Tuesday, 29 September 2015

“Liebeslied” (1907) by Rainer Maria Rilke (1875-1926): Translation & Commentary

1   Wie soll ich meine Seele halten, daß
2   sie nicht an deine rührt? Wie soll ich sie
3   hinheben über dich zu andern Dingen?
4   Ach gerne möcht ich sie bei irgendwas
5   Verlorenem im Dunkel unterbringen
6   an einer fremden stillen Stelle, die
7   nicht weiterschwingt, wenn deine Tiefen schwingen.
8   Doch alles, was uns anrührt, dich und mich,
9   nimmt uns zusammen wie ein Bogenstrich,
10 der aus zwei Saiten eine Stimme zieht.
11 Auf welches Instrument sind wir gespannt?
12 Und welcher Geiger hat uns in der Hand?
13 O süßes Lied.

How shall I hold my soul fast,
Such that it leaves yours untouched? How shall I
Lift it up above you to other matters?
How I would love to shelter it
In darkness, by the undefined, the forsaken,
In an unfamiliar silent place
Which will not quiver when your depths quiver.
Yet everything which touches us, me and you,
Contracts us tight together in the stroke of a bow
Drawing forth from two strings a single score.
Upon what instrument have we been strung?
And what violinist has us in his hand?
O sweet melody.

First, a Flaubert quotation: Les traductions sont comme les femmes. Quand ils sont belles, ils ne sont pas fidèles, mais quand ils sont fidèles, ils ne sont pas belles (translations are like women. When they're beautiful, they're not faithful, but when they're faithful, they're not beautiful). Quoting this won’t win me any friends, as the sentiment is in one sense horrifically chauvinistic, but unfortunately it is rather apt at conveying the translator’s dilemma. Does one cleave as closely as possible to the original form, eschewing any attempt at beauty in the translation, or does one aim squarely for as beautiful a rendering in English as possible, whilst sacrificing the original nuance and meaning?
This poem (possibly my favourite in German) has a free verse rhythm which means it is not as difficult as some to render in English. The only regular thing about the poem is its general adherence to 10 syllables per line, although 11 is also used: I decided not to consciously replicate this throughout as it too often stunted the meaning.
Although ‘festhalten’ would have been the verb Rilke would have selected if he’d really meant ‘hold fast’, I feel its use in the English is justified because of the sense of anchoring, of grounding, which it lends to the desperate narrator trying to restrain his soul. The sturdy dependability of ‘hold fast’ also contrasts nicely with the later use of ‘schwingen’, which I have here rendered as ‘quiver’. I chose quiver because it sounds far more human than ‘vibrate’ and though it may again prove something of a departure from Rilke’s German it sounds more effective in English, more humane, more compassionate. As verbs go, quiver is also one of the better repetitious sounds in a sentence, partly because of the unfamiliarity of the ‘qu-’ beginning.
A distinct problem arose, for me, with ‘Ach gerne möcht ich…’ It’s not so much the individual words that prove difficult as their proximity to one another. ‘Ach’ is always slightly hard to render it English, but at least if it’s used as an apostrophe the fairly straightforward and balladic ‘Oh’ is a safe bet. But here there’s almost a sense of it leading into the word ‘gerne’ as though expressing just how much he’d like to store away his soul. The collocation of ‘gerne’ and ‘möcht’ is also problematic, because they are relatively similar in meaning. ‘I would gladly wish to’ sounds ludicrous, and most other attempts to address this came out similarly Dickensian in tone. My solution feels incomplete, but goes some to finding the balance, I hope. ‘How I would love to’, in my eyes, conveys the extent to which the ‘möcht’ is true, that is to say, there is bound up in the ‘how’ an ill-defined expression of quantity and of vitality. It’s not just that the speaker would love to do X. But that he feels compelled to express that with the passionate, vital, yearning ‘how…’
Looking now at the very end of the poem, which I think is three of the finest lines of poetry in the German language – arcane, enigmatic, grasping for meaning and understanding, and yet recognisably emotive all at once – the problem here was choosing the right word for ‘gespannt’. Rilke’s German is both curiously precise and curiously undefined in line 11. The ‘instrument’ across which the lovers are strung or stretched is an obvious musical metaphor, as evidenced by lines 12 and 13, but also the ‘Bogenstrich’ earlier in the poem; and yet given Rilke’s love of mythology it’s also a call-back to Procrustes of the Greek myths, who would stretch out unwitting travellers on a rack. Thus the enigma of love – this thing we don’t quite understand – is both incredibly painful and incredibly intimate, draws the two lovers of this poem in together as tightly as possible and leaves them so taut they’re almost in pain. Eventually I chose ‘strung’ over ‘strained’ or ‘stretched’ because it sounds marginally more natural a fit with the musical sense of the word, but it’s a close call either way.
The last line cannot help sound bathetic in English, partly because ‘O sweet melody’ must have been written by B-grade poets a thousand times over the centuries. It is simply too hackneyed an image. Yet I remain unconvinced that that wasn’t what Rilke intends with ‘O süßes Lied’. Fully aware of the love-song tradition, he is almost resigning himself to the fact that they as lovers can have nothing new to say on the subject, so they should refer to it as sweet music like everyone else has before them.

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