One of the things I love about writing fiction is all the strange roads I wander in the process. I spend hours doing research on obscure and tangential topics to help flesh out my stories. I’m currently writing a novel set in an alternate reality in modern times and I still have to look things up. Most recently, I went looking for the original source of a quote by Goethe and got a surprise.
I knew the quote I wanted was somewhere in The Artist’s Way, but I skimmed all the quotes in the margins and couldn’t find it. I tried Googling the key words I could remember, and that didn’t work either. My quotation dictionary was no help. I wasn’t remembering enough of the quote to be able to find it that way. So I got down my copy of Do It! Let’s Get Off Our Buts which is inspirational and also full of quotes, and went through the book, page by page. Sure enough, there it was on page 286.
Determined to prove to myself I was right and that this quote was also in The Artist’s Way, I looked it up in the index. It was in the text of the book, not the margin, which is why I hadn’t found it before. But my need to be right got me in trouble. When I compared the two versions of the quote, they were different.
The Artist’s Way: Whatever you think you can do or believe you can do, begin it. Action has magic, grace, and power in it.
Do It!: Whatever you can do, or dream you can, begin it. Boldness has genius, power and magic in it.
My first thought was: Goethe wrote in German. This difference is due to different translations. Since I know some German, I decided to track down Goethe’s original text and see which of the two translations was closer. By poking around on the internet, I found out that translation was the issue, but not in the way that I had thought. Both quotes were wrong. Goethe never wrote anything like the couplet quoted.
The source of the saying as reported in Do It! is an 1835 translation of Goethe’s Faust by John Anster. The speech the couplet is based on (lines 214 – 230 in the Prelude at the Theater) is more of a starting point for Anster’s translation than the source, even though he was officially translating the play. The Manager rails against procrastination, but gives no indication that setting to work will bring about help from other sources. The best reason for getting to work at once is that you are working. End of sentiment.
So Anster’s “translation” is really an extrapolation inspired by Goethe’s writing, but not really a translation of his words or even his sentiments. Yet Goethe gets the credit for the catchy, inspiring phrase, and no one mentions John Anster at all.
Finding out that Goethe gets credit for a couplet he never wrote brought home to me how hard it is to get at the truth. We all played “Telephone” as a kid and know the hilarious mistakes that can get made in passing information from one person to another by whispering, but we tend to believe print is safe. Words written down look immutable, so surely the written words we pass to one another are accurate. But “Telegraph” is apparently as full of potential errors as “Telephone”, most likely because people are part of the process.
My research takes me into areas I know little or nothing about, and I always come away richer. I loved learning about this. The surprise of it was possibly the best part. This is one of the reasons I am a writer: I have permission to turn over mossy stones and see what’s underneath. There isn’t a better job in the whole world.