Wednesday, March 21, 2012

"Portrait of My Father as a Young Man": A Tale of Two Translations

I thought of this poem today (by Rainer Maria Rilke), I think because I was going to tweet something dumb based on it like, "O quickly disappearing tweet on my more slowly disappearing phone." Luckily the world was saved from that when I got distracted by noticing that the favored translation these days is noticeably uglier than the translation I first encountered. Let's take a gander at the two versions.

Here's the version I first read, translated by Stephen Mitchell:

PORTRAIT OF MY FATHER AS A YOUNG MAN 
In the eyes: dream. The brow as if it could feel
something far off. Around the lips, a great
freshness--seductive, though there is no smile.
Under the rows of ornamental braid
on the slim Imperial officer's uniform:
the saber's basket-hilt. Both hands stay
folded upon it, going nowhere, calm
and now almost invisible, as if they
were the first to grasp the distance and dissolve.
And all the rest so curtained within itself,
so cloudy, that I cannot understand
this figure as it fades into the background--. 
Oh quickly disappearing photograph
in my more slowly disappearing hand.

And here's the Edward Snow version (all the new and in-print Rilke translations seem to be by Snow):

PORTRAIT OF MY FATHER AS A YOUNG MAN 
In the eyes dream. The brow as if in touch
with something far away. About the lips
immense youth, unsmiling seductiveness,
and across the full ornamental braids
of the slim aristocratic uniform
the saber's basket-hilt and both the hands--
waiting, calmly, urged toward nothing.
And now scarcely visible: as if they would be
first, grasping the distant, to disappear.
And all the rest self-shrouded
and erased as if we didn't understand
and by something deep in its own depths dimmed--. 
O you swiftly fading daguerreotype
in my more slowly fading hands.

Now, I don't speak German, so I can't really speak to which version is more faithful to the original. But I do think Mitchell's choices, where it really matters, are better. That first colon, before "dream," is inspired. There's more tension, more humanity in "seductive, though there is no smile" compared to "unsmiling seductiveness" (which evokes a snake). I like the specificity of "Imperial officer's uniform" over "aristocratic uniform" (whereas later, Snow is specific to a fault). And, crucially, Mitchell's translation of the description of the hands makes sense:

the saber's basket-hilt. Both hands stay
folded upon it, going nowhere, calm
and now almost invisible, as if they
were the first to grasp the distance and dissolve. 

Whereas Snow's does not:

the saber's basket-hilt and both the hands--
waiting, calmly, urged toward nothing.
And now scarcely visible: as if they would be
first, grasping the distant, to disappear. 

"Grasping the distant"? That's more awkward than poetic. I do like "urged toward nothing" as a phrase. But "almost invisible" is more powerful to me than "scarcely visible." The word "scarcely" always sounds a little tetchy.

The last few lines before the stanza break diverge greatly. Mitchell: "And all the rest so curtained within itself, / so cloudy, that I cannot understand / this figure as it fades into the background--." Snow: "And all the rest self-shrouded / and erased as if we didn't understand / and by something deep in its own depths dimmed--." "Self-shrouded" is pretty, but the rest seems to obfuscate the sentiment in favor of alliteration. 

The penultimate line in German is "Du schnell vergehendes Daguerreotyp" -- if you plug this into Google Translate you get "Oh quickly disappearing daguerreotype." A daguerreotype is an early photograph; probably what Rilke held was a daguerreotype. But Mitchell's translation of this line, the whole last couplet, is so much more beautiful, timeless, memorable. It's not just the choice of "photograph," it's "Oh" instead of "O," "quickly" instead of "swiftly" -- which sound so much more natural, so much less pretentious -- and "disappearing" over "fading" which is ten times more desperate and ominous. "Fade," in reference to one's body, to one's earthly lifeform, is so weak compared to "disappear."

I can't help feeling that if I'd read the Snow translation first I would have passed right over it.

29 comments:

  1. I agree! It is esp. impressive (and part of the superiority of the version) that Mitchell manages to do all that AND get the rhymes in.

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    1. You don't know how happy I am to have someone just agree with me for once.

      You know, the syntax is so natural when I read it I don't even think about the rhymes.

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    2. (Is this a directed "someone"?) I don't know why I noticed the rhymes except that linebreaks at "they" or "he" in pentameter _always_ raise my suspicions.

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    3. A certain very special someone! Ha, no, I just feel like I do a lot of self-defense in my comments. Luckily I know the way of the sword.

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  2. I'd love to inspect the German version. The Snow translation definitely seems muddy.

    (I wonder if the last two lines were the inspiration for that scene in Back to the Future... ;)

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    1. No doubt!

      Sprechen sie deutsch? Here's the German ripped off the Internet, haven't checked to make sure it's accurate:

      Im Auge Traum. Die Stirn wie in Berührung
      mit etwas Fernem. Um den Mund enorm
      viel Jugend, ungelächelte Verführung,
      und vor der vollen schmückenden Verschnürung
      der schlanken adeligen Uniform
      der Säbelkorb und beide Hände--, die
      abwarten, ruhig, zu nichts hingedrängt.
      Und nun fast nicht mehr sichtbar: als ob sie
      zuerst, die Fernes greifenden, verschwänden.
      Und alles andre mit sich selbst verhängt
      und ausgelöscht als ob wirs nicht verständen
      und tief aus seiner eignen Tiefe trüb--.
      Du schnell vergehendes Daguerreotyp
      in meinen langsamer vergehenden Händen.

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    2. I took four years of it, but no, not really. About all I can do at this point is recognize which words are nouns (hint: they're all capitalized).

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  3. The merest poem of Rilke's is weighted with iron.

    Rilke actually hasn't been a big favorite of mine, though I've read him periodically. The translations I've always preferred are the somewhat older ones by W.D. Herter Norton. Norton's translations, for the most part, hold remarkably closely to the German originals, at least as nearly as I'm able to tell -- I don't really know German, but can usually piece my way through it if I go slowly, at least enough to get a sense if a translation is close to the original or wanders far.

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    1. Next time I'm in a used book store I'll check around for his translations (or at least Mitchell's -- all we have around here are Snow).

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  4. I've also always preferred Margaret Dows Herter Norton's translation of _Sonnets to Orpheus_. I read them first, it's true, and I do not know German. But I think it is her unabashed embrace of the ecstatic that I loved so much when I was 14--and translations more beautiful and smoother in cadence don't bring that to me, while hers still do...

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  5. I've never translated a German poem before, so . . . this won't be one for the ages. (I didn't read the other translations first, if you're wondering.)

    Adolescent Photo of My Dad

    Dreams in his eyes. The forehead as if in touch
    With something distant. His mouth betrays
    great youth, humorless seduction,
    and in front of the fully decked-out lacing
    of the tailored, aristocratic uniform
    both hands, and the scabbard - which
    await, quietly, not in a hurry.
    And almost not at all visible: as if they
    At once, reaching in the distance, would disappear.
    And all the rest obscures itself -
    And is wiped out - as if we wouldn't understand -
    Driven deep out of its own depth –

    You fast vanishing photograph
    In my slowly vanishing hands.

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    1. Your version feels very contemporary!

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    2. Thanks, that's what I was going for.

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  6. Just a small correction to my earlier comment -- I did of course, mean M.D. Herter Norton. Though until I read Kirsten's subsequent comment above, I hadn't known what the M.D. stood for, and hadn't been certain if Herter Norton was man or woman.

    When I Googled I found a webpage with several of Rilke's poems in translation, by various translators, here. If you scroll down a little past halfway, there's a Sonnet to Orpheus translated by M.D. Herter Norton (the one beginning "There rose a tree..."), that I think highlights the luminous qualities of the best of her Rilke translations.

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    1. Thanks! I looked for a Herter Norton translation of the poem above online and couldn't find one, but I gave up pretty quickly.

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  7. How is there no portraitofmyfatherasayoungman.tumbler.com?

    Or maybe you'd just end up with http://dadsaretheoriginalhipster.tumblr.com.

    But I think it'd be something sweeter than that.

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    1. I just had an interaction on Twitter wherein someone pointed me to the XKCD that says "...dot tumblr dot com" is the new "...would be a good name for a band."

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  8. Mitchell's translation, like all other English translations of Rilke except Snow's, is poetically "beautiful"--beautified, falsified, conventionalized and dull--anything but Rilke. It is merely GOOGLE TRANSLATE with its ridiculous errors cleaned and given a "makeover" to make it sound "poetic." Whatever dreamy "poetic" thoughts these translators had while reading the original poems they plug into their "translations." (At least there are no factual errors in THIS Mitchell translation. The boners you find in "beautiful" Rilke translations are unbelievable.) Place a translation by Snow alongside the German original AND LEARN GERMAN. Isn't gaining access to a poet like Rilke worth a few years effort? Rilke is far from being the only great German poet. His work didn't spring out of a void. Americans still live (for the moment) in the most affluent, leisured society the world has ever known. But how do they spend their time? Only one or two percent of the world's great poetry is available to them. It's indecent.

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  10. This comment has been removed by the author.

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    1. Oh good lord. Comments on older posts get stuck in moderation and I don't monitor them every day.

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    2. I can't help but notice that you're currently studying German. Please tell me, do you know ALL the languages? Otherwise it seems like you'd miss a lot.

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  11. I would LOVE to read Japanese poetry. Or the Rubaiyat. But I don't know a word of Japanese or Persian. Or Russian (Eugene Onegin!). But at least I can read Rimbaud, Baudelaire, Rilke, Hölderlin, Dante and Petrarch (my Italian is a work in progress, unfortunately) Horace, Pindar (works in progress). Seriously, I wish I knew Arabic, and I don't even speak Spanish, though in my Washington Heights neighborhood that's the first language. But at least I know what poetry is (English contains a bit of it, don't you know) and I know that the only thing that survives "translation" is the prose (the prose-prose, not the poetry-prose as in Kafka's Verwandlung). We could all at least become aware of what we are missing. I was born in a country of poverty which thinks that it is rich.

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  12. I would LOVE to read Japanese poetry. Or the Rubaiyat. But I don't know a word of Japanese or Persian. Or Russian (Eugene Onegin ). But at least I can read Rimbaud, Baudelaire, Rilke, Hölderlin, Dante and Petrarch (my Italian is a work in progress, unfortunately) Horace, Pindar (works in progress). Seriously, I wish I knew Arabic, and I don't even speak Spanish, though in my Washington Heights neighborhood that's the first language. But at least I know what poetry is (English contains a bit of it, don't you know) and I know that the only thing that survives translation is the prose (the prose-prose, not the poetry-prose as in Kafka's Verwandlung). We could all at least become aware of what we are missing. I was born in a country of poverty which thinks that it is rich.

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    1. Translated versions of poems are not the same poems, but I don't think the solution is to just not read poetry in translation.

      I will keep an eye out for your name, and when I see it, I will say to myself, "You, good sir, are a jerk."

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