Wrestling with the Angel

Reading Rilke: Reflections on the Problems of Translation by William H. Gass. Basic Books, 1999. 233 pages.

As Reviewed By: Jan Schreiber

It is undeniable that Rilke has exercised a continuous fascination on both poets and ordinary readers in the English-speaking world since his death. William H. Gass totes up some fifteen English versions of the unquenchable Duino Elegies, not counting his own. Nor is the interest limited to those particularly susceptible to late Romantic sensibilities. Gass himself hardly fills that bill, and even the dry and acerbic J.V. Cunningham was fascinated, though characteristically analytic:

The Rilkean ideal [is] … an ideal whose pragmatic basis seems to be that state of feeling, that disturbed somatic exaltation which characterizes a woman in love, together with her active desire for passivity and surrender. But it is the state of feeling as such which is held valuable, and the effort is bent toward sustaining and prolonging that state…. It remains in Rilke both erotic and religious, but the eroticism is directed toward nubile and shadowy objects, and the theological structure is consciously emptied of as much content as possible, what is left being deliberately rendered ambiguous and confused. (The Journal of John Cardan, 1964)

Perhaps part of the reason for the fascination lies in the set of problems and opportunities Rilke presents. The poems have an immediately perceptible poetic texture, by which I mean that they are both allusive and elusive in just such a degree as to challenge a reader’s associative ingenuities. They appear to mean more than their paraphrasable content. They have some admirable formal attributes, including metrical regularity and unforced rhyme, coupled with idiomatic ease and, now and then, an astonishing turn of phrase. They therefore offer a challenge to the translator—whether poet or scholar—who hopes (I believe, speaking from my own experience) to recreate in English that texture and that allusiveness, and in the process perhaps to probe their implications further, make them more available to the untutored but captivated reader.[private]

Gass’s engaging book is part biography, part critical analysis, part homage, part creative response. We know Gass—have known him for many years—as an ingenious, at times outrageous, man of words, one for whom language is a source of not just enlightenment but delight. In this book he seeks to understand the essence or soul of Rilke, presumptuous as that sounds. He does so in time-honored ways: by trying to know the man as he lived, by reading and pondering his words in the context of the writer’s life and times, and by trying to bring the fullness of Rilke’s most esteemed poems into an equally evocative English.

The biographical sketch achieves psychological insight through empathy and wit. The empathy is welcome. The poet as a figure in the world is always a little out of place, a little laughable, maybe because of the unrealistic notion readers nurse that wisdom and spiritual probity on the page should betoken the same in a life. Gass is clear-eyed, amused sometimes, but forgiving.

What defeated Rilke was love. He could establish a solid relationship with neither his wife nor his lover Paula Becker. He used both shabbily, felt guilt, fled, worried that his reputation would be ruined, and felt guilty for such selfish worrying. As Gass says, “The poet’s very real very sordid very ordinary weaknesses were always threatening to appear before the fair public figure of the Poet Personified, take its place, and…disgrace the work of a life.” Yet the poems will hardly bear a New Critical screen between biography and text. “Whenever a poem of Rilke’s seems to admonish its reader, openly with ‘You must change your life,’ or tacitly, through the poem’s example, we can be certain that Rilke himself has failed the charge.”

Still and all, when we face the poems themselves, the human failings of their author are reduced to inconsequence. That is why the real contribution of Gass’s book is in its analysis of the texts, its effort at translation in the widest sense. As readers in a different language, and arguably informed by a different sensibility, in which both religious iconography and classical archetypes are less influential, we need to find our own sources of resonance, if any exist for us. The task of the translator simply magnifies the quandary faced by every reader, which one might pose as a two-pronged question: “What is the poem saying?” and “How can I make it speak to me?” Answering that double question I take to be the mission of Gass’s book.

The discipline of translation gives unparalleled opportunity for close reading. While as English speakers we might gloss over the connotations and associations of Hart Crane’s line “The agile precincts of the lark’s return” or the play of nuance and sound in Stevens’ “The bough of summer and the winter branch,” the translator is forced, first, to know exactly what content he is trying to express and, second, to seek a linguistic equivalent that will convey a sensuous quality as much as possible like that of his model.

Far more stringent requirements thus fall upon the translator than upon the poet who originates a work. For the originator selects from a very wide range of possible ideas, associations, and sounds those that will be forceful, idiomatic, and memorable. The translator, by contrast, has struck a fool’s bargain in which the ideas and most of the associations have been given to him. His unenviable job, therefore, is to find sounds in the second language to convey them, while immersing the reader in an equivalent sonic environment that will solidify the poem, ground it in a reliable rhythm, and if possible offer the subliminal delight we get from a well made chant. Small wonder that translators are prone to fudge the job—to give up on rhyme and maybe meter too, or if committed to them (a rarity nowadays) to invent new ideas that will better fit the adopted tonalities.

Before baring his own re-creations, Gass surveys the work of translators before him. He calls the troops to attention and strides along the ranks, inspecting for spit and polish, starting with the first line of the first elegy: “Wer, wenn ich schriee, hörte mich denn aus der Engel / Ordnungen?” Some of the renderings are literal and scrupulous, others fanciful and wilfully unfaithful:

There is no “up there” there, but the translator evidently felt the need for the phrase. Gass struggles with such choices: “…can we make up our minds? does the poet cry or shout or, again, cry out? aloud? and do the angels fail to hear or heed or listen to him?”

Now, the issues implied in these choices are real, but the truth, as practicing poets with a concern for form know, is that they are very often decided by formal considerations. In an earlier poem Rilke has the line “Acker, der kein Frühjahr überschlägt,” which translates literally as “Field that never skips a spring.” It refers to a field that turns green each year, but the somewhat odd way of saying this is dictated by the poet’s need for a rhyme with trägt two lines later. The point is that the line is not seen as odd in context, because the poem’s form anchors it like a brick in a wall. A translator who recognizes this will sense where he can take liberties with diction for the sake of form. This is clearly a matter of discretion and decorum. A discerning reader will sense quickly enough when form is driving content, but that same reader, caught up in the forceful rush of a meter or a rhyme scheme, will tolerate certain eccentricities and will be unlikely to question whether angels should “heed” or “listen.”

Formal considerations give us a perspective from which to evaluate the competing attempts. Everyone wrestles with the “Engel Ordnungen” which become orders, hosts, hierarchies, and, in Gass’s version, dominions, but Gass gives less attention to the critical early decision these translators must have made: how (or whether) to render Rilke’s five-stress accentual line. In fact the complexity of the job goes beyond vocabulary and the manipulation of syntax, not an easy matter given the differing geniuses of German and English; it extends to the music of the lines and the need to recreate somehow a comparable music in English.

This is nearly dactylic, but in German it does not have the galloping feeling of English dactyls; instead it feels like a relaxed iambic pentameter, and that is probably the line a translator should use in English. The problem is that allowing an iambic pentameter line in English to relax very much quickly turns it into mush. Generally there is a more unambiguous difference between stressed and unstressed syllables in a German sentence than in English, so an accentual pattern is heard even if one does not count syllables. In the passage just quoted, only the “und” might be in doubt; whereas in a metrically loose English rendering like Boney’s (1975)—“Who of the angelic hosts would hear me, even if I cried out?”—we can be sure of stresses on only the five syllables I have italicized, but there might be at least three others, which would be cued by lineation. The translator who wishes to recreate the feel, and thus the power, of Rilke’s verse line will take care to establish a metrical pattern at the outset and maintain it throughout. Gass’s rendering gives sense sway over meter:

Who, if I cried, would hear me among the Dominions
of Angels? And even if one of them suddenly
held me against his heart, I would fade in the grip
of that completer existence …

The dactylic beat is fairly well reproduced, but the second line has only four stresses, and this leads to metrical uncertainty. As we read on through Gass’s translations of the elegies we lose the sense of the meter, and for me this is a serious loss, though there are many felicities of word choice, syntax, pacing, and movement.

Word choice drives Gass nearly to distraction as he seeks to determine what is in Rilke’s words and what is behind them. A few lines later Rilke writes:

Und so verhält ich mich denn und verschlucke den Lockruf
dunkelen Schluchzens.

Apart from its somewhat gulping music, this passage does present some knotty problems of word choice. Verschlucke means swallow, Schluchzen is a sob or sobbing. Lockruf is a coinage of Rilke’s, from locken, to attract or allure, and rufen, to call. So the passage means something like “And so I hold myself back and swallow the beckoning cry of dark sobbing”—as if a child were making a conscious decision not to summon its parents, even though miserable with fear or anguish. Note, however, that the “child” is an interpretation. It is not in the German and therefore, I believe, should not be in the English. Again Gass surveys the attempts of the translators who have preceded him, and then makes no fewer than five attempts of his own. Surveying his first, he manfully admits, “It is hard to imagine a version much worse than my first try. Shall we permit readers to believe that this great poem contains lines of such pretentious silliness?” Well, but the problem is not altogether with the translation (though translators misled by locken to make the cry into a mating song will in turn mislead the reader), but with a poem that wears its heart so messily on its sleeve. There are rewards, but also risks, in literature as in life.

The intense attention to the substance of what’s being said lifts Gass’s book above most critical treatises and elevates the translator’s craft to a discipline that is in equal parts artistic and philosophical. The best way to express the issues involved, all of which are treated or exemplified in the book, is to create four statements a hypothetical translator might make. These statements will guide us through the remainder of this review.

1) I can’t let him say that.

In my younger days as a sometime translator, I too have made that vow. Sometimes it was in reference to a line that, in an otherwise interesting poem, seemed like pious moralizing, or seemed weak. It could be said of a line that gives offense by impugning some ethnic group, or occasionally of a line with such an obscure local reference that no one could be expected to get it. There may well be lines in Rilke that will stir such a comment. And indeed a translator cannot be faulted for simply refusing to tackle a particular poem or story on grounds that the content is offensive, embarrassing, laughable, small-minded, or subject to a host of other weaknesses. But generally the best approach is to give the piece an equivalent set of fins and flippers on the English seas, and then let it sink or swim. Don’t second guess.

So Rilke writes (I give literal prose):

O and the night, the night, when the wind full of [outer] space feeds on our faces —with whom did she not stay [the night, not the wind, the pronoun tells us], the longed-for one, softly letting down [disappointing], that which [the night, still?] appeared with effort to the singular [particular, isolated] heart?

And Gass translates:

Oh, then there’s Night, when a wind, full of the hollow where the world is,
feeds on our faces: who could refuse her,
when she’ll gently let us down, though so long longed for
by our heart’s solitude?

So Gass, bless him, lets the wind feed on our faces, and if he doesn’t repeat “night” he does find a clever way to repeat “long.” He lets us think “wind” rather than “night” is the subject of the latter two lines, and he manages to evoke (was he trying for this?) Stevens’ lines from “The Snow Man”: “Full of the same wind / That is blowing in the same bare place / For the listener …”

Commendable, even admirable. But this too is prose, and Rilke wrote verse.

2) That detail is too time- or place-bound and needs to be changed.

Here’s a tricky problem. Rilke lived scarcely a century ago, but his world has already receded from ours. In most respects we can easily recall his details imaginatively, but now and then something confounds us. In the famous “Archaic Torso of Apollo” sonnet, needing a rhyme for Haupt (head) at the end of his first line, Rilke came up with what must have seemed to him an ingenious solution. He ended his second line with aber (but) and at the end of the third line he placed Kandelaber, which is not a candelabrum as we think of such objects, but a street lamp that would have been gas-fueled in Rilke’s day. The glow of the lamp was likened to the implied glow of the headless Apollo torso, emanating from the never-seen and merely imagined head of the first line. But Rilke went further. Apollo represents not merely beauty but moderation and control. So the gas flame of the imagined street lamp was screwed back (zurückgeschraubt) to provide a steady but not overwhelming illumination, and Rilke had his rhyme capping a neatly worked-out simile.

The problem is: how can we pack all that information into four lines of a sonnet and still leave room for what Rilke wanted to say? A translator is almost forced to convey either too much or too little. Gass, who writes with full knowledge of the German word and its historical meaning, ends up concentrating on the one part of the street lamp Rilke makes no direct mention of—its luminous globes—while giving up on zurückgeschraubt:

Never will we know his legendary head
where the eyes’ apples slowly ripened. Yet
his torso glows as if his look were set
above it in suspended globes that shed

a street’s light down…

This has the virtue of keeping the rhyme scheme, though the meter gets off to a shaky start with what appears to be a six-foot iambic line, unless we elide some syllables, pronouncing “legendary” in the British manner.

But if you want to keep the idea of a moderated, perhaps diminished glow that still emanates from this headless torso, it might be wise to take another approach:

We could not know his unimagined head
in which the eyes were apples ripening,
and yet his torso radiates a ring
of light as if a now dimmed street lamp shed

constant illumination….

3) I know I’m inventing, but my invention is implied in what he said and is therefore allowed

At first blush most of us would say this precept is out of bounds. Stick with what the author wrote should be the guiding rule for all translators. But if you’re committed to reproduce the author’s rhyme scheme or metrical pattern, you may find yourself bending your principles. Faced with an unambiguous, easily translatable line at the end of the Apollo sonnet (Du mußt dein Leben ändern), Gass sets it down exactly: “You must change your life.” And not finding any concept in the preceding lines that would yield a rhyme for “life,” he does not invent one but lets this final word come upon us without preparation. Yet he started the poem by setting up a rhyme scheme, and he has carried it through, with some modifications, up to this point. Now the sonnet just ends. The effect is abrupt, as is the poem’s imperative mode; but in the German the effect is at once surprising (because of the direct address to the reader) and inevitable (because the word ändern completes a rhyme scheme begun two lines before with the word Rändern [boundaries]). There is value in this emotional one-two punch, but to reproduce it in English we need to find a concept within the materials of the poem, however construed, that will yield a rhyme for life. Maybe the fitting word will be strife or knife; less likely rife or wife. We do not have many options to choose from. Rilke was ingenious in the first quatrain; can his translator be comparably ingenious in the sestet? That is the challenge, made more acute by the discomfiting awareness that literal-minded scholars who know German, may well speak it natively, are scrutinizing his every move, ready to pounce. So Gass is not to be scorned for his choice. Still, we do not quite have an English equivalent of the original poem.

4) He didn’t quite say this, but what he must have meant is…

This precept looks a lot like #3, but it comes out more insidiously. It’s often provoked not by something so bald-faced as a rhyme scheme, but by a rhetorical impulse, an urge to exploit vocabulary or Wortschatz (word-treasure), as the Germans call it.

In the ninth elegy, Rilke writes:

… warum denn
Menschliches müssen—und, Schicksal vermeidend,
sich sehnen nach Schicksal? …

which means, literally, why then, human necessity—and avoiding [dodging, ducking] fate , strive [long] for fate?

Gass translates:

…why, then,
must we be human—and, shunning our Destiny,
long for Fate?

A little philology may help us here. The German word Schicksal is related to the German word (ge)schehen, to happen. It means that which happens to a person, and closely approximates our word fate. There is no direct German equivalent of destiny, our latinate word that suggests a control of our ends by some higher power. So Rilke appears to be stating a paradox of human behavior: that we simultaneously seek to avoid our fate even as we long for it. We flee death and court it: that is human nature.

But what does it mean to shun our destiny with a capital D? Gass sets up a contrast, not a paradox. We reject what we are destined for (because of the tracks our lives have been placed on?, because more powerful beings control us?) and still long for our necessary end. Such a contrast leads to speculation, possibly fruitful, but it takes us subtly away from what Rilke wrote.

It may appear from this extended discussion that I disapprove of Gass’s methods, procedures, and philosophical stance in this book, but if so, then appearances are deceiving. I believe Gass has written an invaluable book for readers, translators, poets, and lovers of poetry. I believe he has made mistakes, but I also believe it is impossible to translate complex poetry without making mistakes, and we would be far poorer culturally if we could not read flawed translations, then go back to the original works and say, “I’ll bet I can do this better,” only to observe ruefully after a certain length of time, “This isn’t as easy as I thought.”

In the course of his own wrestling match with Rilke’s angels, Gass has produced an indispensable guide. Consider, as a final example, his inspired commentary on the Apollo sonnet we watched him match wits with earlier. He imagines the translator, and by extension Rilke, saying to the reader:

[F]orget the fact that the poem belongs in its body as utterly as you do in yours; listen to what’s going on behind my tongue, in my mind where the Muse was, in your mind where the Muse is. Try to realize the presence of Apollo’s decapitated head, its absent eyelight shining down upon the fragment that is its torso. See how complete this desecrated stone is, although it has no face, no smile, once upon a time tight curls of hair maybe, now armless, no longer wearing its inoffensive little phallus like a bit of fatter pubic hair, its well-muscled legs once extending into a firmly footed stance. They are the same bodily implements you have, reader (excepting, sometimes, the sex), without the necessity to imagine them, and none of them stone. Yet, lo and behold, that absent look, that vanished smile, is bright, and burns your eyes as you perceive its shine, flashing from this broken body to confront your inner incompleteness and condemn it. Are you as real as this ancient, battered remnant of statue? Change, then. Change your life.

And you, Translator, face your impossible task without flinching. What makes a deathless work? Ask William Gass. Passion. Technique. Conviction. Love. Enter this fierce conversation, and learn.

Editor’s Note: This essay first appeared in Expansive Poetry & Music.[/private]

About Jan Schreiber

Jan Schreiber is a poet and critic. His books include Digressions, Wily Apparitions, and Bell Buoys, as well as two books of translations: A Stroke upon the Sea and Sketch of a Serpent. His poems and reviews have appeared in the Hudson Review, the Southern Review, Agenda, the Formalist, and many other publications, as well as on-line journals and anthologies. A song cycle, Zeno’s Arrow, based on seven of his poems, was composed by Paul Alan Levi and premiered in 2001.
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