The story goes like this: It is December, 1911. Rilke, the
delicate, gloomy, visionary poet whom the German aristocracy tries in
vain to comfort with invitations to their country estates ("If God has
any consideration for me," he complains in a letter, "he should let me
find a few rooms in the country where I can rave the way I like"), arrives
by chauffeured car at Castle Duino, a stony fortress perched on a bluff
above the Adriatic, not far from Trieste. He has come to visit his indulgent
friend and patron, Princess Marie von Thurn und Taxis-Hohenlohe, who owns
the castle, and together they play at translating Dantes Vita
Nuova (a fitting project for Duino, since Dante supposedly wrote parts
of the Divine Comedy there). After the Princess leaves, Rilke stays
on alone and, with the staff to care for his every need, is left to concentrate
on his own work.
Work. It is one of the most often-used words in Rilkes
carpetbag, along with star, puppet, mirror, rose. "Travailler,
rien que travailler," Rodin told to the 27-year-old poet when he arrived
in Paris, in 1902, to write a monograph on the sculptor, later to act
as his secretary, and finally to become his disciple. Freed of the weight
of wife and daughter, Rilke forced himself to work every day, then reeled,
weightless, through the streets of Paris, then shut himself in his rooms
again to hone the vibrating instrument of his poetry with more solitude,
more work. He marveled at the pious dedication of Cezanne, whose art he
fell in love with at the Salon dAutumne, who refused to take a day
off from his labors even to attend his mothers funeral. Between
1906 and 1908, Rilke wrote the two volumes of New Poems that, despite
the nine books that preceded it, marks his emergence as a Great Poet.
He completed his exquisite autobiographical novel, The Notebooks of
Malte Laurids Brigge. But he wasnt happy; his real task, he
felt, remained undone. There was still the "ancient enmity between life
and the great work." Even relationships with others were a distraction.
Two more years passed in which Rilke wrote almost nothing.
And now he is alone in Duino. He gingerly lowers himself
into his "divinely ordained solitude," like a swimmer into freezing water.
And there he waits. For despite his hair-shirt regimen of daily work,
poems have always arrived to Rilke suddenly, in urgent bursts, like visitations.
Then one day, as the story goes, while marching around on the stormy cliffs
puzzling over how to answer a thorny business letter, a voice rings through
the gale. Rilke, in awe, takes out his notebook and transcribes what hes
heard, and that night it becomes the opening lines of the first of the
Duino Elegies: Who, if I cried out, would hear me among the
angelic / orders?
Or was it "Who of the angelic hosts would hear / me, even
if I cried out?" as Elaine E. Boney translated it? Or rather "WHO, if
I cried out, might hear me--/ among the ranked Angels?" (Stephen Cohn).
Or even the more casual, indie version, "If I cried out / who would hear
me up there / among the angelic orders?" (David Young). While the story
leading up to the moment of revelation is clear (recounted consistently
in the Preface of every edition), we have to rely on the translators for
what came next. And, like the conflicting stories of eyewitnesses, none
seem to agree. The crystalline voice that Rilke supposedly heard has been
shattered into more than twenty English language translations. Who, if
he cried out, could be heard among this clamor?
William H. Gass may be the most audible for the moment,
having stepped forward as the critic/referee/resident philosopher/union
leader of Duino Elegies translators. His book, Reading Rilke:
Reflections on the Problems of Translation, prefaces his own translation
with almost two-hundred pages of glittering commentary on the Elegies,
blow-by-blow reportage from the gladiator pit of Duino translators,
a recitation of rare of biographical detail about Rilke, and sharp insights
into the art of translation and the idea of inspiration. He discards the
rule that the translator, like one who throws his voice, should be heard
and not seen, allowing us to preserve the illusion that we are actually
reading the poets words. Gass, himself an extraordinary writer,
is not the sort who can easily hide himself behind the curtain of translation.
His lyrical gift is irrepressible, impossible to restrain behind the dam
of anothers--even Rilkes--stanzas, and the resulting torrent
of words makes for an unorthodox initiation into the most elusive of Rilkes
After a chapter of evocative, at times extravagant, detail
and insight concerning Rilkes life and work, Gass delivers a slim
second chapter about translation in general. "Translating is reading,
reading of the best, the most essential kind," he writes. He defines it
as reading with "recognition" as distinguished from the "simple understanding"
of regular reading. For Gass, translation is physical, involving both
an embodiment of the poet and, perhaps more importantly, a tinkering around
under the hood of a poem until the translating reader learns how it works.
This, he suggests, can be done even within the same language: by translating
Hardys English into our own vernacular we will come to understand
the poets choices, how a poem could not have been written any other
way. For Gass, the translation is the record of this "enriched reading"
on the part of the translator, "only the farewells to a long conversation"
between the translator and the poem.
It is an odd sort of conversation. Translation may be an
act of love, of charitable duty, of scholarship, but at its heart it is
an act of worship. And worship, by definition, denies a mutual relationship.
In one sense, the original remains untouched by translation: no matter
how many portraits translators hold up to it, the original continues to
look exactly as the poet left it. Its not that the poem doesnt
change with time: "Great poems are like granaries," Gass writes, "they
are always ready to enlarge their store." But a poem might also be likened
to a craft the poet launches into space, the arc of its future already
written into it like the equation of an algorithm that will multiply indefinitely.
A great poem contains its own afterlife.
A translation, as Walter Benjamin writes, issues from that
afterlife, and marks the poems continued life. For just as religions
require worshippers to keep alive their gods, a poem needs readers to
ensure its relevancy. And translators are the most dedicated of readers.
The conversation between translator and poem--the translator asking questions,
the poem surrendering its answers--teaches us how to read the poem anew,
ensures that we continue to reckon with it.
But of course some conversations are more worthwhile to
listen to than others, and there is such a thing as translation overkill.
With more than twenty English translations of the Duino Elegies
already in existence, any new translation had better make a good case
for its necessity. For many years, the best was J. B. Leishman and Stephen
Spenders effort of 1939, the First and Ninth improved upon by Leishman
again when he polished them for Rilke: Selected Poems in 1960.
Some of its flaws (it is sometimes heavy-handed) have been improved upon
by those that followed, though usually at the price of other losses.
Gass turns this embarrassment of riches to his favor, incorporating
the crowd of translations into his explorative analysis of Rilke. Not
excluding himself (whom he often refers to in third person), he compares
the translators decisions line by line like a ringside broadcaster
at a prize fight, eliminating the losers as the poem progresses. The result
is pure Gass: cheeky, comic, self-congratulatory, ingenious. "MacIntyre
suffers from contractions, while Poulin continues to go for the
colloquial," he writes. "Prose has begun to creep over some versions like
a vine. Gass, as usual, wants both the terror and awesomeness of the Angels,
but the awesomeness in Boney is awful."
It is interesting that Gass buries his own translation at
the back of the book like an afterthought (truly the farewell of a long
conversation). Gasss edgy prose is often magnificent and flashy
and he drives it to great effect. (Sometimes he crashes.) Though the flamboyance
of the vehicle itself demands constant attention, the fine quality of
the writing in this book is intimately linked (when is it not?) to the
quality of the ideas. But Gass is not a poet. His Elegies borrow
generously from existing translations, and though he sometimes smoothes
over other translators rough patches, his lines often suffer from
a wordiness that chokes them of air. Compare Leishmans:
Those--you envied them almost, those forsaken, you found
so far beyond the requited in loving. Begin
ever anew their never-attainable praise
Those--the forsaken--you envied them almost, they so outstripped
all love-appeased lovers in loving. Begin
continually to accomplish their unachievable praise.
Outstripped, accomplish, unachievable: these are unwieldy
words for the delicate calibrations of a poem, and while a stanza might
have supported one, its bound to collapse under the weight of three.
"Love-appeased" is downright awkward. As a general rule, it seems a translator
should avoid hyphenated creations, especially if, as Gass himself writes,
he is trying to achieve the poem the poet "would have written had he been
English." Wordiness, a common malaise of poetry translation, understandably
results from trying to preserve all the subtleties of the original. Leishman
falls prey to it, too, with lines like "And so I repress myself, and follow
the call-note / of depth-dark sobbing."
Gass is gifted at pinpointing the troubles of other translations
and colorfully conveying them to his readers. But when he tries to improve
them the result is too researched, too interpretive. After five tries
(listed in an earlier chapter), he settles on "And so I master myself
and stifle the beseeching / hearts cry thats my mating song."
Mating song? "I want to keep it," he explains, "because I think the bird
has to be there." His translations are energetic, alive, but there is
too much Gass in them. Under his conducting, what is supposed to be now
an aria, now a dirge, can skitter off into swing: a "beloved" turns into
a "sweetheart," thoughts "going in and out" end up "tramping." Still,
the prose portion of the Gass book brings us closer to the Duino Elegies,
and closer to Rilke. For though Gass is filled with awe for the poems,
he accepts that the poet himself was less palatable: "Hes a cold
and calculating egoist, covering his selfishness with the royal robes
of art. Hes a poseur, a courtier, a migrant, a loner." His native
irreverence, when applied to the rarified subject of Rilke and still balanced
by love, liberates us from myths about him that have sometimes made his
poems seem inaccessible. No, we dont need another translation, but
this clear-eyed, hybrid study--this we can use.
Its surprising, then, that just when we thought we
had received the last word on Duino, at least for a while,
a new translation by Edward Snow should follow so quickly in its wake:
rushed, not altogether there, as if it has arrived late to its own party.
Anything there is to be said about Snows Elegies must follow
the point that it is superfluous. Aside from that, it has the usual share
of victories and losses, but the sum total is mediocre. Under Snows
command, the Elegies seem anemic, defeated by their own literalness.
Leishmans rhythmic, resonant lines:
And its hard, being dead,
and full of retrieving before one begins to perceive
a little eternity. --All of the living, though,
make the mistake of drawing too sharp distinctions
are deflated in Snows version to
And death demands labor,
a tying up of loose ends, before one has
that first inkling of eternity.--But the living
all make the same mistake: they distinguish too sharply.
The first line, Und das Totsein ist muhsam, literally
means "And being dead is hard," even "laborious," so its odd that
Snow would have wanted to pump up the simplicity of the phrase into "And
death demands labor." Presumably he did it so that a description of the
work could neatly follow, but this doesnt seem a worthwhile amendment
of Rilkes lines if what comes next is the dull, cliché "tying
up of loose ends." And "first inkling of eternity" sounds remarkably unappetizing,
even though its the reward of all this labor. One-and-a-half thumbs
down for Snow, we can hear Gass say, the Siskel and Ebert of Duino
Somewhere amid all of these translations, we brush against
the original. And so we return, finally, to Rilke himself, standing on
the cliffs of Duino. We follow him back to his rooms where he writes the
First and Second of the Elegies and fragments of the others. We
hound him through another decade in which nothing more of the great poem
arrives despite Rilkes ping-ponging from one country estate to the
next, despite his running "naked along the seashore, his face in the wind
as it had been [in Duino]," until finally the poem is completed in 1922
in another fit of inspiration.
The Duino Elegies are not Rilkes best poems
(for that look to poems like "Orpheus. Eurydice. Hermes," or "Evening"
that seem, to me, perfect). Nor are they prophetic or religious, as Gass
tells us. They are not mystical despite all the Sturm und Drang
about the medium Rilke receiving messages in the wind. And while they
may be spiritual in the sense that all true poetry is, the Duino Elegies
turn away from the spirit world, the unattainable world of Angels, and
are grounded in the mortal life. They are, paradoxically, about the difficulties
of living in the world, even as "the world exists nowhere but within
us": "We are not really at home in our interpreted world," near the top
of the First Elegy, is one of the crucial lines in all of Rilke. Both
flawed and inspired by their own contradictions, the Duino Elegies
are at once Rilkes loudest cry out of his solitude and into it.
They are oracular poems that insist upon being made physical, passing
through the lungs and blood and breath to become speech. They demand us
to learn, like Malte Laurids Brigge, to see. They offer the long road
beyond that imperative, the very summation of poetry, dealt like a blow
in the final line of "Archaic Torso of Apollo": You must change your
life. One line, at least, that knows no other translation.
Nicole Krauss is a
writer living in New York. She recently made a documentary about Joseph
Brodsky for BBC Radio 3.