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.”