restricted access 4. “But isn’t the same at least the same?” Wittgenstein on Translation
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We usually think of the “poetic” as that which cannot fully translate, that which is uniquely embedded in its particular language. The poetry of Rainer Marie Rilke is a case in point. The opening line of the Duino Elegies—Wer, wenn ich schriee, hörte mich denn aus den Engel Ordnungen?—has been translated into English literally dozens of times, but as William Gass points out in his recent Reading Rilke: Re®ections on the Problems of Translation, none of the translations seem satisfactory. Here are a few examples: J. B. Leishman (1930) Who, if I cried, would hear me among the angelic orders? A. J. Poulin (1977) And if I cried, who’d listen to me in those angelic orders? Stephen Cohn (1989) Who, if I cried out, would hear me—among the ranked angels? In the spring of 2001 I was invited to the Centre international de poésie in Marseille for a conference on Wittgenstein vis-à-vis contemporary poets. In pondering the relationship, the question of poetry and translatability loomed large. The paper was well received by the attending French poets, but when I gave it again at a Wittgenstein conference at the University of London a few weeks later, this time to a group of philosophers, there was much controversy . It has since been recast a few more times for its publication in the Routledge collection Literature after Wittgenstein. 4 “But isn’t the same at least the same?” Wittgenstein on Translation Poetry is a sort of inspired mathematics. Ezra Pound, The Spirit of Romance Gass is very critical of these translations, but to my ear his own is no better: “Who if I cried, would hear me among the Dominions of Angels?”1 The dif¤culty, as I have suggested elsewhere,2 is that English syntax does not allow for the dramatic suspension of Wer, wenn ich schriee . . . and that the noun phrase Engel Ordnungen, which in German puts the stress, both phonically and semantically, on the angels themselves rather than on their orders or hierarchies or dominions, de¤es effective translation. Moreover, Rilke’s line contains the crucial and heavily stressed word denn (literally “then”), which here has the force of “Well, then,” or in contemporary idiom “So,” as in “So, who would hear me if I cried out . . . ?” But “So” sounds too casual in the context of Rilke’s urgent meditation, and translators have accordingly tended to elide the word denn completely, thus losing the immediacy of the question. Further, denn rhymes with wenn as well as with the ¤rst two syllables of den En-gel, the rhyme offsetting the intentionally contorted sound of the verb sequence schriee, hörte so as to create a dense sonic network that is inevitably lost in translation. The same holds true when the German-into-English process is reversed. Consider the famous ¤fth stanza of Robert Lowell’s Skunk Hour: One dark night, my Tudor Ford climbed the hill’s skull; I watched for love-cars. Lights turned down, they lay together, hull to hull, where the graveyard shelves on the town . . . My mind’s not right. Manuel P¤ster translates this as follows: In einer dunklen Nacht erklomm mein Tudor-Ford des Hügels Schädel; ich hielt Ausschau nach Liebesautos. Scheinwerfer ausgeschaltet, lagen sie beieinander, Rumpf bei Rumpf, wo der Friedhof such zur Stadt neigt . . . Mein Geist ist wirr.3 This strikes me as a perfectly intelligent translation, without any of the obvious glitches we ¤nd in, say, William Gass’s rendering of Rilke’s Ich verginge von seinem stärkeren Dasein as “I would fade in the grip of that completer existence,” or Stephen Cohn’s, “I would die of the force of his being” (ReadWittgenstein on Translation 61 ing Rilke 62–63). But what eludes P¤ster is Lowell’s particular tone.“One dark night,” for starters, has a fairy-tale quality (as in “Once upon a time”) that gives an ironic edge to the reference to Saint John of the Cross’s “Dark Night of the Soul”—a quality lost in the German In einer dunklen Nacht. In line 2, the pun on “Tudor (‘two-door’) Ford”disappears even though P¤ster retains the absurdly pretentious brand name. And his rendition of the third line is at once too speci¤c and too long-winded: Lowell’s casual “I watched” becomes the emphatic Ich hielt Ausschau, and Scheinwerfer ausgeschaltet (“headlights turned off”) does not allow for the resonance of “lights” or...


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