Translation and Poetic Form

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There is an Italian saying known to all translators, “Tradittore tradutore”:  “The translator is a traitor.”  He is a traitor because he is trying to do the impossible—to be faithful to the patterns of the language in which the work was written, to be faithful to the patterns of the target-language, and to be faithful to the work itself—and the best he can ever do is to minimize the damage.  To see how this minimizing might be done, let’s take look at Sonnet 21 from the First Part of Rilke’s Sonnets to Orpheus.


  • Fruhling ist wiedergekommen. Die Erde
  • ist wie ein kind, das Gedichte weiss;
  • viele, o viele . . . Für die Beschwerde
  • langen Lernens bekommt sie den Preis.
  • Streng war ihr Lehrer.  Wir mochten das Weisse
  • an dem Barte des alten Manns.
  • Nun, wie das Grüne, das Blaue heisse,
  • dürfen wir fragen:  sie kanns, sie kanns!
  • Erde, die Frei hat, du glückliche, spiele
  • nun mit den Kindern. Wir wollen dich fangen,
  • fröliche Erde. Dem Frohsten gelingts.
  • O, was der Lehrer sie lehrte, das Viele,
  • und was gedruckt steht in Wurzeln und langen
  • schwierigen Stämmen: sie singts, sie singts!


The first step in translating this difficult poem is to find out what it is about.  (I don’t say “what it means” because works of art don’t “mean” anything:  a word or a sentence has meaning, but a poem, a painting, or a symphony does not, any more than a tree or a building does.  It may be complexly organized, intricate, and beautiful, but it is not a paraphrase of a statement.  To use the word “mean” in this way is simply to misuse it.)  To find out what it is about, we must sort through critical editions, biographies, letters, etc.  The important thing is to maintain one’s intellectual independence . . . to be skeptical.  For example, it is a mistake to take Rilke’s notes on this poem, in which he talks about the singing of some Spanish children, as an explanation of the poem, itself.  These remarks merely identify an image which stayed in his mind, and which he later used.


Much more important was the death of Vera Knoop, the twenty-year-old daughter of a couple Rilke knew—though not very well.  She was a talented singer and dancer, and Rilke referred to her “dark, singularly composed charm . . . .”  He read of her death on New Year’s day in 1922, and the 26 sonnets of the First Part poured out of him between the 2nd and the 5th of February—an astonishing creative achievement.  He later said that he regarded the Sonnets as a “monument” to her, and she appears in the next-to-the-last poem in both the First Part and the Second Part, and perhaps in others as well.  But once, again, this does not explain the content, for that comes entirely from Rilke’s own sensibility.


Let’s go back in time.  On the day before Christmas Eve in 1903, Rilke had replied to a letter from a young poet, Franz Kappus, who was depressed because he had lost his awareness of God.  In his sympathetic response, Rilke talks about his own notion of God (most certainly not the Christian God!), and he asks, “What keeps you from projecting his birth into times that are in the process of becoming, and living your life like a painful and beautiful day in the history of a great gestation?”  And he ends the letter with these words:  “the least we can do is to make his becoming not more difficult for him than the earth makes it for the spring when it wants to come.”


This last quotation speaks directly to the content of Sonnet 21, although it was written nearly 20 years earlier, and I think that it does more to clarify the poem than any other single statement despite that great time difference.  Some of these ideas also appear in a letter to his Polish translator, Witwold von Hulewicz, in 1925, which he wrote to answer questions—the same kind of questions that we have been asking ourselves.   Rilke refers to Vera’s death and says:  “We of this earth and this today, are not for a moment hedged by the world of time, nor bound within it:  we are incessantly flowing over and over to those who preceded us and to those who apparently come after us.”  He continues:  “Transience everywhere plunges into deep being. . . . our task is so deeply and so passionately to impress upon ourselves this provisional and perishable earth, that its essential being will arise again ‘invisibly’ in us.”  Note the word, “impress[ed].”  It means the same thing as “gedruckt” in the next-to-last line.


Thus, Rilke had a mystical, pantheistic view in which we put ourselves in touch with “God” by a heightened awareness of the world and of the being and becoming which inform it.  There is no detailed ideology in any of this, only a deeply spiritual awareness, but it is the subject of the Sonnets.


Why “Orpheus”?  In the dining room of the Château de Muzot where Rilke wrote these poems, there was a small engraving of Orpheus and his lyre.  Orpheus was a mythical musician whose playing upon the lyre was so beautiful that everything—people, animals, plants, and even stones—responded.  He had gone into the underworld, the other world, to bring his wife back from the dead, and his music persuaded Hades to grant his wish.  Thus, Orpheus is an ideal alter ego for Rilke, an artist who sees this world and the other as different parts of the same thing, and who seeks communion with it all.


The second step in translating the poem is to analyze its prosodic form and the way in which the form is related to the content.  Only an appreciation of its metrical basis and a feeling for the variations that Rilke plays upon that basis can bring out all of the meaning.  This poem has a four-stress line with an interesting rolling rhythm.  A pause in the line often breaks this up so that the first half is the Adonic (Adonische vers) [DAH-dih-dih-DAH-dih] and the second is made up of two amphibrachs [dih-DAH-dih] [dih-DAH-dih].  This pattern can be clearly seen in lines five, seven, and ten.  Take line five for example:  “Streng war ihr Lehrer.  Wir mochten das Weisse.”  Even line eight, which ends with two iambs [dih-DAH] [dih-DAH], begins with the Adonic.  The greatest problem in translating from German to English is the abundance of unstressed endings in German.  In English, it is almost always better to end on a stress than to write a strangely artificial “translatorese” that strands articles and prepositions at the ends of the lines to create such weak endings.


Rilke is very inventive in his handling of the sonnet form throughout the Sonnets.  This one is a variation of an Italian sonnet with the usual octave consisting of two quatrains (stanzas of four lines) and the sestet consisting of two tercets (stanzas of three lines).   The octave, however, is rhymed [ABAB] [ACAC].  Both the quatrains and the tercets are end-stopped.  The octave ends with the repetition of “sie kanns” and an exclamation point, and the sestet ends with the repetition of “sie singts” and an exclamation point.  Other important repetitions are “viele” in lines three and twelve, and “langen” in lines four and thirteen (note the line numbers).  These features tie the poem together at the same time that they emphasize important notions.


The first quatrain tells us that spring has come and compares the Earth with a hard-working (and prize-winning) student.  The second tells us about her teacher (winter), his white beard hinting at snow.  Now, on vacation in spring (which may be her prize), she knows about the green and blue things (things “reborn” after winter).  This knowledge is her success—sie kanns!  (She knows!)  The first tercet tells us that she can now play with the children.  The second tells us that the lessons of her teacher are the things of which she sings—sie singts!  And we must always bear in mind that “she” is the Earth.


Just as it was dangerous to try to sum up Rilke’s view of the world in a few neat phrases—and it would be far worse to do so in costive, polysyllabic “acadamese”—it is dangerous to paraphrase the content of any rich and complex poem.  Nonetheless, we might say that in some way “life” is the lesson of “death.”  But this isn’t just the ancient metaphor that uses the seasons to refer to the stages of human life.  Instead, life and death are a part of the ongoing process of becoming, just as the seasons are a part of the ongoing life of the world, and this is a cause for celebration, not mourning.  After all, the poem is about the world, not a person.  (The words of any commentator on a topic like this don’t pin anything down; at best they open up possibilities of understanding, and once that is gained they can be discarded.  Peccavi.)


As a third step, I translate the poem literally, line by line.  Even in this first, literal effort it is important to keep the rhyming words at the ends of the lines wherever possible, for they tend to be key words.  I have underlined them below.


Spring has come again.  The Earth

is like a child who has learned poems;

many, o many . . . For the trouble

of long learning she gets the prize.

Strict was her teacher.  We liked the white

in the beard of the old man.

Now, what the green things, the blue things are called,

may we ask:  she knows, she knows!

Earth, on vacation, you lucky one, play

now with the children.  We try to catch you,

playful earth, The happiest succeeds.

O, what her teacher taught her, the many (things),

And what stays impressed in roots and long

Difficult stems:  she sings, she sings!


If I am to be faithful to the original in as many ways as I can, I need to find synonyms for the rhyming words, and then to find rhymes for these.  Slant-rhymes are perfectly acceptable because they expand the range of opportunities.  So, as a fourth step, I engage in a brain-storming exercise, making lists as I go, and I put down the ridiculous possibilities as well as the good ones.  It is important to put everything down because the ridiculous items may later suggest something better. This exercise helps to “prime the pump,” not only because it engages me with the language of the poem, but also because it is non-threatening since everything is acceptable.


Most of the key words are the rhyming words at the ends of the lines, but some may occur earlier in the final phrase.  For example, in English we would say that one “learns poems,” but “learning” is what is most important for Rilke in the second line, and it would be best to keep it at the end of the line in the translation, if possible.  There are three reasons for this.  The first is that the rhyme singles out these words, and that marks them as significant (if there are internal rhymes, these also become key words).  The second is that a sensitive reader will stress the last word of a line slightly as she reads for the lines are the metrical units that control the pace and emphasis of a poem.  This, too, gives the key words emphasis.  The third is that the last word in a phrase or a sentence is widely held to be in an emphatic position.  This has been a principle of rhetoric since Classical times.  According to this way of thinking, you leave your reader with the salient point in mind.


Now for the list-making.  “Learned” in the second line leads to “knows” and “memorized” as synonyms.  It could connect up with “earned” as a rhyme in the fourth line (the prize is “earned”), but “memorized” strikes me as better because it can work directly with “prize.”  “Trouble” leads to “pain,” “hardship,” and “hard work,” among other possibilities.  “Work” has the same weak vowel that “Earth” has, and this slant-rhyme makes it a possibility.  In the second quatrain, there is consonance between “white” and “what.”  “Knows” of line eight calls to “shows” as a possibility for line six.  “Wins” and “sings,” “play” and “stay,” “you” and “through”—a myriad possibilities fill out the lists.


When the brain-storming becomes less profitable, I write a provisional first line as a peg upon which to hang the others.  This line must capture the rhythm of the original, be true to its meaning, preserve its imagery, and put the key word at the end if possible.  Then, going back and forth among the steps I have described, I build up the translation—and all of this constitutes the fifth step.  Finally, I end up with the version below, and at this point I’m not sure what I could do to improve it.  (This is one way in which artistic efforts differ from work such as solving mathematical problems.  There is no “right” result—we just abandon the effort when we can’t see what else we should do.)


Spring has at last come again.  The Earth

Is like a child who has memorized

Poems . . . so many . . . for the hard work of

Long-drawn learning she’s given the prize.

Strict was her teacher.  We loved the white

Which the old man’s long beard showed.

What are the blue things?  The green are what?

Now we may ask her:  she knows, she knows!

Earth on vacation, you lucky one, play

Now with the children.  We’ll all try to catch you

Light-hearted Earth.  The happiest wins.

Oh, what her teacher has taught her—what stays

Deeply imprinted in roots and all through

Long hard-achieved branches:  she sings, she sings!


Suppose that we had simply transformed the literal translation into prose libre (free “verse”) as many modern translators do, making a show of seeking words that have the right “resonance” (whatever that is).  How good would it be?  The ideal test of a translation’s merit—and of the merit of any “theory” of translation—would be the “retranslation test.”  If a translator who had never seen the Rilke poem were to translate this version into German following the general principles I have given, would the result be similar to the original?  I think that it might.  And would she be able to translate a prose libre version into German and end up with something like the original.  Never.


Since we don’t have German as a native language, and since we know the original, we can’t actually perform the “retranslation test”:  translators almost always translate into their own native language because they know it best.  But we can do something almost as good.  Let’s try “translating” a sonnet from English into English.  The rules go like this.  We will “translate” (rewrite) the poem following the same rhyme scheme; trying to use synonyms of the key words in the rhyming positions; reproducing the rhythm of the original lines; preserving the imagery; and keeping the same tone (which is very important in the following poem).  To do all this, we will follow the steps we went through above, insofar as they apply.  We can, of course, use many of the original words and phrases since there may be no other simple, direct alternatives.  The most important point is that none of the rhymes of the original can be used as rhyming words in the “translation.”


Let’s look at the “original.”  I have put the key words in italics.  When the key seems to be a phrase and not a word, I have italicized everything that seems necessary.



Since there’s no help, Come, let us kiss and part,

Nay, I have done, you get no more of me,

And I am glad, yea glad with all my heart,

That thus so cleanly I myself can free.

Shake hands for ever, cancel all our vows,

And when we meet at any time again,

Be it not seen in either of our brows,

That we one jot of former love retain.

Now at the last gasp of Love’s latest breath.

When, his pulse failing, Passion speechless lies,

When Faith is kneeling by his bed of death,

And Innocence is closing up his eyes,

Now if thou would’st, when all have given him over,

From death to life, thou might’st him yet recover.


This is a charming poem by Drayton.  In form it is an English sonnet made up of three quatrains and a couplet (a stanza of two lines), but the first two quatrains function together as an octave, and the last quatrain and the couplet form a sestet.  The octave protests too much, while the sestet tells us that the rumors of Love’s death have been greatly exaggerated.  The imagery of the sestet is fully developed and carries its own ironies.  Love is attended by Faith and Innocence in symbolic activities:  Faith is in mourning and Innocence is closing the eyes of Love!  Now let’s look at the “translation.”


Naught’s to be done, let’s kiss—then each may go,

You’ve had your all of me, Nay, I am through,

And I rejoice, rejoice with all my soul,

I can completely all these bonds undo.

Take leave forever, all our vows repeal,

And if at any future time we meet,

Let neither placid countenance reveal,

That any trace of former love we keep.

Now, as Love breathes his latest breath forlorn,

When Passion lies, pulse failing, still, and mute,

When Faith kneels sadly by his bed to mourn,

And Innocence sees that his eyes are shut,

Now, if you’d try—when all his loss deplore—

To life from death you might him yet restore.


What we have done parallels our translation of Sonnet 21, but since both versions are in English, it is easier to compare them and see what has been accomplished.  And now to the crux of the matter.  To the extent that the “retranslation” succeeds, anyone reading it might think that it was an earlier version of this poetic idea by Drayton, or something of the like.  But suppose that we were to translate Drayton’s sonnet into prose libre.  Would that version work as well in creating the mood, pace, sound, and feeling of the original, given any amount of time spent looking for words of the right “resonance”?  And would we be able to translate it back from prose libre into something like its original form?  Never.



This essay is based closely upon a paper I gave at the “Linguistic Approaches to Literature” section of MLA in 1990.  The original title was “Translation as Interpretation,” for in it I stressed the point that all understanding of something is interpretation.  The problem is always to make that understanding as faithful as possible to whatever inspired it.

The Sonnets are very different from the Neue Gedichte, the “New Poems” that Rilke had written earlier, and those who are put off by the mysticism of the Sonnets should look at those sharply observed, imagistic little poems, especially at “The Spanish Dancer” which is built upon an astonishing simile.

The extract from the letter to Franz Kappus is quoted from Letters to a Young Poet, translated by M.D. Herter Norton (New York and London:  W.W. Norton and Company, 1954, pp. 49-51).  This is a slender volume of 123 pages, but the letters and the short biography which sketches Rilke’s life up to 1908 are an excellent introduction to the poet.

The extract from the letter to Witold von Hulewicz comes from the notes to M.D. Herter Norton’s translation of the Sonnets (New York:  W.W. Norton and Company, 1942, pp. 132-33).  Herter Norton’s translations are simple and literal, and although they don’t reproduce the form, they are better than the published attempts at versification I have seen.