The Danaid: translated by Bertha Young

Bertha Young and Edward Bullough – a brother and sister translation enterprise


Among the books kept in the library at Kinloch Castle is a slim volume by the German writer Ernst von Wildenbruch (1845-1909) entitled «The Danaid. An Episode from the Franco-German War». On the title page it says “translated by Bertha Young”. The book was published in Cambridge and London in 1902. How this translation came about is an interesting story. The Goethe and Schiller Archives in Weimar, Germany, have in their holdings a series of letters written by Edward Bullough to Ernst von Wildenbruch. The first of these is dated 18th January 1902, when Edward was still a student at Cambridge. In this letter, he gets straight to the point. It begins like this:


Dear Sir

My sister, Mrs Young, and myself, student of modern languages here at the University, desire to translate your drama «Heinrich und Heinrichs Geschlecht» [Henry and Henry’s Kin], and, if possible, to publish this translation here in England.


Edward then goes on to list their credentials, saying that his sister has lived in England all her life, so that English is her actual mother tongue, whereas he has spent his youth in Germany and has attended the Vitzthum’sche Gymnasium in Dresden – so that there is every hope that the translation will do justice to Wildenbruch’s work.

Wildenbruch apparently answers right away, giving his consent, for in his next letter, dated 29 January, Edward apologises for the delay in replying and explains this with the fact that he wanted to provide a sample translation of the Prologue so that Wildenbruch could assess the quality of the translation, and this he includes here. 

The sample translation finds favour with Wildenbruch, and he allows Edward and Bertha to continue translating. They hope to have finished the first two acts within a fortnight. In the letters to Wildenbruch Edward asks for brief notes by the author if he desires anything to be changed, and then these things are duly amended. One repeatedly mentioned topic is the different forms of address depending on rank and stature. Here, the translators take Shakespeare as their role model when it comes to deciding whether to use “you” or “thou”.


In one of the few replying letters by Wildenbruch (it is not certain if there are no more, or if they are lost), he expresses his satisfaction in English “Well done, translators! Shake hands, translators!” Edward, in his reply, humbly claims that this is too much honour bestowed on him. Bertha is the only translator, he simply helps her with advice and proofreading. As nothing by Wildenbruch has been translated into English before, finding a publisher turns out to be challenging and Edward suggests contacting London theatre managers to see if they are interested in producing one of the plays that Bertha is translating.

Ideally, Edward suggests, the publication as a book and the production on a London stage should coincide, but he admits his lack of experience regarding the publishing business – and possible financial consequences for his sister if the play is taken on by a London stage. However, after keeping the manuscript for several weeks, Dent & Co. send it back saying they will not publish it. Edward decides to revise the text once more and as his sister is unoccupied meanwhile, she asks Wildenbruch’s permission to translate some of his novellas, starting with «The Danaid». The reasoning is that novellas, if they are not about too specifically German topics, will sell better than a play.


There is a gap in the correspondence between mid May and early August, and the next thing we know is that it seems to be impossible to find a publisher even for the shorter prose and that Bertha has therefore decided to publish «The Danaid» privately, at her own cost, with the added subtitle «An Episode from the Franco-German War» to make it easier to sell the book to English readers.

In the next letter, from 10th August, Edward begs Wildenbruch not to feel sorry for Bertha because of the expense for publishing «The Danaid» herself. She is such a great admirer of the German author’s works, and she does the translation for the sheer pleasure of it and not out of financial interest. In any case, they will print just 250 copies to start with, so the financial loss would not be too great. Edward notes that Wildenbruch is in Switzerland and asks him, should he pass by Thun, to say hello to his birthplace. 


In the fifteenth and last letter, dated 6th December 1902, Edward writes that although the theatre publisher Bloch is not about to publish any Wildenbruch plays in the near future, they are interested in bringing them to the London stage eventually, so things are definitely looking better. Edward then goes on to say that above all they have to thank the Kaiser for an awakening interest in Wildenbruch in England. [Wildenbruch, who was the descendant of an illegitimate Hohenzollern prince, enjoyed the Kaiser’s favour with his patriotic poems and historical plays.] Edward asks Wildenbruch if he thinks they could send the Kaiser a nicely bound copy of «The Danaid» and how they would go about doing this. The letter ends with the information that Bertha is keen to continue translating Wildenbruch and with a statement by Edward that in his opinion the writings of no other German author are better suited to make the nature and characteristics of Germans understandable to an English reading public. 


We will perhaps never know if other translations of Wildenbruch were ever done by Bertha Young, but certainly «The Danaid» was the only one ever to be published.


The correspondence of Bertha Young and Edward Bullough with Ernst von Wildenbruch provides a fascinating insight into the mindset of two young people with strong ties both to Germany and Britain, and who both opted for the latter country to live in.