On The Sufferings of Young Werther


Sam Stark on Stanley Corngold’s translation “The Sufferings of Young Werther” in the LA Review of Books:

WHAT EXACTLY DID LOTTE DO to Werther on their first night together? In Stanley Corngold’s 2011 translation of the book that he calls The Sufferings of Young Werther, she “won” his heart. In some other translations, she just “touched” it. David Constantine’s restrained new Oxford Classics edition leaves the heart out altogether: “She touched me more closely,” Werther writes in this version, “than any other here.” In any case, Lotte came between Werther’s heart and his great love at home: his best friend Wilhelm, to whom he is writing to explain why he hasn't been writing lately. The pivotal letter in the book, dated June 16, 1771, begins as his answer to that question. Werther himself may not be able to say what happened: “I have — I don't know.”

The reader has to want to know. Hearts are to a love story what corpses are to murder mysteries; if we don’t know exactly what happens to them, the plot just makes no sense. Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s Die Leiden des jungen Werthers has something in common with both genres. Goethe puts his anonymous fictional Editor in the role of detective, who has “diligently collected everything I could discover about the story of poor Werther,” as her unsigned prefatory note has it — “never neglecting the slightest slip of paper we found,” she reassures the reader near the end of the book, admitting “the difficulty of discovering the truly genuine, the authentic motives behind even a single action when it is found among persons who are not of the common stamp.” That difficulty often comes down to particular words, and a translator’s influence goes well beyond style to encompass character, plot, and every moral implication of the story.

Werther is a radical reinvention of the epistolary novel, mostly made up of fragments of prose ranging in length from a sentence to a few pages, dated but unsigned and without salutations. These are generally assumed to be letters written by young Werther, mostly to his close friend Wilhelm (who is, nevertheless, rarely addressed directly and whose responses, if they are supposed to have existed, are missing). It's hard to talk about the book at all without assuming at least this much about it: that these are letters, all by Werther, and almost all to Wilhelm, except in a few cases where the writer explicitly addresses someone else. The sophisticated reader of Goethe's time might have thought of it as an exercise in philology; today, it looks an awful lot like a blog.