Statement of Purpose – April 23, 2017

This is the post excerpt.


The general purpose of this blog is to make available research I am doing into the life and work of Theodor Gottlieb von Hippel (1741-1796).  The primary focus is on assisting those interested in the Lebensläufe nach aufsteigender Linie.  Be sure to go to the site pages (not just the blog posts) to find the most important work.


Two Good Links to Königsberg/Kaliningrad

Article by Margot Litten at Deutschlandfunk, 21,05,2019.  Unfortunately I can’t do a hyperlink from here, but you can copy and paste the address into your browser.  Or just do a search for the key words.


Worthwhile videos too:



Review of Sellner’s Translations from Hippel’s Novels

Theodor Gottlieb von Hippel: The Status of Women.  Collected Writings, edited and translated by Timothy F. Sellner.  Xlibris, 2009.  544 pp.  Ill.

While his prose is not as difficult as that of his compatriots Hamann and Kant, Hippel wrote in an allusive style, often hinting at things rather than spelling them out.  This was one of the ways he sought to prod the mind of his audience, make them participate in the act of creation.

By writing this way, he put high demands on the reader, and even higher ones on the translator.  Aside from some 19th century versions of his church hymns, Hippel (1741-1796) has never been translated into English.  Doing so is a thankless task, about which – somewhat surprisingly – our translator says not a word.  Let it be acknowledged up front that in many passages Timothy F. Sellner has deciphered obscure references and rendered them cogent.  He has resisted any urge he might have felt to imitate an 18th-century style; rather, he has translated into the idiom he is most comfortable with – current American English.  At times, he sticks very closely to the original; at others, he renders Hippel in a tone that could be called relaxed.  Some may find it a shade too casual.

Apart from style, there are other, more urgent matters.  The first is that the entire volume is mis-titled.  To judge by the cover page alone (Theodor Gottlieb von Hippel: The Status of Women – Collected Writings), one would assume that it includes, for example, On Improving the Status of Women (it does), his Notes for a Second Edition (it does), and his essay On Marriage (it does not, as Sellner has already published this separately).  Furthermore, one is somewhat startled to find here excerpts from other publications that do not treat the status of women as their main theme – and yet, here they are!  Selections range from an early work on Freemasonry, his Nature Sketches, Autobiography, Report on the von K[awatschinska] Case (a case of infanticide), to his posthumous On Legislation and the Welfare of Nations.

Also included are passages from his two novels, Biographies on an Ascending Line (1778-1781) and Crusadings of the Knight A-Z (1793-1794). Sellner justifies this as follows: “Passages depicting the death of several women characters in the novel [Lebensläufe nach aufsteigender Linie] are included here in light of his later remarks in On Improving the Status of Women on the way women face death and die” (Sellner, 80).  He is certainly free to give his work any title he wishes, even a misleading one.

As he conceives his main task to make Hippel easily comprehensible, Sellner feels free to alter punctuation (including quotation marks), add transitions, connections, and explanatory asides – and not just in footnotes.  He omits parts that seem extraneous (without always being overly scrupulous about indicating where).  He is justified in doing so – his focus, after all, is not to create a critical edition in English, but to make available passages generally relevant to the emancipation of women.  And sometimes his translations are quite good.  To take just one example: “many secret societies recruit solid, but average men” (Sellner, 413).  “Solid, but average men” is an excellent paraphrase of “brave Männer” (Hippel, Sämtliche Werke IX, 349).

As far as I can determine, the book has not yet been reviewed anywhere.  This may be connected to the circumstance that Xlibris is considered (for example, by Wikipedia) a vanity press.  I will leave it up to others to concentrate on Hippel’s overall contribution to the cause of women’s emancipation.   For the moment, I wish to comment solely on translation matters, particularly Sellner’s rendering of passages from the two novels, with special focus on the twenty or so pages from the Lebensläufe, his masterpiece.  The focus is on passages where it seems to me that Sellner has misunderstood his author, while keeping in mind the possibility that translation is an art and more than one interpretation might be possible.

Before getting to the translation of the Lebensläufe itself, it should be noted that Sellner includes a brief introduction and summary of this long opus.  There, he mentions the main character’s “military exploits in the war with Russia” (Sellner, 80).  This description is somewhat puzzling, as it may suggest Alexander, the protagonist (a Baltic German from Courland), was fighting (on whose side?) against Russia (in which war?).  In fact, he is appointed major in the Russian army to participate in the Russo-Turkish War of 1768-1774.  Though Hippel presents memorable scenes from this conflict, Sellner omits them as they do not involve women.


Lebensläufe, Volume I

Hippel’s novel originally appeared in three parts spread over four volumes.  Sellner starts his excerpts with the last volume, then some passages from the first, then the last again, then Vols. I and II, and the last once again, for the third and final time. Here I will treat the volumes sequentially in Hippel’s original order.  In general, references are to the Sämtliche Werke (SW) published in Berlin by Reimer starting in 1828, as this is the one used by Sellner, though I will also call upon other editions when they shed light on difficult passages – particularly the first edition (Berlin: Voβ, 1778-81, hereafter referred to as Voβ) and the most popular later edition (Leipzig: Göschen, 1859, hereafter referred to as Göschen).

From the first volume of the Lebensläufe, we read this about the typical poet: “He cannot read or hear anything without sharing it immediately with his friends” (Sellner, 87).  What Hippel means is somewhat different: ‘… without enriching it immediately with his own personal contribution.’ (“Er kann nichts lesen und hören, was er nicht so gleich mit dem Seinigen bereichert” [SW I, 23].)  To come up with his version, Sellner has to transform a singular (“mit dem Seinigen”) into a plural and read “bereichert” as share instead of enrich.

Alexander’s mother imparts some words of wisdom to her son in her lengthy Denkzettel, including: “Whoever doesn’t listen to his parents is following the drum-beat of the devil” (Sellner, 87).  While this may possibly be what she implies, it is not exactly what she says.  Let us leave aside as not easily translatable the minor word-play involving “folgt” meaning “to listen to” in the first half of the sentence and “to follow” in the second.  The real problem is caused – unsurprisingly – by the devil.  For Hippel is here alluding to a common expression at the time: ‘Whoever doesn’t listen to his parents follows [or will follow] the drum-beat.’  In other words, a disobedient son is condemned to joining the army – will not be vouchsafed a civilian career.  (“Wer seinen Eltern nicht folgt, folgt dem Kalbfell” [SW I, 45].)  This example shows what can happen when the translator cherry-picks passages and overlooks the wider context.  Hippel uses the same expression at other places in the novel – there as here without any devilish overtones (see SW III, 187 and IV, 8).

Here we read the views of Alexander’s father on education: “Our boys are all educated as if they’re going to become teachers, and, in the best cases, our daughters to be mesdemoiselles (that is, French governesses)” (Sellner, 90).  Here the translator has missed a biblical allusion: “… wenns köstlich gewesen…” (Hippel I, 136, referring to Psalm 90: 10).  This is a verse to which Hippel often alludes.   For example: “Weiber hassen Verrätherei und den Verräther; wir nur, wenn’s köstlich ist, den Verräther” (SW VI, 190).  Sellner (265) translates this as, “Women hate treachery and the treacherous; we hate, if it is to our advantage, only the treacherous.” (Compare also SW V, 286 and Sellner: On Marriage [1994], 265.) Even if the translator finds that the exact King James wording “by reason of strength” does not fit the situation, the allusion should at least be noted. That being said, here Sellner has been much more assiduous in identifying such references than in his first version of On Improving the Status of Women (Detroit: Wayne State, 1979), for which I rather harshly took him to task in my review in the Lessing Yearbook XII (1980, pp. 247-248).

It has long been known that Hippel took lecture notes from Kant and worked them into his novel without attribution, such that whenever Hippel mentions pure reason one’s ears prick up.  As it happens, though, Kant lectured on a wide range of topics, including Anthropology, where he touched on the subtle difference between young women who are merely hübsch versus those who are reizend.  Our translator includes some of these passages (95f., for example), without pointing out their indebtedness to Kant.  This is relevant because generally speaking Kant was much more of a traditionalist when it came to the role of women.

Alexander’s father brings up the different effects of age on men and women, saying that if we were to compare a younger and an older woman, the older one would lose out.  “But if we let an old fellow put on women’s clothes, we can hardly catch our breath.  That’s because we’re men; the women don’t perceive it that way” (Sellner, 96). – ‘But if we have an old fellow put on women’s clothes, we would be able to hold up (lit. hold our breath) longer.  It’s in men’s nature that things stay the same for us longer than they do for women.’  The father in other words is associating older men not with breathless impatience but quite the opposite; to underline this, he repeats the word länger – a repetition omitted in translation.  (“Man lasse aber einen alten Kerl Weibskleider anziehen, wir blieben länger bey Othem.  Es geht uns länger nach der Männerweise, als ihnen nach der Weiberweise” [SW I, 295 f.].)  Compare Ueber die Ehe: “Wir Mannspersonen gehen langsamer, und behalten mithin länger Athem” (SW V, 260).

When the conversation turns to pride, Herr von G. asks why women – he mentions particularly his own wife – are obsessed with status.  The pastor, Alexander’s father, answers: “Because their status is so ambiguous.  A prince acts more proudly toward a count than he does toward a mere nobleman.  If a man’s status is ambiguous as well – for example if he’s only recently been knighted, then his pride is without bounds” (Sellner, 96).  Here a single word is mistranslated, though it is an important one.  The pastor starts by talking about “their status,” i.e., the status of women – and concludes by referring to their pride, which Sellner simply converts to his pride.  (“Weil ihr Rang sehr zweideutig ist.  Der Fürst ist gegen einen Grafen stolzer als gegen einen Edelmann.  Ist des Mannes Rang dazu auch zweideutig, ist er z. E. ein neuer Edelmann, so ist ihr Stolz gränzenlos.” [SW I, 296].)  As we shall see, this is not the only case in which he changes a pronoun or possessive adjective without explanation.

By the way, the pride of the nobility in Kurland was proverbial.   “Der alte und der neue Adel wird nirgends so sorgfältig, wie hier, unterschieden, und ein neuer Edelmann lasse sich immerhin selbst in den Freyherrnstand erheben, er kaufe sich Rittergüter auf Rittergüter, und setzt Helme auf Helme, er wird ohngeachtet seines Glanzes, den er um sich verbreitet, nie zu den Vorrechten gelangen, die nur der Adel von der Ritterbank, wie man es hier nennt, geniesset.” (Andreas Meyer: Briefe eines jungen Reisenden durch Liefland, Kurland und Deutschland an seinen Freund Herrn Hofrath K… in Liefland.  Bd.I.  [Erlangen: Wolfgang Walter, 1777], S. 74.)

Returning to Hippel’s novel, in his reply, Herr von G. brings up the topic of love, about which he says he has read and thought a great deal, though when it comes to taking action he has done little.  In general, people think and read about such matters in blanko (or in bianco), that is, theoretically, “because when it comes to filling out the page, I found that Her Ladyship, the glory of my house, hadn’t really been chosen by me – nor had I even thought about her very much!  She could be better!”  While it is true that at this point Herr von G. is thinking – with some regret – of his decision to marry his wife, in the original his reference to her is much more oblique and indirect: ‘… because when it came time to fill out the page, it turned out that the honor of the house [that is, his wife’s status] was not illustrious and loftyIt could be better – ’  (“… denn wie es zum Ausfüllen kam, fand sich’s, daβ meine gnädige Hausehre eben nicht erdacht und erlesen war!  Sie könnte besser seyn, – ” [SW I, 297].)  In other words, he was disappointed to find out that by marrying her he had not significantly improved his status.  Sellner’s suggestion that she had not been chosen by him nor had he thought much about her is based on a misinterpretation of the phrase “erdacht und erlesen,” which would be better rendered as “illustrious and lofty,” similar to “erlaucht.” Moreover, the final pronoun “sie” refers not to his wife but to her status.

A bit later, Herr von G. addresses Alexander, offering to make him acquainted with his son: “My son – whom I would like to have you meet, but he won’t come to you himself – is the very image of his mother in my hunting jacket” (Sellner, 97). – ‘My son […] whom I commend to you, as he himself will scarcely do so – is etc.’ (“Mein Sohn […] den ich Ihnen empfehle, er selbst wird es schwerlich – ist die Mutter in meinem Jagdrock” [SW I, 297].)  Sellner’s translation makes it sound as if Herr von G. thinks his son is reluctant to introduce himself to Alexander (from pride, or shyness?).  This misses the point: Herr von G. is expressing his disappointment in his son, saying there is little about him that commends him; subsequent events will bear out this low estimation.


Lebensläufe, Volume II

Moving to the next volume, Minchen on her deathbed tells Gretchen “to send her greetings to me with a thousand kisses and give me this packet (she then gave it to her) and other things of mine” (Sellner, 91).  In the original, the sentence ends with “other things” – they might be Alexander’s, but it is equally plausible that they are Minchen’s own.  Moreover, in the original the reference to “a thousand kisses” is repeated for emphasis – why not in translation?  (“Sie befahl Gretchen Gott und seiner Huld und Gnade und bat, mich tausendmal zu grüβen – tausendmal, und mir dieses Pack [sie gab es ihr] und noch andere Sachen zu behändigen.” [SW II, 349].)

Later in the same paragraph, Minchen has some final requests regarding what should be given to Alexander.  “She said goodbye to Gretchen and told her to take this postscript and give it to me after she had breathed her last breath” (Sellner, 91).  Some might quibble that Hippel wrote plural ‘these postscripts and give them…’, and in fact there are more than one of them, but the translator is well within his rights to make changes that result in something more idiomatic.  The problem comes near the beginning, where it would be more accurate to say: ‘She made the agreement with Gretchen to collect these postscripts immediately after breathing her last and give them to me.”  To make an agreement (eine Verabredung machen) with someone is obviously not the same as to say goodbye (sich verabschieden) to someone.  (“Sie nahm die Verabredung mit Gretchen, diese Postscripte gleich nach ihrem letzten Hauch an sich zu nehmen und sie mir zu geben” [SW II, 349].)


Lebensläufe, final volume

While Sellner includes no excerpts from the novel’s third volume (part one), he provides numerous passages from the final one (SW IV), two of them extended.

Except for the last, they focus on the protagonist’s mother.  Near the end of her life she was responsible for the instruction of children in the local pastorate and made sure that they knew the basic elements of Christianity:  “The children knew of the names of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse […] as well as they knew the Lord’s Prayer” (Sellner, 88).  In a footnote, the Four Horsemen are helpfully identified as “War,” “Famine,” “Pestilence” and “Death” with reference to the sixth chapter of Revelation (Sellner 452, n. 35).  While far from a bad guess, unfortunately the mother was referring to something else, as the wider context makes clear.  For a few pages earlier, in a passage not included by Sellner, we read that her favorite – indeed her only – topics of conversation as she approached her end were the Four Last Things, the final stages of the soul in this life and the afterlife.  Usually enumerated as Death, Judgment, Heaven and Hell, in the novel they are called Death, Resurrection, Judgment and End of the World (SW IV, 36).  So the passage quoted should read, ‘the children knew the Four Last Things as well as the Lord’s Prayer.’ (“Die vier letzten Dinge wuβten die Kinder wie das Vaterunser” [SW IV, 41].)

The mother never had much faith in the healing powers of medicine: “Although, as I said, she respected doctors – and Dr. Saft [the doctor treating her] among them – she nevertheless distributed home remedies when the occasion called for it, even though, in contrast to my father, she never trusted them as much as a prescription for a good dose of something.  She placed much more trust in the written word, and gave precedence to every medicine she had down in black and white” (Sellner, 88). – ‘Even though she respected doctors, and Dr. Saft among them, when the occasion called for it she distributed home remedies, which however she trusted – in contrast to my father – much less than Saft‘s prescriptions.  She placed much more trust in the written word, and gave preference to every prescription Saft wrote down in black and white.’   (“Obgleich sie die Aerzte, und unter ihnen den D. Saft, ehrte, spendete sie dennoch, wenn es die Gelegenheit gab, Hausmittel aus, denen sie indessen, wider die Meinung meines Vaters, bei weitem nicht so viel als einem Saftschen Recept, zutraute.  Sie war sehr für alles Geschriebene, und stand jedem Saftschen Schwarz auf Weiβ den Rang zu” [SW IV, 41].)  The doctor’s name, Saft, is also the German word for “juice,” so a “Saftsche” prescription is a good, juicy one.  Here the translator faces a dilemma; he can either keep the name (“Saft’s prescriptions”) or keep the meaning (“a good dose”).  Sellner chooses the latter.  One could argue that the primary meaning is related to the name, and only the secondary to the meaning.  Be that as it may, since this wordplay has no equivalent in English, one can hardly fault the translator for not achieving the same effect.  One can, however, take him to task for not spelling out this nuance in a footnote, so that the reader will at least have some idea that wordplay is involved.  In other instances where a pun cannot easily be translated, Sellner points this out – why not here?

“ ‘You can always find rude and crude people if you look for them,’ she said” (Sellner, 89).  This is a perfectly clear and unstilted utterance from Alexander’s mother that alas has very little connection to the sentence it purports to translate: ‘When one looked at her, one saw artless antiquity,’ in other words she was just the way the ancients were – natural, not artificial.  (“Man fand das kunstlose Alterthum, wenn man sie sahe” [SW IV, 42].)  It’s not just that a sentence describing her has been turned into something spoken by her.  A term of approbation (“das kunstlose Alterthum”) has been transformed into one of disparagement (“rude and crude people”), and the singular pronoun “sie” (referring to the mother) has been misinterpreted as plural “them” (with no plural antecedent in the original, though Sellner provides one of his own invention).

The preceding episodes are relatively short.  The first extended excerpt presents the death of Alexander’s mother, a passage which provides a description of her, including: “She had received as much education as was appropriate for her station in life” (Sellner, 81).  This sentence seems rather jarringly out of place, coming as it does in the midst of a description of her eyes, nose and hands.  A check of the original reveals, however, that it is not misplaced, since it too refers to her physical appearance and not her level of education: ‘She was formed/built very proportionately’ or more idiomatically ‘Her proportions were quite normal/regular.’  (“Sie war sehr verhältnismäβig gebildet” [SW IV, 87].)  While “gebildet” can mean either “educated” or “formed,” seen in context, the sentence no longer seems extraneous.

Later in the same long paragraph we read this: “She didn’t stand up perfectly straight, nor did she exactly collapse; she had an artless, completely natural way of standing” (Sellner, 81).   It may be worth noting that in novel’s first edition – the only one published during the author’s lifetime – this turns out to be two sentences; later editions (including Reimer, the one used by Sellner) combine them into a single sentence.  In some cases the Reimer edition represents an improvement on the first, at least in terms of readability; at other times, such as the present, the first version is to be preferred.  Following the Voβ edition, the passage could be rendered as: ‘She didn’t stand up perfectly straight, nor did she exactly collapse.  She possessed a completely natural air/dignity/grace that was without artifice.’ (“Sie hielt sich nicht rohrgerade; allein sie fiel auch nicht zusammen.  Ein Kunstloser völlig natürlicher Anstand war ihr eigen” [Voβ III/2, 128; compare Reimer’s SW IV, 87].)  While it is true that the first sentence deals with posture, the second does not.  Moreover, dictionaries such as Grimm and Adelung provide support for Anstand covering a range of meanings, including dignity and grace, but none for “way of standing.”

In the next paragraph we read, “Since she always took things as they came, she never appeared to be looking for anything” (Sellner, 81). – ‘Since she always took things as they came, there was never anything about her that could seem artificial.’ (“Da sie alles nahm, wie es kam, fiel nichts bei ihr vor, das wie gesucht anscheinen könnte!” [SW IV, 88].)  Here the phrase “wie gesucht” is mistranslated.  Essentially the passage says she was free of artifice.

A discussion of his mother’s powers of memory leads to the topic of language-learning.  “How many geniuses have I heard speaking a language they haven’t mastered!” (Sellner, 83).  It would be more accurate – and no less idiomatic – to say, ‘How I enjoy listening to a genius speak a language he has not completely mastered!’  (“Was ich ein Genie gern eine Sprache reden höre, deren es nicht völlig mächtig ist!” [SW IV, 91].)  The element of pleasure Alexander feels is omitted in the translation.

His mother wrote the letter X to signify Christ and Xmas for Christmas; here Sellner has found a nice equivalent for the original, which says she wrote “Xthum” for “Christenthum.”  His translation continues, “and [she] was such a great admirer of the cross that even though she no longer crossed herself when she weeded the garden, she still laid all the weeds she had pulled out into the shape of an ‘X.’ The same was true for knives and forks.” The sense of the original is quite different: ‘… even though she no longer crossed herself when she yawned, still she placed all kinds of things crosswise.  For example knives and forks.”  (“… wenn gleich sie nicht mehr ein Kreuz schlug, wenn sie jähnte, sie doch alles und jedes in‘s X legte.  Z. E. Messer und Gabel” [SW IV, 94].)  Here the translator has been confused by the verb “jähnen,” so he substitutes “jäten,” meaning to weed.  And since it is scarcely plausible that she would cross herself each time she weeded, Sellner invents the activity of her placing the weeds in the shape of an X, since the following sentence says she does this with the tableware.  While it is true that “jähnen” is not listed in Grimm, it does exist – as a variant of “gähnen” (and is included as such in Charles Gottlob Küttner and William Nicholson: New and Complete Dictionary of the German Language for Englishmen According to the German Dictionary of Mr. J.C. Adelung [Leipzig: Schwickert, 1809], Vol. II, H–R, 215).  Moreover, in the most popular 19th-century edition of Hippel’s novel, “gähnte” is substituted for “jähnte” (Hippel: Lebensläufe nach aufsteigender Linie [Leipzig: Göschen, 1859], III/2, 80.)  The mother’s habit of crossing herself whenever she yawned – and her husband’s objections to this – were already mentioned in the first volume (SW I, 247) – a passage not included by Sellner.

“Her language was very refined – she had a tinkling voice” (Sellner, 84). – ‘She had something very clear about her speech, a tinkling/resounding voice.’ (“Sie hatte sehr was vernehmliches in der Sprache, eine klingende Stimme!” [SW IV, 94].)  While one could dispute the relative merits of tinkling v. resounding, both are possible.  The main objection is to the first part of the sentence, where Sellner seems to have confused “vernehmlich” (clear, audible) with “vornehm” (refined).

“She liked fast horses very much, and since my father liked them, too, often when they were driving with their four Chestnuts, she would call them: ‘Four fiery stallions and a wagon.’ ” (Sellner, 84) – The last part should read, ‘Horses and chariots of fire.’ (“Feurige Rosse und Wagen” [SW IV, 94].)  The words in quotation marks should also be italicized and “four” omitted, as this is neither in Hippel nor the biblical passage to which the mother refers (2 Kings 6:17).  As noted, Sellner is generally good at identifying such allusions, but this is one he missed.

The passage continues: “It could be that she loved fast horses because she was a poet, although she never mentioned Pegasus” (Sellner, 85).  For those unaware of the classical allusion, Sellner provides a helpful footnote identifying the mythical steed.  His version continues: “‘Who would ever say,’ she asked, ‘that an archangel of God was really a secret Minister of State or Secretary of War?’” – ‘Who would call,’ she asked, ‘an archangel God’s military and privy councillor/secretary?’  (“Wer wird, sagte sie, einen Erzengel Gottes wirklich geheimen Staats- und Kriegsminister nennen?” [SW IV, 95].)  There are numerous problems here.  In the first place, Hippel begins a new paragraph at this point, signaling the start of a new topic; Sellner joins it to the previous.  Here and elsewhere he changes Hippel’s paragraphing to conform to modern practice; while this makes the text easier on the eye, it also makes it somewhat harder to align with the original German.

More importantly, he has made a series of interlocking mistakes which will require some patience to pick apart.  He errs in thinking “Gottes” modifies the preceding “Erzengel” instead of the succeeding “Staats- und Kriegsminister.”  In this instance, Hippel’s intent – though transparent enough – is even clearer in the first edition, which inserts a comma between “Erzengel” and “Gottes.”  (“Wer wird, sagte sie, einen Erzengel, Gottes würklich geheimten Staats- und Kriegsminister nennen?” [Voβ III/2, 138].)

Moreover, Sellner thinks “wirklich” is a normal adverb (“really”) instead of part of the honorific: Wirklich (or Wirklicher) geheimer Staats- und Kriegsminister, a title held by many Prussian ministers.  The German love of titles is proverbial and has no real equivalent in English.  Put another way, one could say that translating such a title leads to the problem of anisomorphism, or the imperfect matching of something in one culture with something in another.  Here one should heed the advice given by an experienced translator: “Where the social structures of the source culture [in this case, 18th-century Prussia] are more elaborate than those of the target [21st-century America], a degree of flattening occurs…” (David Bellos: Is That A Fish in Your Ear?  Translation and the Meaning of Everything [NY: Faber and Faber, 2011], pg. 285) Whatever one calls it, the translation will necessarily be shorter in English.  This is exactly what Sellner himself does elsewhere: “They [women] served as privy councilors…” (Sellner, 253) – “… waren sie wirklich geheime Räthe” (SW VI, 173).

Finally, Sellner’s “secret Minister of State” is a too literal version of “Geheimer Staatsminister,” a common title which should simply be rendered as “Minister.”  To quote Bellos again: “Words taken one by one obscure the force and meaning of a text, which is why a word-for-word translation is almost never a good job” (Ibid. 102).  By the way, the first edition (Voβ III/2, 138) contains the deliberately archaic form “geheimten” (instead of “geheimen”), which has the effect of underlining the mocking tone – a subtle but delicious touch ignored by all of Hippel’s later editors.

The last section includes extended excerpts from Beilage C, a letter to Alexander’s mother written by Gottfried, a family servant who accompanies Alexander to Königsberg, where he will attend the university.  As befits his station in life, Gottfried is a man of limited education.  As David Bellos remarks, translators generally have no difficulty imitating the speech of characters who talk in an elevated style.  “Real difficulties arise only when the class register is low, and especially when the language of the source represents the speech forms of uneducated folk. […] [T]ranslators shy away from giving the uncouth truly uncouth forms of language in the target text” (Bellos: Is That a Fish in Your Ear? 195).   Gottfried’s letter is not only long, but written in a style that reveals his manner as both abrupt and crude – features that Sellner, far from shying away from, actually emphasizes (some might say, exaggerates).  Gottfried’s opinions regarding Catholics reveal him to be far from enlightened or tolerant.  And when it comes to women, he suspects that the ugliness of an old woman is a fair indication that she might be a witch.

He does spot a young servant woman who initially seems quite proper.  Indeed, he first notices her reading The Pious Maiden, a devotional book written by Nikolaus Haas, pastor and superintendent of the Lutheran churches and schools at Budissin.  Gottfried writes out the book’s full title (which is quite long) including even the bibliographical information: “Printed by Stade and Published by Caspar Holwein 1717” (Sellner, 99).  Let it be noted that little or none of this is Hippel’s invention – Nikolaus Haas (1665-1715) really did write a book with a similarly baroque title.  The error, of course, is that Stade is not the printer but the place of publication, located about 45 km west of Hamburg.  So the correct version should read: ‘Stade, printed and published by Caspar Holwein.  In the year 1717.’  (“Stade, druckt’s und verlegt’s Caspar Holwein.  Im Jahr 1717” [SW IV, 201].)  The mistake is repeated on the next page when reference is made to books “printed by Stade” (Sellner, 100).

Gottfried observes of Alexander, “… he’s like iron or steel to them Königsberg girls, whether they’re green or dry wood.  I don’t know why that is!  I wish Lieschen would see me that way!  She don’t, though” (Sellner, 101).  In Sellner’s version, Gottfried is expressing dissatisfaction that Lieschen, the servant girl, does not look with favor upon him.  In fact, as the context makes clear, Gottfried is here expressing his admiration of Alexander’s willful indifference towards the girls of Königsberg, and wishes he could act that way, too.  ‘I wish I could be like that towards Lieschen as well.  Ain’t, though.’  (“Wünschte, daβ ich gegen Lieschen auch so wäre!  Bin’s nicht!” [SW IV, 204].)

A few lines later, Gottfried relates that his master talks to himself when he wishes to remember something.  Gottfried confides that doing this would give him the creeps: “I’d think I’d be going crazy, and then I’d really start to worrying” (Sellner, 101). – ‘I’d think something could be speaking (or more idiomatically: I’d think I was hearing voices), etc.’ (“Denk’, es könnte sich doch was melden, und da wär’ ich übel dran.” [SW IV, 204].)  The sound of his own voice would make him think that a spirit was addressing him.  Sellner’s version misses the precise reason he would fear he was losing his mind, and a humorous touch is lost.

Somewhat later we read this about Lieschen: “She and Hannchen […] tell each other everything” (Sellner, 102).  (“Sie und Hannchen liegen sich immer an den Ohren” [SW IV, 204].)  The translation here is fine as far as it goes.  The problem comes in the footnote identifying Hannchen as follows: “Short for ‘Johannes’, and not Hippel’s female friend” (Sellner 454, n. 64).  Background: beginning in his letters to Scheffner from 1770 on, Hippel refers to “Hannchen,” short for “Johanna,” a woman to whom he feels a strong attraction, though the precise nature of their relationship cannot be fully reconstructed – indeed so little is known about her that even her last name remains a mystery (Sellner, 37).  Sellner is correct in pointing out that Hannchen/Johanna is not the same as Hannchen/Johannes.   Nonetheless, the information that the character in the novel is “not Hippel’s female friend” in real life only confuses matters, for it fails to spell out who the Hannchen of the novel is: Lieschen’s illegitimate son.

Since Sellner apparently does not realize this, he adds to the confusion when he continues the translation: “For Hannchen’s sake I’d of liked to marry him off to the pious maiden the sooner the better, since you can never be certain about anything in this world” (Sellner, 102).  What Gottfried really says – in his rather fractured idiom – is something like: ‘On account of Hannchen I would have married the pious virgin the sooner the better, since etc.’  (“Hätte zwar Hannchen halber die in Gott andächtige Jungfer je eher je lieber ehelichen können, da ich kein Buch und Tuch auf’s Gewiβ gegeben” [SW IV, 204].)  Because of the affection he feels for her child Hannchen, Gottfried says he would be willing to marry the mother.  Since the translator does not realize who Hannchen is and thinks of him only as “a man” and not Lieschen’s son, Sellner has him potentially marrying his own mother!

Sellner has Gottfried say, “When I’m on the road these days, I’d very much like for the Frau Pastor to keep the child and instruct it in the fear of God” (Sellner, 102). – ‘When I’m on the road these days, I’d humbly beg the Frau Pastor to keep the child.’  (“Wollte das Kindlein Ew. Wohlehrwürden gottesfürchtig empfohlen haben, wenn ich unterwegs bleibe” [SW IV, 200].)  The adverb “gottesfürchtig” characterizes his humble recommendation to his mistress, not the content of some instruction she is to give the child.

In the final example, to provide context I will quote two sentences, though the problem is only in the second.  Gottfried is talking initially about Lieschen: “Anyway, though, she asked me to greet the Frau Pastor for the sake of her little child.  I hope when he finds out about this Hannchen will keep in mind that dancing and paying the piper are two different things!” (Sellner, 102). – ‘… I hope that Hannchen, even if she (emphasis added) should find out about this, will keep in mind that dancing etc.’  (“Bittet, Ew. Wohlehrwürden auf allen Fall ihres Kindleins halber zu grüβen.  Hoffe, daβ Hannchen, wenn gleich sie’s erfährt, bedenken wird, daβ Tanz und Musik zweierlei ist” [SW IV, 209].)  The pronoun “sie” in the second sentence can only mean “she,” that is, Lieschen, Hannchen’s mother.   Sellner may believe that it makes more sense to replace it with “er,” that is, Hannchen himself – but this is an argument that needs to be set forth and justified.  A responsible translator cannot simply alter an unambiguous word to conform to his own expectations.


Kreuz- und Querzüge

Near the end of this volume, Sellner provides some 20 pages from Hippel’s second and final novel, which he calls Crusadings of the Knight A. to Z. This work has also never been translated – not even its title.  Sellner fails to do full justice to the one Hippel actually gave it, Kreuz- und Querzüge des Ritters A bis Z.  Kreuzzüge could be rendered as crusades or crusadings.  The expression “kreuz und quer,” however, suggests lack of a clear direction, something like “all over the place.”  So to retain some sense of the wordplay I would propose “Crisscross Crusades of the Knight A to Z.”

“Can these three desires [for Wisdom, Wealth and Beauty] not – ennobled – come together and become one?  Is it not in fact the true prescription for virtue that an equal amount be taken from each of these three desires?” (Sellner, 407) – ‘Is this not in fact the true prescription/recipe for virtue: take an equal amount from each of these three ingredients?’ (“Ist es nicht sogar das wahre Tugendrecept: von allen dreien Ingredienzien gleich viel?” [SW VIII, 150].)  Hippel is jokingly giving a recipe or prescription for virtue, but the jest is lost if the word “desires” is substituted for “ingredients.” Here Sellner has sacrificed the humor for the sake of clarity – unnecessarily so.

“Can we as human beings not apply well the treasures of Nature, and with a like-thinking spouse enjoy our God, our life and our death?  But do not many serve the three idols desire of the eyes, desire of the flesh, and arrogance all together; and do not the worst of these wicked people serve all three to the same extent?” (Sellner, 407) – ‘Do not many people serve the three idols, the lust of the flesh, and the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life all together; and are they not the most tolerable of these wicked people who have no favorites among these three idols?’ (“Dienen nicht viele den drei Götzen, der Augenlust und Fleischeslust und dem hoffärtigen Wesen zusammen; und sind es nicht noch die leidlichsten Lasterhaften, die unter diesen dreien Götzen keinem den Vorzug einräumen?” [SW VIII, 140].)  The problems here are all in the second sentence.  First, Sellner inserts the conjunction “but.”  In fact, far from establishing a contrast, the second sentence continues the idea of the first.  Next, he has missed the allusion to 1 John 2:16.  (A similar oversight occurred earlier, when he rendered the same Biblical words as “covetousness, carnal desire, and arrogance” [Sellner, 185].)  Finally, the adjectival construction “die leidlichsten” has a range of meanings encompassing most reasonable, passable, or fair.  In the eighteenth century, one would have said most sufferable; the Declaration of Independence asserts that “mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable” etc.  In contemporary English, most tolerable is the best fit.  Sellner mistranslates it as “worst.”

Further down on the same page, Sellner writes: “Can there not also be a kind of pleasure (a collecting of interest) meant for this world, as well as one for the next world – that is, an enjoyment intended for the visible and also for the invisible world, one for the temporal and also for the eternal world?” (Sellner, 407) – ‘… that is, an enjoyment intended for the things which are seen as well as the things which are not seen.’  (“… für das Sichtbare und das Unsichtbare, für das Zeitliche und das Ewige…” [SW VIII, 151].)  Here he has missed – or at least does not refer to – the echo of 2 Cor. 4:18: “… uns, die wir nicht sehen auf das Sichtbare, sondern auf das Unsichtbare.  Denn was sichtbar ist, das ist zeitlich, was aber unsichtbar ist, das ist ewig” – another verse that Hippel frequently refers to.

“Yet a human being who has not tasted the fruits of the forbidden tree – what value does this human being have in his or her own eyes, or in the eyes of others?” (Sellner, 408) – ‘A human being who has not tasted the fruits of the forbidden tree – what value does such a person not have in his own eyes and in those of all the experts?’  (“Ein Mensch, der hier von keinem verbotenem Baume iβt – was gilt der nicht in seinen eigenen und in aller Kenner Augen?” [SW VIII, 152].)  Here again Sellner inserts a conjunction (“Yet”) where none is stated or implied in the original.  His version strongly suggests that the answer to the rhetorical question about the value of such a person is: Little or none – one who has not tasted the forbidden fruits is of little or no worth.  Hippel’s rhetorical question includes the key word “nicht” (omitted by Sellner), which implies exactly the opposite: What value does such a person not have in the eyes of himself and the world?  Experts (“Kenner,” whom Sellner reduces to “others”) will hold an abstemious or virginal person in high esteem.

“The captain gradually and obliquely imparted to him [the knight A to Z] his high opinion of Freemasonry, and took it upon himself to allow our hero, as aspirant, to appear in ** in such a role that he would learn how to spend his noble time wisely.” – A few issues to note here.  First, for reasons that are unclear, Hippel decided to organize this novel not into chapters but into articles, indicated by the symbol §, which is liable to pop up at odd places, including the middle of a sentence; here “§. 66.” appears immediately before the word Freemasonry, which begins a new section.  While it is understandable that Sellner omits this quirk, as it adds little or nothing to this particular selection, still Hippel’s eccentricity could have been noted in the introductory remarks.

Next, Hippel playfully works “Kreuz” and “Quer” into this sentence: “Ohne sich mit ihm in’s Kreuz einzulassen, brachte der Hauptmann ihm doch in der Quer eine groβe Meinung usw.“ (SW VIII, 305).  Since these two words also form part of the novel’s title, it would seem that the wordplay – if it cannot be reproduced in translation – should at least be commented on in a footnote.  Instead, Sellner just writes “gradually and obliquely,” leaving the reader unaware that a little joke is being made.

Finally, Sellner says the captain took it upon himself to allow our hero “to appear in ** in such a role that he would learn how to spend his noble time wisely.”  It would be more accurate to say that the captain took it upon himself to allow our hero to sign up as an aspirant in the roll call in ** (some masonic lodge), by which means he would gain valuable time.  (“… und nahm es über sich, ihn in – als Aspiranten in die Rolle einzeichnen zu lassen, wodurch er edle Zeit gewönne…” [SW VIII, 305].)  The meaning of “Rolle” as “list of names” and not “role” is underscored in the following sentence, which mentions the “list of those awaiting acceptance” (Sellner, 409) – which is connected to the “roll call” in the sentence under discussion.

“… [E]very aspirant, from the moment he has the good fortune to have his name entered, received a ‘genius’ [mentor], whom he is aware of as little as Socrates was his ‘daemon.’ ” Better to say: ‘… whom he sees as little as Socrates his daemon.’  (“… den er so wenig, wie Sokrates seinen Dämon, sieht” [SW VIII, 305].)  The key word is “sees.” As Plato tells us in the Apology, Socrates’ daemon was present as a voice warning him against mistakes.  So it is misleading to say that Socrates was “little aware of” his daemon; he was quite aware of it, just aurally.

“A larger measure of physical strength and strength of the soul in some individuals makes for differences among people and in society, and even if, as is quite apparent, these differences provide for etc.” (Sellner, 410) – ‘… and even if, as at this day, these differences etc.’ (“… und wenn gleich diese Unterschiede, wie es am Tage ist …” [SW VIII, 366f].)  Here again a Biblical phrase passes without identification; see 2 Samuel 22:8.

“Third, this difference […] must never appear obvious to eye, ear, or the other senses […]” (Sellner, 411) – ‘… must never appear offensive to eye, ear, or the other senses.’ (“… muβ nie Auge, Ohr und alle Sinne beleidigend abstechen…” [SW VIII, 367].)  Sellner fails to note, by the way, the reference to Luther’s Kleiner Katechismus (Part Two, Article One “Der Glaube”: “Ich glaube, daβ mich Gott geschaffen hat sammt allen Creaturen, mir Leib und Seele, Augen, Ohren und alle Glieder, Vernunft und alle Sinne gegeben hat …”).

In this novel’s second and final volume we read, “Inclined to economy, every girl dislikes it when her lover spends money beyond the limits of his means….” (Sellner, 411). (“Zur Oekonomie bestimmt, miβfällt es jedem Mädchen, wenn der Liebhaber, auβer der Gränze desselben, verschwendet…” [SW IX, 240].)  The first problem is that “verschwendet” is rendered as “spends money beyond the limits of his means.” This is an example of how Sellner makes Hippel sound wordy; “verschwendet” simply means “wastes money.”  But the key word is “desselben” (lit.: “of the same”) – to what does it refer?  Sellner, finding no explicit antecedent, simply supplies one: “beyond the limits of his means.”  In fact, however, the antecedent is right there: “Mädchen.”  So an idiomatic translation could read, ‘Inclined to economy, every girl dislikes it when her lover wastes money on anything not pertaining to herself.’  On occasion, Hippel tended towards a more jaundiced view of humanity as he aged, and this sentence provides an example of it.

Sophie von Unbekannt begins to suspect that her errant knight is neglecting her.  “Could it be that he’s even less confined and distracted than me?  And is it possible that he’s not even looking for his beloved, the way I’m looking for him?” (Sellner, 411).  – ‘Could it be that he’s just as distracted and diverted as I am?  Isn’t he looking for his beloved just as I am looking for mine?’  (“Wird er nicht vielleicht so aufgehalten und in’s Weite geführt, wie ich?  Sucht er nicht seine Vielgeliebte, wie ich den Vielgeliebten?” [SW IX, 240].)  Her words suggest a similarity between the lovers; in Sellner’s version, she suggests a difference.

Again, not all departures from the original text are to be criticized – sometimes they help with clarification.  Later in this selection, for example, Sellner changes “lady-in-waiting” from singular to plural, which in context has the effect of making the passage easier to understand (Sellner, 412).

“Since men so delight in depicting women as greater than they really are; since they generally impart to women’s deeds a poetic expansion, and praise these deeds far more than they deserve etc.” (Sellner, 412).  Here the translator has confused subject and object.  ‘Since men so delight in depicting themselves to women as greater than they really are, and generally impart to their own deeds a poetic expansion/exaggeration, and praise these deeds far more than they deserve etc.’ (“Da die Männer sich so gern den Weibern gröβer darstellen, als sie wirklich sind; da sie ihren Thaten gemeinhin eine poetische Aufschwellung beilegen, und sie über Gebühr anschlagen usw.” [SW IX, 349].)  As he does elsewhere, Hippel here mocks the male tendency to Thrasonian bragging.

“Women also know that a certain superstition, a certain fanaticism clothes these societies, and many of them also see that as a kind of decoration which they think sets off their own eyes, nose, chin or mouth very nicely” (Sellner, 413).  The sentence seems to change direction in the middle, as the initial critical remark is directed at secret societies such as the freemasons, then veers off into a critique of the women themselves.  In fact, both the first and second parts of the sentence have female vanity as their target. ‘Women also know that a certain superstition, a certain fanaticism, is decorative/looks good on them; and many of them see it as a kind of decoration that sets off their eyes, nose, chin and mouth.’  (“Auch wissen Weiber, daβ ein gewisser Aberglaube, eine Art von Schwärmerei, sie kleidet; und viele sehen es als einen Putz an, der zu ihren Augen, ihrer Nase, ihrem Kinn und Munde absticht.” (SW IX, 349].)  Sellner substitutes the pronoun “sie” (referring to women) with the noun phrase he thinks it refers to (“these societies”).


To sum up, let me say again that there are many passages not discussed here in which Sellner solves knotty problems in his usual clear, straightforward English.  For this he deserves recognition.  All the more regrettable are the errors that have crept into other passages, many of which are not especially difficult or involve common idioms.


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Review of Sellner’s Translation of Hippel: “On Improving the Status of Women” (1977)

Hippel, Theodor Gottlieb von, On Improving the Status of Women. Tr. and ed. by Timothy F. Sellner.  Detroit: Wayne State University Press (1977). 220 pp.

Hippel (1741-96) was one of the more paradoxical figures in a century that was as much an era of paradoxes as it was one of enlightenment.  This Mayor of Königsberg, chief of police, and judge was a frequent dinner companion of Kant’s, but he was also a secretive man, who insisted on publishing all of his works anonymously, including his major novel, the Lebensläufe nach aufsteigender Linie (1778-81).

In the treatises Über die Ehe and Über die bürgerliche Verbesserung der Weiber (On Improving the Status of Women), Hippel advanced the then decidedly unconventional and even eccentric view that women were endowed by nature with the same rational faculties as men, and therefore ought to exercise the same rights in society as men.  A long history of male oppression, according to Hippel, had caused women to accept as inevitable and natural their subordinate role in society.  Hippel argued that women’s inferior status was perhaps necessary in primitive society, but was inexcusable in societies claiming to be enlightened.  He expected the improvement of the social status of women to bring about an improvement of men as well, for, he argued, only when men and women enjoy equal rights can they develop their different (but complementary) capacities to the fullest extent.  Thus Hippel saw the moving force, the one that leads to the attainment of an ideal society ruled by reason, not, say, in the working class, but in the oppressed sex, which, in liberating itself, brings about the improvement of all.

Hippel’s cause is obviously a timely one, and Sellner performs a welcome service by making the work available for this first time in English.  Particularly his introduction and notes are informative and, on the whole, reliable.

Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for his translation.  Sellner does a good job of rendering passages whose meaning is obscure into straightforward English prose that is often clearer than the original.  All the more surprising, therefore, is the difficulty he frequently has in translating relatively easy passages.  “Let us relinquish this work of the past” (58), is, for example, Sellner’s translation of “Laß uns dies Werk der Zeit überlassen,” that is, “Let us leave this work up to time,” or, “to the future.”  Sellner identifies many of the more unusual biblical quotes, but misses (and therefore mistranslates) more commonplace ones.  “Yes or no – whatever lies astride these two is rooted in evil” (183) is Sellner’s translation of: “Ja, Nein, was drüber und drunter ist, ist vom Übel,” which is Hippel’s play on Matt. 5, 37, and could be more accurately rendered: “Yea, nay: for whatsoever is more or less than these cometh of evil.”  First editions of Hippel’s works are notorious for their misprints, and so other mistranslations may result from Sellner’s reliance on the first edition (1792) rather than the edition supervised by Hippel’s nephew and published as part of the collected works (1827-39).  (This 14 vol. set is currently available in a reprint from de Gruyter.  The later edition is the basis for the reissue of the Bürgerliche Verbesserung [Frankfurt a.m.: Syndikat, 1977], an edition Sellner fails to mention when he asserts that his is the first reissue of the work in 150 years.)

The most serious drawback to the translation is, however, Sellner’s decision to omit roughly one-sixth of the original text, and to rearrange occasionally those sentences that he retains.  He does not tell the reader where these omissions and reorderings are made (they occur on virtually every page), only that he has left out passages “not directly pertinent to the woman question” (17).  Yet a comparison with the original text reveals that Sellner fails to hold to this principle consistently: some passages that do bear on the theme of women’s emancipation are omitted, whereas other, more clearly digressive passages and remarks are included.

The decision as to what is important and pertinent in a work should be left to the reader and not be made for him by the translator.  To edit the text in this fashion is to treat the reader the way Hippel says men treat women: as children incapable of thinking for themselves and making judgments on the basis of their own reasoning powers.  Readers should use Sellner’s version only in conjunction with the original.  An accurate, complete translation of this interesting work remains to be written.


Lessing Yearbook XII (1980), 247-248.

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Links to Hippel

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Quotation of the Day (Hippel)

“Here on earth we learn languages in order to deal with Nature.  We want to be on good terms with her, and since her court language is unknown, we try to cope by having many languages at the ready.  And since no one can really know more than a single language, we approach her with a freight-load of dictionaries and grammar books so that with the assistance of these translators, we can be received by Queen Nature.”

– Theodor Gottlieb von Hippel, 1778