Reading Rilke: Reflections on the Problems of Translations

Reading Rilke: Reflections on the Problems of Translations

by William H. Gass, 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 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.

Editorial Reviews
Obsession can be ugly. But the great German poet Rainer Maria Rilke obsessed beautifully -- over individual artists and individual women, even over individual flowers. Interestingly, delightful obsession tends to ensnare readers of Rilke, too, especially those readers who become writers.

Now, 73 years after Rilke's death, two prominent American writers with long and rich careers take a personal look at Rilke. And -- no surprise -- these riffs on Rilke are obsessive. So obsessive, in fact, that each writer stops to analyze obsession itself, and then, in fitting tribute to Rilke, each molds that obsession into art.

What's nice about these writers' personal obsessions is how educational they are for the rest of us. Galway Kinnell's The Essential Rilke, a co-translation with Hannah Liebmann, includes Kinnell's excellent introduction to the five main groups of poems in Rilke's large body of work and a discussion of the translation problems that Rilke's poems present.

But Kinnell's introduction stands out because he makes the reader feel the magic of a poet reading Rilke for the first time. Here, for example, Kinnell's describes his own half-century-long interest in Rilke, which began with a cover-to-cover read while standing in a Manhattan bookstore in 1948:

Even in that first spellbound encounter, I thought I sensed under the words of the translation another, truer Rilke struggling to speak. Possibly many young poets, on first reading the Elegies, have had a similar reaction and felt the same impulse to translate.

Kinnell doesn't stop there. Instead, he pushes at that feeling and tries to understand that "same impulse," that easy-to-slip-into Rilke obsession:

Perhaps the intimacy of Rilke's voice makes it seem that he speaks to you alone and that only you understand him. Perhaps the elusiveness of his poetry makes reading Rilke a more creative act than with most poets, and the poem you come away with, more than usually your own. Based on the large number of English versions of Rilke in bookstores, I have to think that a good number of those early-smitten carried through on that wish to translate.

Kinnell brings that same passion to the individual poems, which are all chosen simply because the translators were passionate about them. Here, for example, are the opening lines to the Kinnell-Liebmann rendering of Rilke's "Requiem for a Friend," an afterthought on obsession:

      I have my dead and I have let them go
      and been surprised, to seem them so consoled,
      so soon at home in death, just right this way,
      so unlike what we hear. Only you, you come
      back; you brush against me, you move about, you want
      to knock into things, to make them sound of you,
      telling me you're here.

In that entire passage, the longest word is two syllables. Kinnell and Liebmann take care not to gussy Rilke up, not to mar that simple address to the dead. They are respectful, too, of the innate plainness of English, the direct exactness that the language demands.

That same care of Rilke and thought about his effect on an English-speaking reader shows up in William Gass's Reading Rilke: Reflections on the Problems of Translation. Gass's unusual book is a great accompaniment to the Kinnell/Liebmann effort -- a series of personal essays that form a diary of encounters with Rilke's work. Gass also includes his own version of the famous Duino Elegies, composed at the Duino castle on the Adriatic Sea.

Naturally, Gass's concept owes something to Rilke's copious record of obsession, in letters, essays, and poems. Rilke's Letters on Cézanne, for example, is a collection of poetic daily letters Rilke wrote to his wife, describing the ginger jars and mountains in Cé;zanne's paintings, which Rilke saw at a retrospective exhibition held in Paris in 1907, just after the great painter's death.

Gass takes his cue from Rilke's moving introduction to the Cézanne letters and produces his own beautiful opening section. Like Kinnell, right from the start, Gass tries to map out why he feels such an intimate tie to Rilke:

The poet himself is as close to me as any human being has ever been; not because he allowed himself -- now a shade -- at last to be loved...nor because his person was so admirable that it had to be imitated; but because his work has taught me what real art ought to be; how it can matter to a life through a lifetime; how commitment can course like blood through the body of your words until the writing stirs, rises, opens its eyes; and, finally, because his work allows me to measure what we call achievement: how tall his is, how small mine.

Reading Rilke, one gets as close as possible to understanding why a writer wants to and in fact must write. Rilke's respect for great art was huge, and his dedication to the process of writing -- including sketches, revisions, return to main themes, and editing -- was astounding.

As both Kinnell and Gass note, Rilke believed that art can be learned only from masters, and he was a devoted student of what he considered top-tier artistic accomplishment.

Yet even in Rilke's most masterful writing, there's a note of humility. Both Gass and Kinnell -- distinguished writers in their own right -- take care to preserve that humility in their own approaches to Rilke. Their artful and painstaking self-examination allows us to understand not only why Rilke is magnificent, but why he spurs other writers toward a magnificence of their own.

—Aviya Kushner

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
In 1922, four years before he died of leukemia at age 51, Rilke finally completed the Duino Elegies, named for the castle where they poured out over an intensive four day (and night) period; within days of their completion, the Sonnets to Orpheus emerged as a reality-affirming coda. Rilke's dense and intricate verbal texture has made translation all the more irresistible over the years, and Gass, an intellectual eminence (Cartesian Sonata; Finding a Form; The Tunnel; etc.) is the first to meet the challenge discursively: this genre-bending book is a series of personal essays--at times veering between melodramatic and elliptical--that explore Rilke's biography as much as they address Gass's own difficult choices in the translations scattered throughout. Gass vividly evokes a poet "getting used to strange dark halls, guest beds, always cadging and scrounging, eating poorly," finding Rilke's lyrics "obdurate, complex, and compacted... displaying an orator's theatrical power, while remaining as suited to a chamber and its music as a harpsichord." In the translations themselves, however, Gass tends to replace complexity with unwarranted truism, as in the Fourth elegy--"but the contours of our feelings stay unknown/ when public pressure shapes the face we know"--as if to shield readers from the difficult and the strange. (Translations of all 10 elegies appear in an appendix at the book's end.) That said, Gass has an impressive ear for dramatic prosody, and a sensitivity to Rilke's playfulness and formal elegance (especially in the Tenth Elegy). Its willingness to be bold in a climate of scholarly restraint makes this translation one of the best available--superior, in particular, to the once-standard versions by Leishman and Spender, and to the recent versions of Stephen Mitchell. (Sept.) Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
Gass offers so much more than the subtitle to this gem might imply. The pages are filled with seamlessly intertwined biographical insights, textual analysis, commentary on the elusive art of translation, and fresh and vibrant new renderings of many of Rainer Maria Rilke's key works. A fitting tribute to one of the 20th century's greatest poets and everything literary criticism should be. (LJ 8/99) Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.
After reading the 20th-century German poet in English for most of his life, essayist, novelist, and philosopher Gass ( tried his hand at translating. He offers not only his version the but also a deep exposition of what he learned about language, thought, and translation from the effort. He does not index them. Annotation c. Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (
Daniel Mendelsohn
It would be hard to think of a subtitle more blandly misleading than that of William Gass's new book, a rich, ambitious, densely interconnected set of musings on the life and work of the German poet Rainer Maria Rilke (1875-1926). Yes, there are some extended and fascinating reflections here on the difficulties of translating poetry -- and few poems are as difficult to comprehend, let alone translate, as the Duino Elegies Rilke's great masterwork and the focus of Gass's energies here -- but that's just one part of a complex whole. This book is many things: an idiosyncratic biography of a brilliant if often irritating artist; a critically sophisticated meditation on the sources of inspiration that can itself be movingly lyrical (''roses climb his life as if he were their trellis''); a guided line-by-line safari in which Gass leads us, ''as into some movie Africa,'' into the dark linguistic and interpretive jungles of Rilke's ''obdurate, complex and compacted'' lines; a philosophical investigation into the meaning of the Elegies; and, not least, a series of English renderings of several of Rilke's poems, culminating in Gass's new translation of the Elegies themselves.
The New York Times Book Review
Kirkus Reviews
The American novelist probes the Austrian's metaphysical poetry with exceptional clarity of mind, verbal grace, and shrewd skepticism. Apart from his five works of fiction, Gass has published five books of literary and philosophical essays (Finding a Form, 1996, etc.). By now there can be no doubt that he's one of our foremost public critics of literature. This new book—dedicated entirely to Rilke and focusing special, superbly concentrated attention on the Duino Elegies—has the effect of a declaration of love. It comes as no surprise: readers of Gass know him to be in love with language; and Rilke, as Gass presents him, is the century's supreme master of verbal dance. But Gass is also a professor of philosophy at Washington University and not much inclined to the kind of gushy imprecision that Rilke's poetry has sometimes evoked in admirers. Gass may love Rilke's poetry, but he also presses it with hard-nosed questions and demands. The result is as impressive as it is engrossing. He explores problems of translation in a workmanlike way. His German is evidently flawless, and his commentaries on the many translations of the Elegies are acerbic, generous, and revealing. In addition, he concludes the book with his own translations of these very difficult poems. Gass's are certainly among the best renditions of Rilke into English. His gift for metaphor and his uncanny ability to mimic Rilke's cadences (very different from his own) are striking. But perhaps most satisfying of all is Gass's thought about poetry itself as an autonomous way of knowing the world. Rilke's poetry "sets the mind free of the world. Free to see and feel afresh the very world it's been freed from." Abook not only for people interested in Rilke or Gass, but for anyone who takes poetry seriously.

Product Details

Knopf Publishing Group
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
6.00(w) x 8.78(h) x 1.06(d)

Read an Excerpt

E. M. Butler, whose Rilke of 1941 was the first biography of the poet to appear in English, writes:

"There is no doubt that roses cast a spell upon Rilke. Monique Saint-Helier recounts how he once sent her some fading flowers to die with her [sic -- Butler means "to die in her company"], because he was going away. His description of a vase of falling roses in Late Poems represents him as keeping them in his room until they were really dead, when he embalmed their petals in books and used them for pot-pourri. Rilke's roses were always explicitly in enclosed spaces: in death-bed chambers, in his study at night, in rose-bowls, bringing summer into a room, bestrewing the chimney-piece as they shed their petals. And even in his garden at Muzot, they seemed to be clad in pink silk boudoir-gowns and red summer dresses, like carefully tended and cherished, fragrant and fragile hothouse blooms."

The poet collects the world inside himself as the rose gathers the light of the skies, and there he intensifies it until the phallic element of the flower dominates the symbol. Eventually the rose bestrews itself. Petals, like poems, leave their tree. The beautiful unity the rose once was now becomes a fall of discoloring shards; yet these petals can help us see to another part of the world as through a stained-glass window.

What can't they be? Was that yellow one,
lying there hollow and open, not the rind
of a fruit in which the very same yellow
was its more intense and darkening juice?
And was this other undone by its opening,
since, so exposed, its ineffable pink
has picked up lilac's bitter aftertaste?
And the cambric, is itnot a dress
to which a chemise, light and warm as breath,
still clings, though both were abandoned
amid morning shadows near the old woodland pool?
And this of opalescent porcelain
is a shallow fragile china cup
full of tiny shining butterflies --
and there -- that one's holding nothing but itself.

Later, in the August of an emptied Paris, Rilke will compose a poem about the interior of the rose: it is first an Inside awaiting its Outside, then a bandaged wound, at last a lake full of the sky's reflection. When the rose is blown and the petals part, they fill, as if fueling for the journey, with inner space, finally overflowing into the August days, until summer becomes ein Zimmer in einem Traum -- a room in a dream. But it is "The Bowl of Roses" which remains Rilke's great rose-poem.

And aren't they all that way? just self-containing,
if self-containing means: to transform the world
with its wind and rain and springtime's patience
and guilt and restlessness and obscure fate
and the darkness of evening earth and even
the changing clouds, coming and going,
even the vague intercession of distant stars,
into a handful of inner life.
It now lies free of care in these open roses.

It would be tempting to organize Rilke's biography around such themes, because the themes are there: the significance of the rose, the mirror, the unicorn, the puppet, the fountain, or the pathos (as for Poe) of the death of a young woman; his increasing "belief" in animism (that all things, as well as the parts of all things, are filled with life); the notion that we grow our death inside us like a talent or a tumor; that we are here to realize the world, to raise it, like Lazarus, from its sullen numbness into consciousness; that differences are never absolute, but that everything (life and death, for instance) lies on a continuum, as colors do; that we are strangers in a world of strangers; that simple people have a deeper understanding of their existence than most, and an insight into the secret rhythms of nature. These themes are like tides that rise and fall inside him, as if he were just their bay and receptive shoreline.

Rilke's parents had lost a daughter the year before they begot Rene (as he was christened); hoping for another daughter to replace her, and until he was ready to enter school, his mother, Phia, got him up girlishly, combed his curls, encouraged him to call his good self Sophie, and handled him like a china doll, cooing and cuddling him until such time as he was abruptly put away in a drawer. Later, with a mournful understanding that resembled Gertrude Stein's, Rilke realized that someone else had had to die in order to provide him with a place in life.

Meet the Author

William Gass is the author of five books of fiction and five books of essays. He lives in St. Louis, Missouri.

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