Translator’s Note

James Owens

In April of 1924, Rainer Maria Rilke described to one of his many correspondents how the French language had, seemingly beyond the poet's will or power to resist, “begun to encroach on the territory” of his art. With a certain ironic modesty, he wrote (in French) that, “A bit despite myself, I ended up filling an entire notebook with French ‘verses’ that (you will guess) are not very respectable. Alas, to say everything, one would have to know every language” (letter to A. de Bonstetten).

That last sentence should give us pause. While it might be a clue to the poet's urge to strike out into the new possibilities of a new language, we might also read in it an implied warning to a translator: some things, a certain portion of “meaning,” a nuance, a music, are so uniquely at home in one language that they simply cannot be carried over into another. This does not mean that Rilke dismissed translation as a possibility — he was, in fact, a very active translator into German from several languages (an important aspect of his work that non-German readers tend to overlook) — but it does provide an extra tension for anyone who approaches him with translation in mind, especially his French poems, where questions of linguistic difference and translatability are already explicitly placed into relief. Rilke wrote elsewhere, and more than once, that one of the strongest attractions in venturing into French as a medium for poetry was the potential for linguistic precisions that were unavailable to him elsewhere — that “verger,” the French “orchard,” or “offrande,” “offering,” had no exact equivalent in German, which also lacked “the word 'absence,' in the great, positive sense, in which Paul Valéry has used it” (18 Feb. 22, to Nanny Wunderly-Volkart). This kind of interplay between languages is one fascination of reading and attempting to translate these poems.

After the great storm of creative energy that saw the completion of both Duino Elegies and Sonnets to Orpheus early in 1922, Rilke's fevered production continued, though it shifted into the new language. Nearly all of the almost 400 French poems were written after 1922. That is nearly a hundred poems a year, up until Rilke's death in December, 1926. If the Elegies and the Sonnets are a fulfillment and resolution of some long rhythm in Rilke's œuvre, then his French poems are reflection, serious play, and a seeking for what comes next — hardly a falling off, as they have sometimes been treated. We will never know what might have come next, but we can, at least, follow the mind of a great poet in thinking through the question.

It is no doubt too much of a fancy — though we must sometimes allow ourselves the license to go too far — if we read the small lyric poem translated here as an allegory for translators (among other things). Doesn't a strange poem approach its translator like a bit of orphaned wind, that is, breath, seeking its guide into a new space? And even if a fall or failure is inevitable — since we don't know every language, as Rilke recommends that we should — we can always sing while falling.

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