Saturday, April 10, 2010
You must change your life.
The Selected Poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke, edited and translated by Stephen Mitchell. (Vintage, 1989).
I don't read German (even though I took German in high school, and remember a few words), so when I read Rilke I must read him in translation. It makes me wonder: how close is the translation to the original? Which is more important, for the translator to capture the sounds and rhythm of the original, or the ineffable sense of the line? And how do I, as a reader, know when the translator has achieved the sense of the poem?
The best that I can do is to read more than one translation. I like bilingual editions, even when I don't know the first language, because I like to have a sense of how the original poem looks on the page. I like to read translator's notes and introductions too, because it gives me some sense of the aesthetic and ethical approaches of the translator. This edition of Rilke's poems has a thoughtful introduction by Robert Haas which conveys the hypnotic effect of Rilke on the reader: "His poems have the feeling of being written from a great depth in himself. What makes them so seductive is that they also speak to the reader so intimately. They seem whispered or crooned into our inmost ear, insinuating us toward the same depth in ourselves" (xiv). The introduction also explores Rilke's biography, his psychology, his friendships, love affairs, and marriage. This volume of collected poems offers a good introduction to Rilke's work, including "The Sonnets to Orpheus," "The Duino Elegies," and excerpts from The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge.
One of my favorite Rilke poems is "Requiem," written on the death of the poet's close friend, painter Paula Modersohn-Becker. Here are some lines from that poem:
"We need, in love, to practice only this:
letting each other go. For holding on
comes easily; we do not need to learn it."