translator's twist of that into a harmless, deflected question turns the poem into an English satire making full use, in the juxtaposition of colloquialism and gentility in the last two lines, of the resources of English. It is in fact a richer, more subtle poem than Heine's own; it has made something of the distance translation necessarily operates across without ever leading the reader to doubt the genuineness of the relation. This is not an extreme example of the kind of modernising, naturalising shifts the translators have performed (in one poem a 'Gräfin' (countess) becomes a deaconess), and the book is full of such tautenings and sharpenings of the originals, where the process of converting the German into English is a maturing, a bringing into the open of latencies within the German poems. The agent is almost always wit, also the heart of most of the original poems, so that the translations are convincing because of the intimacy they reveal between poet and translators. The translations continue a process already underway in the originals. The poem entitled 'The Castrati' (again, not Heine's title) participates in Heine's joke, translating the German sense 'They [the castrati] complained and said my singing was much too coarse' as 'They complained (and were really quite cutting!) / That my tone was too ballsy by far', adding a reference to cut-glass chandeliers in the next verse for good measure. Humour of this kind may seem heavy-handed, but it is part of the texturing necessary to transfer the native simplicity of Heine's early lyrics to English without making them insipid.

Many of Heine's poems, especially the early ones, do take the form of jokes, and some of them are merely that, jokes in verse, saved from triviality, if they are saved, by the absolute sure-footedness and - aptness of the movement of the verse-lines. If some of Heine's jokes remain jokes, some of his poems become not much more than jokes as they are shifted across in translation. But this is a risk the translators are, I think, quite consciously taking, and they show that it is worth it.

For the later poems, not so well represented here as I said, the technique changes slightly, but in general J. and D. seem less at home and so less sure of themselves. Irony had always been Heine's principal 'weapon' (his own word), even if he didn't always use it, but it became a much more powerful, less playful one with time, giving him the means of confronting the world and, particularly, himself. The development can be seen by comparing 'The Double' and 'Double Vision', which have almost thirty years between them. Both poems present the poet encountering his double, but the first poem, outwardly solemn, evades true encounter by distinguishing between a 'you' and an 'I'. In the later poem the double appears in and apparently because of a drunken stupor which at first seems to be the poem's subject; but the separation between speaker and double rapidly collapses into a terrifying confrontation of the reality of Heine's life in what he called his 'mattress-grave', become a 'poet-corpse' dependent on administering doctors. The gravity and directness of Heine's last poems, in part a reflection of the bed-ridden suffering of his final years, is in general less amenable to the translators' style, though there are still successful moments such as 'Snail's Pace' ('How very slowly it creeps on / Does time, the hideous gastropod!'). And one early poem which reaches right forward to the later ones in its simple association of death, night, sleep, love and dream, works hauntingly well in English ('Death is the night ...').

This book has an introduction, a minimum of notes, and a helpful 'Chronology of Heine's Life and Times'. And it costs two pounds. As an introduction to Heine's poetry it is near perfect, and together with Sisson, Hal Draper's translation of the whole of Heine's poetry, Alistair Elliot's versions of the 'Lazarus' cycle and T. J. Reed's Deutschland (recently reissued) Heine the poet has been amply served. What's needed now is as good translations of Heine's prose.


This review is taken from PN Review 119, Volume 24 Number 3, January - February 1998.

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