Reading Rilke: Reflections on the Problems of Translation 
William H. Gass
Alfred A. Knopf, $25 (cloth)
Duino Elegies
Rainer Maria Rilke
Translated by Edward Snow
North Point Press/Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $20 (cloth)


The story goes like this: It is December, 1911. Rilke, the delicate, gloomy, visionary poet whom the German aristocracy tries in vain to comfort with invitations to their country estates ("If God has any consideration for me," he complains in a letter, "he should let me find a few rooms in the country where I can rave the way I like"), arrives by chauffeured car at Castle Duino, a stony fortress perched on a bluff above the Adriatic, not far from Trieste. He has come to visit his indulgent friend and patron, Princess Marie von Thurn und Taxis-Hohenlohe, who owns the castle, and together they play at translating Dante’s Vita Nuova (a fitting project for Duino, since Dante supposedly wrote parts of the Divine Comedy there). After the Princess leaves, Rilke stays on alone and, with the staff to care for his every need, is left to concentrate on his own work.

Work. It is one of the most often-used words in Rilke’s carpetbag, along with star, puppet, mirror, rose. "Travailler, rien que travailler," Rodin told to the 27-year-old poet when he arrived in Paris, in 1902, to write a monograph on the sculptor, later to act as his secretary, and finally to become his disciple. Freed of the weight of wife and daughter, Rilke forced himself to work every day, then reeled, weightless, through the streets of Paris, then shut himself in his rooms again to hone the vibrating instrument of his poetry with more solitude, more work. He marveled at the pious dedication of Cezanne, whose art he fell in love with at the Salon d’Automne, who refused to take a day off from his labors even to attend his mother’s funeral. Between 1906 and 1908, Rilke wrote the two volumes of New Poems that, despite the nine books that preceded it, marks his emergence as a Great Poet. He completed his exquisite autobiographical novel, The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge. But he wasn’t happy; his real task, he felt, remained undone. There was still the "ancient enmity between life and the great work." Even relationships with others were a distraction. Two more years passed in which Rilke wrote almost nothing.

And now he is alone in Duino. He gingerly lowers himself into his "divinely ordained solitude," like a swimmer into freezing water. And there he waits. For despite his hair-shirt regimen of daily work, poems have always arrived to Rilke suddenly, in urgent bursts, like visitations. Then one day, as the story goes, while marching around on the stormy cliffs puzzling over how to answer a thorny business letter, a voice rings through the gale. Rilke, in awe, takes out his notebook and transcribes what he’s heard, and that night it becomes the opening lines of the first of the Duino ElegiesWho, if I cried out, would hear me among the angelic / orders?

Or was it "Who of the angelic hosts would hear / me, even if I cried out?" as Elaine E. Boney translated it? Or rather "WHO, if I cried out, might hear me–/ among the ranked Angels?" (Stephen Cohn). Or even the more casual, indie version, "If I cried out / who would hear me up there / among the angelic orders?" (David Young). While the story leading up to the moment of revelation is clear (recounted consistently in the Preface of every edition), we have to rely on the translators for what came next. And, like the conflicting stories of eyewitnesses, none seem to agree. The crystalline voice that Rilke supposedly heard has been shattered into more than twenty English language translations. Who, if he cried out, could be heard among this clamor?

William H. Gass may be the most audible for the moment, having stepped forward as the critic/referee/resident philosopher/union leader of Duino Elegies translators. His book, Reading Rilke: Reflections on the Problems of Translation, prefaces his own translation with almost two-hundred pages of glittering commentary on the Elegies, blow-by-blow reportage from the gladiator pit of Duino translators, a recitation of rare of biographical detail about Rilke, and sharp insights into the art of translation and the idea of inspiration. He discards the rule that the translator, like one who throws his voice, should be heard and not seen, allowing us to preserve the illusion that we are actually reading the poet’s words. Gass, himself an extraordinary writer, is not the sort who can easily hide himself behind the curtain of translation. His lyrical gift is irrepressible, impossible to restrain behind the dam of another’s–even Rilke’s–stanzas, and the resulting torrent of words makes for an unorthodox initiation into the most elusive of Rilke’s poems.

After a chapter of evocative, at times extravagant, detail and insight concerning Rilke’s life and work, Gass delivers a slim second chapter about translation in general. "Translating is reading, reading of the best, the most essential kind," he writes. He defines it as reading with "recognition" as distinguished from the "simple understanding" of regular reading. For Gass, translation is physical, involving both an embodiment of the poet and, perhaps more importantly, a tinkering around under the hood of a poem until the translating reader learns how it works. This, he suggests, can be done even within the same language: by ‘translating’ Hardy’s English into our own vernacular we will come to understand the poet’s choices, how a poem could not have been written any other way. For Gass, the translation is the record of this "enriched reading" on the part of the translator, "only the farewells to a long conversation" between the translator and the poem.

It is an odd sort of conversation. Translation may be an act of love, of charitable duty, of scholarship, but at its heart it is an act of worship. And worship, by definition, denies a mutual relationship. In one sense, the original remains untouched by translation: no matter how many portraits translators hold up to it, the original continues to look exactly as the poet left it. It’s not that the poem doesn’t change with time: "Great poems are like granaries," Gass writes, "they are always ready to enlarge their store." But a poem might also be likened to a craft the poet launches into space, the arc of its future already written into it like the equation of an algorithm that will multiply indefinitely. A great poem contains its own afterlife.

A translation, as Walter Benjamin writes, issues from that afterlife, and marks the poem’s continued life. For just as religions require worshippers to keep alive their gods, a poem needs readers to ensure its relevancy. And translators are the most dedicated of readers. The conversation between translator and poem–the translator asking questions, the poem surrendering its answers–teaches us how to read the poem anew, ensures that we continue to reckon with it.

But of course some conversations are more worthwhile to listen to than others, and there is such a thing as translation overkill. With more than twenty English translations of the Duino Elegies already in existence, any new translation had better make a good case for its necessity. For many years, the best was J. B. Leishman and Stephen Spender’s effort of 1939, the First and Ninth improved upon by Leishman again when he polished them for Rilke: Selected Poems in 1960. Some of its flaws (it is sometimes heavy-handed) have been improved upon by those that followed, though usually at the price of other losses.

Gass turns this embarrassment of riches to his favor, incorporating the crowd of translations into his explorative analysis of Rilke. Not excluding himself (whom he often refers to in third person), he compares the translators’ decisions line by line like a ringside broadcaster at a prize fight, eliminating the losers as the poem progresses. The result is pure Gass: cheeky, comic, self-congratulatory, ingenious. "MacIntyre … suffers from contractions, while Poulin continues to go for the colloquial," he writes. "Prose has begun to creep over some versions like a vine. Gass, as usual, wants both the terror and awesomeness of the Angels, but the ‘awesomeness’ in Boney is awful."

It is interesting that Gass buries his own translation at the back of the book like an afterthought (truly the farewell of a long conversation). Gass’s edgy prose is often magnificent and flashy and he drives it to great effect. (Sometimes he crashes.) Though the flamboyance of the vehicle itself demands constant attention, the fine quality of the writing in this book is intimately linked (when is it not?) to the quality of the ideas. But Gass is not a poet. His Elegies borrow generously from existing translations, and though he sometimes smoothes over other translators’ rough patches, his lines often suffer from a wordiness that chokes them of air. Compare Leishman’s:

Those–you envied them almost, those forsaken, you found
so far beyond the requited in loving. Begin
ever anew their never-attainable praise

to Gass’s:

Those–the forsaken–you envied them almost, they so outstripped
all love-appeased lovers in loving. Begin
continually to accomplish their unachievable praise.

Outstripped, accomplish, unachievable: these are unwieldy words for the delicate calibrations of a poem, and while a stanza might have supported one, it’s bound to collapse under the weight of three. "Love-appeased" is downright awkward. As a general rule, it seems a translator should avoid hyphenated creations, especially if, as Gass himself writes, he is trying to achieve the poem the poet "would have written had he been English." Wordiness, a common malaise of poetry translation, understandably results from trying to preserve all the subtleties of the original. Leishman falls prey to it, too, with lines like "And so I repress myself, and follow the call-note / of depth-dark sobbing."

Gass is gifted at pinpointing the troubles of other translations and colorfully conveying them to his readers. But when he tries to improve them the result is too researched, too interpretive. After five tries (listed in an earlier chapter), he settles on "And so I master myself and stifle the beseeching / heart’s cry that’s my mating song." Mating song? "I want to keep it," he explains, "because I think the bird has to be there." His translations are energetic, alive, but there is too much Gass in them. Under his conducting, what is supposed to be now an aria, now a dirge, can skitter off into swing: a "beloved" turns into a "sweetheart," thoughts "going in and out" end up "tramping." Still, the prose portion of the Gass book brings us closer to the Duino Elegies, and closer to Rilke. For though Gass is filled with awe for the poems, he accepts that the poet himself was less palatable: "He’s a cold and calculating egoist, covering his selfishness with the royal robes of art. He’s a poseur, a courtier, a migrant, a loner." His native irreverence, when applied to the rarified subject of Rilke and still balanced by love, liberates us from myths about him that have sometimes made his poems seem inaccessible. No, we don’t need another translation, but this clear-eyed, hybrid study–this we can use.

It’s surprising, then, that just when we thought we had received the last word on Duino, at least for a while, a new translation by Edward Snow should follow so quickly in its wake: rushed, not altogether there, as if it has arrived late to its own party. Anything there is to be said about Snow’s Elegies must follow the point that it is superfluous. Aside from that, it has the usual share of victories and losses, but the sum total is mediocre. Under Snow’s command, the Elegies seem anemic, defeated by their own literalness. Leishman’s rhythmic, resonant lines:

And it’s hard, being dead,
and full of retrieving before one begins to perceive
a little eternity. –All of the living, though,
make the mistake of drawing too sharp distinctions

are deflated in Snow’s version to

And death demands labor,
a tying up of loose ends, before one has
that first inkling of eternity.–But the living
all make the same mistake: they distinguish too sharply.

The first line, Und das Totsein ist muhsam, literally means "And being dead is hard," even "laborious," so it’s odd that Snow would have wanted to pump up the simplicity of the phrase into "And death demands labor." Presumably he did it so that a description of the work could neatly follow, but this doesn’t seem a worthwhile amendment of Rilke’s lines if what comes next is the dull, cliché "tying up of loose ends." And "first inkling of eternity" sounds remarkably unappetizing, even though it’s the reward of all this labor. One-and-a-half thumbs down for Snow, we can hear Gass say, the Siskel and Ebert of Duino translations.

Somewhere amid all of these translations, we brush against the original. And so we return, finally, to Rilke himself, standing on the cliffs of Duino. We follow him back to his rooms where he writes the First and Second of the Elegies and fragments of the others. We hound him through another decade in which nothing more of the great poem arrives despite Rilke’s ping-ponging from one country estate to the next, despite his running "naked along the seashore, his face in the wind as it had been [in Duino]," until finally the poem is completed in 1922 in another fit of inspiration.

The Duino Elegies are not Rilke’s best poems (for that look to poems like "Orpheus. Eurydice. Hermes," or "Evening" that seem, to me, perfect). Nor are they prophetic or religious, as Gass tells us. They are not mystical despite all the Sturm und Drang about the medium Rilke receiving messages in the wind. And while they may be spiritual in the sense that all true poetry is, the Duino Elegies turn away from the spirit world, the unattainable world of Angels, and are grounded in the mortal life. They are, paradoxically, about the difficulties of living in the world, even as "the world exists nowhere but within us": "We are not really at home in our interpreted world," near the top of the First Elegy, is one of the crucial lines in all of Rilke. Both flawed and inspired by their own contradictions, the Duino Elegies are at once Rilke’s loudest cry out of his solitude and into it. They are oracular poems that insist upon being made physical, passing through the lungs and blood and breath to become speech. They demand us to learn, like Malte Laurids Brigge, to see. They offer the long road beyond that imperative, the very summation of poetry, dealt like a blow in the final line of "Archaic Torso of Apollo": You must change your life. One line, at least, that knows no other translation.