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MORE ENGLISH TRANSLATIONS OF GOETHE’S KOPHTISCHES LIED (COPTIC SONG)

June 15, 2012

Since I published my article on Goethe’s Coptic Song (Kophtisches Lied), I have come across two further early translations into English of Goethe’s celebrated Coptic poem, which he composed for the first time in 1787 but only published it in 1814 in his poetic work, Gesellige Lieder (Convivial Songs). I would like to share these translations with my readers as I did those by James Clarence Mangan (A Song from the Coptic, 1836), John Sullivan Dwight (Cophtic Song, 1839), Edgar Alfred Bowring (Coptic Song, 1853), William Grasett Thomas (Coptic Song , 1859), and William Edmondstone Aytoun/Theodore Martin (Coptic Song, 1859).[i]

The first translation is by an American guy, Paul Dyrsen, of whose biography I know little. Dyrsen published his English version, together with other translations, including the other Coptic song of Goethe (Ein Andres/The Same) in his Goethe’s Poems in 1878. He titled it Cophtic Song, which I simply reproduce below:[ii]

Cophtic Song.

Scholars’ disputes are, we know, never ending;

Careful and strict has a teacher to be;

Still ever will with a smile a pretending

Wizard be found upon this to agree:

That on a fool you are losing your labor.

Children of wisdom, a fool is a neighbor

Bound to be fooled, be the butt of your sport!

Merlin, the old, in his grave phosphorescent

Whom I have questioned a lad adolescent,

Gave me an answer of kindred import:

That on a fool, you are losing your labor.

Children of wisdom, a fool is a neighbor

Bound to be fooled, be the butt of your sport!

All I have learned on East India’s mountain

Or at the ancient Egyptian fountain

Prompts me as sacred the truth to support:

That on a fool you are losing your labor.

Children of wisdom, a fool is a neighbor

Bound to be fooled, be the butt of your sport!

Another translation of Kophtisches Lied into English appeared in 1883 in Poems of Goethe by William Gibson (1825 – 1887), who was a commander in the U.S. Navy, and showed interest in poetry. His translation, under the title “Coptic Song”, is reproduced below:[iii]

 

Coptic Song.

Still let them wrangle, the luminous Sages,

Grave, circumspect, let the doctors all be!

All the wise men of all countries and ages

Whisper and wink, and with one voice agree:

Foolish to wait for the curing of folly!

Children of prudence, oh! simply and solely

Do but befool the fools, as it is fit.

Merlin the old, in his grave self-illuming,

When as a youth with the wizard communing,

Made me reply in the same words, to wit:

Foolish to wait for the curing of folly, &c.

Found I in vaults of the ancient Egyptian,

And upon Indian heights, this inscription,

Yea, in the self-same words solemnly writ:

Foolish to wait for the curing of folly, &c.

[i] For the first article, go to: Goethe’s Coptic Song – Kophtisches Lied: Dioscorus Boles (13 June 2012), COPTIC SONGS BY THE GREAT GERMAN WRITER JOHANN WOLFGANG VON GOETHE – KOPHTISCHES LIED I, http://copticliterature.wordpress.com/2012/06/13/coptic-songs-by-the-great-german-writer-johann-wolfgang-von-goethe-kophtisches-lied-i/?preview=true&preview_id=1510&preview_nonce=c66ddc5718

[ii] Goethe’s Poems translated in the original metres by Paul Dyrsen (New York, F. W. Christern, 1878); pp. 106-7.

[iii] Poems of Goethe, Consisting of his Ballads and Songs, done into English verse by William Gibson (London, Simpkin Marshall & Co., 1883); p. 165. Gibson’s other books are: “A Vision of Fairy Land, and Other Poems (1853),” and “Poems of Many Years and Many Places (1881)”. Interestingly, Gibson did not appear to have made a translation of Goethe’s other Coptic song, Ein Andres.

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