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Must We Translate? Rilke in Translation

On October 8, Britain celebrated National Poetry Day. The theme was “Heroes and Heroines” and various newspapers, blogs, and websites celebrated the word mastery of thousands of popular and more obscure poets. Although I’m a few days late and perhaps a few dollars short, I’d like to take some time to celebrate my favorite genre and follow up my post from some weeks ago (Can Poetry be Translated?) to continue the debate on poetry in translation.

Thanks to Moira Weigel at the Wall Street Journal , I discovered that today, a definitive edition of the collected poems of Rainer Maria Rilke will be published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux. The collection is being translated by Edward Snow, a professor of English at Rice University (who I’m fairly certain I had the pleasure of meeting two weeks ago when I was there for a conference). Snow, who has won the Academy of American Poets Award (twice) and the PEN Award for Translation, has been translating Rilke for over twenty-five years. This new collection of Rilke’s work begins with a “suite of new translations from Rilke’s ‘Book of Hours,’” a group of poems that Snow felt uneasy about translating due to the fact that translations tend to oversimplify the spiritual nature of the prayers spoken by a Russian monk. He describes the process of translating “Book of Hours” as one of “distilling” before translating, reworking Rilke’s intricate rhyme patterns because “rhyming translations would prove impossible.” Although the translated poems do not rhyme, Snow has worked to “approximate Rilke’s German meters, using equal numbers of beats per line and lines per stanza.” The collection then closes with a group of uncollected poems, the lyrics which Rilke refused to publish during his lifetime but which now comprise over a quarter of the book.

It seems amazing that over a century after Rilke’s works first began to be translated we’re still reworking and retranslating his poetry. Snow’s attempt to retain Germanic meter while not retaining rhyme schemes is indicative of a turn in translation—the focus on rhythm and accuracy over rhyme. Given that Rilke’s work is so well-loved by almost anyone who reads poetry, lines like

“Yet everything that touches us, me and you,
takes us together like a violin’s bow,
which draws one voice out of two separate strings”

from his poem “Love Song” resonate in any culture and in any language. His Letters to a Young Poet is often taught in English and Creative Writing classes in universities and advice like

“Search for the reason that bids you write; find out whether it is spreading out its roots in the deepest places of your heart, acknowledge to yourself whether you would have to die if it were denied you write. This above all — ask yourself in the stillest hour of the night, must I write?”

is taken to heart by, possibly, every poet to have written after Rilke.

Must I write; must we translate—I think both of these questions are pertinent to the state of poetry today. When we celebrate poetry on days like National Poetry Day by taking a moment out of our hectic lives to read a poem, to reflect on the words, we’re reaffirming the fact that poets must write, and, to extend my argument from “Can Poetry Be Translated?” I’d like to say that whether or not it can be translated, poetry must be translated. Rilke’s genius, celebrated by Edward Snow’s new translations usher in a new age of Rilke studies. Parts of his world, read through both the new and reworked translations of volumes Snow and others have published, as well as the vast number of uncollected poems, can now be explored and enjoyed by new generations of Rilke scholars and lovers of his poetry.

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