Reflections on Translations – V: The Special Challenges of Poetry

I have previously confessed, on this blog, to being mystified by the magical processes of translation, especially when I realize important components of my literary and philosophical education consisted of reading translated works.

This mystification is especially pronounced when I confront translations of poetry, where the translator’s task appears ever more difficult. When I read Pushkin‘s Eugene Onegin (Penguin Classics1986), I read Sir Charles Johnston’s ‘Translator’s Note’ with a great deal of sympathy; indeed, I wondered why anyone would take on such a task.

As Johnston put it,

Few foreign masterpieces can have suffered more than Eugene Onegin from the English translator’s failure to convey anything more than–at best–the literal meaning. It is as if a sound-proof wall separated Pushkin’s poetic novel from the English-reading world. There is a whole magic which goes by default; the touching lyrical beauty, the cynical wit of the poem; the psychological insight, the devious narrative skill, the thrilling compulsive grip of the novel; the tremendous gusto and swing and panache of the whole performance.

I’ll take his word for it, for I can’t read or speak a word of Russian.

I do read and speak a little bit of German and so am always a bit more curious when confronted with translations from that language. Here are two samples of translations of Rainer Maria Rilke’s classic poem, ‘Death Experienced’ – the differences are slight, yet fascinating. First, the original in German:


Wir wissen nichts von diesem Hingehn, das
nicht mit uns teilt. Wir haben keinen Grund,
Bewunderung und Liebe oder Haß
dem Tod zu zeigen, den ein Maskenmund

tragischer Klage wunderlich entstellt.
Noch ist die Welt voll Rollen, die wir spielen,
solang wir sorgen, ob wir auch gefielen,
spielt auch der Tod, obwohl er nicht gefällt.

Doch als du gingst, da brach in diese Bühne
ein Streifen Wirklichkeit durch jenen Spalt,
durch den du hingingst: Grün wirklicher Grüne,
wirklicher Sonnenschein, wirklicher Wald.

Wir spielen weiter. Bang und schwer Erlerntes
hersagend und Gebärden dann und wann
aufhebend; aber dein von uns entferntes,
aus unserm Stück entrücktes Dasein kann

uns manchmal überkommen, wie ein Wissen
von jener Wirklichkeit sich niedersenkend,
so daß wir eine Weile hingerissen
das Leben spielen, nicht an Beifall denkend.

Then, the first translation, the form in which I encountered it first, translated by J. B. Leishman–long considered ‘authoritative’ by many Rilke scholars–excerpted from the collection Possibility of Being, New Directions 1977:

Death Experienced

We know just nothing of this going hence
that so excludes us. We’ve no grounds at all
to greet with plaudits or malevolence
the Death whom that mask-mouth of tragical

lament disfigures so incredibly.
The world’s still full of parts being acted by us.
Till pleasing in them cease to occupy us,
Death will act too, although unpleasingly.

When, though, you went, there broke upon this scene
a shining segment of realities
in at the crack you disappeared through: green
of real green, real sunshine, real trees.

We go on acting. Uttering what exacted
such painful learning, gesturing now and then;
but your existence and the part you acted,
withdrawn now from our play and from our ken,

sometimes recur to us like intimations
of that reality and its laws,
and we transcend awhile our limitations
and act our lives unthinking of applause.

Here is an alternative translation by Cliff Crego:

Death Experience

We know nothing of this going away, that
shares nothing with us. We have no reason,
whether astonishment and love or hate,
to display Death, whom a fantastic mask

of tragic lament astonishingly disfigures.
Now the world is still full of roles which we play
as long as we make sure, that, like it or not,
Death plays, too, although he does not please us.

But when you left, a strip of reality broke
upon the stage through the very opening
through which you vanished: Green, true green,
true sunshine, true forest.

We continue our play. Picking up gestures
now and then, and anxiously reciting
that which was difficult to learn; but your far away,
removed out of our performance existence,

sometimes overcomes us, as an awareness
descending upon us of this very reality,
so that for a while we play Life
rapturously, not thinking of any applause.

Because my competence at German is limited and thus I cannot really read Rilke in the original in any meaningful, emotionally infused way, I cannot critically comment on the translations; I am content to say that the Leishman translation is more formal, more stilted, while the Crego one ‘flows’ a bit more and is a bit truer to the original’s language. But here I’m restricted to merely commenting on the English, and perhaps just a little on the fidelity to the German; so I find myself frustrated again by my lack of linguistic competency.

The truly fascinating case, of course, is that of the bi-lingual writer (and poet) who translates his own work into his second language. The most famous instance is Vladimir Nabokov; I’ll have a post on his translations soon.

2 thoughts on “Reflections on Translations – V: The Special Challenges of Poetry

  1. Crego’s translation is inaccurate in several key places. A literal translation of the 2nd through 4th lines is: “We have no reason, admiration and love or hate to show to Death…” And in the 2nd stanza, a literal translation would be: Still the world is full of roles, that we play. As long as we care, whether we are liked, Death plays too, although he is not liked.”

    Notice how Leishman’s translation is both truer to the original meaning than Crego’s, and also rhymed in the exact same structure as Rilke’s original. There is no comparison between these two translations. Leishman’s is the work of a master translator informed with a poetic sensibility. Crego’s fails to even deliver the meaning of the original.

  2. It appears that the original German on this page differs from the version of Rilke that I have. The version I have has the 2nd line of the 2nd stanza as follows: “Noch ist die Welt voll Rollen, die wir spielen. Solang wir sorgen, ob wir auch gefielen, spielt auch der Tod, obwohl er nicht gefaellt.”
    Notice that this version has a period between “spielen” and “Solang”. Leishman’s translation includes this period. Crego’s appears to follow the version with a comma. I think a somewhat more accurate translation than the one I gave above would be: “As long as we take care, whether we are also liked, Death plays also, although he is not liked.”

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