Johann Wolfgang Goethe in the Tyrol – Excerpt from Italian Journey

January 23, 2007

Trento, the 11th of September [1786], morning.

After wholly fifty hours of life and continual occupation I arrived here yesterday at eight o’clock, went soon to rest, and now find myself again prepared to continue my story. On the evening of the ninth, when I had brought the first portion of my journal to a close, I still wanted to draw my lodging, the post office, in its place in the Brenner pass, but it was unsuccessful, I missed its character and went home half annoyed. My host asked whether I should like to leave, by moonlight was the best way, and whether I knew that he needed the horses in the morning to take in the hay , he would like to have them back by then. Although his counsel was self-serving I was pleased to take it, since it accorded with my inner impulse. The sun let itself be seen once more, the air was tolerable; I packed, and left at seven o’clock. The atmosphere got the better of the clouds and the evening turned quite beautiful.

The postillion fell asleep and the horses went down the mountain at the fastest trot, always taking the way familiar to them; if they came to a flat spot we went correspondingly slower. The driver woke up and drove them on again, and so, passing between high rocks, I reached the roaring Etsch river [1] with great speed. The moon came up and illuminated monstrous objects. Several mills between ancient pines over the foaming stream were complete Everdingens.[2]

Everdingen, Forest Scene

When at nine o’clock I reached Sterzing, I was given to understand that they wished me away again. In Mittenwald at twelve o’clock on the dot I found everything in a deep sleep, except the postillion, and so we continued on to Brixen, where I was once again helped on, so to speak, so that I arrived in Kollmann with the day. The way the postillions drove deprived one of all sight and hearing, and as sorry as I was to pass through these magnificent places at such horrifying speed, in the night, as if fleeing, nonetheless I felt an inner joy at the thought that a favourable wind was blowing behind me, chasing me on to my wished-for goal. At daybreak I glimpsed the first vineyards in the hills. I met a woman with pears and peaches, and then we left for Teutschen, where I arrived at seven o’clock and was immediately forwarded on. Now, after once again travelling northwards [3] for a while, I glimpsed in full sun the valley wherein Bozen lies. Surrounded by steep mountains, which are cultivated to quite a height, it is open towards the midday sun, sheltered towards the north by the mountains of the Tyrol. A mild, gentle air fills the region. The Etsch turns here once more towards midday. The hills at the foot of the mountains are planted with grape-vines. The vines are drawn along long, low scaffolds, the blue grapes are draped elegantly down from the top, and ripen on the close, warm earth. In the plain of the valley, too, where otherwise there are only meadows, the vines are grown in tightly arranged rows, and between them the Turkish corn, that now raises ever higher its stalks. I have often seen it reach teen foot high. The fibrous male bloom has not yet been cut, as happens when the bearing of fruit is a while past.

The sun was shining cheerfully when I arrived at Bozen. I took joy at the many faces of the shopmen. A purposeful, contented existence was giving itself lively expression. In the square sat fruit-women with round, flat baskets, more than four feet in diameter. The peaches they contained lay beside each other, so as not to get squashed. The pears too. At that point I remembered some verses that I had seen written on the window of the inn in Regensburg:

Comme les pêches et les mélons
Sont pour la bouche d’un baron,
Ainsi les verges et les bâtons
Sont pour les fous, dit Salamon.

That a northern baron wrote this is clear, and that these regions would alter his ideas goes equally without saying.

The Bozen market hosts a vigourous silk trade; manchester is brought in too, and as much leather as is gathered from the mountain regions. However its main visitors are the numerous merchants who come to collect money, take orders and give new credit. I greatly desired to investigate the many products, all found together there at one time, but the impulse I feel, the restlessness, will not let me pause, and I hurry on again without delay. I console myself with the fact that in our statistical times it is probably all already in print and that where there is occasion one can inform oneself by means of books. For me at present it is only the impressions of the senses that are important, which no book, no picture conveys. What matters is that I take interest in the world again, that I essay my spirit of observation and test how far my sciences and capacities will extend, whether my eye is light, pure and keen, how much I can grasp with rapidity, and whether the folds that have settled and impressed themselves on my mind can be erased. Already now, serving myself, now that I must maintain continual attentiveness, continual presence of mind, these few days have given me an entirely different intellectual elasticity; I have to take care of my funds, to exchange, record, and write, where once I only thought, willed, meditated, ordered, and dictated.


[1] The editor of the German edition corrects: the Eisack [Italian: Isarco] river [which flows into the Etsch (or Adige) below Bozen-Balzano].

[2] Everdingen: Allart van Everdingen (1621-1675), Dutch landscape painter.

[3] The editor of the German edition corrects: westwards.


As are peaches and melons
To the mouth of a baron,
So are lashings and beatings
To the fool, says Salamon.

Translated from the German (c) by Marc Hiatt (27.01.07)

From J W Goethe’s Italian Journey (Italienische Reise).

Translator’s Notes

The passage illustrates some of the difficulties of translating a text across a gap that divides not merely German from English, but the literary culture that Goethe possessed, and could expect in his audience, from that attainable by most of the inhabitants of late-capitalist society.

To take one example: in this translation Goethe’s “Trieb” becomes “impulse”. Perhaps the more obvious solution, “drive”, had, I decided, to be avoided. In contemporary English “drive” is too associated with, on the one hand, the special meaning given it by Freud, and, on the other, with clichés (“he’s very driven, he’s got drive”) usually used to praise people whose supposed self-motivation actually consists in little more than adaptation to the “flexible” labour-market. Those clichés themselves resonate with the language of motor-vehicles (“overdrive”) and space-travel (“hyper-drive”). Goethe’s Trieb is not without relation to mechanical inventions (“meinem innern Trieb”), but Goethe’s language retains more memory of the scientific background to the metaphor than does most contemporary talk. A Trieb is a motive power that is communicated from a source through passive parts of a mechanical system. Thus Goethe writes: “der Trieb, die Unruhe die hinter mir ist, läßt mich nicht rasten”.

I render this as “the impulse I feel, the restlessness, will not let me pause…” To have written “the impulse, the disquiet behind me,” even though it points more obviously to the source of the metaphor, would have contradicted too strongly the expectations of the reader of English. My concessions to those expectations, in particular, “restlessness”, which in my text is not “behind” Goethe, run the risk of submerging that source under suggestions of subjective arbitrariness. My hope would be that “the impulse I feel” is enough to suggest the passivity of mechanical parts vis-á-vis a motive force, hence to stave off any hints of “impulsiveness”. Which is as much to say that the translator, who perceives but cannot work alone to prevent the expiration of language, needs allies amongst those rare beings, the ruminating readers.


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