The shorter poems are often snapshots of images observed by Rilke on his travels throughout Europe, slices of life interpreted through the poet’s eyes. Whether his subjects are flowers, merry-go-rounds, passionate flamenco dancers or dangerous Venetian courtesans, Rilke sketches an incomplete picture, which somehow says more than a complete one ever could. One of his most famous poems, Der Panther (The Panther), describes the still beauty of the caged animal:
Der weiche Gang geschmeidig starker Schritte,
der sich im allerkleinsten Kreise dreht,
ist wie ein Tanz von Kraft um eine Mitte,
in der betäubt ein großer Wille steht. (p62, l5-8)
Or, if you prefer the English:
The supple, powerful footfall paces softly
in ever-tinier circles, tight-described,
a danced strength, as though about a centre
where a great will stays, stupefied. (p63, l5-8)
Those of you with some knowledge of German will, no doubt, be comparing the two versions above, and it immediately becomes clear that while translation is always a rather inexact science, translating short lyrical poetry is up there with splitting the atom. To preserve all nuances while adhering to both rhythm and rhyme must, technically speaking, be an absolute nightmare, and the two translators of this version, Susan Ranson and Marielle Sutherland, do a sterling job. However, the translation will never quite capture the essence of the German.
An example of this is an extract from a poem which I immediately took a liking to, Das Karussel (The Merry-go-round):
Und auf den Löwen reitet weiß ein Junge
und hält sich mit der kleinen heißen Hand,
dieweil der Löwe Zähne zeigt und Zunge
Und dann und wann ein weißer Elefant (p72, l12-15)
Or, in English:
And on the lion rides a boy, quite young,
in white, holding on with sticky hands,
while the lion bares its teeth and tongue.
And now and then a white, white elephant (p73, l12-15)
It’s easy to see that the meaning has been altered slightly to fit the rhythm in the first line, from Junge (boy) to ‘a boy, quite young’, while in the second line mit der kleinen heißen Hand (with the [his] little, hot hand) is changed to ‘with sticky hands’ – accurate, but perhaps missing the possible connotation of ‘eager and excited’ which the German contains. Also, in the final line above, ‘now and then’ can’t compare with the assonance of dann und wann, nor does the repetition of ‘white, white’ (to catch up on syllables) quite match the simple German weißer.
However, when we come to the longer epic poetry of The Duinese Elegies and The Sonnets to Orpheus, the translators really come into their own. The lack of rhyme gives them more freedom to adhere to the meaning and rhythm, and it is here that the non-native speaker (and possibly many native speakers too!) are grateful for any help the translators – and the excellent notes at the back of the volume – are able to give. When faced with pages of dense imagery, it is easy to tune out to the overall message, and with poetry, unlike with a novel where missing an idea or two dann und wann is not such a big deal, that pretty much defeats the object.
Thankfully, the beautifully spaced print, with the original German on the left-hand page, facing the English on the right, allows you to sneak a peek every so often, dragging you back from the tangential path you thought the poem was pushing you down. This is a very good thing because when Rilke is musing about angels and the connection between our world and theirs (as he does in The Duinese Elegies), it is very easy to simply slide under the thunder of words and sounds…
I still haven’t read this book cover to cover, but that is most definitely not the point. I will continue to enjoy dipping into its pages, revisiting some of my favourite shorter poems and working my way through the longer fare. Selected Poems is a must for anyone interested in Rilke, or German poetry in general, but I do feel that there is a need for some German proficiency – otherwise, you will simply be missing the point of the book. Anyway, I’m off to read another of the elegies and try to work out what is happening now in the plane of existence inhabited by the awesome angels – I may be some time…