New Poems by Rainer Maria Rilke
Len Krisak's new translation of Rilke's New Poems consists of the translator's preface, George Schoolfield's introduction, and, of course, the poems themselves.
In his preface, Krisak tells readers he came to Rilke's New Poems when he was asked to translate "The Archaic Torso of Apollo" for a class assignment. With no previous knowledge of the German language, he armed himself with a German-English dictionary and the work of earlier translators, including J. B. Leishman and Edward Snow, and, as he was instructed, "figured it out." Over the course of nearly two decades, Krisak taught himself the German language by translating Rilke's Neue Gedichte. Although not an ordinary strategy for learning a major European language, Krisak's technique (eventually) resulted in the current volume. With the aim of "poetry above all" in this [End Page 156] new publication, Krisak brought "Rilke's New Poems over into English" (xi). In choosing the word "over," Krisak suggests a crossing over of some border or divide. Paul Riceour might invoke the words of Friedrich Schleiermacher to describe this process as "bringing the author to the reader." It is now up to the reader to come to the author.
Schoolfield's introduction helps the reader do just that—to come to Rilke. By beginning with a simple count of the translations of Rilke's New Poems—Krisak's is the fifth—Schoolfield reminds readers that these poems are not easy to translate. (By comparison, for example, more than twenty-five separate translations of Rilke's Duineser Elegien exist.) Thus readers know from the outset that Krisak faced and dealt with the technical challenges of bringing Rilke's New Poems poems "over" into English. Schoolfield takes only eighteen lines to identify the importance of Krisak's translation. In a word: vitality. As Schoolfield puts it, "Krisak's translation […] comes closest to replicating Rilke's poems' vitality and their subtleties of diction and form" (xvii).
Schoolfield's talent for providing knowledgeable background is everywhere evident in his introduction to these New Poems. He provides helpful insights into the events and people that informed Rilke before and during his writing of the New Poems. In particular, he calls attention to Rilke's time in Paris, his travels and correspondence with Lou Salomé, his boyhood education, and Rilke's ability to "squirrel" away poems until just the right moment (xxi). Schoolfield's narrative takes into account the two books Rilke always kept in his possession and the influence of Cezanne, especially on the poems in the second half of Part Two. Schoolfield also provides a helpful tour through the volume (xxv–xxx). Schoolfield unearths a letter from Rilke to his publisher outlining plans for a third volume of Neue Gedichte. These scattered fragments appeared in later works of Rilke.
Now to the real gems of the volume, Rilke's poems themselves. A comparison of Krisak's translation of the final two stanzas of Rilke's "Archaic Torso of Apollo," the opening poem of Part 2, which includes the well-known half-line "Du mußt dein Leben ändern," reveals what Schoolfield refers to as Krisak's "advantage in the naturalness of his diction and the vitality of his verse" (xvii).
Sonst stünde dieser Stein entstellt und kurzunter der Schultern durchsichtigem Sturzund flimmerte nicht so wie Raubtierfelle [End Page 157] und bräche nicht aus allen seinen Rändernaus wie ein Stern: denn da ist keine Stelle,die dich nicht sieht. Du mußt dein Leben ändern.
Or else this stone would not stand so intactbeneath the shoulders' through-seen cataractand would not glisten like a wild beast's skin;
and would not keep from all its contours givinglight like a star: for there's no place thereinthat does not see you. You must change your living.
Otherwise this stone would stand deformed and curtunder the shoulders' invisible plungeand not glisten just like wild beasts' fur;
and not burst forth from all its contourslike a star: for there is no placethat does not see you. You must change your life.
This stone would stand like something maimed and loppedoffunder shoulders lucent as they dropped.It would not glimmer like a panther skin,
or from what holds it in, burst like a star.For there's no place from which you can't be seen.Begin now: you must change the life you are.(173)
Krisak argues that his translation stems from Rilke's sonnet form, which requires the last line to rhyme with the line two above it. It is, perhaps, as Krisak suggests, "time for a new beginning" (xii). Whether the reader takes Krisak's translation at face value or in comparison with other translators, the freshness of his translation is apparent. [End Page 158]
Krisak's translation of "Spanish Dancer," for example, highlights Rilke's keen ability to interweave ideas as in a tapestry. After linking the ideas of the flare of a match and a dance in the first seven lines of the poem, Rilke writes:
Mit einem Blick entzündet sie ihr Haarund dreht auf einmal mit gewagter Kunstihr ganzes Kleid in diese Feuersbrunst,aus welcher sich, wie Schlangen die erschrecken,die nackten Arme wach und klappernd strecken.
With just a glance, she touches off her hair.And all at once, with darting art, she turnsher dress entirely to fire. It burns,and from it comes—each one a writhing snake—two naked, stretching arms, clapping awake(129).
The Spanish dancer is not the only one with darting art. Krisak allows Rilke to guide the reader's attention from hair to fire to snake to arms. This stanza illustrates how images evolve naturally in Rilke's New Poems. The "vitality" of Krisak's translation is everywhere present in these five lines, along with more than a hint of a fiery-spirited Rilke.
In the end, then, Krisak's translation of the New Poems offers readers a fresh opportunity to consider not only Rilke's poetry but also Rilke himself. Lou Salomé, for one, was looking for him in these poems. "I am still searching for you in them [New Poems]," Salomé wrote to Rilke on June 17, 1909, "as in a very dense forest that contains many hiding places. And I am enjoying both finding and seeking." Echoing F. J. Sheed's thoughts on Augustine and his Confessions, Rilke gives us his poems and he gives us himself in the process. It is up to readers to find him. Krisak's translation of the New Poems will help. [End Page 159]