Translating Rilke: The (First) Duino Elegy

by nike, October 11, 2010

Lots of people speak about the difficulty of translating the first line of Rilke’s Duino Elegies, perhaps because it’s so well known (Wer, wenn ich schriee, hörte mich denn aus der Engel/Ordnungen?). It’s a little like the opening line of Don Quixote, which can be used as a litmus test for any new translation of the work as a whole.

For me, however, one of Rilke’s most intriguing lines in the first elegy is the deceptively simple: Und das Totsein ist mühsam, which literally means ‘and [the] death is hard/hard work/laborious’ or perhaps, if you’re willing to transform the noun Totsein into an adverb: ‘and [being] dead is hard/hard work/laborious’.

I had a bit of a wrangle with the word Totsein, and chatted with Inga about it. Totsein is one of those German words that’s comprised of two other words joined together. The first part is the noun (der) Tot – death – and the second the verb sein – the future tense of the verb ‘to be’. One of the examples for the verb sein in Inga’s dictionary is a translation of Hamlet’s famous line ‘To be or not to be’, translated into German as: sein oder Nichtsein. Nichtsein has a simlilar compound structure to Totsein: a noun formed of the verb sein, and another word (the adverb nicht: no or not). So, Totsein is a compound or hybrid noun, indicating the state of being dead. Or, perhaps, Being-dead.

I’ve been thinking about the gender of the noun ‘death’ in German (its masculine in German, but feminine in the Romance languages, like French and Spanish) – because I’ve been thinking, and writing, about the grammar of death in my work in progress. I’ve been thinking about whether you should translate Totsein in this line from Rilke as verb or noun, and whether doing so changes the reader’s understanding of the phrase. The capitalisation indicates the noun form, but plenty of translators have opted for the verbal phrase ‘being dead’. It seems to me that you have to make a choice, but choosing results in such different phrases, with enormously different resonances! Here’s how some have translated this line: Lieshman and Spender go for a very rhythmic interpretation, and opt for the verb that suggests death is a state of being:

And it’s hard, being dead,

(J B Leishman and the poet Stephen Spender collaborated on a translation, published in 1939, which was for a long time the benchmark translation of this particular work. Leishman polished up both the First Elegy and the Ninth when he republished the Elegies as part of his Rilke: Selected Poems in 1960.) While Snow is more literal-minded and prosaic, even Protestant, in his interpretation of mühsam, and opts for the noun form that suggest death is an entity whom the dead are, perhaps, answerable to:

And death demands labor,

Elsewhere, such as in the next phrase of the poem, Snow is oddly colloquial: using the phrase ‘tying up loose ends’ to translate Rilke’s und voller Nachholn. Norris and Keele opt for the more verbal orientation:

And being dead is so arduous,

which somehow, to my ear, sounds like a complaint rather than the cool statement of fact I get from Rilke’s line. Stephen Cohn plumps for:

And death is demanding,

Echoing the prosaic Snow, but choosing the noun form. The team of Galway Kinnell and Hannah Liebman translate the line as:

And being dead is toilsome,

Is Rilke evoking death as an almost anthropomorphised being – a demanding creature as Cohn or Snow perhaps imply – or as a state into which we enter, like being lost or being happy, or being in pain? My sense is that its the second – the notion of being dead – that is closer to the original poem, but there is so much to contemplate here, not just in the shift from the noun to the verb – from death as an entity to death as a process or state of being – but also in the interpretation of mühsam.

The German-English dictionaries I consulted give the meaning of mühsam as: arduous, laborious, painstaking, or difficult, and suggest it can be either an adverb or adjective. Creative use of the thesaurus might lead you to toilsome, but it seems a forced translation to me. I respect Snow’s workmanlike, almost denuded translation – perhaps the most literal – but I prefer the Lieshman and Spender, myself, perhaps because I’m partial to its more poetic diction. And to the creative, more courageous inversion of Rilke’s syntax, which seems simple but hums in the ear. The rest of this passage is:

Und das Totsein ist mühsam
und voller Nachholn, daß man allmählich ein wenig
Ewigkeit spürt. – Aber Lebendige machen
alle den Fehler, daß sie zu stark unterscheiden.
Engel (sagt man) wüßten oft nicht, ob sie unter
Lebenden gehn oder Toten. Die ewige Strömung
reißt durch beide Bereiche alle Alter
immer mit sich und übertönt sie in beiden.

Which Leishman and Spender translate as:

And it’s hard, being dead,
and full of retrieving before one begins to perceive
a little eternity. – All of the living, though,
make the mistake of drawing too sharp distinctions.
Angels (it’s said) would be often unable to tell
whether they moved among living or dead. The eternal
torrent whirls all the ages through either realm
for ever, and sounds above their voices in both.

An Angel in LASuch a gorgeous, and strange passage from – yes, I know – one of Rilke’s less-loved works. And yet, I can’t help but adore Rilke’s image of the angels who are uncertain whether they are moving among the dead or the living. And I like Leishman’s translation of Nachholn as ‘retrieving’, though there’s also something fitting about Cohn’s translation of it as ‘to atone for’ (he translates the phrase as: we have much to atone for). [The dictionaries I have access to suggest that the transitive verb nachholen can mean ‘to catch up on’ or ‘to make up for’, comprised of nach: ‘to/after’, and holen: ‘to fetch or get’ in the transitive, or ‘catch’ in the reflexive.]

Perhaps, as Rilke himself states near the beginning of this same work:

Engel nicht, Menschen nicht,
und die findigen Tiere merken es schon,
daß wir nicht sehr verläßlich zu Haus sind
in der gedeuteten Welt.

(Not angels, not men;
and even the noticing beasts are aware
that we don’t feel very securely at home
in this interpreted world.)

[J B Leishman translation]

Which do you prefer?

Today, I was writing about a different section from the same poet:

Yesterday, my mother asked me to read to her from an old, bilingual copy of Rilke’s Duino Elegies. The German facing off against Snow’s English translation. My mother was not a reader of German – it was French she had loved, and Latin – but she enjoyed bilingual editions and collected them when she could:

…But listen to the wind’s breathing,
That uninterrupted news that forms of silence.
It’s rustling toward you now from all the youthful dead.
…aber das Wehende höre,
Die ununterbrochene Nachricht, die aus Stille sich bildet.
Es raucht jetzt von jenen jungen Toten zu dir.

Sitting in the quiet room, with the windows closed and the air conditioning humming, and my mother lying on the lounge, her eyes closed, I had noticed again how powerful  the gendered grammar was in his work, and how much of the poetry was lost when they were brought over into English. The old conundrums come into play: how to communicate in an ungendered tongue the subtle ways in which gender shapes your sense of a noun’s meaning, whether it is worth trying. Rilke’s neuter wind, feminine silence, masculine death become in English just wind and silence and death. But you cannot write that she is rustling toward you: to do so would suggest an emphasis, a metaphoric gendering, that is more insistent than that of the original. How strange, too, to bring Rilke over into one of the Romance languages. In my mother’s beloved French, the genders of the words would shift: the wind would become masculine, the silence masculine, the death feminine.

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