Home > Blog > On Rainer Maria Rilke, William Gass, Stumbling Across My Younger Self, and the Pleasures and Perils of Translating Poetry
Published: Mon Aug 22 2016
Eva Lundsager, A Pause (detail), 2021, oil on canvas
On Rainer Maria Rilke, William Gass, Stumbling Across My Younger Self, and the Pleasures and Perils of Translating Poetry

This past spring, at AGNI’s Issue 83 launch, I had the chance to chat with David Daniel, whose atmospheric, heart-moving poetry I had just discovered in the way you discover something you’ve missed before knowing it exists.

At some point I confided to David that, not being a published poet, I had recently experienced twinges of self-doubt, of feeling like a trespasser, while translating Ingeborg Bachmann, Paul Celan and others. At the same time, the doing itself was exhilarating, and seemed, well…if not exactly easy, to flow toward rightness and resolution. Or was I being grossly naive, to believe I could simply listen closely to the German words and verses, immerse myself in the worlds they made, twirl them through my ear and mind and have them emerge as lines of English, lucid and faithful to original meaning while carrying as much of the original music as possible?

Shouldn’t there be more hard labor involved, more agony and frustration? Isn’t that why so many modern poetry translations appear to have been composed by a duo of Established Poet and her/his trusty sidekick, the Native Speaker? Like high level military brass going into the battlefields guided by, well, local translators. Didn’t William Gass, in his 1999 book-length essay, Reading Rilke, Reflections on the Problems of Translation, assert that, compared to having fluency in both languages, “it is more important that the translator have native-like possession of the language into which he is trying to put his chosen poem”? (‘Native-like possession’ being in context a strikingly awkward euphemism for ‘should be a skilled poet or literary eminence, capable of wrestling with the intransigency of the task.’)

David listened patiently to my questions, then answered with a single one of his own: “Well, and aren’t Gass’s translations of the Duino Elegies really terrible?” Nothing like a baldly-stated truth to make you burst out laughing.

I was able to cite Gass’s point because I’d reviewed his book back in the day, for the Globe, although I’d no memory of what I might have written. But recently, by chance, the seventeen-year-old, dog-eared advance copy of Reflections fell into my hands again. I opened it and the chase was on. On nearly every page, scrawled comments in various colors of ink in a rounder handwriting than mine is now. Excited exclamation points and double-underlines. “Crux!” “Nope.” “Huh?” “Use!” “How awfully pat.” “Once again, a religious, near-ecstatic moment.” (Evidence for my argument that RMR was not the absolute atheist Gass maintained.) “God-awful similes!” “Revolting, but sorta works!” Even a quiet, “I like this.” Traces of my younger self, preserved in the pages like the rose petals Rilke wrote of in so many poems, and himself liked to press.

The marginalia and responses were new to me. Not one struck a bell. But it was heartening to find myself mostly in agreement with that younger reviewer and even enlightened by her in places, while wishing she’d had the gumption to be more critical in her finished piece. (Also exhumed from the dustbin, thanks to the power of the World Wide Web.)

Has any other German poet been so often and variously translated into English as Rilke? What is the abiding appeal of the work, why does it and its insecure, social-climbing creator inspire such passion and possessiveness, and why do so many who fall under the spell—me included—feeling that all previous efforts somehow miss the marrow, embrace the temptation to try their own hand?

Is it the sheer beauty of how in Rilke image giving way to image forms meaning, paired with surficial accessibility? Because despite Gass’s lamentations, Rilke is not dauntingly difficult to translate. More challenging than classic stylists such as Goethe or Schiller, but he’s not in the same league as, say, Paul Celan. Or Bert Brecht, for that matter, the tart flavor of whose Berliner colloquialisms is devilishly difficult to redistill in any other language.

I told David Daniel that I too would like to try to translate Rilke, but heck, there were up to twenty versions of most of his poems out there already. “Don’t let that stop you,” he said. But truth is, I was lying. I’d already done it, and would continue. The marginalia in the Advance Copy include my own stabs at rendering Rilke, attempts at a simpler, more direct reflection. Gass quotes multiple predecessors (only to find them wanting, naturally) including such big guns as Spender, Leishman, and Stephen Mitchell. All of these authors worked in ‘duo’ mode as far as I can tell. It is beyond strange that he doesn’t mention Michael Hamburger, a native speaker and sensitive translator. And did Gass know that in the same year that Reflections appeared, Galway Kinnell would publish The Essential Rilke, in collaboration with Hannah Lieberman? Unlike Gass with Heide Ziegler, Kinnell gave his ‘native’ assistant jacket billing.

We speak of a ‘mother tongue’, and what more is there to say, the infant-mother bond being a universally shared human experience? But having a close second language is something else, a uniquely personal relationship. No matter how fluent one becomes in two languages, the rudiments of one came first. The second begins with an encounter, voluntary or not, and develops from there, a story as individual as a love affair. My German story started in high school, where I was given a no-brainer choice between that language and chemistry. At the outset I came to class with the too-common expectation of a silly-sounding, even ugly language, and a leery curiosity about the country, given its track record in the twentieth century. All that changed to fascination thanks to an inspiring, unconventional, demanding teacher. There followed a year of gymnasium in Berlin, then university in Berlin and Munich. Jobs. A marriage. A child who spoke no English until age eight, when we came to the States. I was, as they say, ‘eingedeutscht.’ My first publications (radio plays, reviews, political essays) were all in German. Later, I made a deliberate decision to write henceforth in English. A mistake, looking back?

Whenever I go back to in Germany (recently that’s been a few times a year) it’s an emotional homecoming: to the deep greens of forests and city gardens, the thick-walled houses, clanging street-cars, thronged bookstores, enormous dogs, waves of freshly baked bread and broetchen, and the language in my throat again, malleable as sculptor’s clay.

Gass deplores the ‘mean-spirited’ nature of the translating biz, full of jealousy and mutual put-downs. He must have reasons for saying so, but for me it’s hard to imagine the world of translation as a snake-pit. My own motive for venturing into the territory, apart from the excitement and illumination of the exceptionally interior reading translation demands, was a notion of giving back. Putting to use a gift that has transformed my life, that of having plural languages, of being two or three different people in one—or my own twin or triplet—relating to people, dreaming, and grasping life through the prism of different grammars, cadences, and vocabularies: Wortschaetze in German_. Wordhord_, in Old English. ‘Word treasure.’

Besides, what would anyone be fighting over? The pay is modest, and where’s the glory in such an intrinsically humble endeavor? One is the handmaiden of the author, and the less visible the better, I should think.

Not everyone thinks so. Gass writes, approvingly, about “the temptation to push past Rilke’s German into the Platonic poem itself, the poem no one can write without resorting to some inevitably distorting language…” And here is where I abruptly part ways with him and his like-minded colleagues. The Platonic poem? What beast is that? An abstract essence the translator perceives beyond the poet’s own language? Worse than hubris, this smacks of abuse, of the translator’s ego antsy to improve upon a poor, language-limited text. Not surprisingly, the results of said distortion are often clumsy, over-complicated, risible, or downright ugly. I leave it to the reader to consider these examples:


Rilke (from The First Elegy):

Wer, wenn ich schriee, hoerte mich denn aus der Engel Ordnungen? Und gesetzt selbst, es naehme
einer mich ploetzlich ans Herz: ich verginge von seinem
staerkeren Dasein.

Maristed (close translation):

Who, were I to cry out, would hear me from within the angels’
array? And even if one should take me
suddenly to his heart: I would be annihilated by his
stronger being.

Gass (‘improving’ translation):

Who, if I cried, would hear me among the Dominions of Angels?
And even if one of them suddenly held me against his heart:
I would fade in the grip of that completer existence. [pp 57-58]


Rilke (from Archaic Torso of Apollo):

Wir kannten nicht sein unerhoertes Haupt
darin die Augenaepfel reiften. Aber
sein Torso glueht noch wie ein Kandelaber,
in dem sein Schauen, nur zurueckgeschraubt,

Sich haelt und glaenzt.


We did not know his unimaginable head
where the eye-apples ripened. But
his torso glows still like a candelabra
in which his seeing, merely less bright,

persists and shines.


Never will we know his legendary head
Where the eyes’ apples slowly ripened. Yet
His torso glows as if his look were set
Above it in suspended globes that shed

A street’s light down.

Even when done by writers with a more gifted ear—Gass points to Robert Lowell and Ezra Pound as his illustrious predecessors in reaching for the Platonic ideal—I would maintain that veering from the text in pursuit of the ‘Platonic poem’ is a breach of the contract between original work and eventual reader. At best, the result is a third sort of oeuvre. Not a translation.

Lest I appear to be meanly picking on Gass (rather than taking him as an apposite and self-declared example), here is a 2010 ‘loose’ translation of the above, ueber-famous opening lines, by Sarah Stutt (a native speaker) as quoted and lauded in The Guardian:

We will never know his magnificent head,
the ebb and flow of his youth—
an orchard of ripening fruit,
yet his fire has not diminished,
incandescent light radiates
from his torso, (etc.)

Of course we want from the translator more sensitivity and intuition than Google’s service is likely to provide. But is it the translator’s task or prerogative to offer a text that strays radically from the original, no matter how pleasing the new imagery and versification? Is the poet well-served? Is the reader respected?

In my short review for the Globe I wrote that there are two axes in the matrix of translation problems: “the question of whether native proficiency is required” and “literal fidelity versus taking liberties.” Seventeen years ago I didn’t quite come down on one side or the other. I’m able to do so now, and also to see where the two axes are linked at origin. My recent exploration of translation might be called trans-positioning—one finds oneself in two places at once, listening to the nuances and double-entendres and historical undertones of words and phrases play in both languages, both worlds. Choosing, discarding, choosing, trying out the sound, the rhythm, the music, the stated intent and veiled allusions until something coalesces that rings true. Something that you feel the poet him/herself would accept as limning the intent, as keeping the heft of word-choice and images more or less intact.

Accept without flinching too much, that would be more than enough. Because no translation can be right, or definitive; questions and doubt must remain. We are all inadequate to our desires, translators and poets alike; the ultimate vision dances out of reach. Rilke expressed his own life-long struggle in this later poem:

Die Wende (Auszug)

Wenn er, ein Wartender, saß in der Fremde; des Gasthofs
zerstreutes abgewendetes Zimmer
mürrisch um sich, und im vermiedenen Spiegel
wieder das Zimmer
und später vom quälenden Bett aus
da beriets in der Luft,
unfaßbar beriet es
über sein fühlbares Herz,
über sein durch den schmerzhaft verschütteten Körper
dennoch fühlbares Herz
beriet es und richtete:
daß er der Liebe nicht habe.
(Und verwehrte ihm weitere Weihen.)

The Turning (extract)

When he, the waiting one, sat in a foreign place; the inn’s
distracted, turned-away room
sulking to itself, and in the avoided mirror
again the room
and later from the torturing bed
there it took counsel in the air
Incredibly took counsel
over his palpable heart
over his, despite the painfully shaken body
palpable heart
Took counsel and pronounced:
That he had no love.
(And denied him further sacraments.)

Kai Maristed is the author of the novels Broken Ground (Counterpoint, 2003); Fall (Random House, 1996); and Out After Dark (Permanent Press, 1993), finalist for the PEN/Hemingway Award; and as well as the story collection Belong to Me (Random House, 1998), which received a starred review in Publishers Weekly. Her stories and essays have appeared most recently or are forthcoming in Southwest Review, The Iowa Review, Epiphany, AGNIMichigan Quarterly Review, and Ploughshares. She is also a playwright and translator, with a new translation and adaptation of Frank Wedekind’s Lulu currently in development. (updated 4/2023)

Back to top