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Posted January 30, 2005
Whisper to the Silent Earth: Willis Barnstone¿s Sonnets to Orpheus
Go to the poetry section of any major bookstore and you will find numerous versions of Rilke¿s profound and captivating Sonnets to Orpheus, plus many other volumes of his. Besides Dante, Neruda, García Lorca and Rumi, he is one of the world poets most translated into English. Many good versions have been produced and I have bought and enjoyed reading most of them in the past, except some of the earlier, more crabbed versions from last century. The version I remember liking the most was David Young¿s, which, unfortunately, I do not have at hand for comparison. Since I don¿t know German and can¿t access the original, which must be a marvel, I have to trust my instincts concerning an English version, and my instincts tell me to trust Willis Barnstone, one of our foremost translators. This new volume, published by Shambala, includes a revision of Mr. Barnstone¿s earlier translation of the Sonnets published in To Touch the Sky, by New Directions Press, 1999. Mr. Barnstone has not made any major changes to that earlier translation, though he has gone through and made important fine-tunings which give some poems more fluency at certain points than they previously possessed, though the earlier versions read quite smoothly. These changes may not seem important or even that noticeable to the general reader, but they are to the translator and to the more specialized reader. Translation, especially literary translation, is always a work in progress, unless abandoned by the translator. Fortunately, Mr. Barnstone chose not to abandon this work yet, and so we have a newer, brighter version of the Sonnets to enjoy. Another benefit of this volume is the extensive, generous and compassionate introduction. Mr. Barnstone has over the years become a master of the introductory essay, besides being a master translator and poet. The introduction in this volume is the best I¿ve read to date about Rilke. Other introductions have been excellent and informative, but this one provides the most lucid overall picture of Rilke, his life and his art that I can imagine short of reading some of the book-length biographies Mr. Barnstone used as resources. For those interested in the art of translation, a small essay about the tradition of translating the Sonnets in English follows the Introduction. Initially, Mr. Barnstone generously acknowledges the fine work done in the past, starting with J.B. Leishman in 1936 and C.F. MacIntrye in 1940--those earlier 'crabbed' versions I mention above--which makes me want to seek them out again, if only to understand where they have been successful. He then goes on to explain his approach: making the 'literal literary.' This is vastly more difficult than it sounds, and calls for a craftsman of profound skill and experience. To be literal, but unmusical, which is what I understand Mr. Barnstone to mean when he uses the term 'literalistic,' is to deprive the reader of the poem, though it may give a more accurate understanding of the 'meanings' of the words. As Mr. Barnstone points out, when translating poetry, one must attempt the impossible: to make the translation sing in the target language while staying as accurate as possible to the original. It is an impossible task--a quixotic task, to say the least--,especially when attempting to approximate original meter and rhyme scheme, but like many attempts at the impossible, it can at times yield felicitous results, and one of these is Mr. Barnstone¿s Sonnets to Orpheus. If you or one of your poetry-loving friends haven¿t encountered this amazing, multi-layered and influential book yet, Mr. Barnstone¿s volume makes an excellent starting point. If you have read other translations, this one will serve to either re-kindle your interest or inspire you to do
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