8 October 2004

The more beautiful, the less faithful

by Matt Rubinstein at 9:26 am

rilke.jpg I was talking to a couple of well-read German citizens at Liam’s opening last night when the conversation turned, as it so often does, to überpoet Rainer Maria Rilke. Now Rilke is a great writer but of course as a lifelong ignoramus I’ve only read him in translation, which understandably shocked and saddened the Germans. They said there was no comparison, and this has to be true.

For example, when I was called on to read at a wedding a couple of years ago I chose the Rilke poem that goes like this:

Weisst du, ich will mich schleichen
leise aus lautem Kreis,
wenn ich erst die bleichen
Sterne uber den Eichen
bluhen weiss.

Wege will ich erkiesen,
die selten wer betritt
in blassen Abendenwiesen—
und keinen Traum, als diesen:
Du gehst mit.

There are a couple of translations of this awesome mash note floating around, and they’re quite different. One is:

Understand, I’ll slip quietly
away from the noisy crowd
when I see the pale
stars rising, blooming, over the oaks.

I’ll pursue solitary pathways
through the pale twilit meadows,
with only this one dream:
You come too.

And another is:

Do you know, I would quietly
slip from the loud circle,
when first I know the pale
stars above the oaks
are blooming.

Ways will I elect
that seldom any tread
in pale evening meadows—
and no dream but this:
You come too.

In the end I kind of pushed together a few of the translations, because “loud circle” is better than “noisy crowd”, but “no dream but this:” is an absolute cracker. Which no doubt offended the moral rights of various translators and may well have had poor Rainer spinning, but the alternative was learning German and there wasn’t time before the wedding.

Interestingly, Google translates the poem like this:

You, I know want to creep
quietly from loud circle,
if I only those bleach
Stars over the oaks
flower white.

Ways wants to erkiesen I,
those rarely who enters
in pale evening meadows—
and no dream, as this:
You go along.

…which isn’t that bad, all things considered.

Conversation then drifted to Vladimir Nabokov, who must be the best non-native writer of English. My theory is that Nabokov is so good because he has a staggering and fearless ability with language, but never learned the cliche-laden and worn-down English the rest of us did—he had to make everything up. I’d be surprised to find a single unoriginal phrase in any of his writing, and it really helps.

Relevantly, Nabokov was among other things one of the many translators of Pushkin’s verse novel Eugene Onegin, which of course inspired Vikram Seth’s The Golden Gate which in turn was a big factor in my Equinox. The interesting thing is that, unlike many fine translations of Onegin, Nabokov’s didn’t stick to the verse form of the original—it didn’t rhyme, even though Nabokov was probably the person most qualified to turn in an authentic rhyming version.

Perhaps to explain why not, and perhaps also to prove that he could have if he’d wanted, he wrote this:

On Translating Eugene Onegin

What is translation? On a platter
A poet’s pale and glaring head,
A parrot’s screech, a monkey’s chatter,
And profanation of the dead.
The parasites you were so hard on
Are pardoned if I have your pardon,
O, Pushkin, for my stratagem:
I traveled down your secret stem,
And reached the root, and fed upon it;
Then, in a language newly learned,
I grew another stalk and turned
Your stanza patterned on a sonnet,
Into my honest roadside prose—
All thorn, but cousin to your rose.

Reflected words can only shiver
Like elognated lights that twist
In the black mirror of a river
Between the city and the mist.
Elusive Pushkin! Persevering,
I still pick up Tatiana’s earring,
Still travel with your sullen rake.
I find another man’s mistake,
I analyze alliterations
That grace your feasts and haunt the great
Fourth stanza of your Canto Eight.
This is my task—a poet’s patience
And scholastic passion blent:
Dove-droppings on your monument.

Fair enough I suppose, but I still would have liked to read his rhyming Onegin. That would have rocked.

4 Responses to “The more beautiful, the less faithful”

  1. Julie Says:

    So, what was the Rilke translation that you cobbled together? It is very beautiful …

  2. mattrubinstein.com.au » Ein leichter Regen am Donnerstag Says:

    […] themes and subject of the book than I do, and I have no doubt that her translation will refute the old proverb by being both beautiful and […]

  3. ma.ttrubinste.in » Equinox is coming to Twitter Says:

    […] can read more about the astronomical equinox here and some stuff about Pushkin and sonnets here. When it comes to iambic tetrameter, I can’t do any better than Vikram Seth’s defence […]

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