Supplementary Appendix 319.2

Wilhelm Schlegel’s amende honorable
concerning the translation of Homer by Johann Heinrich Voss

In her letter to Wilhelm on 1 June 1801 (letter 319), Caroline remarks that “Gries believes that your amende honorable will make an impression on Voss.”

The reference is to Wilhelm’s addendum (essentially a public apology) to his earlier, extensive review of Johann Heinrich Voss, Homers Werke (Altona 1793). The review itself, now with the title “Homers Werke von Voss,” was reprinted in Charakteristiken und Kritiken 2:97–191, along with (for the first time) the addendum, ibid., 192–97, and it is to this publication that Caroline is referring here. [1]

In the addendum, Wilhelm addresses his own changed perspective and his earlier failure to assess Voss’s translation properly.

The above assessment drew a fair amount of attention in 1796 and even acceptance among many readers, presumably because it articulated merely in a more developed fashion their own previous opinions. As such, the review does represent a stage in the history of reception of this work in Germany and can provide an overview of the sometimes mutually oppositional habits that the persistent initiator, whose efforts were consistently focused toward grand results, had to overcome at the time and which he genuinely has overcome to a far greater extent than five years ago.

These are the reasons I am reprinting this review wholly unaltered, even though my own judgment has in many points been considerably altered since then. Such is especially the case as regards treatment of the German language and metrical structure. I feel obligated to acknowledge here that my own understanding at the time did not allow me fully to do justice to the mastery of this worthy author in this respect. I had myself not yet engaged in any significant attempts with poetic translations from antiquity; it only took very few to convince me that some of the liberties I thought impermissible are in fact indispensable. The end should prompt one to acknowledge the means.

No other contemporary literature has expressed so strong a desire to possess authentic translations of the poets of antiquity, however, as has our own, just as none can adduce works that follow the spirit and form of classical antiquity as closely as do several German works. Of course, any judge of poetic translations plays the role of the grammarian who by nature resists any deviation from tradition, seeking instead to demonstrate by way of analogies of the language that this or that element can never really take root in the language in any natural way.

When, however, success proves him wrong, he is constrained to accept even those contested elements into the circle of valid language use. I am by no means unhappy to find myself in precisely this situation with respect to parts of the translation by Voss, since the grammatical privileges and freedom acquired thereby also benefit me as a translator and poet. Nor was it even Voss himself who was the first to employ some of the expressions, syntax, and constructions I challenged, since they can be found as well among the best poets of the first half of the seventeenth century; our language simply lost such elements during the period in which some tried to tone down poesy itself into prose.

Amid the current incipient restructuring of our language, however, through which that earlier, destructive tendency is being overcome, we are justified in returning not merely a short distance, but indeed all the way back to those earliest monuments of our language in order to revivify those archaic but useful and comprehensible elements. We will find that we are wealthier with respect to indigenous treasures than we ourselves imagine.

Moreover, even with respect to such approximation to the languages of antiquity, approximation that has introduced previously utterly alien elements into our language that does not completely contradict its structure, we can look to the historical example of Latin, in which the so striking incorporation of Greek art and character traits, which initially was certainly not without certain rough edges and contradictions at the hands of grammarians, nonetheless in the end was a complete success.

We also have the example of Spanish, whose poetic diction acquired a fundamentally different character through the introduction of Italian meters, an introduction that similarly initially encountered considerable resistance.

One cannot fail to recognize that Voss’s translations of the ancients, especially of Homer, have become considerably more popular than they initially were, in part by the unshakeable consistency with which he implemented his principles in an increasingly expanding circle, and in part by the mere advance of time itself. Just as poets who presented their own, original works in the spirit of antiquity have contributed to this process of facilitating the acceptance of these ancients, so also, from a different perspective, are they to be viewed as it were as powerful allies of the ancients.

As regards the adaptation of the meters of antiquity, especially of hexameters, for German, Voss is undeniably to be viewed as the second inventor in this sense, and his merit as being immeasurably great. What I earlier was unwilling to accept has in the meantime become utterly clear to me now, namely, that we need not make do with a lesser degree of precision in verse structure in a translation of Homer than Voss’s own translation has.

Our adaptation of the meters of antiquity is advancing toward ever greater rigor after commencing with a decidedly more loose observation (a situation to which we doubtless owe the fact that this entire undertaking was able to establish itself in the first place, since the initial attempts in other modern nations demanded from the very outset too much from the ears and receptive disposition of their contemporaries, the result being that they in effect accomplished nothing. It is also true, however, that until Voss emerged, that same looser accommodation did permit the most degenerate distortions); our own adaptation, we hope, will find an abiding resting point with a disposition equal to or at least quite close to the original classical rules.

Perhaps the time is not so far off when, e.g., it will no longer be permissible to employ pure trochaics in hexameters. Of course, it must be genuinely possible to observe these rules, a goal toward which the mass of truly excellent hexameters that Voss has provided in an almost incomparable fashion, and from whose circumvention of the inherent difficulties there are thousands and thousands of advantages to be gained, has brought us considerably closer.

In the new edition of a German Homer of the sort we may perhaps be seeing soon, the entire attention of connoisseurs must be focused on whether the work has gained in all those elements affecting the spirit and tone, the naiveté and simplicity of the ancient singer, whether a higher level of art enables it to appear even more artless, or whether the work exhibits ill-advised artificiality to the same or an even higher degree. For one cannot doubt that the repeated examination of so solid a philologist has not failed to notice the previous grammatical flaws.


[1] The review originally appeared in the Allgemeine Literatur-Zeitung (1796) 262 (Monday, 22 August 1796) 473–80; 263 (Tuesday, 23 August 1796) 481–87; 264 (Wednesday, 24 August 1796) 489–96; 265 (also Wednesday, 24 August 1796) 497–503; 266 (Thursday, 25 August 1796) 505–12; 267 (Friday, 26 August 1796) 513–19, and was later included in Wilhelm’s Kritische Schriften 1:74–163, and in his Sämmtliche Werke 10:115–93 (where in 1827 Wilhelm included yet a third addendum, 85–93) . Back.

Translation © 2015 Doug Stott