Goethe, responsible for Victorian pteridomania?

The disastrous horticultural consequences of fucked literary translation.

It is not generally known, and Ray doesn’t mention it in his otherwise excellent introduction to Victorian pteridomania, but fern fever in Britain arose from the mistranslation of the line “Already all that was near is far” as “Already all that was near is fern” in the long-lost Fareham edition of a rather beautiful poem by Goethe:

Dämmrung senkte sich von oben,
Schon ist alle Nähe fern;
Doch zuerst emporgehoben
Holden Lichts der Abendstern!
Alles schwankt ins Ungewisse,
Nebel schleichen in die Höh’;
Schwarzvertiefte Finsternisse
Widerspiegelnd ruht der See.

Nun im östlichen Bereiche
Ahn’ ich Mondenglanz und -glut,
Schlanker Weiden Haargezweige
Scherzen auf der nächsten Flut.
Durch bewegter Schatten Spiele
Zittert Lunas Zauberschein,
Und durchs Auge schleicht die Kühle
Sänftigend ins Herz hinein.

I am joking of course, but the only English translation I found of this, an old, apparently scholarly gig by one UC Fischer (source URL at Hong Kong Journals Online apparently disfunctional), gets it wrong–“all that was new is now far away”–as well as printing the original without umlauts and with several other typos. There’s a sense-accurate but also umlaut-less paraphrase by Borges (Siete noches) in circulation, whose interpretation of the poem distances itself perhaps excessively from the original, but is now better known.

If we struggle with German chinoiserie, then how much chance is there of us mastering Mandarin?

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Last updated 15/02/2011

This post pre-dates my organ-grinding days, and may be imported from elsewhere.

Chinoiserie (1): Chinoiserie is the European interpretation and imitation of Chinese and East Asian artistic traditions, especially in the decorative arts, garden design, architecture, literature, theatre, and music.

English language (462):

Fad (1): A fad, trend or craze is any form of collective behavior that develops within a culture, a generation or social group in which a group of people enthusiastically follow an impulse for a finite period. Fads are objects or behaviors that achieve short-lived popularity but fade away.

Fern (1): A fern is a member of a group of vascular plants that reproduce via spores and have neither seeds nor flowers.

German language (54):

German literature (7):

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (7): Johann Wolfgang von Goethe; 28 August 1749 – 22 March 1832) was a German writer and statesman.

Jorge Luis Borges (3): Jorge Francisco Isidoro Luis Borges Acevedo; 24 August 1899 – 14 June 1986) was an Argentine short-story writer, essayist, poet and translator, and a key figure in Spanish-language literature.

Kaleboel (4309):

Natural history (512): Natural history is the research and study of organisms including animals, fungi and plants in their environment, leaning more towards observational than experimental methods of study.

Orientalism (2): Orientalism is a term used by art historians and literary and cultural studies scholars for the imitation or depiction of aspects in the Eastern world.

Poetry (6):

Pteridomania (1): Pteridomania or Fern-Fever was a craze for ferns.

Spanish language (504):

Spanish literature (171):

Translation (788):


  1. It’s always great to use a source-language speaker, as they at least understand the original even if their English is bad. ‘I fear the entanglement INTO idle talk’? (but suspect a transcription error)

  2. The solution: lock a source and a target speaker in a room until they come up with a solution, and then blame the printer.

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