TRANSLATING RAINER MARIA RILKE

translating rilkePoints Illustrated

1. Finding (in)exact equivalents.

2. Advantages of rhyme.

3. Loosening up: unrhymed and free verse renderings.

Rainer Maria Rilke

Rainer Maria Rilke's Herbsttag is a favourite of many German readers.

Herr: es ist Zeit. Der Sommer war sehr groß.
Leg deinen Schatten auf die Sonnenuhren,
und auf den Fluren laß die Winde los.

Befiel den letzten Früchten voll zu sein;
gib ihnen noch zwei südlichere Tage,
dränge sie zur Vollendung hin und jage
die letzte Süße in den schweren Wein.

Wer jetzt kein Haus hat, baut sich keines mehr.
Wer jetzt allein ist, wird Es lange bleiben,
wird wachen, lesen, lange Briefe schreiben
und wird in den Alleen hin und her
unruhig wandern, wenn die Blätter treiben.

Other Translations

Rilke translation has become an industry, and even the Internet has many renderings of this poem:

1. Lord, it is time. Let the great summer go,
Lay your long shadows on the sundials,
And over harvest piles let the winds blow.

Command the last fruits to be ripe;
Guntram Deichsel 1987/93 {1)

2. Lord: it is time. The summer was great.
Lay your shadows onto the sundials
and let loose the winds upon the fields.

Command the last fruits to be full,
J. Mullen {1}

3. Lord: it is time. The summer was immense.
Lay your long shadows on the sundials,
and on the meadows let the winds go free.

Command the last fruits to be full;
Edward Snow 1991 {1}

4. Oh Lord, it's time, it's time. It was a great summer.
Lay your shadow now on the sundials,
and on the open fields let the winds go!

Give the tardy fruits the command to fill;
Robert Bly 1981 {1}

5. Lord, it is time. The summer was very big.
Lay thy shadow on the sundials,
and on the meadows let the winds go loose.

Command the last fruits that they shall be full;
M. D. Herter Norton 1938 {1}

6. Lord: it's time. Summer was superlative.
Set your shadow upon the sundials
and let the wind loose upon the fields.

Command the last fruits to ripen;
Fred W. Bergmann {2}

7. Lord, it was much, the summer: but it’s time now.
Lay down your shadow on the stone sun dial
and let the winds run loose upon the meadow.

Command the last fruits to be round and ripe;
Martin Greenberg 2001 {3}

8. Lord, it is time. The summer is overcooked.
Time to wrap up the sundials in shadow,
and over the fields, let the wind loose.

Tell the fruits to fatten on the vine,
allow them a few more warm days of ease
Peter Jukes {4}

9. Lord: it is time. The summer was immense.
Lay your shadow on the sundials
and let loose the wind in the fields.

Bid the last fruits to be full;
Galway Kinnell and Hannah Liebmann {5}

10. Lord, it is time. The summer was too long.
Lay your shadow on the sundials now,
and through the meadow let the winds throng.

Ask the last fruits to ripen on the vine;
William Gass {5}

11. Lord: it is time. The huge summer has gone by.
Now overlap the sundials with your shadows,
and on the meadows let the wind go free.

Command the fruits to swell on tree and vine;
Stephen Mitchell {5}

12. Lord, it is time now,
for the summer has gone on
and gone on.
Lay your shadow along the sun-
dials and in the field
let the great wind blow free.
Command the last fruit
be ripe:
John Logan {5}

13. Lord, it is time! Your summer's reign was grand.
Beshadow now the dials of the sun
and let your winds run rough across the land.

The latest fruits command to fill and shine:
H. C. Artmann {6}

14. Lord: it is time. The summer was immense.
Let thine shadows upon the sundials fall,
and unleash the winds upon the open fields.

Command the last fruits into fullness;
Cliff Crego {7}

What do we think? Surprisingly, only three versions (1, 10 and 13) retain the rhyme scheme, and then by some contrivance. Version 4 puffs itself up too much. Version 12 is too much a condensation. Version 8 is unwittingly comic. Versions 9 and 14 are crisply written, but they don't quite convey the metrical achievements of someone who was "undoubtedly one of the greatest stylists and artists among German lyric poets." {8}

Literal Rendering

As usual, we start by making a literal translation, checking the words {9} {10} {11} to ensure we understand meaning and connotations:

Herr: Es ist Zeit. Der Sommer war sehr groß.
Lord: it is time. The summer was very ample/big/grand/great/huge/keen/large/tall/wide
Leg deinen Schatten auf die Sonnenuhren,
Lay/deposit/cradle your/thy shade/cloud/shadow in/on/at the sundials,
und auf den Fluren laß die Winde Los
and in/on/at the leas/fields/entrances/halls let/allow/assume/loose the winds loose

Befiel den letzten Früchten voll zu sein;
Command the latest/last bloom/fruit full/complete/crowded to be
gib ihnen noch zwei südlichere Tage,
give them still/another two more southern days
dränge sie zur Vollendung hin und jage
urge them to perfection/completion/consumation and chase/speed
die letzte Süße in den schweren Wein.
the last/latest sweetness/lusciousness/fragrance in/on/into the heavy wine


Wer jetzt kein Haus hat, baut sich keines mehr.
Who now/yet/currently no house has, constructs/rebuilds himself not any more
Wer jetzt allein ist, wird Es lange bleiben,
Who now/yet/currently alone/lonely/solitary, will/gets/becomes a long time stay/continue/remain/linger
wird wachen, lesen, lange Briefe schreiben
will waken/watch, read, long letters write/record
und wird in den Alleen hin und her
and will in/into the avenues to and fro/back and forth
unruhig wandern, wenn die Blätter treiben.
uneasy/restive/anxiously flit/roam/hike/wander/migrate, if/when/whensoever the leaves/sheets/blades drive/urge/drift/float/compel

Examining the Original

We note that the piece is written in (fairly) regular pentameters, and divided into three sections rhymed aba cddc edded:

Herr: Es ist Zeit.| Der Sommer war sehr groß.
Leg deinen Schatten auf die Sonnenuhren,
und auf den Fluren laß die Winde Los

Befiel den letzten Früchten voll zu sein;
gib ihnen noch zwei südlichere Tage,
dränge sie zur Vollendung hin und jage
die letzte ße in den schweren Wein.

Wer jetzt kein Haus hat, | baut sich keines mehr. |
Wer jetzt allein ist,| wird Es lange bleiben, |
wird wachen, lesen, lange Briefe schreiben |
und wird| in den Alleen | hin und her
unruhig wandern, wenn die Blätter treiben.



The patterning is dense, with many beautiful cadences:


und auf den Fluren laß die Winde Los

wird wachen, lesen, lange Briefe schreiben

giving an overall impression of beauty, stateliness and regret made personal by the speaker's loneliness.

Considering the Options: Problems

Sehr gross is the first problem, end of line 1. Great, grand, very big? — none is these is quite right. We can't say: The summer was great (though some translators have), because the colloquial meaning of great destroys the beauty of the line. We could say vast (though it misses of the overtone of great) but will then be stuck with something like Unloose the winds in fields while these days last for line 3, which is not what Rilke wrote. Version 10 has used long, which has forced throng in line 3, which seems contrived. Perhaps the best (though unexpected) choice is profuse, when we get:

Lord, it is time. The summer was profuse.
Lay your shadows as the sundials darken
and on the meadowlands the winds let loose.


Rilke has many ways of tying his lines together — alliteration on s and z in line 1, for example — which we will have to consider in our polishing. But let's just push ahead for the moment. The next four lines come fairly obviously:

Command to fullness as the fruits incline,
but yet afford them two more southern days
for ripeness, consummation: urge and phase
the last of sweetness into heavy wine.

But can we do something about the phase/days rhyme? Phase is not appropriate. We could use days/chase, but it's a pararhyme and suggests incompetence. Suppose we change line 5 to get:

Command to fullness as the fruits incline,
but yet afford them two more days of heat
for ripeness, maturation, to complete
the surge of sweetness into heavy wine.

Perhaps. Let's move on:

He who has no house will not rebuild,
and he who's solitary must long stay so,
must watch and read, write endlessly, and go
on long walks pointlessly down thought-filled
roads where leaves turn round him, to and fro.

Digression: Diction

Perhaps we've been too dismissive of 'great', and of idiomatic language generally. But suppose, to push the argument to extremes, we use slang — 1920s, English, middle class — for the first three lines:

Gosh, what a topping summer! Time, old boy,
To dosh with shadow the jolly sundials now
And in the meadowlands the winds let rip.

Nothing wrong with the verse: clean, compact, pleasing assonance. Even as poetry the lines seem believable and affectionate: people did say such things. But the diction is now dated, belonging to a certain period and a certain class, and doesn't convey the impersonal dignify of the original.

So what about thy, common in translations to the mid twentieth century, but not thereafter? Dignified, certainly, and telling us immediately that this is poetry. Also a more beautiful and useful word word than your, which is ungainly and cursed with unfortunate echoes: jaw, sore, yawn, etc. Again, it's a matter of conventions, and today we use a contemporary diction without local colouring to give our rendering the widest currency: your in this case, but not emphasizing the word by rhyme or stress. (Certainly not much of an argument, but then literature is largely governed by accepted practices, which of course change.)

Second Draft: Maintaining Original Word Order

What we've rendered so far differs somewhat from other translations: more threatening, and less nostalgic:

Lord, it is time. The summer was profuse.
Lay your shadows as the sundials darken
and on the meadowlands the winds let loose.

Command to fullness as the fruits incline,
but yet afford them two more days of heat
for ripeness, maturation, to complete
the surge of sweetness into heavy wine.

He who has no house will not rebuild,
and he who's solitary must long stay so,
must watch and read, write endlessly, and go
on long walks pointlessly down thought-filled
roads where leaves turn round him, to and fro.

It is also not very good, unfortunately. The wording is very odd in places, and the rendering misses the beauty and stateliness of the original. As Lord, it is time! is much more striking in the German than English, we might rearrange the first line, and make minor changes throughout:

The summer was magnificent, profuse.
Lay shadows, Lord, upon the sundials now,
and let the meadowlands their winds unloose.

Command the fruits to fullness and consign
but two more speeding days of southern heat
to urge a ripe perfection and secrete
the last of bodied sweetness in the wine.

He who has no house will not rebuild,
and he who is alone will long stay so,
will wake, to read, write lengthy letters, go
wandering, restlessly, along the filled-
with-thoughts long avenues the leaves bestrow.

Perhaps we should dump profuse. Two possibilities:

From towering summer, lord, it's time. Choose
to place your shadows on the sundials now,
and over meadowlands your winds unloose.

One towering summer, lord. The time begins.
Lay lengthening shadows on the sundials now
and over meadowlands set loose the winds.

But the rhymes are faulty, and we haven't reproduced the syntax of the first line. Back to profuse:

It's time! Magnificent, profuse,
the summer. Lord, lay shadows on the sundials
now, and over meadows winds unloose.

Command the fruits to fullness and consign
another two more days of southern heat
to bring them to perfection and secrete
the last of bodied sweetness in the wine.

He who has no house will not rebuild,
and he who's solitary will long remain,
and wake to read, write endless letters, feign
indomitable wanderings along the filled-
with-thoughts sad avenues where leaves downrain.

Or, better, finally:

Lord, it is time! The summer was profuse.
Lay lengthening shadows on the sundials now
and over meadowlands the winds set loose.

Command the fruits to fullness and consign
another two more days of southern heat
to bring them to perfection and secrete
the last of sweetness in the bodied wine.

He who has no house will not rebuild,
and he who is alone will long stay so,
will wake to read, to write long letters, go
wandering, restlessly, through the filled-
with-leaves broad avenues, blown to and fro.

Third Draft: Changing Original Word Order

Or possibly so. The means of tying together the words of the first line with alliteration and assonceHerr: Es ist Zeit. Der Sommer war sehr groß — does not properly exist in English, and close renderings are disjointed, lacking the forward energy of the original. It would seem much better to accept the situation, and move profuse from the line ending:

Lord, a towering summer! Time to lay
your lengthening shadows on the sundials now
and loose for winds in meadowlands their sway.

Where we've replaced great by towering and lost the it's. Or:

Abundant summer, Lord, it's time to lay
a lengthening shadows on the sundials now
and loose for winds in meadowlands their sway.

Where we've replaced great by abundant and lost the it's. Or:

A lofty summer! Lord, it's time to lay
encroaching shadows on the sundials now
and give in meadowlands the winds their sway.

Where we've lengthening by encroaching (though neither exists in the original). Or:

An abundant summer! Lord, produce
your lengthening shadows on the sundials now
and over meadowlands the winds set loose.

Produce is less reverential than place or lay, but carries the overtone of 'to extend' (geometrical) and 'to lead' (etymology). Unfortunately, unloose is a little Teutonic, and It's time! lacks authority. Perhaps this, therefore:

Lord, a towering summer! Time to lay
a lengthening shadow on the sundials now
and let in meadowlands the winds have sway.

Command the fruits to fullness and consign
another two more days of southern heat
to bring them to perfection and secrete
the last of sweetness in the bodied wine.

He who has no house will not rebuild,
and he who is alone will long stay so,
will wake to read, to write long letters, go
wandering, restlessly, through the filled-
with-leaves sad avenues, blown to and fro.

Rather more idiomatic is:

and give in meadowlands their say.

We can also move 'Lord' to the end of the line:

A towering summer! Time, O Lord,
to lay your shadows on the sundials now
and loose in meadowlands the winds abroad.

Fourth Draft: Looking at Previous Work

Translation is a cooperative effort: we learn from previous attempts. Listed above are those by Edward Snow (3) and by Galway Kinnell and Hannah Liebmann (9), which both start:

Lord: it is time. The summer was immense.

That gives us the commence rhyme:

Lord, it is time. The summer was immense.
Lay your shadows on the sundials now
and in the meadowlands let winds commence.

Command the fruits to fullness and consign
another two more days of southern heat
to bring them to perfection and secrete
the last of sweetness in the bodied wine.

He who has no house will not rebuild,
and he who is alone will long stay so,
will wake to read, to write long letters, go
wandering, restlessly, through the filled-
with-leaves broad avenues, blown to and fro.

Which is better? The verse is better in the first, but the second is closer to the prose sense and dramatic intensity of the original. Is nothing else possible? One we have overlooked is profound, which gives us bound, found, etc. rhymes:

Departing a little from the sense:

Lord, it is time. The summer was profound.
Lay your shadows on the sundials now
and let unloosed in fields the winds be found.

Rather lordly and Teutonic:

Lord, it is time. The summer was profound.
Extend your shadows on the sundials now
and be in meadowlands the winds unbound.

A weaker second line:

Lord, it is time. The summer was profound.
Lay your shadows on the sundials and
let loose the winds across the meadow ground.

Which gives us:

Lord, it is time. The summer was profound.
Extend your shadows on the sundials now
and leave in meadowlands the winds unbound.

Command the fruits to fullness and consign
another two more days of southern heat
to bring them to perfection and secrete
the last of sweetness in the bodied wine.

He who has no house will not rebuild,
and he who is alone will long stay so,
will wake to read, to write long letters, go
wandering, restlessly, through the filled-
with-leaves broad avenues, blown to and fro.

 

Wrapping It Up

Which is best? On balance, I'd prefer:

A lofty summer, Lord! It's time to lay
your shadows on the sundials now and let
the windows in meadowlands resume their sway.

Command the fruits to fullness and consign
another two more days of southern heat
to bring them to perfection and secrete
the last of sweetness into bodied wine.

He who has no house will not rebuild,
and he who is alone will long stay so,
will wake to read, write endlessly, and go
continually wandering through the filled-
with-leaves broad avenues, blown to and fro.

We've now got fairly close to the original in rhyme scheme and enjambment without losing the content, though there are certainly things to question. Sehr groß does not mean profound, lofty, immense or towering; encroaching, now, lengthening and broad have been added to some versions, and schweren has been translated as bodied.

All the same, though it's an early twentieth century piece and not written in free verse, we may feel that a looser form would be more acceptable to a contemporary audience. There are various possibilities, none of them difficult:

1. Remove the rhyming:

Lord, it is time. The summer was immense.
Extend your shadows on the sundials now
and in the meadowlands the winds unloose.

Command the last of fruits to fullness,
afford another two more southern days,
urge them to completion and so speed
the latest sweetness into heavy wine.

He who has no house will not rebuild,
and he who is alone will so remain,
will wake and read, write endlessly, and go
back and forth along the avenues,
wandering, restlessly, as leaves compel.

2. Retain the rhyming but turn the metrical into free verse:

It's time, O Lord! A towering summer! Lay
your lengthening shadows on the sundials now
and to the winds in fields allow their former sway.

Command the fruits to fullness, consign
to them yet another two more days of heat
to bring them to perfection and secrete
the last of sweetness in the bodied wine.

He who has no house will not rebuild,
and he who is alone will long stay so,
will wake to read, write endlessly, go
wandering, anxious, in the filled-
with-leaves broad streets, blown to and fro.

3. Remove both rhyme and metre, aiming for a free verse that sticks closely to the prose sense:

Lord, it is time! The summer was so vast.
Lay your shadows on the sundials,
and on the fields let loose the winds.

Command of fruits a fullness,
give them two more southern days,
urge them to completion, and chase
the last of sweetness into heavy wine.

He who has no house will not build one,
and he who is alone will so remain,
will wake, read, write long letters,
go back and forth in avenues,
driven, restlessly, by falling leaves.

As always, it is the fully rhymed version that tests a translator's skill, and makes him properly appreciate the original.

Postscript

As often happens, the interval in returning to the poem a year or so later has suggested a few improvements:

A lofty summer! Lord, it's time to lay
encroaching shadows on the sundials now
and let in meadowlands the winds have sway.

Command the fruits to fullness and consign
another two more days of southern heat
to bring them to perfection and secrete
the last of sweetness into bodied wine.

He who has no house will not rebuild,
and he who is alone will long stay so,
and wake to read, write endlessly, and go
up and down through avenues now filled
with leaves and restlessness, blown to and fro.

Notes and References

1. Rainer Maria Rilke: Autumn Day. Charles and Eloise Jones. Mar. 2000. http://www.thebeckoning.com/poetry/rilke/rilke4.html. German text and five translations.
2. International Mad Poetry. http://www.madpoetry.org/internal.html. Poems from around the world.
3. Four poems by Rainer Maria von Rilke by translated & with an introduction by Martin Greenberg. http://www.newcriterion.com/archive/19/mar01/rilke1.htm NNA. Article in The New Criterion Vol. 19, No. 7, March 2001.
4. Autum Day. Peter Jukes. http://www.compas.demon.co.uk/Publications/Translate.html#AUTUMN%20DAY NNA. One of many translations by this author.
5. Autum Day: Rainer Maria Rilke: Four Translations. http://www.plagiarist.com/poetry/?wid=3222.
6. H. C. Artmann. http://is.dal.ca/~waue/Trans/Rilke-Herbsttag.html NNA. Listing of translations.
7. Rilke: The Book of Images. Cliff Crego. http://www.picture-poems.com/rilke/images.html#Herbsttag. A selection of eight poems, in both German and in English translation.
8. H. W. Belmore, Rilke's Craftsmanship: An Analysis of His Poetic Style (Oxford: Blackwell, 1954), 1. Q
9. Leo. http://dict.leo.org/. Online German-English dictionary with 400,000 entries.
10. Online German-English dictionary. http://www.iee.et.tu-dresden.de/cgi-bin/cgiwrap/wernerr/search.sh NNA.
11. Dict-CC. http://www.dict.cc. Online German dictionary.
12. Assorted Rilke Websites. Cliff Crego. 2002. http://www.picture-poems.com/rilke/rilkelinks.html. Extensive list of resources.

The final version is included in Diversions, a free pdf collection of translations published by Ocaso Press.

 

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