Akseli Gallen-Kallela. ‘Landscape from Ruovesi’. Oil on canvas on board, 37.1 x 35 cm. About 1900.
Almost thirty years ago I first came across a very nicely bound volume of Rainer Maria Rilke’s 1907 collection of verse, ‘New Poems’ (‘Neue Gedichte’), as translated by Edward Snow and published by North Point Press in San Francisco in 1984. I have only very occasionally returned to it, but I took it off the shelf this week and have been astounded once again at what it contains. Here is my own new translation, followed by Rilke’s original, of the poem entitled ‘The Convalescent’. I don’t think I have ever attempted to translate Rilke before, but I do remember reading him as a much younger man and finding the experience transformative. Putting him into English has been no less so. No one could accuse Rilke of being simplistic or easy to understand. But there is a limpidity to the surface of his verse, an almost glasslike clarity, which can keep you from realizing at first how deep is what lies below. Those depths are active. They have an energy and force which is not at all merely verbal. This initial translation has helped me to glimpse how much I’m looking forward to future exploration of them.
As a singing comes and goes in streets
and now draws near, now shies away again,
fluttering its wings, at times almost to grasp,
then as before is scattered wide:
life plays with the convalescent;
while she, weakened and rested,
fumblingly, to give herself,
makes an unaccustomed move.
And she feels it nearly as seduction,
when the stiffened hand, in which
dwelt fevers full of senselessness,
from afar, as if with flowering touch,
comes to caress the hardness of her chin.
Wie ein Singen kommt und geht in Gassen
und sich nähert und sich wieder scheut,
flügelschlagend, manchmal fast zu fassen
und dann wieder weit hinausgestreut:
spielt mit der Genesenden das Leben;
während sie, geschwächt und ausgeruht,
unbeholfen, um sich hinzugeben,
eine ungewohnte Geste tut.
Und sie fühlt es beinah wie Verführung,
wenn die hartgewordne Hand, darin
Fieber waren voller Widersinn,
fernher, wie mit blühender Berührung,
zu liebkosen kommt ihr hartes Kinn.