Some Thoughts on James Hogg’s German Translations

In this article, Prof Silvia Mergenthal (University of Konstanz) reflects on Heiko Postma’s recent rendition of James Hogg into German. This allows her to ponder on the often haphazard records of Hogg’s German adaptations — a body of works which raises a number of both historical and linguistic questions.

In 2013, and thus after the cut-off date for BOSLIT, German author Heiko Postma translated James Hogg’s Shepherd’s Calendar tale “George Dobson’s Expedition to Hell”. His translation, “George Dobson’s Droschkenfahrt zur Hölle”, was published, together with a short biographical sketch, as a booklet in a series entitled Cabinet of Fantasists (Kabinett der Phantasten), of which Postma is the editor.

Why “George Dobson’s Expedition to Hell”? According to Postma, he came across Hogg when he was writing a book on Burns, and then when he was walking the Southern Upland Way. He read other works by Hogg – he mentions The Justified Sinner and Winter Evening Tales – and tried to find out more about Hogg’s life (the source he gives in the booklet is Edith Batho’s The Ettrick Shepherd of 1927). “George Dobson” had been recommended to him by a friend, Rein A. Zondergeld, editor of a 1983 German encyclopedia of fantastic literature, and author of the Hogg entry therein. It fit the bill, both in terms of its subject matter and (more pragmatically) its length.

Heiko Postma, German Translator (b. 1946)

My own sense of Postma’s German, starting with the “Droschke” of the title – the more usual term would have been “Kutsche” –, is that it is somewhat mannered and anachronistic: interestingly, not just in his translation of the Hogg text, but also in his biographical sketch. What this does, I think, is to make the text more “fantastic”, which, given its publication environment, is of course fitting. However, particularly at the beginning of the story, the language of the Hogg original is – deliberately, I would argue – quite uneven in tone, ranging from the anecdotal via the factual to the spuriously scientific (and Postma admits to having struggled with this section of the text). This stylistic range, paradoxically, makes the supposed irruptions of the supernatural into the humdrum life of George Dobson much more unexpected.

In how far is Postma’s “George Dobson” translation representative of Hogg translations into German – and, from what I can see, into other European languages?

First of all, which texts by Hogg get translated can perhaps best be described as serendipitous: the first translation ever of a text by Hogg into German was “Hogg on Sheep”, that is, The Shepherd’s Guide: Being a Practical Treatise on the Diseases of Sheep, Their Causes, and the Best Means of Preventing Them; with Observations on the Most Suitable Farm-stocking for the Various Climates of this Country, or Practischer Unterricht über die Krankheiten der Schafe, deren Ursachen und zweckmäßigste Verhütungsmittel, published in 1821 by Martin Heinrich Schilling, a prolific translator who sometimes translated directly from the English original, as seems to have been the case of “Hogg on Sheep”, while, in other instances, he used French translations of his English-language source texts. Apart from a few tales, songs and poems, BOSLIT lists two 19th century translations into German of Winter Evening Tales in 1822 and 1826, the latter – and possibly also the former – by Sophie May (the pen-name of Friederike Elise Mayer), as well as selection of excerpts from Hogg’s Domestic Manners and Private Life of Sir Walter Scott (1835). A similar picture emerges when one looks at 19th century translations of Hogg into French, which start off, quite promisingly, with early (1824 and 1825, respectively) versions of Three Perils of Man and Three Perils of Women but then follow the same pattern of seemingly random selection.

Yet, “randomness” may only be in the eye of the 21st century Hogg scholar beholder, who has a clear picture of which texts by Hogg merit translation (all of them, obviously), because, secondly, what we are seeing with Hogg translations throughout are processes of de-contextualization and re-contextualization, with, I suggest, serious consequences for how (non-specialist, general) German, or French, or Italian readers encounter Hogg: namely, in anthologies of, for instance, “fantastic tales” (as in Postma’s German Kabinett der Phantasten but also in the Italian Storie di fantasmi scozzesi, 1995, which includes “The Brownie of the Black Haggs”), or of Romantic poetry (for instance “Boy’s Song” and “Skylark” in Poeti romantici inglesi, 1990). In other words, the editors of these volumes do not in fact make (altogether) random choices, but select Hogg texts which fit their overall agenda. Yet another variation on this theme of de- and re-contextualization is provided by eminent Hogg scholar Gioia Angeletti’s 1990s translations of “The Witch of Fife” and three other poems, which were published in the context (and confines, one is tempted to add) of a prestigious Italian literary journal (In forma di parole XVIII, 1998). The obvious exception to these processes is stand-alone The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner, which, following its endorsement by André Gide in 1947, has, to date, been translated into twelve languages, in the case of French and German, several times.

1949 French Translation of Hogg’s Confessions of a Justified Sinner with André Gide’s Preface

Finally, there is the question of Hogg’s language – above and beyond the English/Scots problem, which Postma resolves, fairly elegantly, by drawing on his own Northern German (“Platt”) variety: if one were to produce a translation of, say, The Brownie of Bodsbeck, should one pitch it at a general reading public, and should it then be in modern German/French/Italian/Spanish, or does one, like Postma with his “George Dobson” “Other” it, linguistically? Or would one target a specialist audience of readers interested in, and knowledgeable about, 19th century Scottish literature, complete with footnotes, commentary and so forth? But this latter group would surely be much more likely to want to read – or to have already read – Brownie in the English original.

I’d like to conclude with a bit of contrafactual speculation: what would have happened if, instead of, say, Scott’s Old Mortality, it had been The Brownie of Bodsbeck which had been translated into major – and perhaps even more importantly, minor – European languages (to date, there is no translation of The Brownie of Bodsbeck at all). Or if the first translations of The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner had been published during Hogg’s lifetime rather than post-1947? Would this have changed the course of 19th century European fiction – or at the very least, the history of the historical novel?

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