Recently while browsing through my brimming bookshelf, I picked up a copy of The Selected Poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke and began reading. This poem, with its initial lyrical images of autumn, captured me and then jolted me with the final haunting stanza.
by Rainer Maria Rilke (translated by Stephen Mitchell)
Lord: it is time. The huge summer has gone by.
Now overlap the sundials with your shadows,
and on the meadows let the wind go free.
Command the fruits to swell on tree and vine;
grant them a few more warm transparent days,
urge them on to fulfillment then, and press
the final sweetness into the heavy wine.
Whoever has no house now, will never have one.
Whoever is alone will stay alone,
will sit, read, write long letters through the evening,
and wander on the boulevards, up and down,
restlessly, while the dry leaves are blowing.
Rilke wrote “Autumn Day” in German and it has been translated many, many times. (Click here if you’d like to see the original German poem and/or if you’re interested in reading multiple translations.) As I read, I was amazed by the differences in the translations. I began to wonder–Is it the translator’s job solely to translate, word by word, or to ensure that the translation includes the rhythm and meaning, the heart of the poem? Or something in between? I found it fascinating to think about the role of translation and the additional demands of translating poetry.
A lifetime ago I was a German major and so I could compare (rustily!) the original and various translation. Below is the translation I thought most closely adhered to Rilke’s original.
Autumn Day (translated by J. Mullen)
Lord: it is time. The summer was great.
Lay your shadows onto the sundials
and let loose the winds upon the fields.
Command the last fruits to be full,
give them yet two more southern days,
urge them to perfection, and chase
the last sweetness into the heavy wine.
Who now has no house, builds no more.
Who is now alone, will long remain so,
will stay awake, read, write long letters
and will wander restlessly here and there
in the avenues, when the leaves drift.
Do you prefer one version over the other? I prefer the Merrill version, but I’ve begun to think of it as more of a collaboration than a translation. What do you think?
The amazing Amy Ludwig VanDerwater is hosting this week’s Poetry Friday Roundup at her blog, The Poem Farm. Click on the link to enjoy some more poetry.