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Be quiet the doctor's wife said gently, let's all keep quiet, there are times when words serve no purpose, if only I, too, could weep, say everything with tears, not have to speak in order to be understood.

José Saramago

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Wednesday, October 17th, 2007

Hymns to the Night

Here are some different editions of Novalis' Hymns to the Night:

The first sentence: Before all the wondrous shows of the widespread space around him, what living, sentient thing loves not the all-joyous light, with its colors, its rays and undulations, its gentle omnipresence in the form of the wakening Day? is in praise of the light and the Day when I am expecting to find praise of Night. The opposition between the two will make up the body of this poem.

I dig the sound of the poem and am intending to spend some time in the coming days thinking about its meaning, anyway if I can do so without having it sound too much like I'm writing an essay for my freshman English class. Otherwise I will just focus on the sounds.

Update: In comments, Gary posts his own translation of the poem.

Update: For the sake of completeness, another translation, this one by Henry Morley. (At the very end of the page.) Dick Higgins also has done a translation, but it is not accessible online.

posted evening of October 17th, 2007: 10 responses
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So this:

Abwärts wend ich mich zu der heiligen, unaussprechlichen, geheimnisvollen Nacht. Fernab liegt die Welt - in eine tiefe Gruft versenkt - wüst und einsam ist ihre Stelle.

doesn't sound nearly as odd to me as this:

Aside I turn to the holy, unspeakable, mysterious Night. Afar lies the world, sunk in a deep grave; waste and lonely is its place.

Possible reasons:

  • It is normal to invert elements of a sentence like that in German, where in English it sounds archaic -- I cannot vouch for the truth of the first clause here but that's what they told me in high school German. It may be that the construction would sound archaic to a native speaker of German.
  • The German sounds foreign to begin with, and my ears do not pick up enough nuance to tell anything more than that; whereas the English is my own language, and I can tell straight off that it is not the kind of thing you would say, if you were speaking about turning to the holy, mysterious Night.

I am trying to figure out here, whether a more colloquial translation would be a good thing -- if the German sounds stilted in the original, then a comfortable translation would not be true to the source material.

posted evening of October 17th, 2007: 2 responses
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Thursday, October 18th, 2007

Collaborative translation

Want to help me come up with a new translation of Hymns to the Night? I've set up a page for translating.

Update (Friday evening): Hm, haven't seen anybody else over there yet. But I have a working copy of the first chapter, and I think it sounds pretty good. I have copied MacDonald's translation quite closely in places, and introduced changes in other places. See what you think.

posted afternoon of October 18th, 2007: Respond
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Experiencing poetry through translation

Trying to translate a poem I don't really understand out of a language I don't really speak fluently might seem, well, a little Quixotic. But listen -- I think it is worthwhile. It is I guess at root a way of making myself spend some time trying to get the sounds and meanings of the poetry. I have traditionally had a hard time with poetry because I pass over it too quickly and miss nuances. An exercise like this, assuming I can stick with it, will work to correct that tendency.

posted evening of October 18th, 2007: Respond
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Saturday, October 20th, 2007


I am a little surprised at the progress I am making with Hymns to the Night -- I was mentioning to a friend today that when I pick up projects like this, I usually map them out in detail, then translate a sentence or two and lose interest. Today I've got working translations of the first and second hymns, and I think they read reasonably well. I have borrowed heavily from MacDonald's translation but I think mine is more pleasant of a read -- you have to spend less time and effort on diagramming the sentences in your head to make them make sense.I think a combination of telling everybody I'm working on this and the effort I put into programming the translation page is making this feel like a higher priority to actually put in the time and do it. We'll see about the verse sections of hymns 4, 5, and 6 -- I think it is going to be really difficult to come up with anything.

Update: I'm no longer a one-man band! The first outside contribution to the project comes from Greg Woodruff, and it's a good 'un.

Update: Another translation, from Gary.

posted evening of October 20th, 2007: 6 responses
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Monday, October 22nd, 2007

Idealism and alienation

I was thinking about Romanticism today and what it might mean in the context of Fritz's life, and in the context of Hymns to Night -- Jerry was telling me he thought the poem (of which I had read him about the first paragraph) sounded profoundly connected to being in the world, and I said well, there's a lot of alienation in the poem as well -- I was talking about the suggestions throughout the poem (as much of it as I have read), that the Night and unconsciousness are a higher, more true reality than day, because in sleep the poet can clearly see his beloved free of the trappings of the earthly. This seemed to me like a pretty clear-cut Idealist metaphysics, that the realm of thought is more real than the shadows of the outside world -- I had a go at explaining Plato's allegory of the cave to Jerry -- it's hard for me to see how such a metaphysics could be anything besides alienating of the thinker from the world, which seems like a bad thing to me. And, this ties in with the perception I have that Romantic thinking (on which I have only the vaguest of a grasp) and Idealism are somehow decadent -- which is just something I dimly remember hearing somewhere but has become sort of an article of faith.

(Dumb typo corrected, and it occurs to me that "Allegory of the Café" would be an awesome name for a restaurant.)

posted evening of October 22nd, 2007: Respond
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Wednesday, October 31st, 2007

Speech is its Delight and Essence

We do not understand speech, because speech does not understand itself, nor wish to; the true Sanskrit* would speak in order to speak, because speech is its delight and essence.

This line is from Novalis' The Novices of Sais, newly reprinted in a translation by Ralph Manheim. (Thanks to Conrad and Forrest, for pointing it out to me.) It strikes me as so similar to Fritz' speech to Karoline about Language, that I think Fitzgerald must have used it as source material. (It is also, I think, quintessentially stoner.)

Another great line from The Novices of Sais, from the chapter titled "Nature":

It must have been a long time before men thought of giving a common name to the manifold objects of their senses, and of placing themselves in opposition to them.

It suddenly occurs to me that "manifold" might be a good translation of vielgestaltete in the first paragraph of Hymns to Night.

*This word is kind of bugging me, because when I read it I see the name of a language, not a type of philosophy. My suspicion is that Novalis intends it to mean "mystic", so I am making that substitution when I read.

posted evening of October 31st, 2007: 4 responses
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Wednesday, May 6th, 2009


I was looking at the beginning of "Pierre Menard, Author of Don Quixote" (in Anthony Bonner's translation) this evening and was a bit surprised to find two statments that both appeal to me strongly, and neither of which I have noticed in previous readings. Borges attributes to Menard the opinion that "censuring and praising were sentimental operations which had nothing to do with criticism." (Menard ­recuerdo­ declaraba que censurar y alabar son operaciones sentimentales que nada tienen que ver con la crítica.) This is a fairly commonplace idea and a useful one; I like the way it is stated here a lot (the adjective "sentimental" is just right), and it seems like there is a mnemonic quality to this formulation. And the narrator says that part of what inspired Menard's project was "that philological fragment of Novalis... which outlines the theme of total identification with a specific author." According to Daniel Balderston (in Out of Context: historical reference and the representation of reality in Borges), the fragment referred to is:

I only show that I have understood an author when I can act in his spirit; when, without diminishing his individuality, I can translate him and transform him in many ways.*
Well this is lovely. Something to chew on and over for a while.

*Efraín Kristal also quotes this line in his Invisible Work: Borges and Translation.

posted evening of May 6th, 2009: Respond
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Friday, July 29th, 2011

holy, unspeakable, mysterious Night.

In case you have not been following comments on my years-old threads (and really -- who could blame you?): Ben has convinced me to re-open the Novalis translation project that I started back in 2007 but never really got anywhere with. He has contributed some excellent suggestions regarding nearly all of the sentences in the poem's second stanza. Perhaps you started reading this blog sometime since 2007 and you would be interested in helping out with this project, if only you knew about it! -- Well, here is your chance. We're trying to improve on the various English translations of Novalis' poem Hymns to the Night, and we're trying to do it by committee. Take a look and see what you think.

Ben's working translation of the second hymn is below the fold.

posted evening of July 29th, 2011: Respond

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