Whole Lotta Sturm & Drang Goin’ On

He's not the cheeriest protagonist.

You may have noticed on my “And More!” page that I’m planning to publish a translation of Goethe’s Die Leiden des jungen Werther (“The Sufferings of Young Werther”). Don’t worry if you’d forgotten about that — honestly, so had I! But my friend Joel told me a few days ago that he’s begun reading it, and that started the wheels turning in my head again.  I’ll say a bit here about why I want to do this, and (most importantly!) how you can help me with it!

When I read Werther a few years ago, I was amazed at how…contemporary the whole thing felt. I mean, hey. There’s this guy; he meets this girl, who’s engaged to this other guy; but he decides, “hey, that’s cool — we can just be friends, right?” And of course that doesn’t work at all. He goes crazy about her; eventually, he meets her fiancé, who (of course, unbearably) is the nicest guy in the world; and he decides, “hey, well, all three of us can be friends!” And of course that’s just the worst.

That’s basically the story. And when you put it like that, it sounds veeery familiar. Heck, I put myself through that three or four times in the last five years. And what makes Werther so special is that it’s told with such attention to emotional detail and so much realistic care that it’s not hard to recognize yourself in it. It’s the little things —
The time he watches her drive off in her carriage, and she’s saying goodbye to everyone but him, and then just as she’s leaving the courtyard she turns back — was it to look for him?!!?
Or the time he’s writing back to his best friend, saying, “So, you’re saying that either I have a chance and I should go for it, or I don’t and I should move on. Well…I think it’s more complicated than that!”
Or the time, when he’s at his most depressed and messed up, that he writes “I happened to pick up one of my old diaries, and I see now that I walked right into this…”


Yeah. It’s so real. Goethe himself had just lived through it twice before writing the book, so I guess he knew what it was like. And it moved me to learn that our experiences had been so close. It turns out young-men-in-love in 1774 were desperate and confused and longing in just the same way as they were in 2010. That seems to me like an important insight. I’ve always thought it was important to realize that people from the past weren’t that different from people today, and Werther is a powerful reminder of that — of our shared humanity through time.

But that’ll only click for people if they’re reading a translation that’s fresh enough that they can recognize themselves in it. I was lucky enough to read it in the original German, and originals don’t date; they’re eternally fresh off the presses of their time! But translations do, because translations make a bridge between the text and and the present, and when the present shifts…it’s like one bank of the river moving further away. The bridge collapses. Or at least it doesn’t reach.

Now, Werther is an epistolary novel; it’s all (well, almost all – spoilers!) letters from Werther to his friend Wilhelm. (We only see Werther’s side of the correspondence, but we can infer things about what Wilhelm’s been writing him.) At some point it occurred to me that one fun way to reinvigorate Werther would be to release a new translation as a blog, and have each letter be a blog post. Even better: each post would appear on the same date as the original letter in the book, with the year adapted for the present day! So, for example, the first letter of the book, dated May 4, 1774, would appear in a post on May 4, 2012. That means that, if you chose to follow me in this, you’d see Werther’s story unfold in real-time over the year or so that it took him to live it. What do you think? Does that sound fun?

Now, in the last week since Joel started me thinking about this again, I’ve been considering creating as vivid a “virtual Werther” as I can. He’ll have his own Gmail, Twitter, and WordPress accounts; I want the blog to say “…posted by werther“, as if it were really his blog that he’s keeping up. And maybe he can tweet in the dead days between posts. My ideal would be that someone who doesn’t know the story would stumble across this and think it was a real kid’s blog. Maybe I should call him ‘Will’, or something, so the name’s more contemporary.

Actually, I’ve been wondering how far to go in making this an adaptation instead of just a translation. Maybe I’ll make him move to…Brooklyn, instead of the random small town he stumbles across. Brooklyn is kind of like a small town. Hmm. What do you think?

I’d love your thoughts. If I go ahead with this, I’ll be committing myself to a lot of work and over a year of virtual Werthering! I’d like to make sure I benefit maximally from your feedback before I plunge into things. How much do you think I should change things?

And keep your eyes peeled — I’ll be looking for your advice in the coming months as I work to find a voice that’s both contemporary and rich enough to balance modern cool with 18th-century rhapsodizing.

Here’s to an amazing ride! Let’s do this 🙂


11 thoughts on “Whole Lotta Sturm & Drang Goin’ On

    1. ardenrb Post author

      You mean you don’t think I’ll make it through the whole book? Maybe. I think it’ll be spread over enough time that it should be manageable. And hey — I’m happy to get as far as I get.
      Or did you mean something else?

  1. Louise

    I think that if it goes well, it shouldn’t only be a online blog-book. I think you should compile it together and send it to an editor. Because that sounds unbelievably cool. 🙂

  2. Anastasia

    That sounds pretty damn amazing. I just stumbled across your blog, read this post as well as the one comparing A Study in Pink to Doyle’s originals, and I already think you’re one of the coolest people ever. I’m not sure how I feel about moving Werther to Brooklyn – after all, the story itself, as you summarized it, could happen anywhere – but I definitely like where you’re going with making him “modern,” so to speak (if I didn’t already know you watched the BBC’s Sherlock I’d ask if you’d seen it. Did that series, by any chance, have anything to do with this idea of yours?)

    1. ardenrb Post author

      That’s very sweet of you to say 🙂

      I’ve actually had the “Werther” idea for a few years now, but so far I’ve been all talk and no action. It’s just by chance that I tuned into “Sherlock” so soon after posting about this. But what a chance! I feel kind of intimidated now — now that I how well this can be done, I’m nervous about trying it myself.

      I’m kind of uncomfortable with moving him to Brooklyn too. It’s where I am now, and it’s a place a lot of arty twenty-somethings gravitate towards, so it was the first place I thought of, but it definitely has problems. It’s a little too “scene”, as one of my friends said on Facebook; in the original, he’s sort of run off into the countryside, and New York isn’t quite the country. Also, just geographically, Werther spends a lot of time running around hiking the hills and the forest feeling all close to nature, and unless I have him romping around Central Park (or Prospect Park) I’m not sure how I’ll capture that. Or where he’ll meet some young woman who takes care of her NINE siblings…

      I mean — I guess I could tweak all that stuff. Maybe he takes a train to the Appalachians, maybe Lotte has…two younger siblings. That still makes me a little nervous, though. I’m only just gradually coming around to the idea of doing an adaptation as opposed to a fairly straight translation in modern English. I guess I’ve always assumed that anything more than that would distort the original?

      Now that I’ve watched “A Study in Pink”, I’ve realized that you actually can be bold, change a lot of details, and still create something very compelling and deep-down faithful. But I also know that that’ll take MUCH more work than just an updated translation, which would already have more or less dominated the next year+. So yeah. I don’t know 😛

      What do you think?

  3. Anastasia

    I completely understand your qualms about doing more of an adaptation than a translation, and the question of where to draw the line. I think the important thing is to capture what the story meant in its time, for the readers of its time. After all, both Sherlock and Werther and many other classics I could mention were set during the time period of the readers; they didn’t look back nostalgically on fog and gas lamps like we do. That’s why Sherlock is so brilliant – it finds modern day equivalents; it doesn’t just update the stories, it translates the experience Doyle’s readers had. Don’t be intimidated by Sherlock, though – the idea you have sounds amazing, and I think that Goethe’s novel is different enough from the Holmes stories that you can pull it off without worrying too much about comparison. The story itself is, as you say, “contemporary” – all you need to do is get rid of the costumes and props and things that remind the reader that the story is happening nowadays.

    I wouldn’t move Werther to Brooklyn because, well, New York is kind of the center of everything. Stories are set in New York nowadays kind of how they were set in Paris and London by French and British authors two hundred years ago – those cities were the center of everything. But Werther’s story happens, as you say, in some random town he stumbles across – I’d keep it in that random small town. If he spends a lot of time running around in the countryside of Germany in the original, he can still do that – there’s still plenty of countryside left in Germany (though it’s probably more touristy).

    Also, if you’re worried about the size and difficulty of the undertaking, I’d be happy to help; I speak German as well and study literature (though I’m not completely fluent, but, well, I can make my way through literature). I totally understand if you want to make this your own project, but if you need advice about a particular turn of phrase or aspect or anything, feel free to send a message 🙂

    1. ardenrb Post author

      Wow! That is incredibly generous of you. Thank you so much for your comments and your offer of help — I’ll definitely keep you posted!

      As well, I think you’re quite right about New York paralleling Paris or London. I guess there’s no reason not to keep him in Germany…except that I’m translating this into English! 😛 There might be some equivalent spot in the U.S. or Canada somewhere…

  4. Anastasia

    If there is an equivalent in the U.S. or Canada, I’m afraid I don’t know what it is – I’m rather fond of big cities and sort of forget about the small ones.

    You’re always welcome to reach me by e-mail (which I think you can find by clicking on my name) – I’m always happy to participate in literary projects of any kind!

  5. hearthstrung

    arden. i love this. you absolutely must do it.
    but don’t do new york. maybe do a town where a lot of germans have immigrated historically?
    so happy to see you’re thriving and really hitting the multi-talented-artist-life completely out of the park.

  6. Pingback: What’s Old Is New Again | "Oh, Something Arty…"

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