On translating Rilke

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It is often said that poetry is that which cannot be translated.

This argument suggests that a true appreciation of poetry is only possible through reading it in the language in which it was originally written, for the fine nuances of meaning that make a work genuinely poetic will inevitably be lost when the work is translated into another language.

This argument ignores the huge impact that many translated works of poetry have had on the world. One thinks of the works of Homer, Dante and Shakespeare, to name but three poets whose writings have been appreciated in countless different translations over the course of many centuries. It also ignores the fact that many great poets have also been great translators – Geoffrey Chaucer for instance, or Alexander Pope, or Ezra Pound.

I would in fact argue that great poetry – and indeed, great literature in any genre – survives translation remarkably well. Generations of modern English-speakers have enjoyed the poetry of the Japanese haiku master Basho, for instance, without having the first notion of the Japanese language, or any means by which to judge the accuracy of the translated versions which they are reading.

Image by Jo Wilson - Herbsttag by Rainer Maria Rilke translated by Jonathan Steffen

 Photo © Jo Wilson

The inspiration of Leishman

My first encounter with the work of Rainer Maria Rilke came through the translations of J.B. Leishman (1902–63). At the time I knew nothing about Rilke or the German language: it was only through the efforts of Leishman that I was able to gain access to the poetic world of Rilke. What I experienced – reading poems such as Herbsttag, Der Panther and Die Falkenbeize – was a voice that I had never heard before, a mind that was totally new to me, a vision of utter originality. In subsequent years, having become much more familiar with both the work of Rilke and the German language itself, I have been able to question some of the choices made by Leishman in his translations of Rilke, but this in no way diminishes the memory of the effect of his translations upon me, or my sense of gratitude to him for making the writings of Rilke available to me.

For a period during the 1990s I taught translation at the University of Heidelberg. It was at the request of some of my students that I gave some classes on the translation of poetry, using one or two poems by Rilke in the original German and comparing these with a number of translations into English. My students were so enthusiastic about Rilke’s poetry, and so fascinated by the attempts presented to render his writing in another tongue, that they asked if they could make their own attempts to translate Rilke. And so I found myself running a class in which relatively inexperienced translators were translating into a foreign language the work of a poet who is famously difficult to translate (as well as being a distinguished translator in his own right).


A core pedagogical method

Any academic setting a modern university syllabus would probably have said that this was an unreasonable exercise: it is widely considered that students should not be called on to translate poetry, which presents far too complex translation challenges, and they should never be asked to translate it from their mother tongue into a foreign language. Yet my students were engaging in this exercise voluntarily. Moreover without being aware of the fact, they were using a pedagogical method which was fundamental to the university movement during the first centuries of its existence, when the rediscovery of the literature of the Ancient world formed the core of the curriculum and young scholars such as the poet-to-be Christopher Marlowe were expected to translate poetry not only from Greek and Latin into English but also from English into Latin and Greek and even from Greek into Latin and vice versa.

So impressed was I by the enthusiasm of my students – and, indeed, by the quality of their translations – that I was inspired to try my own hand at translating some of Rilke’s works. I reasoned that the least I could do in my role as teacher was to set myself the same task as was being attempted by my students. I had the advantage of being a native speaker, a published poet, and a professional translator. Surely I should be able to produce a translation that would display at least a modicum of competence.


Image by Jo Wilson - Herbsttag by Rainer Maria Rilke translated by Jonathan Steffen

 Photo © Jo Wilson

The small hours

Thus it was that I began translating the poetry of Rilke. The attempt to render his works in English presented me with countless apparently insoluble translation problems. Yet my admiration for his work and my growing intimacy with the German language encouraged me to continue, often for weeks or months on end, in my attempt to render this or that phrase in a manner that I could deem satisfactory. Many of these solutions came at odd moments, when I was supposed to be thinking about something entirely different. Many indeed came in the middle of the night, forcing me out of bed between the hours of two and four into the morning – a time which I loved for its almost palpable quality of silence and solitude, and which I found to be extremely productive.

The following translation is my attempt to render in English one of Rilke’s most famous poems, Herbsttag. I love the original because it encapsulates in a few short lines the sense of a summer, and by implication a huge period of opportunity, coming to an end. This is a sense which probably all of us have at periods in our lives: we will all, at least in symbolic terms, ‘wachen, lesen, lange Briefe schreiben’ as we wait for our lives to take a new and more active turn with the unfolding of a new phase in our existence.


Rainer Maria Rilke

Herr: es ist Zeit. Der Sommer war sehr groß.
Leg deinen Schatten auf die Sonnenuhren,
und auf den Fluren laß die Winde los.
Befiehl den letzten Früchten voll zu sein;
gib ihnen noch zwei südlichere Tage,
dränge sie zur Vollendung hin und jage
die letzte Süße in den schweren Wein.
Wer jetzt kein Haus hat, baut sich keines mehr.
Wer jetzt allein ist, wird es lange bleiben,
Wird wachen, lesen, lange Briefe schreiben
und wird in den Alleen hin und her
unruhig wandern, wenn die Blätter treiben.

(Neue Gedichte, Anderer Teil, 1908)

Autumn Day
Translated by Jonathan Steffen

Lord: it is time. This summer has been vast.
Lay now your shadow on the sundial’s face,
and let the meadows feel the winter’s blast.
Command the last fruits to their waited prime;
give them just two more days of southern sun,
force them to full maturity and run
the last sweet drops into the heavy vine.
Whoever has no house will not build now.
Whoever is alone will long stay so,
spend bookish nights, write letters in a row
and wander aimlessly the avenues
alone, as this year’s leaves around him blow.

First published in Orbis International Poetry Magazine, Summer/Autumn 1993

This article was first published in Acumen 76, May 2013.