A Passage Opens: Translating Rainer Maria Rilke

Translator’s Note

Rainer Maria Rilke, c. 1900
BY Leonid Pasternak
PHOTO: Wikimedia Commons

Between visits to a sanatorium to treat a mysterious illness, Rainer Maria Rilke wrote about four hundred poems in French. During these last four years of his life, he resided mostly in a stone tower called Muzot in a wine-growing region of the French-speaking Switzerland, the Valais. It was in fact at the desk facing a window in that isolated tower where Rilke completed what is still his most well-known and often-translated work, the Duino Elegies and the Sonnets to Orpheus. It was a doubly important moment: Rilke himself recognized those poems as his greatest achievement, and it followed an excruciating decade of silence during which he felt unable to produce what he wanted to write.

Why did Rilke start writing in French? Did he feel he had reached the pinnacle of his powers in German? Were these merely language exercises? He left us a few clues, some of which contradict one another. After the turmoil surrounding World War I, he seemed for a while to renounce all things German, and embrace the French language with his usual theatrical flair, comparing it to fine wine, extolling it as a “beautiful vine ripened over the centuries.” Later he insisted that he was still and always a German poet. Yet, his passion for the French language burned brightly, especially at the end of his life. He had become lovers with Baladine Klossowska (“Merline”), a painter born in Berlin who had spent most of her life in Paris. The two of them had their German-to-French background in common, and spoke French with each other. It was quite possibly the first love relationship for Rilke in which there was parity and a real meeting of artistic minds. But Rilke, in service to his solitude, or out of fear of intimacy, or both, did not allow “Merline” to move into the tower with him. They remained friends, and corresponded in French when they were not together.

Windows is a series of fifteen poems begun in 1922, inspired by evenings spent with “Merline” in quiet talk looking out of windows. The window symbolizes a place where the inner and the outer meet and touch, offering both “an overflowing heart that loss completes” and a “road that leads on.” The themes Rilke grapples with in his greatest German poems are echoed quite clearly in the French poems. As in the eighth Elegy, windows are a passage into what Rilke called “the Open,” a vastness we know exists but one which we are afraid to look at, much less enter, because doing so would mean dying. Yet the invitation to cross that threshold is romantic and terrifying, almost irresistible. In another series of French poems, “Suites brèves,” Rilke’s sense of shapeless doom is more explicit: “May your hand hide from me / this tomorrow of which I know nothing… if you pull me toward its house, / take care that I don’t see the door.”

But in Windows, the “Open” stays wide open. Fear seems to be tempered by love, and so I strive constantly, almost a century later, to walk that edge between love and fear, to infuse more vastness, more openness into my translations instead of allowing my personal lens to limit the view into “the other half of the world.”

“Merline” collected and illustrated Windows. They were published in 1927 after Rilke’s death from leukemia.

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