Rainer Maria Rilke was born today in 1875. I honor this day in gratitude for his words, from Letters to a Young Poet, which I read as a new art school graduate, to A Year with Rilke which accompanies most of my days.
When I was in grad school at Yale, one of my art history classes focused on the importance of translation. This lecture stayed with me. I had never thought about how the translator’s personality finds its way into the work through the nuanced decisions of word choice. Not knowing German, I am unable to read Rilke in his native tongue, so I must rely on others to do the work for me. Today I share with you two translations of the same poem. I fancy the second, which is translated by Joanna Macy and Anita Barrows, my preferred translators of his texts. In the first version, Bly tries to force the poem into two stanzas, whereas Macy and Barrows let it take the form it needs to be. When they translate it’s almost as if the poem tells them how it wants to be. Other translators often try to make the poem fit into a particular poetic structure.
This poem is from The Book of Hours a series of love poems to God. Perhaps in the first few days of this year’s Advent Collage Calendar you’ve realized that I seem to have an unspoken theme–pushing to try something new, pushing to change something long established, or pushing through loss–this poem cries for the supportive hand through grief. Grief takes so many forms! My wish for you is that you always have that supportive hand, whatever your trials.
It’s possible I am pushing through solid rock
in flintlike layers, as the ore lies, alone;
I am such a long way in I see no way through,
and no space: everything is close to my face,
and everything close to my face is stone.
I don’t have much knowledge yet in grief
so this massive darkness makes me small.
You be the master: make yourself fierce, break in:
then your great transforming will happen to me,
and my great grief cry will happen to you.
Rainer Maria Rilke
(Translated by Robert Bly)
It feels as though I make my own way
through massive rock
like a vein of ore
I am so deep inside it
I can’t see the path or any distance:
everything is close
and everything closing in on me
has turned to stone.
Since I still don’t know enough about pain,
this terrible darkness makes me small,
If it’s you, though—
press down hard on me, break in
that I may know the weight of your hand
and you, the fullness of my cry.
Rainer Maria Rilke
(Translated by Anita Barrows and Joanna Macy)
Everyday through December 25th, I’ll be making a 5×5 inch collage, writing a short entry on this blog and sharing a prompt for those who might want to participate along with me. You can follow my progress by subscribing to this blog through the sidebar on the blog homepage, or by following me on Instagram.