Strange Arts & Visual Delights
Rilke wrote his French poetry in the last four years of his life, after the Duino Elegies and the Sonnets to Orpheus. One of his translators, A. S. Klein, has written that these poems “were an expression of gratitude to the landscape of the Valais in Switzerland, which he felt had made [possible] the completion” of his final works in German. (The portrait of Rilke is by Paula Modersohn-Becker, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons).
My attempts to translate to Rilke’s French poetry challenge my skills as a poet and knowledge of French; I regard them as instructive failures.
Below are one of Rilke’s French poems and four translations, including one by me.
by Rainer Maria Rilke
Cela ne te donne-t-il pas le vertige
de tourner autour de toi sur la tige
pour te terminer, rose ronde ?
Mais quand ton propre élan t’inonde,
tu t’ignores dans ton bouton.
C’est un monde qui tourne en rond
pour que son calme centre ose
le rond repos de la ronde rose.
For me, the interest of the poem is the saturation of rhyme, assonance, and alliteration, illustrated nicely by the sonic effects of the final line, which should be visually obvious even for those who don’t read French.
Here are two contemporary translations:
A. Poulin, Jr., from Rilke: The Complete French Poems:
All that spinning on your stem
to end yourself, round rose,
doesn’t that make you dizzy?
But drenched by your own impetus,
in your bud you just ignore
yourself. It’s a world that whirls
around so its calm center dares
the round repose of the round rose.
David Need, from Roses: The Late French Poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke:
Doesn’t it make you dizzy
to turn about on your stem
so as to bring yourself to an end, round Rose?
But even as your own enthusiasm overwhelms you
you do not know yourself within your bud.
It is world which turns about
so that your [sic] calm center dares
the round center of the round rose.
For what it’s worth, here’s the Google rendering of a German translation:
It doesn't bother you
rotate on your stem
until you are full, round rose?
But does your enthusiasm overwhelm you,
then you deny yourself in button.
It is a world that swirls
so that her calm center catches courage
to round rest from round rose.
Here’s is my own version, imperfect and a bit awkward:
Does it not give you the vertigo
to turn around yourself on the stem
to find your bounds, round rose?
But overflowing in your own momentum,
you deny yourself in bud.
It’s a world that turns round and round
that its calm center may undergo
the round repose of the round rose.
l. 3: I struggle with “te terminer” in the third line. David Need has “until you are full,” which I don’t understand at all. Poulin has “to end yourself.” I don’t think the rose is seeking suicide (though perhaps it is seeking to lose itself in the world), but to understand, to set, its “ends” or boundaries (its “termini”)—to delimit itself in way that is not possible for a circular being that has no beginning or end; but the rose does have an origin in the bud, though the rose denies it or is unaware of it. So, in my poem, “te terminer” becomes “to find your bounds,” in part because I like how “bounds” contributes to the sonic qualities of the poem.
l. 5: “Bud” in my version is not right in sound. I could write something like “the self within your bud you do not know,” but the inversion of subject/verb and direct object is out of character for the poem. And in any case, if the other lines are kept as is, I need a word that rhymes or slant-rhymes with “round.”
l.7: “Undergo” is probably not right in meaning, thought it does capture one sense of the French verb “oser.”
Henry-Jacques (1886 - 1973) was many things--writer, sailor, French musicologist. I know him as the author of a book of poems on the First World War, La Symphonie Héroïque. Despite the laudatory comments in the French Wikipedia article (http://www.nosanscries.fr/poemes-henry-jacques-la-symphonie-heroique/), he does not appear to be well known in France or elsewhere. I have translated or adapted a number of his poems, including "Complaint," a poem that reminds me of Thomas Hardy's Satires of Circumstance:
The two of them were combat pals,
together surviving gas and shell.
The first deceived himself with love,
It’s all the boy could ever talk of.
Life had beat the second down
like an old dog, hope dead and gone.
Before they left for the attack,
The first said, If I don’t come back,
Swear to me you’ll tell my lover
My dying thoughts were all of her.
The second man, sure he would die
Instead, promised offhand-like.
But on that day of fear and murder
The bitch death took the loving soldier,
And the other soldier, his heart torn,
Remembering what he had sworn
And full of grief, without leave ran
Pushed by death to find the woman.
She looked him over, laughed, and said,
I’ve taken a new man to my bed.
Sadder and sadder, the poor old boy
Walked to the grave and, speaking low,
So’s not to wake his buddy crying,
Said, You did a good job dying.
The Cicada (Unknown Author, Greek Anthology)
Shepherds, why do you harry me in the chase
and pluck me from the flower's dew-wet sprays?
The nymphs say I'm the roadside nightingale;
at noon I shrilly call from hollow and hill.
But thrush and blackbird, starling and crow
that plunder your fields, ravaging row after row,
singing while they destroy—go after them,
and leave me to compose the mid-day hymn.
Internet Archive Book Images, No restrictions, via Wikimedia Commons
My twelfth and thirteenth poems just appeared in Visions International edited by Brad Strahan. My first poem to appear there, "Wanted, Not Needed," was published in Visions in 2005 and started a long-term relationship with Brad and his little magazine. "Wanted" is perhaps my most successful poem, if success is to be judged by republication in collections and anthologies.
"We Lay" originated in the early 1970's when I saw a person (whether man or woman I do not remember) standing on a street in France, near the entrance to a bar, in a drunken stupor. I probably drafted it in the 80's and perhaps touched it again a time or two since then, until I revised it early this year.