I was just looking at some again recently for my poetry group discussion. We read the first two Duino Elegies in translations by Stephen Mitchell, David Young, Gary Miranda, and Edward Snow. When I came into the poetry world, all my teachers spoke of Rilke as one of the presiding poetry gods, so I tried to read the poems–in translation, that is, since I have no German. I don’t know whose versions I read then, but I found them impenetrable. I took it on faith that Rilke was important, but thought to myself, “I don’t get it. Why does everyone think he’s so great?” The first time I had any sense of his poems as poetry was when I read David Young’s translation of the Duino Elegies, published originally in Field, and then as a collection by Norton in 1978. His don’t have the square and solid look of the originals and other translations–they’re indented triplets. First Snow’s, with typical lines, then Young’s:
Who, if I cried out, would hear me among the angelic
orders? And even if one of them pressed me
suddenly to his heart: I’d be consumed
in his stronger existence….
If I cried out
…………who would hear me up there
………………..among the angelic orders?
And suppose one suddenly
…….took me to his heart
…………….I would shrivel
I couldn’t survive
……….next to his
For the first time, I could see and hear music in the poems. And the extra white space made the poems seem less heavy and dense, and also slowed down them down to a speed at which I could follow them.
Since then I’ve read many translations of Rilke, and taught some of them in comparative translation classes, but I hadn’t looked at Young’s in quite a while. Now I find them distracting and oddly broken up (though as I typed them above, all that beauty I felt the first time came back to me), only because I’m so much more familiar with the contents. But I’m forever grateful to them for giving me a way in to the Elegies, for conveying the poetry of them for the first time.
The Miranda translation is the one I came to most recently, and I think of it as another great introduction to the work. His version is spoken by something close to a first-person speaker, and has a clearer through-line and forward pull than any other version I know–and probably than the original. It makes for a kind of immediate emotional connection, but loses what Robert Hass describes as Rilke’s omnipresence: “It is as if, not having a place to stand, the author of these poems is everywhere. Really, they are the nearest thing in the writing of the twentieth century to the flight of birds. They dive, soar, swoop, belly up, loop over.” (From his introduction to the Stephen Mitchell translations.)
The two I find myself most drawn to now, of the ones I know, are those by Stephen Mitchell and Edward Snow, and as I read them side by side I like one better here and one there. Whenever I’ve taught comparative translation we’ve all concluded that for those of us who don’t know the original language, one translation is never sufficient, no matter how good it is. We need several so we can triangulate, and we need the original on facing pages to remind us of what we’re missing. And different ones at different times in our reading lives.
In the end, those who were carried off early no longer need us:
they are weaned from earth’s sorrows and joys, as gently as children
outgrow the soft breasts of their mothers. But we, who do need
such great mysteries, we for whom grief is so often
the source of our spirit’s growth–: could we exist without them?
In the end, those torn from us early no longer need us;
they grow slowly unaccustomed to earthly things, in the gentle manner
one outgrows a mother’s breasts. But we, who need
such great mysteries, for whom so often blessed progress
springs from grief–: could we exist without them?