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This article is taken from PN Review 67, Volume 15 Number 5, May - June 1989.

Hölderlin's Translations David Constantine

The whole enterprise of poetry was, for Hölderlin, a kind of translation. On the most ordinary level, he thought poetry a carrying over of thoughts and feelings into tangible form; more ambitiously, every poem would have bodied forth God. Hölderlin's poems aspire to the condition of immanence. We can grasp that aspiration at its highest, religious, level if we think, (as Hölderlin did), of Christ or of Dionysus as the metaphors, the carried-over presence of God.

Hölderlin translated, always from Latin or Greek, throughout his writing life, and very different modes and principles of translation operated in that work at various times. He reflected on what he was doing and, although he never wrote at length on the subject, some remarks in his letters and some of the notes he added to his versions of Sophocles are of great interest and importance. For example, learning that a friend was engaged in translating Virgil, he had this to say to him:


The great Roman's spirit will surely be a wonderful strengthener of your own. In the struggle with his language yours must become more agile and more vigorous....Translation does our language good, like gymnastics. It gets beautifully supple when forced to accommodate itself to foreign beauty and greatness and also often to foreign whims.


But he added a warning: that if a writer's native language served 'too long abroad' its power to express the spirit peculiar to him might actually ...


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