Occasional musings, Geistesblitze, photos, drawings etc. by a "resident alien", who has landed on American soil from a far-away planet called "Germany".

Thursday, July 24, 2008

On Rilke

Marlene started a post on Rilke, and I am delighted to take her up on this. I am no specialist, though--which should encourage other non-specialists to contribute!


Marlene said...

Hi, I am interested in German poetry, not as far as I can tell, one of the hottest topics on the web, but it seems that people who come here might share my interest in Rilke, so I have two things to say. One is about the possibility of discussing the work of Rainer Maria Rilke. Could we perhaps get a discussion going on his poetry, particularly the Duino Elegies? And on a more gossipy level, does anyone know why he was such a magnet for women. He always looks to me to be rather sickly in photographs yet he apparently had a gift for eliciting the love of smart, talented women.

Next question: Can anyone lend an insight to how to read the opening lines of the fourth Duino elegy:

"Oh trees of life, when will your winter come?
We're not in tune. Not like migratory birds.
Outmoded, late, in haste, we force ourselves on winds
which let us down upon indifferent ponds.
Though we've had to learn how flowering is fading,
somewhere lions still roam,
unaware, in their majesty, of any weakness."

I like these lines a lot and have a vague idea that Rilke is talking about the way humans are out of synch with life's natural rhythms whereas other creatures are not. But like so much else in the elegies, I'm not sure I know what I am talking about. Anyone have any ideas? For instance, what are the "indifferent ponds?" The translation is by William Gass. Anyone know a different translation? Here's hoping someone else shares my enthusiasm for Rilke, not always the easiest poet to grasp.

humorlesstwit said...

@Marlene - Exactly the topic I was going to suggest, but wasn't quite ready to do so. I just picked up Rilke a few weeks ago, and have been utterly taken with his work, and not sure why I've never heard of him before.

I just started the Duino Elegies, and I can't get it out of my head that these were written by someone on the cusp of switching from a depressed to manic phase. I've experienced that, and this work just feels that way to me. Most likely I'm bringing too much of this understanding to the reading of this work, but it just screams out to me this way.

The sentiment feels depressed, as in someone waiting to die, forcing himself to continue. The "indifferent ponds" are a non-receptive world, or a world which feels indifferent.

The obscenity of work calls. More later

Ulrich said...

This is just brief note: I'm delighted about this topic, which is also close to my heart. But I'll need to do a little work on my own to respond properly to the comments we have--so, I hope we all can stay tuned.

Ulrich said...

Let me start my comments with a general observation/suggestion. The secondary literature on Rilke is vast, and the more “difficult” parts of his oeuvre, like the Duinese Elegies and the Sonnets to Orpheus, have, of course, been the topic of learned dissertations for a long time. Which is to say, there are bona-fide experts out there, which whom amateurs like we cannot compete. Why, then, would we want to blog about this topic at all, rather than leave it to the experts to figure things out?

I think the reason is this, and it's entirely legitimate, in my view: Literature, and art in general, depends on a perceptive audience of amateurs--it cannot survive without it. In turn, these "amateurs", if they really love a particular artist of piece of art, often like to talk about it, to express what it means to them, and to hear what it means to others. The reason may simply be that it's fun to do and, to some, often more rewarding than talk about the other guy’s children or the latest mishaps of the Yankees. Even experts should be interested in that kind of talk b/c without it, how would they know that anybody but an expert shares their interests?

I propose that we discuss the present topic in this spirit: We do it b/c we like to talk about things we appreciate. We are not shy to admit or report subjective impressions, and will not talk as if we were experts; but we remain open to contributions by experts, should they find their way here--I, at least, would really welcome them.

My next comment will be a more specific response to Marlene and humorlesstwit (whom I have encountered before on a crossword blog).

Ulrich said...

@marlene: The translation you give passes the most important test I have for any translation into English, however literal it attempts to remain: that it results in idiomatic English and captures, to a degree, the tone and general rhythm of the original. But even these few lines display a penchant of Gass to clarify (which he openly admits on p. 179 of the Rilke book), and that is troubling to me. For example, his first line is a complete English sentence, whereas in the original it’s not:

Oh Bäume Lebens, oh wann winterlich?

In English, roughly, where the [..] indicate syntactically necessary parts the German omits:

Oh trees [of] life; oh when [will you become] winterly?

Similarly, line 5 would read in a more literal translation:

Flowering and fading are known to us simultaneously.

No "though" to indicate the contrast with the following line about lions, not statement that "flowering is fading", which is clearly more interpretation than translation, one that reflects Gass's particulat take on Rilke’s "philosophy", about which he is not too admiring BTW.

"Clarifications" like these prima facie reduce the ambiguity in a piece of poetry (which is exactly what I want to talk about here), and translations, in my view, have no business doing this.

As to the "indifferent pond": As you say, Rilke laments, particularly in the Duinese Elegies, the fact that human beings cannot see the the world except through a mediating layer of reflection, they can never be in the moment, as, he thinks, animals can (the 8th Elegy, my favorite, deals with this at greater length). In contrast to the migrating birds (who ride with the winds and are welcomed by the ponds onto which they lower themselves), we impose ourselves on the wind, and the ponds are not responsive to us. More about this in my next comment...

Ulrich said...

@humorless twit: A bit of information that I came across in a commentary by a Rilke contemporary, Katharina Kippenberg (not that I like hers in particular--but she has many interesting biographical details to report): When Rilke wrote Elegy 4, he was at a psychological low, and the whole elegy is a lament about our inability to see and experience the world as it is, and at this moment--we cannot see a beginning without also seeing already its end; we act or watch actors, but are not good at either undertaking; we sit "afraid in front of the curtain of our heart", to paraphrase the memorable image in line 19.

It is this theme that makes the Elegies so fascinating to me. An even bigger draw is the sheer beauty of the language, which, especially if read aloud, carries me over the more obscure passages. One can really "sink" into the images as they follow each other in more or less loose associations.

But I've said too much already ... must let others be heard.

Ulrich said...

Addendum (just can't shut up): Rereading what I said about the translation of the opening line of Elegy 4 in my comment @marlene, it occurs to me that it may not be clear why I complained. Here's the reason: In the German original, the poem opens with an incoherent scream, not with a well-behaved question. That is to say, the translation starts on a very different, and less jarring, note.

Marlene said...

Hi Ulrich, Thanks so much for your interpretation. It makes sense to me based on both a close reading of the stanza along with the little I know about Rilke, who seems to have been plagued by a sense of unbridgeable duality between natural instinct and
intellectual reflection. That, however, brings up something else that is now bothering me about the lines I quoted. You mentioned Gass's tendency to include his own interpretation in the translation even if he takes liberties with what seems to be the original meaning. When you said that, I went back to the original German version of the fourth elegy's opening lines, which reads "Und irgendwo gehn Loewen noch and wissen/solang sie herrlich sind, von keiner Ohnmacht." Gass translates that as "somewhere lions still roam, unaware, in their majesty, of any weakness." I'm not a native speaker but to me the German suggests something like this "And somewhere lions still roam and know no weakness in their magnificence." I like the Gass translation much better but it seems to presume a lack of awareness on the lions' part--which makes sense of course--that isn't in the poem. What I read is that the lion's natural magnificence rules out any feelings of weakness rather than their being "unaware." Or am I splitting hairs here? In any case, I'd like to hear your thoughts and the thoughts of anyone who might be a Rilke fan.

Phil R said...

AKA Humorlesstwit

I'm reading the David Young translation, and the differences between this translation and the original seem to be even greater here the Gass translation.

Here's the Young translation (believe me, I didn't invent the indentation scheme)

O trees of life
Where is your winter?
We're not in tune
We're not instinctive
like migrating birds.
We push ourselves suddenly
into the wind
and arrive surprised
at an indifferent pond.
We understand
blooming and withering
we know them both at once.
And somewhere lions roam
knowing nothing of weakness
so long as their
majesty lasts.

The two translations clearly emphasize the 'knowing nothing of weakness' as an unawareness of it rather than an absence of it, as the original reads, or can be read (as translated by Marlene - I know absolutely zero German). I think these readings are in keeping with the tone of these stanzas, in which he’s reflecting on the difficulties of self awareness. But conversely, we could also hypothesize that the Majesty precludes an awareness of weakness, that the absence of it is necessary.

I mentioned to Ulrich under separate cover that I had read much of the Book of Hours, and was amazed at the liberties the translators had taken with the original text, so much so that I didn’t know who I was actually reading, Rilke or the two women who had done the translation, and was profoundly annoyed.

Are we splitting hairs here? Absolutely, and it’s great that we do so. This is a great work and I think that if we are to read it in English, we need to somehow merge the literal translation for meaning and understanding and a poetic translation to somehow capture the poetry of the original to truly appreciate it.

Ulrich said...

@marlene and phil: I have just a few minutes--will get back later with more. Inspite of its strange indentation, the Young translation captures Rilke better than Gass's. Very importantly, Young expresses that even the lions' freedom from Ohnmacht (much stronger than "weakness", it's complete helplessness: to faint is called in German "to fall into Ohnmacht") lasts only as long as their majesty lasts--Gass omits the conditional.

Phil R said...

The strange indentation is even worse that it appears here - the tabs got lost in the posting. The entire poem is as follows

......LINE 2
...........LINE 3

Except when it's not. For reasons which aren't clear.

Ulrich said...

@phil: Not all of Rilke is a s heavy as the stuff we're discussing here. Many poems in the collection called New Poems are much easier to access, like the famous "Merry-Go-Round" found here together with others--the closest that I have ever seen a poem come to an impressionistic painting. Or the equally famous--and very sad--"The [caged] Panther", here in a translation by Edgar Snow that stays pretty close to the original wording:

His gaze has from the pasing of the bars
grown so tired, that it holds nothing anymore.
It seems to him there are a thousand bars
and behind a thousand bars no world.

The supple pace of powerful soft strides,
turning in the very smallest circle,
is like a dance of strength around a center
in which a great will stands numbed.

Only sometimes the curtain of the pupils
soundlessly slides up --. Then an image enters,
glides through the limbs' taut stillness,
dives into the heart and dies.

In general, each poem in the collection tries to get to the essence of a particular object, and often succeeds in a truly astonishing way.

As to hairsplitting: I really enjoy our discussion here b/c by turning differences in translation around and around, I actually get a deeper understanding of the original, too.--I still wonder why both Young and Gass decided against rendering Rilke's opening scream of the 4. Elegy.

Ulrich said...

Forgot to add: I don't have a copy of The Book of Hours and will not be able to discuss it here.

Marlene said...

Phil, Thanks so much for another translation and especially for these lines:

And somewhere lions roam
knowing nothing of weakness
so long as their
majesty lasts.

While I don't like the opening of the Young translation as much as I like Gass's--and you are right, fussing over the wording like this pulls me deeper and deeper into the poem in a way I thoroughly love so too bad about the hair splitting--I think Young's translation of the last lines seems truer to the original German and makes more sense within the context of the entire stanza. In Young's version, the unawareness of weakness comes naturally to the lions "AS LONG AS their majesty lasts." When I was trying to come up with a translation of those lines, I fiddled and fiddled with the words "so long as they" (solang sie) and couldn't make sense of them while Gass just ignored them. But Young translates the phrase in a way that perfectly fits both the poem and the ways of lions. Their sense of invulnerability lasts just as long as their majestic power does and when that goes, the implication is, so does their sense of ruling the world. To me this is the perfect contrast with the more human references in the stanza. We, with our burden of human consciousness, are painfully aware of "how flowering is fading." The lions don't know how life's flowering leads inevitably to fading until it happens. Lucky lions.

Marlene said...

Sorry Ulrich, I posted before I read what you had written about the lions. In any case, we seem to agree, which is always nice. Perhaps we can find something from The Book of Hours on the web.

Ulrich said...

@marlene: I totally agree about the flowering and fading. Gass gets that wrong, too: They are precisely not the same. Rather, we are conscious of them at the same time, i.e. our experience of one is marred by our knowledge of the other, which could not happen if both were the same.

Ulrich said...

To my chagrin, this thread has been dormant for some days--so, let me see if I can breathe new life into it.

Picking up on marlene's observation about Rilke's attraction to women: I haven't read any biography in depth and cannot say anything pertinent, but here's a related observation that may have something to do with it: Among German poets, he is one of the most sensual. I'm not talking about the handful of dreadful explicit poems that he seems to have written (I only read about them, never saw one), but about the sensuality that permeates much of his work. Take, as an example, the opening stanza of the "Flamingos", another of my favorites among the New Poems (in non-rhyming prose translation);

Mirror paintings like those by Fragonard
do not reveal more of their whiteness and their redness
than someone would offer when he said about his lover
that she was still soft with sleep.

First of all, this is a case where the extreme preciousness and fragility of the syntax clearly is meant to reflect the extreme fragility and preciousness in the object described (the second stanza actually starts at the end of the sentence!). But there is also an erotic aspect to the flamingos as seen by Rilke. The image of a "lover still soft with sleep" has been with me from the minute I first read the poem in my teens.

The poem BTW continues in this way--at one point, the flamingoes "more seductively than Phryne seduce themselves"--utterly untranslatable when it comes to rhyme and sound.

Marlene said...

To me it's fascinating that Rilke could write with such wonderful, sensuous detail about panthers, flamingos and swans among other creatures and yet write love poems that are often so clumsy, it's hard to believe Rilke wrote them. The following is probably not helped by translation, but I have the original as well, and the original is not a whole lot better. The date is July 1924 and the translation is by J.L. Mood:

Since I wrote you, sap sprang free
in the masculine blooming,
which is rich and puzzling
to my very humanity.

Do you feel, distant dear miss,
since you are reading me,
what sweetness fuses willingly
in the feminine chalice?

The feminine chalice!! Ulrich, the original says "weiblichen Kelche." Would you go with chalice, not that I think any word fiddling would fix this clunker.

This seems to be part of a poem called "Woman's Lament," and it appears in a book called "Rilke On Love and Other Difficulties."

Anybody out there have a good Rilke poem about love?

Ulrich said...

@marlene: The poem appears to be what's called in German a Geschmacksverirrung (taste gone astray). I'm not even interested in the German original, but Kelch can mean anything from "cup" (in connection with flowers) to "chalice" (in church).

Here's a prose translation of what's perhaps his best known love poem (Liebes-Lied--"love song")--it's better, albeit, I would say, not nearly as good as the other stuff we've been talking about:

How shall I hold my soul so that
it does not touch yours? How shall I lift it
over you toward other things?
How much would I like to leave it
with something lost in the dark
at a strange and quiet place that
does no play back the vibrations of your depths.
But everything that touches us, you and me,
takes us together like one pull of the bow
that draws one voice from two strings.
Which instrument are we strung upon?
And who's the violinist holding us in his hand?
O sweet song.

It may be that Rilke is not good when expressing emotions directly, rather than through the empathetic description of objects.

Marlene said...

Hi Ulrich, Thank you for the poem, which, I agree, is much, much better than the one I included. The following lines in particular are really wonderful and the imagery reminds me of Donne:

But everything that touches us, you and me,
takes us together like one pull of the bow
that draws one voice from two strings.

In addition to the panther and flamingos, I know Rilke wrote about a swan and a black cat. Did he do any other animal poems?

Ulrich said...

@marlene: Here are the other animals given a poem in the New Poems:
gazelle, unicorn, dolphins, parrots, dog.

Among those, I like "Dolphins" best. Here's the last stanza (after one that describes the exuberance with which a group of dolphins accompanies a ship--BTW I've seen this myself in the Arctic):

And the sailor took this friend
into his own and solitary danger
and invented for his new companion
gratefully a world and took for granted
that he loved music, gods, and gardens,
and the deep, quiet year of stars.

Marlene said...

Thanks Ulrich, I hope to find the entire poem because this stanza is just gorgeous. Meanwhile, I have found a Rilke love poem that I consider quite lovely, and I take back what I implied before that when it came to love poems, Rilke should stick to animals.

You, beloved, who were lost
before the beginning, who never came,
I do not know which sounds might be precious to you.
No longer do I try to recognize you, when, as a surging wave,
something is about to manifest. All the huge
images in me, the deeply-sensed far-away landscapes,
cities and towers and bridges and un-
suspected turns of the path,
the powerful life of lands
once filled with the presence of gods:
all rise with you to find clear meaning in me,
your, forever, elusive one.

You, who are all
the gardens I've ever looked upon,
full of promise. An open window
in a country house—, and you almost stepped
towards me, thoughtfully. Sidestreets I happened upon,—
you had just passed through them,
and sometimes, in the small shops of sellers, the mirrors
were still dizzy with you and gave back, frightened,
my too sudden form.—Who is to say if the same
bird did not resound through us both
yesterday, separate, in the evening?

(Paris, winter 1913 - 14)

Ulrich said...

@marlene: Sorry--I missed your last post. I definitely would like to see this thread continue b/c it combines two topics of great interest to me, translation and Rilke. So, I'll get back once I found the German version of the poem.

Anonymous said...

Great. I'd love to hear what you think about this translation. Thanks for following up.

Ulrich said...

Marlene: Thank you for bringing this poem to my attention. I didn’t know it, and the imagery made me interested enough to search for the German version (it has a typo, though!)

I like this poem actually more than the better known one I posted before--the imagery is richer, and there is not a single underlying metaphor. Rather, we have a series of images and metaphors that play with the idea of love as a powerful and elusive presence--in the absence of its object.

The German original is less wordy, at times more ambiguous, and at times more unusual in its choice of words than the translation. But it is a testament to the power of the poem that it remains memorable in translation.

In a following comment, I’ll go over the translation in more detail.

Ulrich said...

Since I read German poetry in the original, of course, I never had a closer look at translations. But now that I do this, a real theme emerges: The habit of translators to write down what they think an author meant, rather than trying to mirror what he or she actually said. This is particularly obvious when they make passages that are opaque in German more understandable in English--and often lose precisely the ambiguity or inventive turn of phrase that make a poem memorable.

Take the present translation:

Lines 4 and 5: Rilke says "No longer do I try to recognize you when that which is coming surges" (and even this is more wordy than the original!). Compare this to "No longer do I try to recognize you, when, as a surging wave, something is about to manifest"--grr

Lines 9 and 10: Rilke says "and the power of lands that were once ingrown with gods"--admittedly, the German durchwachsen does not mean "ingrown", it means literally "grown through", but this would result in non-idiomatic English, which I always reject. In any case, the translation "the powerful life of lands/once filled with the presence of gods" is off the mark.

Beginning of second stanza: Rilke says "Ach, you are the gardens/Ach, I looked upon them with such hope." not "You, who are all the gardens I've ever looked upon, full of promise"--this is not even an interpretation, it’s a free paraphrase--and both less direct and less suggestive than the original.

There are, in addition, minor inaccuracies for which I see no reason because they do not result in more fluent or more idiomatic English.

marlene said...

Hi Ulrich, I know this is a question with no redeeming intellectual value, but I'm curious. I just read that Rilke's mother dressed him as a little girl until he was five and that was the reason he chose to have Maria be part of his nom de plume. Is there any truth to this do you know?

Ulrich said...

Marlene, I've heared this, too. But I don't know any details. I'm sure it has given rise to all sorts of theories about the assorted conditions he suffered from. I wish some expert would pipe up and tell us more.

Ulrich said...

By accident, I've just come across one of my favorite similes in all of the Elegies (the 10th):

reinlich und zu und enttäuscht wie ein Postamt am Sonntag
"clean and closed and disappointed like a post office on a Sunday".

There is no way to capture the easy rhythm of the original: 4 dactyls followed by one trochee (DA da da DA da da DA da da DA da da DA da). But this is no excuse for the liberty Gass took in his translation:
"As swept, as shut, as disappointing (m.e.) as a post office on a Sunday"
The post office is disappointed in the original, not disappointing (to us). Whatever that means, a translator has no business "clarifying" (Gass' word) what is ambiguous in the original. It's presumptuous to do this b/c it implies that the translator's reading is the only possible one.

More generally speaking, I continue to be appalled by the sloppiness or pure wrong-headedness of the translations I find.

Eri said...

Hi, I know it's a couple of years since this post on Rilke, but I found your comment thread while researching poetry translations. I'm wondering if you might be able to recommend a book (or a website) that translates Rilke as close to the original as possible? I'm so frustrated with all the different versions out there - some of them are so bad! I would LOVE to read a translation that communicates what he really said. Otherwise I'm just gonna have to learn German...

Ulrich said...

Hi Eri: I'm sure you'll never read this, but I have to apologize for not answering your question--it was posted before I had activated e-mail notifications of new comments.