Trans Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften 16. Nr. April 2006

9.4. Translation and Ideology
Herausgeberin | Editor | Éditeur: Nitsa Ben-Ari (Tel Aviv University)

Dokumentation | Documentation | Documentation

Faust Translates the Holy Scriptures: Concepts of Translation in Romanticism

Gabriel Zoran (Hebrew and Comparative Literature, University of Haifa, Israel)


The art of translation is basically quite retiring, and translators and their actions are not often depicted in literature. Numerous literary texts exist about poets and writers, about painters, sculptors, and composers; about works of art, artistic processes and "ars-poetical" questions concerning these arts. Translators are still quite rare in this arena, which makes it difficult to count on fictional translators while discussing the art of translating. But where the history of literature provides us with characters of that kind, it may be a fruitful way to understand the art of translation from an unusual viewpoint.

At the end of the 18 th century, in Goethe's writing, two important and well known characters came into being, who one way or other are occupied with translation, and who have also something to say about that art.

Faust, in one of the opening scenes of Goethe’s play, has a long soliloquy in which he shares his thoughts about translating the New Testament. Goethe's Werther too is quite a gifted translator, beyond his passionate letter writing. At the end of the novel he reads to his beloved Lotte almost ten pages from his translation of the Scottish/Celtic epic cycle, Ossian.

In the case of Faust, we follow his hesitations about translating no more than four or five words, the opening of Saint John’s Gospel. But these hesitations are intricately related, and from them one can learn much about the concept of translating as implied in the play. With Werther the situation seems reversed: from him we hear nothing about translation, although he has a great deal to say about his preferences in the fields of narration, poetry, painting and other arts. Even his very activity as a translator is revealed only at the end of the novel. On the other hand, while regarding other arts we must be content with what he says "about" them, regarding translation we are given a sizable sample of his actual work.

A fictional translation, like any other, makes it possible to identify and define its own working principles, but unlike the case with most real translations, the very fact that alongside the work of translation there is a vivid presentation of the translator himself, places him in full light, and not in the usual darkness - or transparence - where most real translators are situated. His practical working rules represented by the text can thus be made into a kind of declaration about the principles of the art of translation.



Although Faust is a later text than Werther, it seems easier to begin with it, since its programmatic element is more direct and accessible. We are situated in the study when Faust enters, having spent the Easter morning on a walk outside the town. He is accompanied by a black poodle which followed him home. His amusement with the dog on the way home now turns to dismay, since it seems to misbehave and disturb the scholar's concentration. Later, this dog will be revealed as the devil in disguise, and Mephistopheles will emerge from it. But at this stage Faust is oscillating between extreme emotions: on the one hand an almost religious holiday-peacefulness, and on the other a disquiet and nervousness projected from within, greatly augmented by the presence of the demonic dog. Faust’s last attempt to preserve his serenity is made by the plan to translate the Holy Scriptures:

I feel an urge to reach
For the original, the sacred text, appealing
To simple honesty of feeling
To render it in my dear German speech.
           (He opens a tome and sets forth.)
"In the beginning was the Word" [Wort] - thus runs the text.
Who helps me on? Already I'm perplexed!
I cannot grant the word with sovereign merit,
I must translate it in a different way
If I'm indeed illumined by the spirit.
"In the beginning was the Sense" [Sinn]. But stay!
Reflect on this first sentence well and truly
Lest the light pen be hurrying unduly!
Is sense in fact all action's spur and source?
It should read: "In the beginning was the force!" [Kraft]
Yet as I write it down, some warning sense
Alerts me that it, too, will give offense.
The spirit speaks! And lo, the way is freed,
I calmly write: "In the beginning was the Deed!" [Tat]

                    (Translated by W. Arndt, Goethe 1976, p.30)

So Faust quotes the opening words of St. John’s Gospel, which in Greek are: "en arché én ho logos ". The difficult point here is doubtlessly the word "logos" which is multi-significant in Greek too: it means "word", but also "argument", "speech", "idea", "story-line", "fable". Faust here hesitates between four possible translations - "word" (Wort), "sense" or "idea" (Sinn), "force" (Kraft) and "deed" (Tat).

These hesitations gave rise to numerous interpretations, so before considering their assumptions about the art of translating, let us examine these very hesitations. This may be accomplished from a hermeneutic, philosophic, and dramatic viewpoint.

From the hermeneutic viewpoint the meaning of Faust’s hesitation is what kind of exegesis suits the Holy Scriptures: the simple or the esoteric one? The literal or the homiletic one? The first suggestion is doubtlessly simple and literal, but Faust, strongly inclined to mystical theories, is not satisfied with it, and he tries to interpret the phrase according to its alleged esoteric meanings. He prefers the homiletic and esoteric interpretation, and therefore he does not let go of the issue and further considers it.

From the philosophic viewpoint many attempts have been made to understand what secrets Faust tries to read into the text, what the traditional interpretations are, and what his own contributions are. In each suggestion there has usually been found a kind of echo of the traditional exegesis of the Scriptures, together with something inherent in modern philosophy. Nevertheless it is quite obvious that the dependence on traditional thought is gradually weakened, while independent thought, or the allusion to modern philosophy, is gradually intensified.

Sinn ("sense", "idea", or "meaning") still conveys some of the original meanings of logos. Yet from the philosophical viewpoint it is of a rather Platonic character, since it regards the idea as the first principle. The second suggestion, Kraft ("force", "power") is more Aristotelian in character: it sees the first principle as the potential (dynamis), which must be realized and actualized. The last suggestion, Tat ("deed"), somehow refers to "pure actuality" in Neo-Platonic thought, but most scholars agree that it is the closest to Faust’s own worldview. The best way to understand it will be through idealistic philosophy of Goethe’s era, and especially that of Fichte.

In Fichte the first step of philosophy is actually that in which the ego assumes its place, and situates itself as an accomplished fact: the first step is an act, not a proof. This is a kind of early version of existentialism, an attempt to situate existence prior to essence. Faust thus contemplates an idea, or at least is satisfied by an idea, the real sources of which are closer to Goethe’s time.

But the dramatic situation, within which this consideration takes place, prevents the audience from sharing Faust’s satisfaction. Recall that all these theological considerations are related while the devil is bouncing around the preacher as a dog, and the moment Faust is at last satisfied, the devil appears in his own person. Some commentators believe that the devil, incarnated in a canine body, is unable to survive the analogical power of God's incarnation in a word (Goethe 1976), and others believe that on the contrary, the devil realizes the philosophical explosive inherent in Faust’s solution (Render 1981). However, all agree that the devilish presence in the background to the theological speech charges it with a special tension. Without yet stating what it specifically implies, we may also note that the devil appears dressed as a scholastic philosopher. In short, the dramatic context bathes Faust's exegetic efforts in an entirely ironic light.

But now, after discussing the soliloquy from these three aspects, we should examine what conceptions about the work of translating are expressed or implied in it: how is the role of the translator presented?

To understand this, we should note first the character of the project Faust has undertaken. Translating the Holy Scriptures into German was in fact a part of the work of Martin Luther, who in 1524 published a German version of the Bible, thereby making it a text accessible to everybody, and also making the ecclesiastical hierarchy superfluous. Faust’s project clearly reflects Luther's. But does it mean that Faust is supposed to be Luther's double, or epigone, or harbinger? In the world of the play the German Reformation is a fact, and Martin Luther is explicitly named, albeit marginally.(1) So Faust’s project is actually a repetition of something already done, a reinvention, as it were, of the wheel. Why should one retranslate an already translated text? It is probably done when the existing translation, for some reason, does not satisfy the translator, and he wants to suggest an alternative, a better one.

If we examine the way Luther treated this phrase, we shall find that Faust’s first choice is exactly Luther's translation: "Im Anfang war das Wort".(2) This explains perhaps why Faust opens the book and reads the German sentence as if it were actually written there, and not as if he was translating a sentence from the Greek. It transpires that the four versions conveyed by Faust are actually divided into two: the first choice, which is Luther’s rendering, as opposed to a group of three other possible choices, suggested by Faust as alternatives.

The border between Luther’s version and those of Faust passes at the same point where we earlier located the hermeneutic border between the simple literal exegesis and the homiletic esoteric one. But in this case the distinction is not merely hermeneutic; the question presented is not only how to understand the original, but also how to understand the translator's task. A translator performs several actions only some of them being interpretation. A clear opposition is presented here between two outlooks on translation: the strictly minimalist literal translation, as against the other translations, each of which contains a kind of semantic addendum, and they are all, in a way, maximalist. The difference between the possibilities is not only in the question of how the original is understood, nor is it even a matter of the freedom the translator allows himself: these are two different conceptions of the nature of translation and of the kind of commitment the translator has to the original, to his readers, and to his home culture.

The first possibility, Wort, provides the reader, as it were, with a kind of literal reproduction of the original, and just as the commentator to the original text might have paused over the meaning of logos, the reader or commentator of the translation can pause over the meaning of Wort. This kind of translation strives at situating the reader of the translation in a similar position to that of the original reader.(3)

The three other suggestions, despite their semantic differences, are fairly homogenous as to the translation concept they reflect, and they all differ from the first on this point. According to their implied view, it is not enough for the translator to provide the reader with different terms for the conceptual system of the original; he must also transform this very conceptual system into a parallel one.

Faust, indeed, keeps hesitating, but only about which of these conceptual systems will be most suitable for his readers: the Platonic? The Aristotelian? The Idealistic? He does not ask himself what the original exactly meant, or how to express that meaning in German. Faust ponders only what the relevant conceptual system is into which this section should be transformed, not whether a conceptual system should be transformed at all.

Before us then is a confrontation between two concepts of translation, a duality also well known from the modern translation theory. Nowadays this opposition is called adequate versus equivalent or acceptable translation.(4) The adequate translation strives to construct in the target language a kind of reproduction, which may reflect the conceptual system and codes of the original. The equivalent translation tries to transform the original text, and transfer it not only from one language to the other, but also from one conceptual system to the other. For our purpose the terms reproductive versus transformational may seem a little bit clearer because they reflect the actual translating process.

This duality recurs in various forms throughout the history of translating. In the framework of each of these concepts the art of translation attained impressive achievements as well as ignominious failures. Each enjoyed an era or a culture of glory and dominance, and suffered eras and cultures of decay and recession. Here, in Faust’s theoretical consideration, this duality is expressed once again.



But what is more interesting and relevant for our context is the fact that this modern distinction, which has been especially developed in the new translation theory since the seventies, was first actually formulated in the Romantic era, and is explicitly expressed in Goethe’s writings. In an essay of 1813 he writes:

There are two maxims in translation: one requires that the author of a foreign nation be brought across to us in such a way that we can consider him as ours; the other requires that we should go across to what is foreign and adapt ourselves to its conditions, its use of language, its peculiarities. The advantages of both are sufficiently known to educated people through perfect examples. (Lefevere 1977: p. 39).(5)

Later Goethe develops this distinction in a slightly different direction. In 1827, when he was nearly eighty, he added a rich and detailed appendix to his West-Eastern Divan, and in one of its chapters he also discusses problems of translation. There he distinguishes three kinds of translation, which differ not only essentially but also chronologically. They are arranged in evolutionary order, from a primary and simple state to an accomplished and developed one.

The first kind is the minimalist literal prose translation. This is a reproductive and adequate translation, and the highest achievement by this method is Luther’s translation of the Holy Scriptures, greatly praised by Goethe:

The first acquaints us with the foreign country on our own terms; a plain prose translation is best for this purpose. Prose in and of itself serves as the best introduction: it completely neutralizes the formal characteristics of any sort of poetic art and reduces even the most exuberant waves of poetic enthusiasm to still water. The plain prose translation surprises us with foreign splendors in the midst of our national domestic sensibility; in our everyday lives, and without our realizing what is happening to us - by lending our lives a nobler air - it genuinely uplifts us. Luther's Bible translation will produce this kind of effect with each reading. (Schulte 1992, p. 60).

The second kind is the diametrical opposite of the first, and here every concept of the original is replaced by a parallel concept from the target culture. Goethe tries to be fair and descriptive about this method, but he does not manage to disguise his reservations. He calls the method "parodistic" and attributes it mainly to French culture:

A second epoch follows, in which the translator endeavors to transport himself into the foreign situation, but actually only appropriates the foreign idea and represents it as his own. I would like to call such epoch parodistic, in the purest sense of that word. It is most often men of wit who feel drawn to the parodistic. The French make use of this style in the translation of all poetic works. (---) In the same way that the French adapt foreign words to their pronunciation, they adapt feeling, thoughts, even objects; for every foreign fruit there must be a substitute grown in their own soil (Ibid, pp. 60-61).

The third kind of translation is the ideal: the attempt to create a precise parallel of the original, which is not only its lexical reflection but also expresses its stylistic, metrical and phonetic qualities. Such, for instance, are Voß’s translations of Homer, which initiated the possibility of writing epic hexameters in German. This kind of translation also creates a new situation within the target culture:

Because we cannot linger for very long in either a perfect or an imperfect state but must, after all, undergo one transformation after another, we experienced the third epoch of translation, which is the final and highest of the three. In such periods, the goal of the translation is to achieve perfect identity with the original, so that the one does not exist instead of the other but in the other's place.

This kind met with the most resistance in its early stages, because the translator identifies so strongly with the original that he more or less gives up the uniqueness of his own nation, creating this third kind of text for which the taste of the masses has to be developed (Ibid, p. 61).(6)

If we examine Goethe's outline of these three epochs, we observe not only his preference for the first and the third, and his reservations regarding the second, but also the link between the first and the third, and their common distinction from the second. The first and third kinds are actually two different intensities of reproductive translation; the second is transformational, a kind of translation that takes the original to the reader and not the reader to the original.

If we return to Faust’s considerations and try to locate them in the given scheme, we can do it easily. Luther has been explicitly presented as an exemplary instance of the first epoch. Faust’s soliloquy thus expresses the passage from the first epoch to the second. At the same time, the general dramatic context exposes Goethe’s reservations about the translating outlook of that second era, since the entire decision in its favor is made under the devil’s control. Goethe's natural sympathy is for the first method, the archaic one, or, by contrast, for the third one, which is derived from it, the fully reproductive translation.


But who, in Goethe's imaginative world, represents this third kind of translation? It is Werther in his Ossian translation. Ossian by James Macpherson is an original text disguised as an English translation from Celtic, which raises lots of important questions we cannot enter here.(7) Anyway, Goethe himself embarked on translating this text it into German while studying at the Strasburg Law School, that is, in his early twenties. He never completed it, nor did he publish it as such, but shortly afterwards, when he composed Werther, he ascribed it to his fictional character, and re-adapted several of its sections for a lengthy quotation in his novel.

To see the concept of translation ascribed to the fictional character, we shall examine a short passage in Macpherson's English and in Werther’s German:

What dost thou behold, fair light? But thou dost smile and depart. The waves come with joy around thee: they bathe thy lovely hair. Farewell thou silent beam! Let the light of Ossian’s soul arise! (Macpherson [n.d.], p.285).

And in Goethe’s/Werther's German:

Wohnach siest du, schönes Licht? Aber du lächelst und gehst; freundlich umgeben dich die Wellen und baden dein liebliches Haar. Lebe wohl, ruhiger Strahl. Erscheine, du herrliches Licht von Ossians Seele! (Goethe 1966, vol. 4, p. 97).

The translation is strictly literal. Every lexical, semantic, and syntactic element has a precise parallel. There is only one thing that Goethe symptomatically concedes: Macpherson’s style is highly archaic and it repeatedly uses ancient forms like "thy", "thou", "dost", etc. Not only do these forms signify archaism, they also serve as identifying marks of poetic diction, a quality especially heavy in a text that eschews all other marks, like rhyme and meter.

With Goethe's special predilection for prose translation, he made no attempt to find a correlate for these archaisms, and chose German forms more or less colloquial in his day. He entirely abandoned any archaistic gesture. What he did not abandon, or indeed lose, is the powerful emotional tension of the text, its forceful expressiveness. But here something happened which is a kind of creative change, taking Werther’s translation from the first epoch of translation to the third one.

Although the vocabulary is standard German, the syntactic structure and inner rhythm, drawn from the English, are not typically German. The literal translation of Ossian carries the English structure into the German language, and thus contributes to the German style of Sturm und Drang. This means a kind of accumulation of units, a disconnected line of thought. If we peruse Werther’s letters we will learn that this is the way he constantly writes: his units are accumulated and disconnected: the end of the sentence is seldom being made ready at the beginning. Here is a rather extreme example:

Wenn ich nur ihre schwarzen Augen sehe, ist mir es schon wohl! Siehe, und was mich verdrißt, ist, daß Albert nicht so beglückt zu sein scheint, als er - hoffte - als ich - zu sein glaubte - wenn - Ich mache nicht gern Gedankenstriche, aber hier kann ich mich nicht anders ausdrücken - und mich dünkt, deutlich genug. (Book II October 10).

When Werther is employed as an official at Graf K.'s administration, he works under the supervision of a dreary and pedantic official, who makes his life bitter and presses him to polish his memoranda endlessly. Werthe relates:

No "and", no conjunction should be left out, he is the deadly enemy of all the inversions occasionally emitted from my pen. If you don't lower your sentences according to the traditional melody, he does not understand a word. (Book II December 24).

The strangeness of Werther's style in the eyes of the official representatives of his era can be understood in historical terms as the "Sturm und Drang" style. In psychological terms it can be understood as reflecting the process of mental disintegration Werther undergoes.(8) But without arguing with any of these understandings, it can be understood also as an absorption of English structures in his German through the Ossian translation.(9)

Werther/Goethe created a new phenomenon here: not a translation that tries to force upon the original the linguistic habits of the target-language speakers, but on the contrary, a translation that stretches the target language to such an extent that new possibilities are revealed within it, a kind of third quality which is neither English nor traditional German. This is a translation which "brings the reader to the text" in the deepest sense: it does not force the readers' habits on the text, but struggles with the readers' habits in order to create new ones, fitting for the original text, but applicable for any use of language.


The discussions of Faust as well as of Werther show different aspects of the art of translation. In Faust the transformative pole is stressed in its opposition to the reproductive; in Werther there is a celebration of the linguistic and creative potentials inherent in the reproductive translation. But beyond the preferences of the fictional characters, Goethe’s preference is clear here: in all the sections analyzed one can see his preference for reproductive translation and his reservations about the transformational.

This preference is not unique to Goethe. It is implied also in Schleiermacher, in Novalis, and in most theoreticians of the era. Moreover, most of the important translations of that age actually belong to that pole. Preference for the reproductive translation can be regarded as something typical of the time and the place.

The question now is what has this preference to do with Romanticism? The connection is not immediate or direct, nor is it self evident. Poets who were quite remote from Romanticism shared this preference. Voß, for instance, who practiced this method in his translations from Homer, and who was highly praised by Goethe and later by Heine, was far from being a romanticist; he was one of the prominent German classicists. Goethe himself is located at a certain point between classicism and romanticism. But this method of translation is typical of almost all German translators of the time. Throughout the nineteenth century this method has been conceived first and foremost as an authentic German choice, and it is opposed mainly to the French habits.

Novalis writes in 1798:

Transformative translations require a poetic spirit of the highest range in order to be authentic. But easily it becomes a distorted imitation, like Bürger's iambic Homer, Pope's Homer and all French translations. (Lefevere 1977, p.63).

And almost 90 years later (1887) Nietzsche writes:

The French of Corneille's age as well as those of the Revolution seized Roman antiquity in a way we [Germans] no longer dare to - thanks to our higher historical sense. (The Gay Science A 83, Nietzsche 2001, p. 82).

The Germans try to differentiate their culture first and foremost from that of their historical rivals, the French, whose cultural imprint is dominant in so many fields: no wonder the Germans make this effort in the field of translation also. They present a contrary ideology of an open language and culture, with refined historical sensitivity, and the capacity to absorb foreign influences without appropriating them.

But beyond the national issue, there is something generally "romantic" in the German choice, just as there is something generally "classicist" in the French one. In a way Romanticism is inherent in German culture just as classicism is in the French, and so even German classicism is "romantic" at least in some of its qualities.

If we compare classicism and romanticism by means of the opposition between universal, lawful, shaped from the classicist pole, and unique, original, individual, authentic, from the romantic one, we see that the choice between the two translating methods reflects a very deep aspect of this opposition. Transformational translation is actually a re-shaping of the original text, subjecting it to the laws of the target culture, as well as to a set of general and universal laws. Reproductive translation tries to capture something of the individuality of the original, something of its "originality", and this is sometimes achieved at the cost of breaking the universal laws of language.

Indeed, I do not wish to claim that the reproductive choice is "romantic" as a result of a certain necessary and committing essence. In the framework of what we call "romanticism" we could imagine also opposite choices. Perhaps transformation may seem more "romantic" because of the freedom it grants the translator with regard to the original. Reproduction may easily seem strict or pedantic, qualities quite remote from the usual "romantic" image.

There is no necessary essential correlation between the classic-romantic pair and the transformational-reproductive pair, and between both of them and the French-German pair. But in the specific historical and cultural situation of German Romanticism, such correlation seemed to arise, and retrospectively we can envisage the way in which the choice of translating method was linked with the respective cultural choices. After determining these reservations, we can state that the inclination to reproduction rather than to transformation, as expressed in German translations from the end of the 18 th century to the 19 th century, goes hand in hand with the romantic position as well as with a certain national self image developed those days. This very inclination is reflected also in the presentation of fictional translating practice discussed in this article.

© Gabriel Zoran (Hebrew and Comparative Literature, University of Haifa, Israel)


(1) V. Faust line 2129, Goethe 1966 vol. III p. 63.

(2) V. Luther, 1974: p. 2137.

(3) The Latin translation does the same: "In principium erat verbum". verbum means precisely a word, Wort, and it has nothing of the complex connotations of the Greek logos. It is too a minimalist choice.

(4) V. Toury 1995 pp. 56-61.

(5) It should be noted that this very distinction has been developed into a systematic theory by the philosopher Friedrich Schleiermacher in an essay published exactly at the same year as Goethe's: "But now the true translator, who really wants to bring together these two entirely separate persons, his author and his reader, and to assist the latter in obtaining the most correct and complete understanding and enjoyment possible of the former without, however, forcing him out of the sphere of his mother language - what paths are open to the translator for that purpose? In my opinion there are only two. Either the translator leaves the writer alone as much as possible and moves the reader toward the writer, or he leaves the reader alone as much as possible and moves the writer toward the reader (Schulte 1992 p. 41-42).

(6) In a sense these three states differ along the lines of "thesis", "antithesis", and "synthesis", which is typical for idealistic philosophy and achieved special popularity in Hegel's version. In the Romantic theory of translation a triple division of a similar kind (although essentially different) can be fond in a fragment by Novalis from 1798, who distinguishes between grammatical, transforming, and mythical translation (see Lefevere 1977: p.64).

(7) For the concept of pseudo-translation see Toury 1995 pp.40-52.

(8) V. Swales 1987, pp. 23-29.

(9) It should be noted that in Dichtung und Wahrheit, when Goethe describes his situation while composing Werther, he tells about his pessimistic and suicidal state of mind and connects it with being deeply influenced by English poetry. (Book 13, Goethe 1966: vol. V, pp.5232 ff.). This thematic influence can easily be reflected in the style.


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1977. Translating Literature: the German Tradition from Luther to Rosenzweig. Van Gorcum. Assen & Amsterdam.

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Nestle, Eberhard
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Nietzsche, Friedrich
2001. The Gay Science. Ed. Williams, Bernard, translated by Nauckhoff, Josephine and Del Caro, Adrian, Cambridge UP, Cambridge.

Render, Harry
1982. In the Beginning was the Deed: Reflections on the Passage of Faust. California UP, Berkeley, LA, London.

Schulte, Rainer & Bigunet, John
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Swales, Martin
1987. The Sorrows of the Young Werther, Cambridge UP, Cambridge & New York.

9.4. Translation and Ideology

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For quotation purposes:
Gabriel Zoran (Hebrew and Comparative Literature, University of Haifa, Israel): Faust Translates the Holy Scriptures: Concepts of Translation in Romanticism. In: TRANS. Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften. No. 16/2005. WWW:

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