Rilke in translation

I’m now halfway through Rilke’s Duino Elegies, and am loving the experience of reading it. In an effort to understand it better, I’ve begun to check out other translations online when I’ve finished a section from the book I own, translated by David Young. I haven’t decided whether I like or dislike Young’s translations, not really knowing enough to make a judgment, but I discovered that I could understand the poem much better when I looked at more than one translation. I have the original German too, which I’ve been reading after I read the English a few times, but my German’s not good enough for me to judge translation quality. And, yes, these elegies are complicated enough to require a number of readings (they are relatively short, and this doesn’t take long). I am finding them beautiful and rich and mysterious — they touch on death, love, consciousness, relationships, loneliness, isolation, the world of the mind — they are about everything important, it seems like.

But to show you what I mean about the translations, here’s a short section from the Fourth Elegy, as translated by David Young:

But we, when we’re fully intent on one thing,
can already feel the pull of another. Hatred is always close by.
Aren’t lovers always coming to sheer drop-offs inside each other
they who promised themselves open spaces, good hunting and a homeland?
As when for some quick sketch a contrasting background
is made with great care so we can see the drawing. No effort is spared.
We don’t know the contour of feeling, we only know what molds it
from without.

The meaning of the first part is clear to me, and I like the idea — that we have trouble focusing on one thing, on the present moment, and are always in pursuit of what’s next. The bit about the lovers is interesting — they expect infinite possibilities from each other and are disappointed. The next four lines have an image that took me a while to get, but once I got it, I liked it; the artist took pains with the background of the drawing to make the drawing itself clearer, although the drawing itself is only the work of a moment. Somehow, this is like the way we experience emotion; perhaps emotion is like the sketch, which remains fleeting and mysterious; all we can know about emotion is what shapes it — the thing that molds it, like the carefully-prepared background. What’s confusing about this passage is the way the fifth line (“As when …”) seems at first to relate to the image of the lovers, not the lines about emotion. It’s only by thinking through the images carefully, that I can figure out the image of the sketch and the ideas about emotion go together.

Here’s the same passage translated by Robert Hunter:

But we cannot focus on
a single object without
worrying about another.
Conflict is our essence.
Aren’t lovers always
crowding one another,
despite mutual longing
for wide open spaces,
homestead and plentiful hunting?
As when a canvas is carefully
stretched and primed to receive
a spontaneous sketch,
the better to offset it,
we do not observe the
background of emotion,
only what is splashed upon it.

The passages are similar — but not the same; the meaning of each one seems different. Isn’t “hatred is always close by” different from “conflict is our essence”? It’s the difference between something existing outside us but easily available and something that is in us and a part of us. And then there’s the difference between “Lovers always coming to sheer drop-offs inside each other” and “lovers always crowding one another.” These are two very different things, aren’t they? It’s the difference between finding something inside the other — some emotional or mental attribute — and bumping into the other’s body. And in the second translation the sketch is clearly connected to emotion, as it forms one sentence, instead of the three sentences of the first.

And here’s another, translated by John Waterfield:

We, though, where we intend one thing, and mean it,
are vexed by shimmering alternatives.
Enmity’s near to hand. Don’t lovers always
come upon fences in each other’s souls
where they expected hunting, home, and freedom?
Then briefly a design that’s based on contrast
comes into focus, carefully prepared
for us to see. (They take some pains with us.)
We do not know the contour of our feeling:
only the thing that moulds it from without.

Now the lovers are encountering fences in each other’s souls — the place of conflict, the soul, is a more clearly defined, and we have a fence instead of a drop-off. And in the parentheses, some mysterious “they” gets introduced; I notice now the other versions used passive voice (“a canvas is carefully stretched,” “a contrasting background is made”). Who is this “they”?

I guess I’m pointing out something that’s fairly obvious if you think about it, which is that every translation is an act of interpretation. Every translation introduces its own meanings and shades of meanings. I don’t think I’ve ever spent so much time puzzling out different translations, though, so I’m struck by this idea in a different kind of way, actually seeing the various interpretations in front of me at once.


Filed under Books, Poetry

10 responses to “Rilke in translation

  1. Fascinating comparison of the translations, Dorothy! I guess all those possibilities lie within the original German and only go to show the richness of the poem. I’ve just got myself a new copy of the Elegies, having lost my old one and I’m looking forward very much to reading them again myself – spurred on by you!


  2. Goodness, those translations really are different! I have a liking for the second, the Robert Hunter, since it seems to cohere far better – it actually reads like poetry, while the others clunk and obfuscate. But perhaps they are more true to the German? I have a ‘new translation’ of Rilke’s ‘Sonnets to Orpheus’, which claims to be more literal to the original and it has that same unwieldy quality.


  3. Time to pull Rilke off the shelf, I can see. Meanwhile, good thing you didn’t decide to get different translations of Don Quixote. You’d have to spend the rest of your life reading it!


  4. Wow–those translations are totally different. I can’t imagine being a translator–I think you would really have to know both languages really intimately. It’s amazing how word choice (even though they are close) can totally change the meaning of something. I should really give Rilke a try. Someday I will (maybe) click with poetry! 🙂


  5. I hope you enjoy the re-reading Litlove! I have a feeling I’m going to be returning to these poems again later on — they certainly reward re-reading.

    Victoria, I’ve been wondering that too, whether the translations I find clearer don’t capture the original quite as well. It makes me wish I knew German better to judge for myself.

    Emily — oh, my, good point! Comparing Rilke translations is do-able, but comparing DQ translations is not!

    Danielle, I think you’re right — I’ve always liked languages and would be interested in trying to translate, but I’ve never learned another language quite well enough. And Rilke is definitely someone worth checking out!


  6. Every translation is a brand new creation. The most faithful translations are those done by their original author, like Nabokov.


  7. Some interesting contrasts between the three translations, even the line breaks and rhythms are different. Are you able to read the German well enough in this part that you can at least make a word-for-word translation enough to tell which of the three has turned into the best poetry?


  8. Ted

    Boy, they’re all beautiful. That bit about lovers encountering fences (or what-have-you) in each other’s souls is magnificent. If I could only read one poet the rest of my life, it would be Rilke.

    I found the second translation, with it’s plentiful line breaks, rather clunky. From what I can see from the German (which I can’t read at all–this is purely an aesthetic observation) the Elegy lines are long, not broken up like they are in the second translation. Rilke reads better when it flows without stops.

    Here’s another translation, from the Modern library Ahead of All Parting collection (1995), translated by Stephen Mitchell:


    But we, while we are intent upon one object,
    already feel the pull of another. Conflict
    is second nature to us. Aren’t lovers
    always arriving at one another’s boundaries?–
    although the promised vastness, hunting, home.
    As when for some quick sketch, a wide background
    of contrast is laboriously prepared
    so that we can see more clearly: we never know
    the actual, vital contour of our own
    emotions–just what forms them from the outside.


    I don’t like the first half, especially quaint “vastness, hunting, home” but I think Mitchell’s reading of the sketch/emotion simile is lucid. An interpretation, to be sure, but one that is readily understandable.


  9. Quillhill — if only we could have more translations done by the original author! Stefanie, I might be able to attempt my own translation, but it would take a bit of work, which I haven’t been quite willing to do yet. But it’s tempting … Ted, many of the lines in the German are long (although not all) — the translation I’ve got actually uses a series of three short lines for every German one, the second and third section each indented. It’s quite different, although I’m liking it pretty well. Thank you for the Mitchell translation! You’re right, I think; he makes the last few lines comprehensible.


  10. Thank you for these thoughtful observations.

    You and your readers might like to know about LOST SON, based on the life and work of Rainer Maria Rilke, which quietly appeared in bookstores and libraries in June. The novel explores Rilke’s conception and completion of the Duino Elegies. Take a look.


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