On Translating Rilke’s Duineser Elegien

TOP: Rainer Maria Rilke, c. 1900
BOTTOM: Porträt des
Rainer Maria Rilke
, 1906
(Öltempera auf Pappe, 32,3 × 25,4 cm)
BY Paula Modersohn-Becker
Paula Modersohn-Becker Museum

Translator’s Note

T.S. Eliot proposed that “poetry can communicate before it is understood,” and readers of Rilke’s Duineser Elegien may find this both true and helpful. Since their publication, these ten poems have stirred controversy and bewilderment. Attempts to pinpoint and paraphrase the work’s thought processes have often been reductionist. But how is one to work with Rilke’s insight that “the work of sight” had been “realized” in his earlier writing, and “now” was the time for “some heart-work / on all those pictures, those prisoned creatures within you”? How can it possibly be pinpointed? Perhaps, if not paraphrased, it can be translated. That might mean beginning with Rilke’s “heart-work” in German and working it toward English.

The Elegies may preclude exact significance. An insistence on understanding the exact significance of Rilke’s acrobats, for example, could hamper the reader’s opening toward the poems; and the reaching for “openness,” das Offene, lies at the heart of Rilke’s thought. By translating the Duino Elegies, we have found that the words, like doors, are less statements about something than invitations into an expanding architecture. As we have lingered with the words, translating has offered a wonderful entrance into the Elegies’ shifting world, in which, Rilke said, “the eternal thing … possess[es] the unheard of, unsurpassable intensity of… inner equivalents.” How to begin to translate this world?

Alles/ ist nicht es selbst” (All / is not itself). This laconic claim appears in the “Fourth Elegy,” a poem invoking the play of puppets at the theater — and indeed, all is not itself when one attempts to translate Rilke’s language. His syntax is at once elastic and controlled. In German, sentences can be tightly dovetailed, held together by the force of noun declensions and verb conjugations. Verbs are often placed at the end of sentences, and in the Elegies, typically after long strings of modifiers and appositives. The reader has to reach for the verb. This structure contributes to the Elegies’ noted “onwardness.” As we have translated, as we have worked to move the verb forward in the English sentence, there has always been the danger of wrecking Rilke’s high-strung syntactical arches, and thus curtailing his imaginative breath — unless the English is able to find its own “onwardness.” A translator of Rilke must be wary of straightening out, of cleaning up his syntax, and of precluding an “onwardness” in English in which one is always about to discover what the writing could mean.

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