An old translation provokes modern re-assessment

English Translations and the Trap of Presentism


I recently acquired a volume, published in 1877 by Schott and Co. of London, of a translation into English of Wagner’s Ring by Alfred Forman.  The title page brags that the translation is “in the alliterative verse of the original,” which bodes ill.

And one need not venture far into the book to have one’s worst fears realized.  Wotan to Loge, Scene 2 of Rheingold:

The hoop to have with me

Hold I wholly for wisdom. –

But hark, Loge.

How shall I learn

The means that let it be made?


The rhetorical peculiarities of this translation combine with convoluted sentence structure and unfamiliar words to result in sheer obfuscation.  Fricka to Wotan, Walküre Act II:

I have learned Hunding’s hurt;

Aloud for vengeance he hailed,

And as wedlock’s warder

I heard him well;

I vowed that sore

Should pay for their sin

The mad mannerless pair,

Who put the husband to harm.

Befriend me meetly,

That fast may their meed

Upon Siegmund and Sieglinde fall.


Nevertheless, a different assessment may result if Forman’s work is perceived through contemporaneous eyes – and ears.  In an insightful paper titled “There’s Something About Murray: Victorian Literary Societies and Alfred Forman’s Translation of Richard Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen” (Modern Language Quarterly 82:3 (September 2021) at 281), Timothy Anderson sheds light on the context of Forman’s translation and shows its popularity and its aesthetic and social utility.

Anderson explains that Forman was a member of the London Wagner Society, which hosted performances of his translations.  The Wagner Society, akin to other literary societies devoted to Shakespeare, Browning, Shelley and others, attracted artistic radicals who fancied themselves aesthetic subversives – advocating “Wagnerism” as much as Wagner.  Happily for all concerned, Forman was married to actress Alma Murray, whose recitations from her husband’s translations brought down the house.  Her admirers included Bernard Shaw, Robert Browning and Oscar Wilde.

Writes Anderson:

Scholars most often quote Forman to illustrate just how bad a bad translation of Wagner can sound, and leave him well alone.  The result is that Murray’s performances – the fact that they happened and their significance for early Wagnerism and Victorian society culture – have dropped off the historical record.  … Forman translated Wagner with a society audience and readership always in mind and with Murray’s voice as their ideal means of reproduction….

Viewed thus, we approach Forman’s place in the Wagner tradition quite differently.  What seems to our ear awkward and unworkable may well have seemed to Forman’s intended audience to have multiple admirable attributes.  First, it acquaints the non-German-speaking English audience to the work. It also emphasizes the rhythm of Wagner’s language, as well as the alliterative intentions of the original.  Its cadence is intentionally prominent, suggesting musical content.  And its rhetoric is other-worldly archaic, invoking the realm of myth in ways that the original also intends.  Wagner did not write his poem in contemporary German, nor did Forman in contemporary English.

Which brings us to the concept of “presentism.”  This term is defined as “the centering of present-day attitudes, values, and concepts in the interpretation of historical events.”  Most frequently, in my experience, it arises when people assess (and often condemn) the behavior of historical figures using contemporary, rather than contemporaneous, moral standards.  An example might be the condemnation of Abraham Lincoln for espousing the deportation of freed slaves on the ground that they are intellectually and socially inferior to whites, or the neglect of the white, male, land-owning founders of America to even consider women’s suffrage.  Members of the society in which these people lived would not regard their views as immoral (though some may have disagreed with them on other grounds).  Yet many of us do.

It may be argued that some behaviors and beliefs are fundamentally unacceptable on moral grounds; that the story of Cain and Abel appears in the Torah for exactly that reason.  I am not here to argue that proposition.  I am nevertheless wary of presentism as applied to art.  The English Victorians weren’t stupid, and they weren’t deaf to what appear to us to be the flaws in Forman’s work.  Instead, perhaps we should entertain at least the possibility that they knew something that we do not, and our mockery of this work relies upon our ignorance.

As an indication, here is an inscription in my copy of Forman’s 1876 volume, from a loving husband to a beloved wife, with sincere hopes for a better world through Wagnerism:

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By PeterP

The Wagner Blog

The Wagner Blog is a forum for discussion of contemporary themes arising from the works of Richard Wagner. Discussions relating to Wagner’s musical, literary, theatrical, philosophical, political and theoretic work are all appropriate for this forum.

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