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Both old and modern English translations of Ludwig van Beethoven's letters include English words like thee, thou, lookest, understandest, knowest, etc. (i.e. the Heiligenstadt Testament)

It appears to me that no German words correspond to these (old) English words.

By what linguistic conventions have the myriad Beethoven translators rendered so many of Beethoven's German words into Elizabethan English words?

I'm so sorry, but I know not a word of German (other than kindergarten and wienerschnitzel).

  • There is no difference in spelling and pronunciation of du and dir in Beethoven-time German as compared to today. Whether it is culturally appropriate to render Beethoven's German into a form of English that would reflect the English spelling and pronunciation of this time, I don't know. Native speakers of English should have their say here. For the verb forms: there are some archaic (outdated or now unfashionable) forms for some of the verb forms. E.g. Konjunktiv gingst was once gingest, but this form can be used still today; it is not as visibly "old" as thou and lookest. – Christian Geiselmann Oct 17 '18 at 8:17
  • You actually only mention one older English feature, namely the second person singular, which in current English has been supplanted by forms which are originally plural forms. – Carsten S Oct 17 '18 at 22:14
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I think you already know what "thee, thou, etc." translates into german. And you are right: there are no exactly corresponding words which have this old touch in german language (maybe there are, but i can't think of any right now and Bethoven doesn't use any in his Testament). It's correct to translate them like fragezeichen & PiedPiper did, but i don't think that was your question. Your question was why the translators used these and other old Elizabethan English words.

Well, have a look at the first sentence of the "Heiligenstadt Testament"

O ihr Menschen die ihr mich für Feindseelig störisch oder Misantropisch haltet oder erkläret, wie unrecht thut ihr mir, ihr wißt nicht die geheime ursache von dem, was euch so scheinet, mein Herz und mein Sinn waren von Kindheit an für das zarte Gefühl des Wohlwollens, selbst große Handlungen zu verrichten dazu war ich immer aufgelegt, aber bedenket nur daß seit 6 Jahren ein heilloser Zustand mich befallen, durch unvernünftige Ärzte verschlimmert, von Jahr zu Jahr in der Hofnung gebessert zu werden, betrogen, endlich zu dem überblick eines daurenden Übels

When you translate a text you can translate its meaning and message and thats it. But you could also translate its flow and its tone and in that case you have to look at the words and grammar the author used (especially in old texts). In this case its a very antiquated text, so you use antiquated english words: ergo Elizabethan English

This text is old and it sounds very very old. No one would talk like this today. No one would write a lot of words like this today. Words like "erkläret" or "scheinet" sound outdated so i think it is legit to use words like "thou", "lookest" or "understandest" which have the same old flow, when translating this text while trying to retain its style.

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  • Well explained, right on the spot! – Christian Geiselmann Oct 17 '18 at 13:14
  • As I already pointed out in my answer: The usage of 'thou' in English had not been common for at least 100 years when Beethoven wrote this text. Doing so in a translation is IMHO not appropriate, even if you attempt to keep the tone and register of the text. – jarnbjo Oct 18 '18 at 11:20
  • @jarnbjo you are right. Before writing my answer i checked a few english book from 1800 and there were no thee or thou etc. . There are also translations like this which don't use too much Elisabethean English. I'm no English Major, so i can't tell you in what way 1800 english literature differs from modern literature. But lets assume the differences are less than when comparing this and modern german texts. In that case it would be acceptable to go further back in time. – mtwde Oct 18 '18 at 11:59
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There are German words corresponding to all those English words.
Thou (and thee) corresponds to the German du (and dich).
The -est ending is still found in German: siehst, verstehst.

These expressions had gone out of use in English about 100 years before Beethoven's time. I assume the translators wanted to use language that sounds "historic"

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In contrast to English there are no special words to convey its historic flavour.

The striking difference is, that the most typical polite addressing in former times was ihr, which is 2nd person plural instead of capitalized 3rd person. To quote from the beginning [spelling unmodified]:

Oh ihr Menschen, die ihr mich..., ihr wißt nicht die geheime ursache...

This could also be used to address a single person, as the old good-bye phrase

Gehabt euch wohl

as used by Mörike here.

(Actually I did not find an explicit singlar-person addressing in the Testament on a quick glance.)

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  • The only second person singular pronoun in the text refers to the author’s god. – Carsten S Oct 18 '18 at 6:56
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It is not quite correct that there are no German words for the archaic forms thou, thee, thy, thine. While the usage of thou died out in the English language during the 17th century, German still has and uses different words for polite and informal address.

So why are texts written by Beethoven translated using these archaic forms, when they were outdated and already considered archaic long before Beethoven was born in 1770. This phenomenon is called hypercorrection, described by Wikipedia as the 'over-application of a perceived rule of language-usage prescription'.

Beethoven's texts, most written in the beginning of the 19th century, also carry an old-fashioned style when read by modern German reader. He is using words, expression and grammatical forms, which are in modern German usually replaced with other forms. If a translator is trying to keep the old-fashioned style of the text, it would be appropriate to shape the translation as well in a style of language used in the relevant time period. In these cases, the translators however go too far back in time, at least by 100 years, when using thee. They apply language forms, which they think are appropriate, without really mastering the language register they are trying to write in.

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  • Thanks to everyone who responded to my question. I've been looking everywhere for answers, and it looks like jarnbo has got it as right as it's ever going to get. – David Noel Edwards Nov 8 '18 at 22:21

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