“Michael Hamburger’s Goethe:  Some Conditions of Literary Translation” by Jonny Elling (University of Bristol) 

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.[1]

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.[2] The translations in Roman Elegies are ‘pointers’ and ‘inductions’, not ‘“English  poems in their own right”’.[3]

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.[4]

If Roman Elegies ‘arouse[s] curiosity’ for Goethe, then, it ‘will have served its purpose’.[5] A  dispassionate goal, but one stemming from passion. When Hamburger evaluates Goethe, he  glows with admiration for the poet’s ‘uniqueness’ and ‘staggering diversity’.[6]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’.[7]

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.[8] 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.[9]

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.[10]

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.

Author Biography

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.



[1] 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).

[2] Ibid., p. 11.

[3] Ibid., p. 15.

[4] Ibid., pp. 15–16.

[5] Ibid., p. 16.

[6] Ibid., p. 9

[7] Ibid., pp. 9–10.

[8] Ibid., p. 15.

[9] Ibid., p. 15.

[10] Ibid., p. 13.