I’m now halfway through Rilke’s Duino Elegies, and am loving the experience of reading it. In an effort to understand it better, I’ve begun to check out other translations online when I’ve finished a section from the book I own, translated by David Young. I haven’t decided whether I like or dislike Young’s translations, not really knowing enough to make a judgment, but I discovered that I could understand the poem much better when I looked at more than one translation. I have the original German too, which I’ve been reading after I read the English a few times, but my German’s not good enough for me to judge translation quality. And, yes, these elegies are complicated enough to require a number of readings (they are relatively short, and this doesn’t take long). I am finding them beautiful and rich and mysterious — they touch on death, love, consciousness, relationships, loneliness, isolation, the world of the mind — they are about everything important, it seems like.
But to show you what I mean about the translations, here’s a short section from the Fourth Elegy, as translated by David Young:
But we, when we’re fully intent on one thing,
can already feel the pull of another. Hatred is always close by.
Aren’t lovers always coming to sheer drop-offs inside each other
they who promised themselves open spaces, good hunting and a homeland?
As when for some quick sketch a contrasting background
is made with great care so we can see the drawing. No effort is spared.
We don’t know the contour of feeling, we only know what molds it
The meaning of the first part is clear to me, and I like the idea — that we have trouble focusing on one thing, on the present moment, and are always in pursuit of what’s next. The bit about the lovers is interesting — they expect infinite possibilities from each other and are disappointed. The next four lines have an image that took me a while to get, but once I got it, I liked it; the artist took pains with the background of the drawing to make the drawing itself clearer, although the drawing itself is only the work of a moment. Somehow, this is like the way we experience emotion; perhaps emotion is like the sketch, which remains fleeting and mysterious; all we can know about emotion is what shapes it — the thing that molds it, like the carefully-prepared background. What’s confusing about this passage is the way the fifth line (“As when …”) seems at first to relate to the image of the lovers, not the lines about emotion. It’s only by thinking through the images carefully, that I can figure out the image of the sketch and the ideas about emotion go together.
Here’s the same passage translated by Robert Hunter:
But we cannot focus on
a single object without
worrying about another.
Conflict is our essence.
Aren’t lovers always
crowding one another,
despite mutual longing
for wide open spaces,
homestead and plentiful hunting?
As when a canvas is carefully
stretched and primed to receive
a spontaneous sketch,
the better to offset it,
we do not observe the
background of emotion,
only what is splashed upon it.
The passages are similar — but not the same; the meaning of each one seems different. Isn’t “hatred is always close by” different from “conflict is our essence”? It’s the difference between something existing outside us but easily available and something that is in us and a part of us. And then there’s the difference between “Lovers always coming to sheer drop-offs inside each other” and “lovers always crowding one another.” These are two very different things, aren’t they? It’s the difference between finding something inside the other — some emotional or mental attribute — and bumping into the other’s body. And in the second translation the sketch is clearly connected to emotion, as it forms one sentence, instead of the three sentences of the first.
And here’s another, translated by John Waterfield:
We, though, where we intend one thing, and mean it,
are vexed by shimmering alternatives.
Enmity’s near to hand. Don’t lovers always
come upon fences in each other’s souls
where they expected hunting, home, and freedom?
Then briefly a design that’s based on contrast
comes into focus, carefully prepared
for us to see. (They take some pains with us.)
We do not know the contour of our feeling:
only the thing that moulds it from without.
Now the lovers are encountering fences in each other’s souls — the place of conflict, the soul, is a more clearly defined, and we have a fence instead of a drop-off. And in the parentheses, some mysterious “they” gets introduced; I notice now the other versions used passive voice (“a canvas is carefully stretched,” “a contrasting background is made”). Who is this “they”?
I guess I’m pointing out something that’s fairly obvious if you think about it, which is that every translation is an act of interpretation. Every translation introduces its own meanings and shades of meanings. I don’t think I’ve ever spent so much time puzzling out different translations, though, so I’m struck by this idea in a different kind of way, actually seeing the various interpretations in front of me at once.