The Boston Phoenix
September 30 - October 7, 1999

[Book Reviews]

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Lost in translation

Capturing the essence of another's work is tricky, as two new books on poet Rainer Maria Rilke show

by John Freeman


THE ESSENTIAL RILKE, selected and translated by Galway Kinnell and Hannah Liebmann. Ecco, 157 pages, $22.95.

Translated literature is twice distilled. The first blast of heat comes from the mind of its creator. The second (by no means negligible) gust, as William Gass shows, issues from the mind of its translator. Consider the many facets of poetry a translator must attend to ("rhythm, verse, form, figures, sound, or wordplay -- ambiguity, syntax, idea, or tone -- diction, subject, weight, ambition -- secret grief, overmastering obsession"), and it's easy to see how, as Gass writes, translation can become "a form of betrayal: it is a traduction, a reconstitution made of sacrifice and revision. One bails to keep the boat afloat."

Gass's Reading Rilke is a spirited study of how Rainer Maria Rilke's poetry complicates the already muddled task of translation. As Gass reveals, the Austrian Rilke was one of poetry's most elusive practitioners. A virtuoso of many different forms, Rilke had a penchant for the theatrical, often adopting the viewpoints of beggars, mourners, and even animals. To compound this problem, translators must finesse Rilke's "vague pronouns, with their indefinite and ambiguous referents." Finally, and most important, there is Rilke's relationship with the image. By "having one metaphor set upon, swallow, and digest another," Gass argues, Rilke leads us to the very edge of our sensory capacity.

Still, Rilke has had no dearth of suitors from other tongues. Indeed, Gass writes, "dozens of translations have blunted their skill against his obdurate, complex, and compacted poems," including such literary lights as Robert Bly, Adrienne Rich, and now, with The Essential Rilke, Galway Kinnell and Hannah Liebmann. To show readers how quickly translating becomes a literary game of telephone, Gass samples the variety of takes translators have had on the poet's lines. Here is a line from Rilke's "First Elegy:"

J. B. Leishman/Stephen Spender:
And so I keep down my heart, and swallow
the call-note of depth-dark sobbing.

Stephen Mitchell:
So I hold myself back and swallow the
call-note of my dark sobbing.

William H. Gass:
And so I master myself and hold back the
appealing outcry of my childhood heart.

And then there is Kinnell and Liebmann's newly minted rendition:
And so I hold back and swallow the lure-call
of dark sobbing.

Everyone seems to agree that there's some "dark sobbing" going on here, but other words come and go like phantoms. Like an avuncular literary tour guide, Gass repeats this exercise with different poems, leading readers through his own translations. Along the way he explains the numerous decisions that he makes in forging translated text.

Although Gass does not believe in a perfect translation, he certainly shows the task to be anything but Ouija-board conjuring. A technician of language (he once wrote an essay titled "The Ontology of the Sentence"), he possesses an almost theological belief in literature. A translator must be keen to an artist's creation, he reminds us; after all, "The artist must do a better job than God has [of defending his work], although, having internalized the reason for his choices, he may not be easily able to articulate them." Gass, whose prose has a radio-talk jabber, is at his best when dispatching the slipshod work of those who have come before him; of one poet's word choice, he writes: "Angels can't be terrible. Pot-holed roads are terrible." Another poet's "lines are as painful as walking in tight boot[s]." And one under-worked line is described as a "partly bitten body" of chocolate. Describing his own translation, Gass calls himself "a jackal who comes along after the kill to nose over the uneaten hunks, keeps everything he likes." Sprinkled throughout his lively criticism, Gass's translations turn out to be inspired and attentive to the nuances of Rilke's metaphor, yet manage to re-create, in English, Rilke's flushed cadences.

While Gass knows the contours of German well, Kinnell (who has also translated the work of Villon, Yves Bonnefoy, and Yvan Goll) does not. That is why, in The Essential Rilke, Kinnell has chosen to collaborate with a native speaker, Hannah Liebmann. Collaboration, one supposes, thrice distills Rilke's poetry, yet this pared-down collection captures the essence of Rilke's best work. A poet with his own fleshly lyric sense, Kinnell here shows a deep appreciation for Rilke's engaged remove from the world, the distance he needed to internalize what lay behind the things he gulped down with his senses. In light of Gass's book, however, the title of this collection seems dubious. What is essential about this collection? And what is essential about these particular readings? As inspired as they are, they are, as Gass would point out, essential to their creators -- and us -- only as readings. For "[t]ranslating is reading, reading of the best, the most essential, kind." It is hardly a criticism.

John Freeman is a freelance writer living in Concord.


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