On Translating Rilke’s ‘Duino Elegies’

Idris Parry writes in the current PN Review (March/April 2015) comparing Rilke’s Duino Elegies with the Sonnets to Orpheus. The poet always spoke of the sonnets as subsidiary to the elegies, but Parry argues that while the elegies “talk about” the poet’s task, the sonnets perform it. I’d agree and, in translating both in the last 20 years or so, I have come to prefer the vivid enactments of the sonnets. Parry explores Rilke’s response to Rodin in Paris in 1902. What struck Rilke was Rodin’s “dark patience which makes him [as creative artist] almost anonymous”. What the young poet learned was to pursue an “unhurried and uncommitted exposure to experience” (Parry’s words). This is opposed to impatience which is (contra-Keats) an irritable reaching after clarity: “making up your mind before the event instead of letting the event shape your mind” (Parry again).

Rilke’s “praise” is just this acceptance and faithful utterance and is predicated on the truth of an underlying unity of existence. The poet is obliged to speak of this unity but can only use the language of division, a language deluded by the conviction of finality. Parry epigrammatically concludes: “We punctuate to retain our sanity, but we should not come to believe the punctuation”. The PN Review piece ends by looking at sonnet II, 18 and asks, if Rilke’s own German is a poor translation (using shabby tools) of an ultimate reality, how can translators hope to do it justice in bringing it over into English?

Reading Parry this week, reminded me of my own thoughts, not long after having translated Duino Elegies (https://martyncrucefix.com/publications/translations/duino-elegies/). They were originally published in Magma Magazine; I hope they are worth making public again:

My own grappling with the issue of what can be lost and gained in translation began over 10 years ago when London’s Blue Nose Poetry group staged an evening to celebrate Rilke’s work. This was partly in response to a Poetry Review survey of the original 1994 New Generation Poets, several of whom declared his work to have been influential. Though a name I was familiar with, I have to confess I hadn’t gotten far through my Penguin Selected. Perhaps on account of my ignorance, I was to contribute only by reading aloud from the Elegies. The Ninth was chosen but as I practised, I found myself stumbling, losing the thread and, frankly, I hardly knew what it was I was reading:

Here is the time for the Tellable, here is its home.

Speak and proclaim. More than ever

Things we can live with are falling away, for that

Which is oustingly taking their place is an imageless act.

Act under crusts, that will readily split as soon

As the doing within outgrows them and takes a new outline.

This is Leishman’s translation of the Ninth Elegy and I supposed the obscurity was part of the point – that it must signal hitherto unplumbed depths of profundity. My view on this remains equivocal, but I believe a proportion of the difficulty is obfuscation and the impression of slippery ‘mysticism’ it generates has misleadingly become part of Rilke’s appeal for many readers. For me, the bottom line was I could not read this aloud with the kind of conviction that I demanded. I tried a couple of other easily available translations – Stephen Cohn’s and David Young’s – but still was not happy with the sound these poems made in my mouth.

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Castle Duino

Within a month I had produced a ‘version’ of my own. By version, I meant a close-ish translation, but I had taken considerable liberties with the more difficult passages and inserted what I thought Rilke might have meant or what I wanted him to mean. At the time this seemed to me a risky strategy compelled by necessity, though there is nowadays a good deal more debate about the role and value of versioning. My own position is that I prefer a genuine attempt to translate the original into a contemporary target language. I see the point of versions – but it is hardly ever what I am seeking as a reader. Nobody imagines translation is easy; but only a fool anticipates a perfect rendering. We expect translators to work in good faith and that their work will read sufficiently well in the target language not to distract us with the stale sweat of their strenuous wrestling with the original. Nor should they cover the difficulties of translation by delivering obscurities that defensively resist comprehension.

It was coming across my first attempt a couple of years later that set me systematically picking my way through the million pitfalls of the Elegies. Take for instance Rilke’s opening lines, the great cry at the start of the sequence. Rilke writes “Wer, wenn ich schriee, hörte mich denn aus der Engel / Ordnungen?” Not too much of a problem you might think, but William Gass, in his book, Reading Rilke: Reflections on the Problems of Translation (Basic Books, 1999), considers no fewer than 15 versions of these 11 words. Most – though by no means all – accept Rilke’s opening word – “Who” – and most, though not all, take over Rilke’s relative clause “if I cried”. But is he merely crying or crying out? And beyond this point of relative agreement lie terrible dragons of disagreement, especially over the word “Ordnungen”. How are the angels deployed? Are they in “angelic orders”, “amid the host of the angels”, “among the hierarchy of angels”, “the order of the angels”, “among the angels’ hierarchies”, “among the ranked Angels”, “through the Angel Orders” or even (Gass gives his own version) “among the Dominions of Angels”? In such company, my own version, “Who, if I cried out, would hear me among the ranks / of the angels?” runs the risk of a watery plainness but it has the advantages of clarity, echoes the rhythm, syntax and line break of the original closely, and (remembering my first concern was for oral performance) the line has a satisfying aural quality. I hear in the first phrases high, thin vowels that contrast the second half’s weightier, assonantal ‘a’ sounds: the cry of alienated humanity contrasts the solid, seemingly impregnable powers that lie beyond our reach.

But the best-equipped translator faces especially difficult problems in Rilke. In the Fifth Elegy, for example, the poem describes some acrobats. This is a combined portrait of a troupe Rilke knew while living in Paris and a painting by Picasso (La Famille des Saltimbanques, 1905) with which Rilke lived in the summer of 1915 in the house of the dedicatee of this Elegy, Frau Hertha Koenig. This is, formally, one of the freer of the Elegies, its lines extending and contracting to reflect the energy of the tumblers.

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Picasso’s ‘La Famille des Saltimbanques’ (1905)

But in the Picasso painting the figures are arranged in an almost imperceptible D-shape and Rilke writes:  “Und kaum dort, / aufrecht, da und gezeigt: des Dastehns / großer Anfangsbuchstab . . .” In my version: “And barely discernible, / yet up-standing and unmistakeably on display, / the capital D of Destiny . . .” The original word “Dastehns” (something like “standing there”) reflects the visual pun and it would be a great loss not to bring this into the English. Stephen Mitchell uses the word “Duration”; Young’s looser version loses the pun with “existence . . . presence”. On this occasion, I found myself following Stephen Cohn and opting for “Destiny” (more usually the translation of “Schicksal”) which I felt conveyed Rilke’s sense of how these individuals are driven to perform by forces external to them, rather than by a more truthful inner compulsion.

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Another critical decision arises in the Tenth Elegy with its tribe of people who enjoy a closer, more authentic relationship with death and grief than Rilke perceived in contemporary Western culture. He uses the word “Klage” and an English equivalent has to be found that works as the name of a young woman, her tribe, her ancestors and her country. Like the sound of the original, the word also has to reflect the harshness of the grief felt, while at the same time suggesting a dignity in such powerful emotions. For Rilke, the role of this personification and her whole tribe is certainly heroic. Most previous translators have opted for the word “Lament” but I felt this suggested a rather affected, almost poetic attitude – precisely the kind of posturing that Rilke asks us to avoid in our confrontation with these difficult aspects of life. I chose the word “Keening” to convey the genuine edginess of feeling (aurally again I liked the harsh initial K and the word’s trailing, wailing fall). This word seemed to me to work perfectly as personal and tribal name and geographical location: “gently she guides him through the vast / Keening landscape, shows him temple columns, / ruins of castles from which the Keening princes / once wisely governed”.

One thing I have learned is that translators take sustenance from their chosen originals. This is not just in the obvious way of extending their range, but also that they feed on a familiar. They find in their subject an answering voice, a confirmation of something already present within themselves. I experienced this in a surprising way. Rilke’s influence on Auden was particularly evident in the late 1930s. The sonnet sequence In Time of War refers directly to him and Mendelson’s Later Auden (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1999) argues that ‘In Memory of W. B. Yeats’ concludes with “an explicit echo” of Rilke’s Ninth Elegy and its famous injunction to “praise this world to the angel”.

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Auden asks Yeats’ spirit to “Teach the free man how to praise”. Interestingly, Auden has never been a strong influence for me, yet the elegy to Yeats is a poem I have always loved. In fact, five or six years before I got to know Rilke, I remember modelling an elegy of my own on Auden’s – from the choice of title, the formal variety of its sections, to a finale in which I too celebrated one who “loved the world, craved its taste”, elevating him to a teacher of praise: “Listen, let me make this master speak: / Laughter, love, the senses are profound. / Drink deep, remember, Jeremy Round” (‘In Memory of Jeremy Round’). Reading Mendelson’s book has convinced me that I had been responding not merely to Auden but also – unknowingly – to Rilke. It turns out I have been finding a sympathetic familiar in him for longer than I had imagined.

9 thoughts on “On Translating Rilke’s ‘Duino Elegies’

  1. Great post! Wonderful.

    For myself The Sonnets to O is the only book of R I cannot read. And that is a major ‘cannot’ because I esteem R’s oeuvre so highly. What is the problem?
    It reads so camp to me.
    Why should that bother me?
    It doesn’t usually, but here I cannot, just cannot read them.

    I also struggle with Cohn’s translation – something does not come through that needs to be there. I struggle to find what I miss. The Leishman only wins with me, through familiarity. Rita Lesser’s Rilke Between Roots does find a happy audience though. Mitchell’s goes down well.
    Jo Shapcott introduced R’s French poems – for which I am very grateful.
    I do not read German; nor can I ‘hear’ it; although when I was young during an evening with a German girl student I found my guesses at the terms she used more and more accurate. Odd. An awareness of language and intonation generally?

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  2. When I first encountered Rilke’s works – The New Poetry, Duino Elegies and Sonnets to Orpheus – in the days dominated by Leishman/Spender translations – I understood two things. Firstly, his use of German prosody and language was unusual verging on the eccentric. The unusualness of his use of German was compared with the unusualness of Hopkins use of English. Not knowing German, I could never verify this. Secondly, as you point out, Martin, there is an esoteric/ mystical element in his work. ‘Who if I cried out would hear me among the angelic orders?’ Like German philosophy – which unlike British is not empirical but idealistic – his poetry seeks to express the transcendent. And when Rilke was asked what poetry was about, he replied ‘Everything’, so unlike so much English language poetry of modern times he did not confine himself to the material and concrete. Anyway, Martin, thank you for initiating discussion of Rilke’s poetry.wiiliam

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    • Thanks William. ‘Everything’ was a good reply to that question. People will regard it as either pretentious or dead right; and on that the world divides on the work of Rilke. To the question what were his songs about, bob dylan of course replied ‘about four and a half minutes’. Dead right.

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  3. Lovely post. I have always been fascinated by the different interpretations in translation. With Rilke, particularly…I don’t speak German, but sometimes I have taken his poetry and translated it for sound alone. I have a strange question. I came upon this blog post searching for the translation which begins the first elegy with “Who, if I cried out, would hear me among the order of the Angels?” Do you by any chance know whose it was? (Perhaps it’s not the best one, but it was the first one I read, and as such, is closest to my heart).

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