Henry Longfellow was one of the greatest American translators of poetry. I am browsing through a 1902 edition of his Complete Poems in order to see what I have missed, and the answer is a lot, obviously, but I have read enough to make a judgment. He had a staggering gift with languages matched or exceeded his skill with versification, and the beauty of translation is that the poetic conceptions, the ideas, are mostly the other guy’s problem.
The great limit on Longfellow’s translations is that he did not do enough of the poets I wanted him to do. He only seems to have translated two Goethe poems, for instance, the “Wanderer’s Night Song” and this one from 1780:
Night Song Ein Gleiches
O’er all the hill-tops Über allen Gipfeln
Is quiet now, Ist Ruh,
In all the tree-tops In allen Wipfeln
Hearest thou Spürest du
Hardly a breath; Kaum einem Hauch;
The birds are asleep in the trees: Die Vögelein schweigen im Walde,
Wait, soon like these Warte nur, balde
Thou, too, shalt rest. Ruhest du auch.
Longfellow finds a solution for every essential element, including the sentiment, the rhymes, and the rhythm, including the power of the short but variable line lengths. I suppose he cannot completely match the strange effect of the two syllable “Ist Ruh,” although he catches the way the stillness and pace are communicated to the reader. Shhh, slow down. Look at the way Goethe suggests his reader (the vocal reader) pause for breath on the word “breath.” Showoff.
When I look at more of Longfellow’s German poems, I find Simon Dach and Gustav Ofizer and Johan Ludwig Uhland where I wish I could find Theodor Storm and Eduard Mörike, but unfortunately Longfellow had little interest in translating his contemporaries. He was always drawn to medieval and early modern traditions, and to the side of the Romantic tradition that aped the Middle Ages, that wrote ballads to lyrics. So his Dante is still, in a crowded field of Dante translations, still readable, and his version of the 15th century Las Coplas by Jorge Manrique, an elegy for his heroic father that is also a humanistic exploration of what makes a meaningful life, is an unsurpassed masterpiece. I wrote about that one almost five years ago, and will just point the curious there for some samples.
And then there is Longfellow’s Michelangelo, but I want to save that for tomorrow.
The 1902 collection contains a single Portuguese poem, a good one by Gil Vicente, so from the late 16th or early 17th century. I’ll end with it, eight lines that suggest a longer story.
If thou art sleeping, maiden,
Awake, and open thy door.
‘T is the break of day, and we must away
O’er meadow, and mount, and moor.
Wait not to find thy slippers
But come with thy naked feet:
We shall have to pass through the dewy grass,
And waters wide and fleet.