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