Rilke in Translation

Poetry in translation usually doesn't work. However, I mean to make a stab at how we can make attempts to get at the heart of translation. Rather than literal translation or an attempt to show off one's own abilities rather than be faithful to the poet, I want to propose a better understanding of the nature of the language translated.

Two of my favorite poets, I don't read in translation. I'm going to try to set out explaining why. Here is a verse from one of my favorite poets, Rainer Maria Rilke:

Sein Blick ist vom Vorübergehn der Stäbe
so müd geworden, dass er nichts mehr hält.
Ihm ist, als ob es tausend Stäbe gäbe
und hinter tausend Stäbe keine Welt.

A wonderful image of Rilke's most of his work, showing clearly the apasionada (which I'll explain). Here are some translations:

His gaze has been so worn by the procession
Of bars that it no longer makes a bond.
Around, a thousand bars seem to be flashing
And in their flashing show no world beyond.
(Walter Arndt)

His gaze those bars keep passing is so misted
with tiredness, it can take in nothing more.
He feels as though a thousand bars existed
an no more world beyond them than before.
(J. B. Leishman)

His vision from the passing of the bars
is grown so weary that it holds no more.
To him it seems there are a thousand bars
and BEhind A thousSAND bard, uh, no world.
(M. D. Herter Norton)

His sight from ever gazing through the bars
has grown so blunt that it sees nothing more.
It seems to him that thousands of bars are
before him, and behind him nothing merely.
(C. F. Macintyre)

His weary glance, from passing by the bars,
Has grown into a dazed and vacant stare;
It seems to him there are a thousand bars
And out beyond those bars the empty air.
(Jessie Lemont)

His vision, from the constantly passing bars,
has grown so weary that it cannot hold
anything else. It seems to him there are
a thousand bards, and behind the bars, no world.
(Stephen Mitchell)

Yeah, I heard you swear "holy moly!" under your breath, I did out loud. Actually I didn't know whether to laugh or cry. For those of you scratching your heads, bear with me. Okie dokie. In all of these translations, the poets thought to try to rhyme. (big loud noise) Lets look at Rilke's beautiful, wonderful writing again:

Sein Blick ist vom Vorübergehn der Stäbe
so müd geworden, dass er nichts mehr hält.
Ihm ist, als ob es tausend Stäbe gäbe
und hinter tausend Stäbe keine Welt.

Poety is meant to be heard. It bears repeating: Poetry is meant to be heard. What do we hear? Why is there no breath, no consciousness, no love, but only self-consciousness and hubris in the translations? They seek to possess, to own, to make the poem their's. Rilke is Rilke. To know Rilke is to love Rilke, to be passionate about Rilke, so much so that the German words resound in the breath like a moment without a moment before or after. Rilke, Paz and Houseman are all poets who are THERE. Let's go there. It's a conscious journey, so take the plunge.

tye TE te toe toe TU tay te te TAH te
to TEU te TOE te TAH te TE tay TE
te te tah toe te TAH te TE te TE te
tu TE te TAH te TE te TE te TE

Here is the scan. If you try to say it, ignoring the consonants, you hear the rythmn. Unamerican. Yah, you betcha. No iambic pentameter nothing. What's repeated? Look at the poem. What consonates? (tin, tin or tan, tun). Which are slender vowels, which are thick? Are they set off by slender or thick consonants? German, like English, is a breath language, so what is hissed and spat and coughed and what is sung? Let's look:

zz ayn k sst ff om ff ee ayn sst ayb (with some uhs in there)
zz oe ee oer ss k tss ay el tt
eem sst all zz oeb sst ow sst sst ayb ayb
oon thh een tt tt au sst sst ayb kk ayn eel tt

If you're like me, you suddenly see a sound picture of that hissing panther rubbing the bars that hem him in with that abrupt "tt" sound. Sibilants and fricatives and the long vowels cut off over and over. hiissserrryyowllhiisclankclunkshut. Arndt is the only one who shuts off the panther in the first translation and some let him free. But the trochee battle cry of that last line is what makes this verse work which Arndt completely loses, and thus loses the poignancy of the image.

What is obvious here is the lack of what I call apasionada or acting completely so in love that the self is lost, the self that holds back, that can hold back. We are so used to holding back--HOLDING BACK!!! Some of it is necessary for civilization, but in poetry? In a garden? In a painting? In music? You hear it immediately in sung music where the singer is singing, aware that he is singing to someone. What I mean by apasionada is something done in god. Let me explain a little. I lack the capacity for belief in god. For me, there can never be any god. But I firmly swear that my every living breath is practiced, is lived in god, or apasionada, in love. The word apasionada is Spanish. It shows up in dances like the flamenco, which is not a dance of sex, but a dance of death, of grief. Apasionada may be too Catholic for most of the West, too, well, grief-striken. But we are human. The feeling is grief, but though the consciousness of the moment it is joy, it becomes joy only in the total throwing of the self into the ACT of god or loving without thinking of the act of love, but only being moved to love. For a garden to have integrity, for a poem to have integrity, it must be an act of god, to god, moved by love because of grief. The call of the cantador is a wail of grief but it is love that the wail becomes, great and terrible beauty, beauty so arresting that the moment expands into life--into breath.

Where is god in Rilke's poem? Where was god in these translations? Where was the apasionada?

Sein Blick ist vom Vorübergehn der Stäbe
so müd geworden, dass er nichts mehr hält.
Ihm ist, als ob es tausend Stäbe gäbe
und hinter tausend Stäbe keine Welt.

His glance overpassed by bars
so weary grows, never free to halt.
To him as if a thousand bars
a thousand bars and no world to walk.

My own attempt. Apologies to the translators, but poetry is dang hard to translate.


© 2007, A.R. Stone

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