Sunday, April 8, 2012


In the course of mining Angelo Ripellino's Magic Prague (in English translation) for writers' descriptions of Prague streets, I came across the following passage about Zlatá ulička (Golden Lane), which rather took my fancy:
“A narrow, winding lane with crenels, a snail’s path barely wide enough for one’s shoulders to pass. I am standing in front of a row of small houses, none of which is taller than myself. Were I to stretch out my arm I could touch the roofs. Here during the Middle Ages disciples set the philosophers’ stone aglow and poisoned moon beams.”
While I had to think a moment to identify "crenels," this seemed worth hunting down in the original, Gustav Meyrink's Golem.
With considerable difficulty (earlier I had intended to blog about my struggles with the endnotes to Magic Prague, which use a lot of op. cit. and are not aided by a bibliography) I determined that the edition of Golem used was from 1976. I proceeded to order the 1976 Dover edition from a library in this state, which proved to have an emendation of Madge Pemberton's 1928 translation.
The text there, however, read:
“A little twisty, twirly alley, broken here and there by arbitrary loopholes--it might almost be called a spiral passage, scarce broad enough to admit the width of a man--and I stood before a row of diminutive houses, not one of which exceeded my own height. I had only to stretch up my arm to touch their roofs.
It was the Street of the Alchemists, where the so-called ‘wise men’ of the past had evolved their formulas for the philosopher’s stone, brewing their concoctions in the watches of the night, poisoning with their noxious fumes the sweet rays of the moon.”

I had to examine these for awhile to feel certain that it was indeed the same passage, but had to conclude that it was. Not, however, the same translation! And which of these was more faithful to the original German, pray tell?
A little digging around in Internet Archive brought forth the original edition published by Kurt Wolff in 1915. The said text is on 226 and reads:
“Ein schmales, gewundenes Gässchen mit Schiessscharten, ein Schneckengang, kaum breit genug, die Schultern durchzulassen--und ich stand vor einer Reihe von Häuschen, keines höher als ich.
Wenn ich den Arm ausstreckte, konnte ich auf die Dächer greifen.
Ich war in die ‘Goldmachergasse’ geraten, wo im Mittelalter die alchimistischen Adepten den Stein der Weisen geglüht und die Mondstrahlen vergiftet haben.”
Well, even though it was written in Fraktur, the font was quite legible and indeed despite my limited German I could understand it pretty well without resorting to the dictionary. But for the heck of it I decided (given the divergent translations above) to plug it into Google Translate. Google Translate actually did a pretty good job on its own, but it now also lets you see if you'd prefer a different meaning or synonym for a given word, so I touched up a few things--"streets" to "alleys" ("alley" in the singular wasn't on the list), "worm gear" to "snail passage," "more" to "higher," "which" to "where," "adept" to "adepts" and "poisoning" to "poisoned":
"A narrow, winding alleys with gun ports, a snail passage, barely wide enough to admit the shoulders -. And I stood in front of a row of houses, none higher than me.
If I stretched out my arm, I could access the roof.
I had fallen into the 'Goldmacher street', where have in the middle Ages, the alchemical adepts annealed the philosopher's stone, and poisoned the moonbeams."
While there are still a few edits I'd choose to make on this (for example "crenels" is decidedly more suitable than "gun ports" since crenellation can be purely decorative, or meant for arrows rather than guns), it's obvious that the translation in Magic Prague is much more faithful than the Pemberton translation. I have no clue who did that translation, though, so I suppose that if I quote this passage, I'll combine the one from Magic Prague with my editing of Google Translate's version.
Life ain't simple around here.

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