In 1983, Michael Hamburger published Roman Elegies, a selection of Goethe poems translated into English. It was the culmination of a lifelong engagement with this most famous of German poets. Hamburger, an Anglo-German translator and writer, tackled his first Goethe poem at fifteen, but he was nearly sixty when Roman Elegies appeared. The Introduction to the expanded edition is a lesson in the forces that shapes a literary translator’s work: biography, historical circumstance, poetic skills and principles, enthusiasm, and one’s capacity as a critic.
Hamburger is wonderfully honest about his book’s origins. Only the 150th anniversary of Goethe’s death could ‘prod’ him into collating decades of irregular work in a publishable volume, and the process only confirmed his perennial struggles:
If even the present gathering of all but my juvenile versions of poems by Goethe remains miscellaneous in character, one reason is that I have neve been able to translate Goethe as persistently and consistently as […] his younger contemporary Hölderlin.
That said, the limit imposed by Hamburger’s efforts has not hindered his own aesthetic encounter with Goethe’s poetry. He has not simply translated the poems which he could in his ‘own fashion’, but also those he was ‘moved’ to. The fashion means staying loyal to what moved him. The translations in Roman Elegies are ‘pointers’ and ‘inductions’, not ‘“English poems in their own right”’.
If the translatory technique is ‘empathetic’, this empathy is not only for Goethe himself but for readers held off from Goethe by a language barrier. But Hamburger anticipates their enjoyment will primarily be intellectual:
English poetry is so rich as to have little need or room for additions in the guise of translations; but our awareness of ‘world literature’ is not rich enough to do without a poet as extraordinary and as central as Goethe.
If Roman Elegies ‘arouse[s] curiosity’ for Goethe, then, it ‘will have served its purpose’. A dispassionate goal, but one stemming from passion. When Hamburger evaluates Goethe, he glows with admiration for the poet’s ‘uniqueness’ and ‘staggering diversity’.But the relationship is not purely emotive. That Goethe commands German is an analytical observation, drawn from poems ‘inextricably rooted in their linguistic humus’, and whose author has ‘cultivated every stratum of the spoken and written language’.
To justify himself, Hamburger begins a properly linguistic investigation, while bringing this back in turn to the translation process. Römische Elegien transformed the classical elegiac couplet by reproducing it in German. To restage this transformation, Hamburger has settled on English hexameter, which has a similarly ‘refractory’ power. Elsewhere, Hamburger found no English equivalent to Sehnsucht which would fit a particular poem’s metre. Yet in scrutinising the word, Hamburger considered not only the meaning of Sehnsucht but also its associations. Having found such an association in ‘loss’, he saw that the poem as a whole adequately conveyed the feeling of Sehnsucht, and ‘loss’ could stand in for the word itself.
If Hamburger can reconcile enjoyment and close reading of Goethe’s poetry, why does he expect a more intellectual response from us? The answer goes back to his logistical difficulties. So many poems have eluded him that all he can offer is a ‘gathering’, which gives readers ‘an intimation of Goethe’s thematic range’. A representative book would demand ‘untranslatab[le]’ poems, ‘hundreds’ of them, and more space than publishing allows.
In Hamburger, then, spirited reading meets the printed world and the translator’s own intellect. Whatever his sense of his own limitations, he successfully navigates the practicalities of publication, channels his enthusiasm into analysis to find the best textual solutions, and translates his own joyful encounter into a new language.
Hamburger, Michael, ‘Introduction’, in Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Roman Elegies, and Other Poems and Epigrams, trans. by Michael Hamburger, 2nd edn (London: Anvil Press Poetry, 1996), pp. 9–16.
Jonny Elling is a first-year PhD student at the University of Bristol. His collaborative project with the British Library examines the archive of poet and translator Michael Hamburger, and is funded by the AHRC. Jonny’s thematic interests are in Romanticism, translation, creativity, and comparative literature.
 Michael Hamburger, ‘Introduction’, in Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Roman Elegies, and Other Poems and Epigrams, trans. by Michael Hamburger, 2nd edn (London: Anvil Press Poetry, 1996), pp. 9–16 (p. 9).
 Ibid., p. 11.
 Ibid., p. 15.
 Ibid., pp. 15–16.
 Ibid., p. 16.
 Ibid., p. 9
 Ibid., pp. 9–10.
 Ibid., p. 15.
 Ibid., p. 15.
 Ibid., p. 13.