I had intended to write this post as a translation duel but decided I would have to quote full poems and their translations to do it properly. I don’t think Rilke would mind but the translators might be upset me quoting their copyright translations in full (particularly when I wax less than lyrical).
It would appear that since the inaugural German Literature Month during which Emma passionately advocated her admiration of Rilke the man, I, who had never read him, have been collecting modern English translations.
All three have one thing in common. They all present the translation in parallel to the original poem. I like that. I can appreciate Rilke in his own words, admire just how beautiful German can be (a revelation at times) and admire the solutions that the various translators have conjured. I’m sure I would admire them more if I could appreciate metre, but I’m afraid I’m metre-deaf. Still I can understand allusion, simile, metaphor and meaning, so all is not lost.
Two of the volumes are collaborations: The Oxford volume (two Rilke experts: Susan Ranson and Marielle Sutherland) and the Essential Rilke (Galway Kinnell, a Pulitzer Prize winning, non-German speaking poet and Hannah Liebmann, a native German speaker). In Pure Contradiction, Ian Crockatt, a Scottish crofter, translator of Old Norse skaldic poetry and poet in his own right, flies solo. His critically acclaimed translation won the 2013 Schlegel-Tieck Prize.
There is an extensive introduction in each book with explanations on how the translators approached the task and their objectives. These introductions serve as excellent references to what makes Rilke so difficult to translate: his purposed vagueness, his subversion of German formations, his casting of several stanzas into one sentence. It’s no wonder that there are so many translations of his work, or that the results are so different from one another.
The results depend upon the translator’s ethic. Whether they wished to create a translation as true to Rilke as possible (Kinnell/Liebmann) or wished to create a modern English alternative (Crockatt). Not that Crockatt makes that claim; that’s how I read them. Given that I abandoned the Ranson/Sutherland volume for adding flourishes and meanings that I didn’t see in the original, often to preserve the metre, Crockatt’s translations didn’t sit well with me. The final straw was his translation of Leda.
Als ihn der Gott in seiner Not betrat,
erschrak er fast, den Schwan so schön zu finden;
er ließ sich ganz verwirrt in ihm verschwinden.
Schon aber trug ihn sein Betrug zur Tat,
bevor er noch des unerprobten Seins
Gefühle prüfte. Und die Aufgetane
erkannte schon den Kommenden im Schwane
und wußte schon er bat um Eins,
das sie, verwirrt in ihrem Widerstand,
nicht mehr verbergen konnte. Er kam nieder
und halsend durch die immer schwächre Hand
ließ sich der Gott in die Geliebte los.
Dann erst empfand er glücklich sein Gefieder
und wurde wirklich Schwan in ihrem Schoß.
Now we know that this describes the rape of Leda by Zeus. Yet Rilke choses not to portray the event in an explicitly violent way. He could have; the German words existed. Yet Crockatt’s poem reads like an x-rated movie. (And thus do his sales figures soar.) A non-German speaking reader appreciates his translation more than me. In this particular case I dispute his claim that “Where I have created some new metaphor,or taken a direction he (Rilke) does not take, it is to bring to life and clarity the apparent significance of the poetry for 21st century English language readers, not to deliberately replace or distort his thought or expression”. Nor did I find this an isolated case.
I much prefer the Kinnell/Liebmann collaboration; the collection where the final translations were shaped by a non-German speaking poet. They are more literal; hence more accurate. Yet they preserve the imagery, subtlety and grace of the originals. Why mess with the master?