Shakespeare in translation

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Sonnet 130

Sonnet 130 is one of Shakespeare’s most famous sonnets, if not the most famous one. It actually makes fun of the Petrachan conventions of love poetry, that is to say the praises of beauty and perfection and the use of a huge variety of metaphors, based largely on natural beauties. The poet satires the tradition of comparing one’s beloved to all kinds of clichés and actually hesubverts and reverses the conventions by describing not a perfect, but a rather imperfect lover. The speaker seems to take the typical Petrarchan metaphors at face value and somehow decides to tell the truth. In the three quatrains there is an expanding and developing argumentation in which a rather negative image of the lover is depicted. In the final couplet the speaker finally shows his full intentby pointing out that real love does not need these conceits and that one does not need to be perfect in order to be beautiful.

To be analysed are two translations of this sonnet, one by Friedrich Bodenstedt from 1862 and the second by Karl Lachmann from 1820, both of which show the complexity of this sonnet both in terms of language and structure.

The differences between the original andthe translation by Friedrich Bodenstedt become obvious already in the first quatrain. In Shakespeare’s version there is the alliteration “my Mistress” that occurs in lines 1 and 12 and that frames the three quatrains. This frame is lost in Bodenstedt’s translation. Another formal difference between Shakespeare’s original and Bodenstedt’s translation is that in the first quatrain Shakespeare uses oneline for each comparison and establishes pairs of comparison in the following two quatrains, presenting the Petrachan ideal in the first half or line and reality in the second. In Bodenstedt’s version there is no such comparison, but rather the impression of the judgement by outsiders. This impression is reinforced by the change of the speaking situation in Bodenstedt’s translation. Shakespeareis talking about his lover and not to his lover, that is to say that he is actually addressing the reader and using the sonnet form in order to criticize in a rather artificial way a certain poetic ideal. With Bodentstedt we rather have the impression of a dialogue, which has a strong impact on the sonnet as it actually changes the content as the rejection of the Petrachan ideal is lost.
Asalready mentioned there are pairs of comparison in the second and the third quatrain, and in Shakespeare linked them by stylistic devices. Lines 5 and 6 are linked via the play with “seene Roses” and “Roses see”, and lines 7 and 8 are linked syntactically via adverbial additions, namely “in some perfumes” and “in the breath”, both of which refer to “delight” at the end of line 7. In Bodenstedt’sversion there is no such stylistic device. The only link he establishes is the Enjambement between lines 7 and 8.
In the final couplet Shakespeare draws the logical conclusion of the argumentation of the quatrains, namely that love has nothing to do with perfection. Bodenstedt comes up with a rather different conclusion, namely that of reconforting the lover for being imperfect, which is consistentfor his translation, but differs enormously form the original.
Last but not least it is important to point out the linguistic differences between the original and the translation. Shakespeare tends to keep his sonnets absolutely simple, whereas Bodenstedt tends to use poetic terms that seem a bit unreal and forced.
To sum it up, Bodenstedt was not really interested in an exact translation, heignored not only the sense underlying the sonnet, but also the artistic structure and the linguistic devices employed that make up the finesse of the sonnet. So, Bodenstedt could be described as a typical interpreting translator, who simplifies and smoothens.

The translation by Karl Lachmann is closer to the original than that of Bodenstedt, but there are still some difficulties that go with it....
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