Reading Rilke: Reflections on the Problems of Translation
William H. Gass
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The greatly admired essayist, novelist, and philosopher, author of Cartesian Sonata, Finding a Form, and The Tunnel, reflects on the art of translation and on Rainer Maria Rilke's Duino Elegies -- and gives us his own translation of Rilke's masterwork.
After nearly a lifetime of reading Rilke in English, William Gass undertook the task of translating Rilke's writing in order to see if he could, in that way, get closer to the work he so deeply admired. With Gass's own background in philosophy, it seemed natural to begin with the Duino Elegies, the poems in which Rilke's ideas are most fully expressed and which as a group are important not only as one of the supreme poetic achievements of the West but also because of the way in which they came to be written -- in a storm of inspiration.
Gass examines the genesis of the ideas that inform the Elegies and discusses previous translations. He writes, as well, about Rilke the man: his character, his relationships, his life.
Finally, his extraordinary translation of the Duino Elegies offers us the experience of reading Rilke with a new and fuller understanding.
never end. Love and death: a Germanic theme indeed. Just as going and coming are one, just as beginnings and endings overlap, so are loving and ceasing to love, living and ceasing to live, reciprocals, and as we mature our death matures, too, the way one wave rolls up the beach while another wave recedes, and each roar of the surf is succeeded by a quiet hiss. 6 O Lord, grant each of us our own ripe death, the dying fall that goes through life— its love, significance, and need—like breath.
different commandment. But could you obey it? Weren’t you always anxiously peering past them, as though they announced a sweetheart’s coming? (Where would you have hidden her, with those heavy foreign thoughts tramping in and out and often staying overnight?)6 When we perceive fully, and do the work assigned to us, the world becomes glorious. Then “it is breathtaking just to be here.” However, I feel obliged to say, when we perceive fully, we do ourselves a favor, not the world. I
this word I don’t know the meaning of should be spelled “flete.” Still, playing dumb won’t clinch the argument. As with “wabe,” I know what “fleet” means in this context. “Everything fleeting concerns us, we most fleeting of all.” “Fleet” means more than “fleeting,” however—a whole lot more. “Fire and fleet and candle-lighte” are a wondrous trio—creating one another as they go. Such space is Angel space, such life is Angel life, where everything is experienced like daydream theater,
ELEGY Someday, released at last from this anguished soul-searching, may I sing an extolling song to the assenting Angels; may not even one of the firmly struck hammers of the heart land upon a slack, uncertain, or broken string; may my weeping face make me more radiant, each tear glistening like a new bloom: how precious to me then my tormented nights will be, and how deep my regret that I didn’t more willingly kneel to you, inconsolable sisters, more willingly lose myself in your
Edward Snow and Michael Winkler. New York: Norton, 1997. Ewald Tragy, translated by Lola Gruenthal. New York: Twayne, 1958. Nine Plays, translated by Klaus Phillips and John Locke. New York: Ungar, 1979. “Preface,” translated from the French by Richard Miller, to Mitsou. Forty Images by Balthus. New York: Abrams for the Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1984. Rainer Maria Rilke, Selected Works, vol. 1, Prose, translated by G. Craig Houston, with an introduction by J. B. Leishman. New York: New