Wanting to be Magic

A starry robe, a pointy hat, and thou, Rilke (Translating Poetry, Part 3)

Poring as I have over Borgesessays on translation, particularly of poetry, I still nearly missed a line that finally reveals his thoughts on the topic:

Words become incantations and poetry wants to be magic.

Even his essays are far from straightforward and must be carefully read. This sentence is drawn from “Two Ways to Translate” (“Las dos maneras de traducir”), and it is not at all elaborated on.

Nonetheless, I find myself in accord: the process of reading poetry is different from reading other types of works. Or at least it should be although there are some works of prose for which the process is like reading poetry—Finnegan’s Wake comes to mind. The poet’s choices must be carefully made, but even more is demanded of the reader, who must study and perform the magic. You can’t simply glean the meaning and move on; each line, and maybe each word, must be lingered over, read aloud, and allowed to reverberate, whereas in “normal” reading even moving your lips is worthy of derision.

There is perhaps no better example of this than Rainer Maria Rilke, whose work is often described as mystical and lyrically intense. His words are invocations, using haunting images to express highly existential themes, such as the difficulties of communion with the ineffable in the disbelief, solitude, and profound anxiety of the fin de siècle.

So when a friend posted a version of a Rilke poem on Facebook, it caught my eye. I haven’t been able to identify the translator of this version. Sometimes called “Passages”, it is actually untitled:

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.

Some great stuff here, but again, I wanted to see it as Rilke wrote it, which was:

Weisst du, ich will mich schleichen
leise aus lautem Kreis,
wenn ich erst die bleichen
Sterne über den Eichen
blühen weiß.
Wege will ich erkiesen,
die selten wer betritt
in blassen Abendwiesen—
und keinen Traum, als diesen:
Du gehst mit.

I found the original more haunting and beautiful and containing themes I related to. It’s just two sentences, but invites the imagined lover/ reader, to flee the urban masses into a luminous countryside.

There’s also an ABAAB rhyming scheme present, but I remain committed to free verse as being the best choice for the translation of poetry. The rhymes rely mainly on the -en endings of both plurals and infinitives in German (used for all the As). While it might seem a strange aesthetic to apply, Einstürzende Neubauten front man Blixa Bargeld’s lyrical style of using single-syllable words rich with multiple meanings is one that I’ve long since adopted in my own writing, and seemed especially appropriate here. At one point he simply made a list of these evocative words and used them as a lyric, described as “sound scenery”. “Compressors in the Dark”, whose refrain, “ich gehe jetzt” (“I’m leaving now”) is nearly a reply to Rilke.

These are a few of the sensibilities that went into my version:

Know that I will slink
quietly from the noisy crowd,
when first I sense that ghostly
stars crest the oaks
blooming white.
I’ll choose to make tracks
where a rare few walk
in pale twilight meadows—
with no dream but this:
You go with me.

The final line I deemed then, and still do, a bit overly literal, and perhaps demonstrative of the limitations of the English language, but perhaps this is a result only of my own “exhaustion” as a translator as Borges would say. I did remark at the time, and still fancy that the Japanese phrase issho ni (一緒に) might express the idea better than English, or even the original German could. It is often translated simply as “together”, but as with a lot of the diction we’re dealing with, the nuances run deep.

Read Previous Articles in This Series

Part 1: Faithful Treason

Part 2: The Middle Way

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