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19 June 2019

Translating Ibsen: monstrous rare of attainment

The Duke of York’s Theatre is currently playing Henrik Ibsen’s Rosmersholm, a play that Michael Meyer suggests ‘marks Ibsen’s final withdrawal as a playwright from the polemical field’. It is marked everywhere by a curious sense of withdrawal, as the protagonist John Rosmer, heir to the Rosmersholm legacy and former clergyman, stirs himself towards a revolutionary popular politics, before abruptly asserting its futility. Likewise, the complex love affair between Rosmer and Rebecca West reaches the possibility of marriage, before that becomes impossible because of Rebecca’s guilt over her complicity in the suicide of Rosmer’s first wife and her manipulation of Rosmer towards her radicalism. Hints of idealism amidst the angst-ridden interactions dissolve into a resignation to unchangeable political, psychological and moral realities. This kind of thematic disappointment works also on the level of language, and Toril Moi suggests it depicts a dark modernity ‘where language has come to seem untrustworthy’. This makes you wonder: if the play is about the impossibility of communication, what does it mean to read and experience it at one remove, in translation?

Rosmersholm First Ed Title Page

First edition of Rosmersholm (Copenhagen, 1896) BL 11755.bbb.34.

Ibsen is notoriously difficult to translate, hence the many translations and adaptations of his plays over the last century. This includes the new four-volume Penguin Ibsen, the third volume of which contains a new translation and critical apparatus for Rosmersholm and will be released in December this year. Mark Lawson reminds us of one of the problems of translating Ibsen: that he wrote in Danish in Norway at a time of linguistic transition, when Danish remained in use but was being superseded by Norwegian. ‘This means that the translator 
 needs two different sets of dictionaries and thesauri and a strong sense of the historical evolution of Scandinavian languages.’

Rosmersholm Parker Portrait

Portrait of Louis Napoleon Parker, National Portrait Gallery 1917

This combination of disappointed ideals and the thankless task of the translator emerge in the preface to the first English translation of Rosmersholm (London, 1889; 11755.e.13.) by the playwright, poet and musician, Louis Napoleon Parker. Parker writes how Ibsen was slowly becoming known to English audiences and, regarding his translation, ‘It claims only one merit: it is done from the original, and it is done as literally as my limited skill in juggling words would permit. An ideal translation is, like other ideals, monstrous rare of attainment. This is not an ideal translation; but that it is faithful I will pledge the word of one who has hitherto been considered indifferent honest.’ In his autobiography, Parker mentions an ‘obsession’ with Rosmersholm, ‘the only useful lesson in playwriting I ever had’. After first translating from an early German version, probably Marie von Borch’s (Berlin, 1887; 11755.c.2.), he returned to the original, feeling ‘instinctively that there were slips and lacuné’ in the German.

Rosmersholm Parker Title Page

Title Page of Louis N. Parker’s translation alongside his dedication to H. Rowland Brown Cup.403.m.4.(7.)

The Ibsen Society of America see the first translations, including presumably Parker’s Rosmersholm, as being particularly faithful but also outdated: ‘older literary translations can impede meaning as much as they preserve it, as one soon discovers when struggling through any of the arch British-Victorian translations’. A couple of the tricky motifs to transmit into English, according to Toril Moi, are the verbs svélge (‘swallow’) and kvéle (‘strangle’). For Moi, these verbs ‘evoke ideas of forced or silenced expression’ in a play about the struggle to connect through language and the actual abyss between Rosmer and Rebecca, as well as between Rosmer and the outside world. These verbs are strange to a Norwegian reader in their contexts and therefore stand out. Rendering into comprehensible English, translators often miss the specific motifs of swallowing and suffocation, which Moi holds central to her understanding of the play.

Let’s compare a couple of passages from Parker’s 1889 work, Charles Archer’s 1891 translation (11755.df.45.), Michael Meyer’s 1966 version (X.908/8346.), Mike Poulton’s 2008 adaptation (YK.2009.a.18115), and Moi’s own renderings in her critical work.

The end of Act 2 sees Rosmer lament the impossibility of his political project due in part to his deep guilt over his wife’s death. Moi has it:

ROSMER: I shall never conquer this – not completely. There will always be a lingering doubt. A question. I’ll never again be able to bask in (svélge i) that which makes life so wonderfully delightful to live.
REBECCA: [leaning over the back of his chair, more slowly] What kind of thing is it you mean, Rosmer?
ROSMER: [looking up at her] Quiet, joyous freedom from guilt.
REBECCA: [takes a step back] Yes. Freedom from guilt.

Moi cannot retain the idea of swallowing but opts for a phrase that keeps a bodily sense, of absorbing something. This is lost in Meyer’s and Poulton’s translations, which go with the verbs ‘enjoy’ and ‘losing the one joyful thing’. Parker and Archer settle for ‘revel in’, retaining at least the preposition and therefore some idea of physicality.

The scene takes a turn when Rosmer asks Rebecca to become his second wife, a proposal she rejects for no clear reasons at this stage. Rosmer’s plea is about shaking off the burden of the past in marriage, demanding, according to Moi’s version, to ‘let us strangle (kvéle) all memories in freedom, in pleasure, in passion’. Meyer writes, ‘let us lay all memories to rest in freedom, and joy, and love’, a significantly more peaceful image. Poulton offers a more violent image in the verb ‘drown’. However, closer to the original, Parker and Archer prefer the verb ‘stifle’, a motif of suffocation.

One last example that provides interesting comparison is the word vidnesbyrd, the ‘testimony’ or ‘proof’ Rosmer asks of Rebecca to restore his faith, essentially demanding that she takes her own life. Moi prefers to see this as ‘bearing witness’ because the concept is distinct from ‘proof’, as it ‘has to do with a person’, whereas ‘proof’ ‘often refers to things or facts’. This word isolates one translator among our selection. The very first translation, the one that was a product of an obsession with the most faithful rendering, Louis Napoleon Parker’s work is the only version not to use the word ‘proof’. He employs the awkward formulation, ‘Let me have a token!’ The word ‘token’ insists on a visible and tangible manifestation of something in a way that ‘proof’ does not quite manage.

As strange as it sounds in Parker’s rendering, perhaps Parker’s ‘token’ is a more accurate translation after all, and, if anything, his version helps to remind us of Ibsen’s own strange language.

Pardaad Chamsaz, Curator Germanic Collections

References/Further Reading

Louis N. Parker, Several of my Lives (London, 1928), 010855.f.42

Toril Moi, Henrik Ibsen and the Birth of Modernism: Art, Theater, Philosophy (Oxford, 2006) YC.2006.a.19524

Mark Lawson, ‘The Master Linguist: The Problem with Translating Ibsen’, The Guardian (29 October 2014)

13 June 2019

‘The Father of German Calligraphy’: Johann Neudörffer

In an earlier post I wrote about the use and long survival of ‘gothic’ typefaces and handwriting in the German-Speaking countries. It was surely no coincidence that, at the time when the printing press and the influence of humanist thought and teaching were beginning to popularise ‘Roman’ printing and writing styles, the first printed writing manuals for German scripts also began to appear.

One of the first and most influential creators of such manuals was the Nuremberg writing and mathematics teacher Johann Neudörffer (1497-1563), who published his first collection of alphabets, designed for his own students and usually referred to as the Fundament, in 1519 (1267.g.24.(3)). His major work, Ein gute Ordnung und kurtze Unterricht der furnemsten Grunde aus denen die Jungen zierlichs schreybens begirlich, mit besonderer Kunst und Behendigkeyt unterricht und geubt mögen werden, appeared 19 years later.

Gute Ordnung tp
Title-page  of Johann Neudörffer, Ein gute Ordnung und kurtze Unterricht (Nuremberg, 1538).  C.69.aa.18.

The Gute Ordnung contains not just alphabets and examples of how to form and join letters, but also models for the kinds of  documents his students would need to prepare in their later careers as court or civic scribes.

Gute Ordnung Puncte und Linien
Practical guidance on points and lines from Ein gute Ordnung

Gute Ordnung alphabet
An alphabet in capitals from Ein gute Ordnung

There are also models of scripts using prayers, Biblical quotations and educational maxims. Most are in German hands, although there are some samples of Roman and italic lettering. There are large and elaborate capitals, and texts in script almost too tiny to read, practical scripts for everyday work and decorative ones for special occasions.

Gute Ordnung outline
An outline script from Ein gute Ordnung

Gutr Ordnung flourishes
Decorative flourishes from Ein gute Ordnung

Perhaps the most complex model is a prayer presented as a labyrinth pattern.

Gute Ordnung pattern

Because of the method of reproduction used, many of the plates also appear in reverse, which were often bound in with the others. This, together with the fact that Neudörffer produced more plates in later years which were bound into some copies, makes the work a bit of a bibliographical challenge.

Gute Ordnung BĂŒrgermeister
A page (above) and its reverse (below) from Ein gute Ordnung

Gute Ordnung BĂŒrgermeister reversed

The British Library holds two copies, one (C.69.aa.18.) with 103 leaves of which 46 are accompanied by the reverse, and one (1256.kk.31.) with 101 leaves of which 45 are accompanied by the reverse and one appears in reverse only. Both copies show evidence of being owned by contemporary scribes. The first copy has an ownership inscription by a Hanns Lebzelter dated 1549, and the second has 18 manuscript leaves bound in, one of them signed by Veit Stoss (1533-1576) a grandson and namesake of the sculptor.

Gute Ordnung inscription
Ownership evidence: Hanns Lebzelter (above, C.69.aa.18) and Veit Stoss (below, 1256.kk.31.)

Gute Ordnung Veit Stoss

The 1519 Fundament and Ein gute Ordnung are copy-books with little or no explanatory text, but in 1549 Neudörffer published what was more of a descriptive textbook. Ein Gesprechbüchlein zweyer schüler, wie einer den andern im zierlichen schreyben untherweyst takes the familiar pedagogical form of a dialogue between instructor and learner, although rather than the more familiar model of a teacher or parent in the role of instructor, Neudörffer’s dialogue is between fellow students of a similar age. Stephan is keen to improve his calligraphy skills with the help of the more experienced Johann (based on Neudörffer’s own son). “I’m ashamed to let you see my handwriting,” Stephan explains at the start of the first lesson, but Johann reassures him, “It isn’t so very bad, at least one can read it,” and goes on to explain how to cut and hold a quill, how to make basic lines, points and letter-shapes, how to form and join up letters and so on.

Pen
Above: A perfectly cut quill pen, from Ein Gesprechbüchlein zweyer schüler (Nuremberg, 1549) 1267.g.24.(1).  Below: Guidance on how to hold a pen, from a 1601 reissue of the work under the title Schreibkunst (Nuremberg, 1601) 1477.dd.52.(1)

Schreibkunst 1601 pen

Under the title Schreibkunst, Neudörffer’s grandson Anton reissued the GesprechbĂŒchlein in 1601 with an additional collection of letters and alphabets, some of them so elaborate that it becomes almost impossible to decipher the basic letter-forms beneath the flourishes.

Schreibkunst 1631 A-L
Decorative letters A-L (above) and R-S (below) from  Schreibkunst

Schreibkunst 1631 RS2

Neudörffer helped to shape the style of both German handwriting and German printing types in the 16th century, and thus to influence German writing and printing styles for four centuries. Today he is recognised as the father of German calligraphy, and has inspired modern designers of gothic typefaces who have given his name to their fonts.

Susan Reed, Lead Curator Germanic Collections

References/further reading:

Oliver Linke, Christine Sauer, Zierlich schreiben: der Schreibmeister Johann Neudörffer d. Ä. und seine Nachfolger in NĂŒrnberg (Nuremberg, 2007) YF.2011.a.17762

Werner Doede, Bibliographie deutscher SchreibmeisterbĂŒcher von Neudoörffer bis 1800 (Hamburg, 1958) 2739.c.6.

05 June 2019

Transcending Text in Print: Lothar Schreyer’s Kreuzigung

The term Bauhaus evokes functionality, social utopia, maybe even novel pedagogical thinking, but this is often associated with its role as a school of design. However, the Bauhaus developed out of a movement that was split between the rational and what Pádraic E. Moore refers to as the ‘cosmically-inclined’. This year’s Bauhaus centenary gives pause for thought to the contrasting utopianisms at the heart of the school, and to the esoteric elements, which have been given less attention in its historiography.

These elements are often reduced to the influence of Wassily Kandinsky, who articulated a ‘spiritual vision’ for 20th-century art. Kandinsky sought to unite form, colour, sound, and movement in ‘the gradual forming structure of the new spiritual realm’. Der gelbe Klang (‘The Yellow Sound’) is one such ‘symphonic composition’ that paved the way for a new theatre. It first appeared in Der Blaue Reiter Almanac (Munich, 1912; C.107.h.16) and comprises six ‘pictures’ almost without dialogue, detailing elaborate staging and actor movements.

Kandinsky was a key influence on Lothar Schreyer, pioneer of expressionist theatre, who, according to David F. Kuhns, ‘built a whole theory of performance on the expressive process first suggested in The Yellow Sound’.

Title Page
Title-page of Lothar Schreyer, Kreuzigung (Hamburg, 1920) C.180.cc.8.

Where Kandinsky offers lengthy stage directions as a surrogate for synesthetic art experience, Schreyer’s Kreuzigung: Spielgang Werk VIII attempts to represent a spiritual experience in a singular score, employing a distinct set of signs and symbols, colours and forms. Its publication triggered Walter Gropius to invite Schreyer to the Bauhaus, where he led the stage workshop between 1921 and 1923.

SchreyerProfile
Lothar Schreyer  in 1918. (Picture from UniversitĂ€tsbibliothek Heidelberg, CC-BY-SA-3.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

Kandinsky was influential but Schreyer’s Bauhaus experience was shaped more by Johannes Itten and Gertrud Grunow, two less familiar names. Schreyer’s thinking around rhythm maps onto ideas simiular to theirs. Itten led the Bauhaus Preliminary Course [Vorkurs] and Grunow the course in ‘Practical Harmonization’ [Praktische Harmonisierungslehre], both forming the foundation of a student’s education. Itten’s devotion to Mazdaznan opened his practice to regulating physical exercises, including breathing and rhythmic drawing. Likewise, Grunow encouraged rhythmic breathing and a response to colours through movement. Both were committed to strengthening students’ ‘self-awareness in relation to both the corporeal and the spiritual’ (Linn Buchert). In the focus on fundamental words, tones, colours, forms, Schreyer also encourages in each of his practitioners an inner harmony, sound, or rhythm, which pushes to a limit the experience of ‘word’. This is more than the ‘transmission of a message’; it is the evocation of spirit.

Kreuzigung developed out of Schreyer’s work with Der Sturm, the most influential journal of German expressionism, an offshoot of which, Die Sturm-BĂŒhne, he edited in collaboration with the Hamburg KampfbĂŒhne, his parallel theatre project. Schreyer’s expressionism went against the overly literary dramatic tradition, which he declared defunct: in his 1916 essay ‘Das BĂŒhnenkunstwerk’, he wrote: ‘It is necessary to forget theatre. [
] A stage art [BĂŒhnenkunstwerk] is necessary’. That stage art privileged performance over print, synesthetic experience over dialogue. Kreuzigung then returns to the print medium in order to explode the representative possibilities of literature.

The book is not described as a playscript [TheaterstĂŒck], rather Schreyer prefers the neologism Spielgang. Whereas the usual term refers to a piece, the new term draws attention to the mobility of the text through Gang (path, walk, derived from the verb gehen, to walk or go). It is the only Spielgang to materialize from a workshop process that was usually reserved for the KampfbĂŒhne’s community of artists. Schreyer only rarely allowed outsiders into performances and practically no reviews. Yet Kreuzigung became the exemplary work ‘to grant others the knowledge’ of this creative experimentation through, in Schreyer’s own words, ‘the system and sign, in which a stage work was given the stability of form [die BestĂ€ndigkeit der Gestalt]’.

The text is evocative rather than wholly readable. It works in connection with the representation of movement, figures (as coloured forms), and sound. That is apparent from the title page, headed with the motto, ‘Sturm dir Sturm allen Sturm’, which might be translated as ‘Storm to you Storm to all Storm’ but also works on the level of sonic rhythm and visual symmetry, especially in the heightened artistry of the wood-block setting.

What the reader must know
‘What the reader must know‘, from Kreuzigung

The next page sets out what the reader, performer, and spectator ‘must know’. Schreyer writes in the essay ‘BĂŒhnenwerk Spielgang und Spiel’ that ‘in order to learn the Spielgang system and its signs, no particular course of study is necessary’. Yet, the universal pretensions are qualified in the work itself as ‘Anyone can read the score who can hear word-tones [Worttone] internally and see the movement of coloured form’. Likewise, ‘The play can only be seen and heard with a circle of friends as a shared experience, as a shared act of devotion, as a shared work’. On one level, Kreuzigung acts as a representation of performance but, on another, it points to the impossibility of that very representation. It is at once readable by all and penetrable only by the initiated.

Symbols
The system and symbols from Kreuzigung

The system is unpacked on the following page. Three levels are represented on a stave: word sequence, tone sequence and movement sequence. A zigzag line on the tone sequence denotes pitch based on its position and on the yellow (high) or blue (low) lines. The bracket symbols refer to volume and the target signs to pauses in both sound and movement. Words are stretched and contracted as appropriate to the bar by way of the woodcut text. The cross-like symbol relates to the ‘Man’ character, the single red circle to the ‘Mother’ character, and the two red circles to the ‘Beloved’ character.

Man&beloved
The figures of ‘Man’ and ‘Beloved’ from Kreuzigung

These symbolic referents point to the ‘de-individuated “art-body” stripped of socially conditioned speech and movement patterns [
] capable of expressing universal truths’ (Buckley). In fact, the Spielgang was a communal creation based on an original process of meditation and vocal practice to identify the performer’s ground-tone [Grundton], becoming word-tones [Wortton] when applied to language and Sprachtonspiele when in sentence combinations.

Schreyer glosses the play itself as a ‘desperate struggle for humanity against daemonic forces’. It evokes a post-war apocalypse, around which man wanders wounded in the company of two female characters in the conventional guises of mother and mistress, ultimately seeking escape through spiritual transcendence.

Wounded feet
‘Man: Wounded feet of men carry us | Woman: My heart is blood’, from Kreuzigung (all translations by Mel Gordon)

Ultimately, while salvation is demanded, it does not arrive, as the figures are left to call for the world to wake, to realize itself beyond the material desperation. Yet, Kreuzigung is not just the representation of some failed transcendence; that would neglect the formal purity of a project less concerned with content. Rather, ‘the actual logic of the work of word art [Wortkunstwerk] is more of an artistic logic’. Spiritual transcendence is a process entered into in the performance and experience of such universal stage art.

Complex movements All tasks we perform
Complex movements: ‘Beloved: I am (Beloved alternately moves arms up and down four times) | Man: All tasks we perform. Flames break at midnight. (Mother quarter turn left, right arm horizontal sideways. Hand behind, then in front, opens left hand on breast; Beloved quarter turn right, right arm horizontal sideways. Hand behind, then in front, opens left hand on left breast; Man forearm on cross, straight in front; Mother right hand on right breast; Beloved right hand on right breast)

Saviour
‘Saviour!’ (All together)

The End Awake
The End: ‘Awake. World. Awake.’ (All together)

Kreuzigung is an attempt to encapsulate the anti-literary in print, what Buckley terms the manifestation of Schreyer’s ‘anxious utopianism’, which enacts the tensions ‘between its knowledge and its hopes – between the Werk as commodity and the Arbeit of the community, between mediation and immediacy’. A contemporary of Schreyer, Robert Musil, articulated this negotiation between spirit and rationality a year after the publication of Kreuzigung, as ‘an abiding miscommunication between the intellect and the soul. We do not have too much intellect and too little soul, but too little precision in matters of the soul’. In the urge to leave something material, ‘out of which creative people in the future could understand what forces had moved and shaped our plays’ (Schreyer, Erinnerungen), Schreyer and the KampfbĂŒhne showed their precision in works of the soul and underlined that tension at the heart of the Bauhaus. Kreuzigung is thus the result of precise printing craft and a meticulous pedagogical process that might just also tend towards the divine.

Pardaad Chamsaz, Curator Germanic Collections

References / Further Reading

Wassily Kandinsky, On the Spiritual in Art, edited and translated by Hilla Rebay (New York, 1946), 7813.b.1.

Lothar Schreyer, TheateraufsÀtze (Lewiston, 2001), YC.2002.a.12966

——, Erinnerungen an Sturm und Bauhaus. Was ist des Menschen Bild? (Lewiston, 2002), YK.2002.a.21881

Robert Musil, Precision and Soul: Essays and Addresses (Chicago, 1990), YC.1991.b.1058

Hans M. Wingler, The Bauhaus: Weimar, Dessau, Berlin, Chicago (Cambridge, MA, 1979), f80/0186

Mel Gordon, ‘Lothar Schreyer and the SturmbĂŒhne’, The Drama Review, vol. 24, no. 1 (1980), pp. 85-102. 3623.197000

David F. Kuhns, German Expressionist Theatre: the Actor and the Stage (Cambridge, 1997), YC.2002.a.15612

Jennifer Buckley, ‘The BĂŒhnenkunstwerk and the Book: Lothar Schreyer’s Theatre Notation’, Modernism.modernity, vol. 21, no. 2 (2014), pp. 407-24. 5900.120000

Pádraic E. Moore, ‘A Mystic Milieu: Johannes Itten and Mazdaznan at Bauhaus Weimar’, bauhaus imaginista, edition 1

Elizabeth Otto and Patrick Rössler (eds), Bauhaus Bodies: Gender, Sexuality, and Body Culture in Modernism’s Legendary Art School (New York, 2019), ELD.DS.381646

Linn Buchert, ‘The spiritual Enhancement of the Body: Johannes Itten, Gertrud Grunow, and Mazdaznan at the early Bauhaus’, in Bauhaus Bodies