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Shakespeare in German

To mark the occasion of the German Day of Unity, librarian Mareike Doleschal examines the custodial history of a set of German Shakespeare translations held in the Trust's library.

Mareike Doleschal

Books can have a history that is hinted at in bookplates and marginalia or in the attempt to erase the traces of previous owners.  A few years ago when we received a donation of twelve volumes of Shakespeare plays translated into German by August Wilhelm Schlegel and Ludwig Tieck, I knew nothing about the history of these volumes and would have never imagined that they have such a fascinating provenance. The previous owner of these volumes, Marie Levin, inscribed the books with her name but in some of the books her name was cut out. Intrigued by this, I contacted the donor, Anke Manuwald, to ask why the name had been removed. Anke explained that her parents, who owned the set, lived in the former German Democratic Republic and during the 1950s, when they fled to West Germany, they couldn’t take the books with them. However, friends sent the books to the family in several small packages and removed Marie Levin's name to protect the family.

Cut out signature Marie Levin

For me this brought back an early childhood memory of travelling to the former German Democratic Republic. I remember my older sister telling me not to take any printed materials as they might get confiscated by the border guards. Determined to defy the rules I decided that my socks would be a good hiding place for a page from a book. I can’t remember what it was I wanted to smuggle (I’m afraid it wasn’t Shakespeare) and I didn’t succeed with carrying out my plan as I confided my mission to my sister. 

A dictatorship stifles as well as stimulates creativity: biscuit tins, car seats, invisible pockets sown inside coats and jackets were some of the methods people used to smuggle literature behind the “Antifascist Protection Rampart” as the Berlin Wall was referred to by communists.

Berlin Wall
Graffiti on the Berlin Wall

Unlike the novels by Orwell, Pasternak and Solschenizyn, Shakespeare’s plays weren’t forbidden or hidden away in the so-called “Giftschränke” (poison cupboards) in libraries, which could only be accessed by loyal members of the communist party. Shakespeare was performed on the East German stage but was re-interpreted to fit into the socialist doctrine. 

Not surprisingly books with such an intriguing provenance were owned by an extraordinary woman: Marie Levin, Anke Manuwald’s great grandmother, was married to a cloth manufacturer called Ferdinand Levin. The company was founded in Göttingen in 1837. Anke describes Marie Levin as an “energetic and independent woman who ran the company after the death of her husband from 1901-1905.” Marie Levin initiated social projects aimed at helping the workers at her company which were considered progressive for their time; for example she wanted employees to own a patch of land and a goat so that “their children would always be able to drink milk.” In addition, Marie founded a “welfare house” where employees could eat, buy food at reduced prices and undertake further training. Today the Goethe Institute is housed in the villa where Marie Levin once lived and a street and a park in Göttingen are named after the company.

Although the title page of the donated Shakespeare editions states that two men called Schlegel and Tieck translated Shakespeare’s works into German, it was in fact a whole group of people. This included two remarkable women called Sophie and Dorothea Tieck, who translated the Bard’s works. Both women, not unlike Marie Levin, were ahead of their time. Sophie, the younger sister of Ludwig Tieck, was involved in debates on women’s rights and concerned about social equality. In addition to translating Shakespeare, she worked as an editor, and was even a writer in her own right. Her literary output includes novels, dramas and poetry. Fortunately, the perception of Sophie has changed considerably in scholarship. Until the 1960s she was seen as a “dilettante” but the study of her correspondence has helped to re-assess her role in the literary circle and she is widely perceived as an active contributor to the Romantic Movement. Dorothea, Tieck’s eldest daughter, showed an aptitude for foreign languages from a very early age. Reading Shakespeare in the original she also studied Greek, Latin, French, Spanish and Italian. Together with the German diplomat Count Wolf Heinrich von Baudissin, she translated the more difficult and lesser-known plays by Shakespeare and her translations were considered of a high literary standard. Unfortunately the women's names didn’t appear on the title page. Scholar Alan Corkhill describes the relationship between father and daughter Tieck as “exploitative” since Tieck claimed full authorship rights to the translation.

Dorothea’s and Sophie’s names aren’t only absent from the title page of the 1839 edition but also in the visitor book to the Shakespeare birthplace which Tieck signed on the 3rd July 1817. Tieck visited the birthplace along with two gentlemen called Wilhelm von Burgsdorff and Ludwig von Bielefeld, neither of them were involved in translating the works of Shakespeare. Undoubtedly his daughter and sister would have been more deserving travel companions on his pilgrimage to Stratford-upon-Avon. 

Title page Schlegel Tieck translation
Shakespeare's dramatische Werke translated into German by August von Schlegel and Ludwig Tieck (1839-41)

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