Ibsen, a Hard Nut to Crack

— While we are all talking about Ibsen, and expressing our more or less sagacious opinions of him, his strongest and most characteristic work remains buried in an idiom which few have the leisure to master. But, desirable as translations of these works are, it is greatly to be feared that we shall have to get along without them, for the difficulties in the way of their execution are enormous. Brand is written mostly, and Peer Gynt largely, in rhymed octosyllabic iambic verse, and both poems are almost as compact in thought as The Divine Comedy. When we look to our own literature for examples of this form, we think of Hudibras and the narrative poems of Scott; but the one model is too light, and the other too diffuse, to afford any really helpful suggestions. I have a vivid recollection of a certain morning when I struggled for an hour or two with the couplet,

“ Tabets alt din vinding skabte,
Evigt ejes kun det tabte,”

and evolved nothing better than this wretchedly inadequate version : —

“What we win is ours never,
What we lose we gain forever.”

If I had not been so set upon getting in the double rhyme, I might have done better, or at least saved some of the time spent in the effort; but to my mind the metrical scheme of Brand enters so distinctly into the character of the poem that I should hardly recognize Ibsen’s thought in any other form. With this work, at all events, and with Peer Gynt, its companion or foil, there can be no question of prose translation, rhythmical or unrhythmical. Their tremendous energy finds expression in the intricately rhymed staccato movement of the verse quite as much as in the words considered as mere symbols of ideas. As well try to convey in prose the feeling of a chorus from Faust, of the

“ Christ ist erstanden
Aus der Verwesung Schooss,”

for example, as to think of adequately reproducing in prose the passion of Brand’s indignant outbursts.

Let me select a passage in illustration. Brand has vainly endeavored to persuade a peasant to risk his life upon an errand of mercy. As the stubborn peasant beats his retreat, the priest soliloquizes. I will first make a rough but literal prose translation of the passage, and then put as much of the thought as possible into the form of the original: —

“ They homeward grope. Thou slack thrall, sprang up in thy breast a power of will, were not that the faculty that is lacking, I had lessened the irksomeness of the way; sore of foot and with back weary unto death, gladly and lightly I had borne thee; but help is profitless to a man who will not what he cannot. Hm ! Life, life, — it is hard [to understand] how dear life is to the good people. Every weakling attaches to life as much importance as if the salvation of the world and the healing of the souls of all mankind were laid upon his puny shoulders.”

And now for the attempt at versification : —

“ Homeward they grope. Thou weakling soul,
Hadst thou a will at thy control,
Were nothing lacking thee but strength,
I might the journey’s weary length
Have shortened; though my feet are sore,
Gladly I would have borne thee o’er;
But help is useless to the man
Who will not do more than he can.
Life, — ’t is a thing beyond my wit
How the good people cling to it!
By every weakling life is weighed
As if the fortunes of the nation,
As if humanity’s salvation,
Were on his puny shoulders laid.”

This may, perhaps, be taken as an example of the best that it is possible to do with Brand in English. The form is absolutely reproduced (except for two double rhymes which are replaced by single ones), and the thought is substantially the same in original and translation. But this passage is exceptionally amenable to treatment, and even then its translation has cost no slight effort. In short, the translation of a page of Brand even into such English as the above is something of a tour de force ; and one would wish unlimited leisure if he were to do much of this sort of work. It is possible to translate Brand in its original rhythmic form, just as it is possible to translate Homer in English hexameters ; but either task would prove an ungrateful one, and would demand a sustained effort that is not likely to be devoted to it.