The BOOKPRESS September 1999

Found in Translation

John Bowers

Among the great early modernist poets, Rainer Maria Rilke is virtually unique in that his most important work, with the exception of The Duino Elegies, is written in tautly constructed traditional verse forms (such as the sonnet), using iambic meter and regular rhyme schemes. This poses a particularly difficult problem for English translators, because the most important modernist poetry in English, with only a few exceptions (the most conspicuous being Yeats), is characterized to one degree or another by its departure from traditional rhyme and meter. It is very tempting, therefore, for the translator to try to imagine how Rilke might have written his poems had he been a modernist poet writing in English. Such approaches typically preserve much of Rilke’s imagery but retain only a shadowy approximation of his meter and rhyme.

I believe that such experiments convey almost nothing of the experience of reading Rilke in the original German: rhyme and meter are as integral to the meaning of a Rilke poem as they are to the meaning of a Shakespeare sonnet. A responsible translator must therefore attempt to reproduce as nearly as possible the original form of a Rilke poem. At the same time, however, one does not want to go to the opposite extreme of preserving Rilke’s meter and rhyme scheme at all costs, regardless of the toll it takes in terms of the distortion of English syntax and exotic and bizarre word choice.

The ideal I have tried to attain in these translations falls somewhere between the two extremes. First of all, there is no reason, apart from laziness or sheer perversity, why a translator should not be able to preserve Rilke’s iambic pentameter meter in English. The stress system and metrical conventions of English and German are sufficiently similar to make this a relatively easy task. Second, it is almost always possible to find enough good rhymes to indicate unambiguously the rhyme scheme of the original. The question is what to do with the relatively few lines in which a good rhyme is simply impossible to find. The solution I favor in such cases is to go for a partial rhyme. Not only is this consistent with the practice of the best poets of the English language (the example of Yeats again being particularly instructive) but it also represents the smallest possible departure from the (usually) unattainable ideal of preserving the rhyme scheme in every respect.

In short, the rule of thumb I have tried to follow in these translations is this: Preserve the meter and as many full rhymes as possible consistent with the goal of writing understandable and idiomatic English. If a full rhyme is not available, then use a partial rhyme instead. Beyond this, success is, as always in translation, a matter of art and luck.

Following are given two of Rilke’s poems, "Archaic Torso of Apollo" and "The Panther," in three forms each: the original German, a translation by Stephen Mitchell from 1982, and John Bowers’ translations.

"Archaïscher Torso Apollos"
 by Rainer Maria Rilke

Wir kannten nicht sein unerhörtes Haupt,
darin die Augenäpfel reiften. Aber
sein Torso glüht noch wie ein Kandelaber,
in dem sein Schauen, nur zurückgeschraubt,

sich hält und glänzt. Sonst könnte nicht der Bug
der Brust dich blenden, und im leisen Drehen
der Lenden könnte nicht ein Lächeln gehen
zu jener Mitte, die die Zeugung trug.

Sonst stünde dieser Stein entstellt und kurz
unter der Schultern durchsichtigem Sturz
und flimmerte nicht so wie Raubtierfelle;

und bräche nicht aus allen seinen Rändern
aus wie ein Stern: denn da ist keine Stelle,
die dich nicht sieht. Du mußt dein Leben ändern.

"Archaic Torso of Apollo"
translated by Stephen Mitchell

We cannot know his legendary head
with eyes like ripening fruit. And yet his torso
is still suffused with brilliance from inside,
like a lamp, in which his gaze, now turned to low,

gleams in all its power. Otherwise
the curved breast could not dazzle you so, nor could
a smile run through the placid hips and thighs
to that dark center where procreation flared.

Otherwise this stone would seem defaced
beneath the translucent cascade of the shoulders
and would not glisten like a wild beast’s fur:

would not, from all the borders of itself,
burst like a star: for here there is no place
that does not see you. You must change your life.

"Archaic Torso of Apollo"
 translated by John Bowers

We have no knowledge of his fabled head
in which the eyeballs ripened. Even so,
his trunk, like an oil lamp, still sends out a glow
in which his gaze, its wick just barely fed,

persists and glistens. Otherwise, the form
of the breast could not bedazzle you,
nor a smile, with a slight turn of the loins, go through
to that center where the seed is borne.

Otherwise, this stone would stand, deformed and squat,
under the shoulders’ clear fall, and would not
shimmer like some wild beast’s coat of fur;

and would not burst its boundaries, its light
like a star: for there is no place there
that does not see you. You must change your life.

"Der Panther"
by Rainer Maria Rilke

Im Jardin des Plantes, Paris

Sein Blick ist vom Vorübergehn der Stäbe
so müd geworden, daß er nichts mehr hält.
Ihm ist, als ob es tausend Stäbe gäbe
und hinter tausend Stäben keine Welt.

Der weiche Gang geschmeidig starder Schritte,
der sich im allerkleinsten Kreise dreht,
ist wie ein Tanz von Kraft um eine Mitte,
in der betäubt ein großer Wille steht.

Nur manchmal schiebt der Vorhang der Pupille
sich lautlos auf—. Dann geht ein Bild hinein,
geht durch der Glieder angespannte Stille—
und hört im Herzen auf zu sein.

"The Panther"
 translated by Stephen Mitchell

In the Jardin des Plantes, Paris

His vision, from the constantly passing bars,
has grown so weary that it cannot hold
anything else. It seems to him there are
a thousand bars; and behind the bars, no world.

As he paces in cramped circles, over and over,
the movement of his powerful soft strides
is like a ritual dance around a center
in which a mighty will stands paralyzed.

Only at times, the curtain of the pupils
lifts, quietly—. An image enters in,
rushes down through the tensed, arrested muscles,
plunges into the heart and is gone.

"The Panther"
translated by John Bowers

Jardin des Plantes, Paris

His gaze has grown so tired from passing bars
that there remains nothing that it can hold.
There seem to him to be a thousand bars
and beyond the thousand bars, no world.

Turning in the very tightest circle,
the smooth motion of his strong, supple stride
is like a dance of strength around a center
in which a mighty will stands stupefied.

Only on occasion does the shutter
of the pupil soundlessly draw apart—.
An image enters then, and gliding through utter
stillness of taut limbs—dies in the heart.

John Bowers is a professor of linguistics at Cornell University.

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