Humor of Translation from German - Mark Twain

Humor of Translation from German by Mark Twain is adapted from his book A Tramp Abroad [1880]:

1. Mr. X had a small pamphlet with him which he had bought while on a visit to Munich.


and was written in a peculiar kind of English.

Here are a few extracts:

"It is not permitted to make use of the work in question to a publication of the same contents as well as to the pirated edition of it."

"An evening landscape. In the foreground near a pond and a group of white beeches is leading a footpath animated by travelers."

"A learned man in a cynical and torn dress holding an open book in his hand."

"St. Bartholomew and the Executioner with the knife to fulfil the martyr."

"Portrait of a young man. A long while this picture was thought to be Bindi Altoviti's portrait; now somebody will again have it to be the self-portrait of Raphael."

"Susan bathing, surprised by the two old man. In the background the lapidation of the condemned." ("Lapidation" is good; it is much more elegant than "stoning.")

"St. Rochus sitting in a landscape with an angel who looks at his plague-sore, whilst the dog the bread in his mouth attents him."

"Spring. The Goddess Flora, sitting. Behind her a fertile valley perfused by a river."

"A beautiful bouquet animated by May-bugs, etc."

"A warrior in armor with a gypseous pipe in his hand leans against a table and blows the smoke far away of himself."

"A Dutch landscape along a navigable river which perfuses it till to the background."

"Some peasants singing in a cottage. A woman lets drink a child out of a cup."

"St. John's head as a boy--painted in fresco on a brick." (Meaning a tile.)

"A young man of the Riccio family, his hair cut off right at the end, dressed in black with the same cap. Attributed to Raphael, but the signation is false."

"The Virgin holding the Infant. It is very painted in the manner of Sassoferrato."

"A Larder with greens and dead game animated by a cook-maid and two kitchen-boys."


2. In one of the shops I had the luck to stumble upon a book which has charmed me nearly to death.

It is entitled The Legends of the Rhine from Basle to Rotterdam, by F. J. Kiefer; translated by L. W. Garnham, B.A.

I shall not mar Garnharn's translation by meddling with its English;

for the most toothsome thing about it is its quaint fashion of

building English sentences on the German plan—

and punctuating them accordingly to no plan at all.

In the chapter devoted to "Legends of Frankfort," I find the following:

"The Knave of Bergen"


"In Frankfort at the Romer was a great mask-ball, at the coronation festival, and in the illuminated saloon, the clanging music invited to dance, and splendidly appeared the rich toilets and charms of the ladies, and the festively costumed Princes and Knights.

All seemed pleasure, joy, and roguish gaiety, only one of the numerous guests had a gloomy exterior; but exactly the black armor in which he walked about excited general attention, and his tall figure, as well as the noble propriety of his movements, attracted especially the regards of the ladies.

Who the Knight was?

Nobody could guess...”


3. (Twain adds another translation by the same man. This one is a translation of the famous legend of the Lorelei)

I have a translation by Garnham, Bachelor of Arts, in the LEGENDS OF THE RHINE, but the measure is too nobly irregular (for a song);

it don't fit the tune snugly enough;

in places it hangs over at the ends too far,

and in other places one runs out of words before he gets to the end of a bar.

Still, Garnham's translation has high merits, and I am not dreaming of leaving it out of my book.

I believe this poet is wholly unknown in America and England; I take peculiar pleasure in bringing him forward because I consider that I discovered him:



Translated by L. W. Garnham, B.A.


I do not know what it signifies.

That I am so sorrowful?

A fable of old Times so terrifies,

Leaves my heart so thoughtful.


The air is cool and it darkens,

And calmly flows the Rhine;

The summit of the mountain hearkens

In evening sunshine line.


The most beautiful Maiden entrances

Above wonderfully there,

Her beautiful golden attire glances,

She combs her golden hair.


With golden comb so lustrous,

And thereby a song sings,

It has a tone so wondrous,

That powerful melody rings.


The shipper in the little ship

It effects with woe sad might;

He does not see the rocky slip,

He only regards dreaded height.


I believe the turbulent waves

Swallow the last shipper and boat;

She with her singing craves

All to visit her magic moat.


No translation could be closer.

He has got in all the facts; and in their regular order, too.

There is not a statistic wanting.

It is as succinct as an invoice.

That is what a translation ought to be;

it should exactly reflect the thought of the original.

You can't SING "Above wonderfully there,"

because it simply won't go to the tune,

without damaging the singer;

but it is a most clingingly exact translation of DORT OBEN WUNDERBAR--fits it like a blister.

Mr. Garnham's reproduction has other merits--a hundred of them--but it is not necessary to point them out.

They will be detected.


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