Revisiting Rilke's Translations

Pay To Palay

“Hence the vanity of translation;” Percy Shelley wrote, “it were as wise to cast a violet into a crucible that you might discover the formal principles of its color and odor, as to transfuse from one language into another creations of a poet.” What the poet is communicating here is poetry’s fascination with presentation, its syntax, sound, rhythm—aspects that depend on its language of origin—so that there is an almost absurdly destructive quality to any translation. Though its semantic meaning can hold, translation risks the utter loss of all emotional register. This theoretical problem manifests itself pertinently in the anxiety that a translation is not identical to the original, and therefore inauthentic. It’s a troubling feeling to go to the library or bookstore to pick up a foreign poet, only to find three or four different translations available. Which is the right one?

It was with all of these anxieties and prejudices that I approached Edward Snow’s new translation of Rainer Maria Rilke, the early 20th century poet who wrote in German (though he was born in Prague, at the time under Austro-Hungarian control). Before I evaluate the translation, I must admit that I do not speak a single word of German. Accordingly, I will address the book as a reader for whom it was intended: one who does not know the language and therefore needs another to present Rilke’s poetical universe.

Like many, my introduction to the poet was through Stephen Mitchell’s celebrated 1989 translation of Rilke’s selected works. I know this collection intimately, and I’ve even committed a few of Mitchell’s translations to memory. I’ve also read Robert Bly’s 1981 translation, and David Young’s attempt at Rilke’s “Duino Elegies.”

The first thing to notice about Snow’s volume is how thick it is. Though this is technically another “selected” Rilke, it is far more thorough than Mitchell’s or Bly’s. The sheer amount of translation here is both admirable and convenient; it is the most complete recent collection of Rilke’s works in English. This is the culmination of Snow’s several previously-published translations of Rilke’s individual volumes, revised and collected in this larger book.

While Mitchell’s translations are looser and more creatively liberal, Snow’s have an interest in direct syntactical facsimile; with a more direct approach to the formulation of Rilke’s images. In “Going Blind,” a poem from “New Poems,” Rilke describes observing a woman who is ostensibly doing just that. The poem ends with a paradigmatic Rilke image—in observing her impediments, he suddenly perceives a flash of transcendent elegance. Mitchell writes, “and yet: as though, once it was overcome, / she would be beyond all walking, and would fly.” Snow lowers the poetic register, writing, “and yet: as if, after a crossing over, / she would be done with walking, and would fly.” Mitchell’s hypothetical “as though,” draws the “o” sound through “once,” “overcome,” “would,” “beyond,” and “would,” all words connoting transcendence through the hypothetical. Snow’s most notable change is cooling Mitchell’s wider statement, “she would be beyond all walking,” into “she would be done with walking.” Snow also uses “as if,” instead of “as though,” whose “f” reappears in “fly,” which emphasizes the action within the hypothetical, as opposed to the hypothetical itself. In many ways the difference between the translations of these two lines embody the fundamental difference between Snow and Mitchell’s translations—Mitchell is concerned with the force of the imagination, of the dreamy feeling in Rilke, whereas Snow is concerned with the machinery, the functionality, of the content of his conditionals.


This attitude perhaps provides us with a clearer image of what Rilke is doing intellectually; however this often obscures the emotional force of Rilke’s poems. In the third poem of Rilke’s sonnet sequence, “Sonnets to Orpheus,” he addresses a youth, a “Jüngling,” who presumably has been writing bad love poems. Here is Snow’s translation: “It’s [i]not[/i], youth, when you’re in love, even / if then your voice forces open your mouth; — // learn to forget those songs. They elapse.” Though Snow preserves much of the syntax in Rilke’s original, there seems something diluted about the lines. Somehow the causal relation between the “voice” and the “mouth” is only weakly strung together by the pale “forces.” Compare these lines with the Mitchell: “…Young man, / it is not your loving, even if your mouth / was forced wide open by your own voice—learn // to forget that passionate music. It will end.” Though Mitchell changes the syntax considerably, the line breaks and enjambments are absolutely breathtaking. Where Snow maintains that the voice opens the mouth Mitchell has the mouth open first, then the line break, thereafter the cause is discerned. The Mitchell is exhilarating; we empathize for a moment with the Jüngling, we understand this overwhelming of sentiment, which makes the contraction of “it will end” (a much broader statement then “they end”) that much more moving in potency. It serves to note, additionally, that Mitchell maintains some semblance of rhyme in his translations, as strong as “how” and “Apollo” or as faint as “achieved” and “god.” Nevertheless, these pique our imaginations to the fact that these poems have a deep sonic lyrical quality embedded into them. Snow eschews rhyme, focusing on clarity and accuracy.

Ultimately, the Snow translation is no Mitchell. Mitchell provided us with a Rilke that far surpassed anything that came before it. Snow, although inferior to Mitchell, has nevertheless crafted a body of translations that, had Mitchell not already done so, would have easily become “the” way to read Rilke in English.

In judging various translations, we as readers are put in unique positions of judging, and experiencing, different versions of the same poem. All poets offer truths that are pressing and immediate, and yet often our immediate understanding of poetry happens only when the poem’s aesthetic affects us in a certain way. So, assuming translations maintain a reasonable accuracy, it really is a matter of personal preference which translation you choose. For me, Mitchell did the job. However, I believe Snow has put together a translation that will present the ideas and emotions embedded in Rilke’s poems equally enjoyable to others.