update: Wuthering Heights in German

Ah,  Die Sturmhöhe.

First, I must admit I haven’t finished reading WH in Deutsch.   Upon finishing chapter thirteen,  my brain needed a rest.  One day I shall, but for now I need to read a lighter work.

As for my impressions thus far:

The first thing I noted were the changes.   Translators have a difficult job because often the languages they are working with do not have words with identical meanings.    Things are inevitably lost in translation.

What does annoy me (and I’ve noticed this in other novels and films), is when there is a direct translation and the translator will take it upon themselves to use the term they feel is more proper.

Some examples from Sturmhöhe:

1.  In the original, after Isabella accuses Cathy of, “… and desire no one to be loved but yourself!”

Cathy retorts with, “You are an impertinent little monkey!”

The translator changed that line to: ” Du bit ein unverschamtes kleines Balg!”  (You are an imperinent little brat)

This may not seem like a major thing, but writers painstakingly choose their words.  Every word, not only possesses a specific meaning, but conveys a different feeling.

2. In another case, Nelly visits young Hareton.    After hearing him sputter colorful language, she asks,  “Who has taught you those fine words, my barn?”

The translator changed the endearment to, “mein Kind”.  (my child)

Obviously they thought that “my barn” is a rather strange term to be used for affection.  And it is.  But Emily Bronte chose it.  Thus, I can only assume that it was an endearment used in the Yorkshires. 

The novel is rife with unnecessary changes such as the above that affect its flavor.

But most notably, I’ve come across the realization that Wuthering Heights can never be as good in German, or in any other language, as it is in English.  To backtrack for a moment,  I have read many of Agatha Christie’s novels in German.  Even with some changes (some necessary, some not), I never felt anything lacking.    It hardly matters if some vocabulary or syntax of hers is changed.  This is no slight to Agatha.  She admitted in her autobiography that she was no prose artist, no wordsmith.   Her talent lay in her spellbinding plots. 

However, when you consider someone like Emily Bronte, who held such mastery over the English language, a sense of magic is lost.

Consider the famous ending:

“I lingered round them, under that benign sky; watched the moths fluttering among the heath, and hare-bells; listened to the soft wind breathing through the grass; and wondered how any one could ever imagine unquiet slumbers, for the sleepers in that quiet earth.”


“Ich verweilte ein wenig bei ihnen unter diesem sanften Himmel, sah die Nachtfalter zwischen Heidekraut und  Glockenblumen umherfliegen, lauschte, wie der Wind leicht durch das Gras stirch, und wunderte mich darüber, daß jemand sich einbilden könne, es gäbe etwas in der Welt, was den letzen Schlummer deer Schläfer in diesem stillen Stückchen Erde stören könnte.”

literal translation:  “I lingered a little by them under that gentle sky, saw the moths between heath and bell flower flying around, eavesdropped, as the wind lightly through the grass crossed, and wondered me about it, that anybody self imagine could, there were something in the world, what the last slumber the sleepers in this silent bit earth disturb could.”

Due to the rules of the German language, after the first verb (which is placed in the second spot of the sentence), all remaining verbs must be placed at the end.  Which is why this piece ends as it does.   And closing the novel with “in this silent bit earth disturb could” is hardly as beautiful and poetic as, “for the sleepers in that quiet earth.”

None of this means that the translation is horrible, and that one shouldn’t read it in German.  But to experience it in its full glory, one must read it in its original language.

On a similar note, I’m glad I’m waiting to read Goethe in German.

Published in: on August 9, 2010 at 8:06 am  Comments (14)  
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14 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. I think that is the case with all books. I’ve always felt books that have been translated into English, feel like there is something missing.

  2. Morning Chazz!

    Absolutely. I remember often times hearing someone say, “One really needs to read X in the original to fully appreciate it.” And I’d think, “But I read that book and it was really good.” I had no idea what I could be missing.

    It wasn’t until I started studying German, that I started to truly understand the nuances of languages.

  3. The use of the word ‘barn’ as a term of endearment is probably a variant on the Middle English (prevalent in Scotland and Northern England) ‘bairn’ meaning child, but gender neutral, unlike ‘lad’ or ‘lass.’ Barn (et barn) is also the Norwegian word for child. Perhaps there was no similar dialectic in German to substitute?

    It’s those tiny shades of meaning and colloquialisms that are lost, which are such a huge part of what gives language its charm.

  4. Awesome analysis. Thanks for pointing out the differences. xo style, she wrote

  5. Translations can generate some really strange phrases.

  6. DD,

    Thank you so much for that info! It definitely helps clear things up.

  7. Hi Style She Wrote,

    Thank you so much! And thank you for stopping over at my blog. 🙂

  8. Hello Mr. Deadman,


    Thank you for stopping by my blog. 🙂

  9. So true that the best is to read in the original. I’m trying to imagine what it would be like to read Jane Eyre in Chinese, for instance. Not the same thing.

  10. Tasha, I’ve always wondered that about translations: they can be amazing,and having watched my husband painstakingly translate complicated essays and the like, I know how much work goes into it — but I’ve always felt like something must be lost in the process, no matter how good a translation. It may be no bigger than a single word, but we know how big that really ism or can be, at least.

    Language is so much more than the words: it’s a perspective, way of thinking.

    (Caveat: This isn’t an argument against translation — just my Wednesday version of Deep Thoughts.) 🙂

  11. Hey Abby,

    Yes, the thought of Jane Eyre in Chinese does seem a bit strange!

    Have you read any English lit classics in Chinese- and if so, how did you find them?

  12. Hi Amy,

    Absolutely. I have great respect for translators because it’s such a difficult job. But as you said, “Language is so much more than the words: it’s a perspective, way of thinking.” So even the the greatest translator can’t capture the true essence of an original work.

  13. I’ve always wondered how accurate translations were. Usually I’m not knowledgable enough in a language to know any difference. It must be annoying when you know both, though.

  14. Hey Colby,

    It can be a bit annoying, but likely, thus far I’ve only noticed little changes. Things are lost, yes. But nothing too much.

    On the other hand, I’ve heard horror stories about the Russian translation of the Harry Potter books.

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