Supplementary Appendix 309.1

Wilhelm Schlegel’s quarrel with Johann Friedrich Unger
and the fate of the translation of Shakespeare [*]

Wilhelm Schlegel himself, albeit with a not entirely accurate recollection of details, recounts his dispute with Friedrich Unger in a letter to Georg Reimer from Bonn on 15 March 1825. [1] His friendship — which was also cordially intimate — with the publisher and his spouse, the latter of whom was a writer herself [2] ended when during his second stay in Berlin Wilhelm discovered that Unger, without consulting the translator [i.e., Wilhelm himself], had reprinted the first volume of Shakespeare. Wilhelm was unsuccessful in demanding compensation.

The lawsuit he brought with Karl Wilhelm Friedrich Grattenauer as his attorney was unsuccessful, commensurate with the legal codes of the time, which were quite disadvantageous for authors. The legal decision of 30 July 1801 is preserved in the literary estate of Ludwig Tieck in Berlin (no. 41), namely,

that it be stipulated that the 300 copies of the first volume of the translation of the dramatic works of Shakespeare issued by the defendant during this year shall be destroyed in the presence of the plaintiff or his representative commensurate with said plaintiff’s petition; the rest of the plaintiff’s charges are otherwise to be dismissed and the plaintiff directed to pay the defendant’s legal expenses.

Wilhelm had been precipitate with his lawsuit, as, much to his annoyance, Ludwig Tieck pointed out to him in early June 1801, for the enterprise of double printings was a fairly widespread, if deplorable, practice among German publishers at that time, and Unger doubtless had not really intended to be deceptive. He seems to have printed the individual volumes in varying print runs and to have subsequently amplified the lower runs. He also enlisted Cotta’s mediation in trying to find an amicable solution to the dispute. [3]

The ultimate victim in this — in reality — petty matter was German literature in the larger sense, since it introduced an irremediable interruption in Wilhelm’s magnificent translation work, essentially maiming it and leaving it as a mere torso, since Wilhelm was then without a publisher for the remaining volumes. [4] In May 1801 Wilhelm dispatched Ludwig Tieck to the Leipzig book fair to sound out and negotiate with potential publishers in the matter, though without real success. [5]

Without a secure and solvent publisher, however, Wilhelm, who even without such problems was having a hard enough time living exclusively from his writing, was loath to continue the project. And when in the autumn of 1801 Unger, after the legal decision had been passed down, then tried to come to an amicable agreement, it was too late. “By that time,” Wilhelm recounts later,

I was already occupied with other projects, with my lectures, Calderon, [6] the Blumensträusse, [7] etc., and simply never got around to it again in Berlin. When I was abroad afterward, frequent journeys, social distractions, then also the political crisis put the project at an ever greater remove.

And then, after this lengthy interruption, when he decided to pick up and continue the project again after all, his former facility had faded; whereas earlier his consistent work with the translation had enabled him to finish an entire play in a few weeks, the final [9th] volume [1810], which contained solely Richard III, took years. A genuine reconciliation with Unger seems not to have come about until the autumn of 1803.


[*] Josef Körner, (1930), 2:60–62, omitting several of Körner’s cross references. Back.

[1] Körner, (1930), 1:415–19. Back.

[2] Wilhelm Schlegel had spent five weeks residing with them at their Berlin garden house in the summer of 1798 and had reviewed Madam Unger’s novel Julchen Grünthal (3rd ed. Berlin 1798) with assiduous cordiality in the Allgemeine Literatur-Zeitung (1798) 32 (Saturday 27 January 1798) 253–56 (Sämmtliche Werke 11:239–43, though the review was likely by Caroline; see Friedrich Schlegel’s letter to Caroline on 20 October 1798 [letter 205], note 19). Back.

[3] see Caroline’s letters to Wilhelm on 18 May and 7–12 June 1801 (letters 317, 320). Back.

[4] See Wilhelm’s unsuccessful letter to Cotta on 23 April 1801 (letter 310c). Back.

[5] See Wilhelm’s letter to Tieck on 7 May 1801 (letter 313b) and Tieck’s discouraging account in his letter to Wilhelm in early June 1801 (letter 319a). Back.

[6] The first volume of Wilhelm’s Spanisches Theater (Berlin 1803) contained three works by Calderon. Back.

[7] Blumensträusse italiänischer, spanischer und portugiesischer Poesie (Berlin 1804). Back.

Translation © 2015 Doug Stott