What Werther Went Through is an updated translation of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s novel Die Leiden des Jungen Werther (The Sorrows or Sufferings of Young Werther, depending whom you ask).
Goethe banged the book out in two months in 1774 when he was twenty-four, coming off two brutal rounds of obsessive crushes on engaged or married women. It was an overnight bestseller across Europe and made him a superstar. (Later in life, Goethe tried to distance himself from it and regretted the shadow it cast over his more mature achievements, as Kate Beaton captures marvelously. “I bet you’re not here because of Faust.”)
Fast forward two hundred and forty years. It’s 2014, and I’m twenty-five. And I’m trying an experiment — seeing whether, with a fresh translation and a few technological tricks, I can create a version of Werther that hits as hard today as the original did two hundred and forty years ago.
I read Werther in German when I was twenty-one and, honestly, it freaked me out. I’d come to it expecting something impressive but stuffy; instead I found…this guy, this disturbingly recognizable guy, tearing himself to pieces over this girl he was obsessed with, borderline manic-depressive, bouncing from rhapsodic exultations about nature and rambling arguments about art and philosophy to hopeless, frenzied grasping at straws on the level of “She looked at everyone in the room but ME! Does that mean she LIKES me?!”
And the whole time, I kept thinking, This is from 1774? This could be happening right now! I mean, this IS happening right now! (I…might maybe have been coming off two rounds of obsessive crushes myself.) This is important. This is special.
Now, since I’m a good Millenial, when I find something special I want to share it. But most of my friends don’t speak German. And the only free translations online right now are the very first English translation from 1779 and the Project Gutenberg one which I’m guessing is from the 19th century.
So I figured, hey. I’m Goethe’s age. I’m young and I get this. I’m going to write a translation in updated English that my friends could read as if this were someone we knew going through this. And the idea snowballed from there: I’m going to use contemporary slang. I’m going to update the setting (changing as little as possible). I’m going to post the letters on the days they were “written”. Ah! I’m going to email the letters on the days they were written! The 1774 novel claims to reproduce letters written from 1771-72; I’ll claim these letters are from 2011-12…finally it all came together.
My hope is that, when this is all over, we’ll have two things: 1) a free translation online that young people, especially students, will find genuinely compelling; and 2) a heck of a ride for anyone who joined the email list and relived Werther’s story in real-time.
Thank you so much for reading. It’s going to be a ride.
Brooklyn, April 2014