Rainer Maria Rilke

Known as the greatest German poet since Goethe, Rilke has been attributed with transforming the German language into a poetic language with his dense, lyrical style, and his startling images that portray the complexities of modern life and their effects on the sensitive human being. He became famous with such works as Duineser Elegien (Duino Elegies) and Die Sonette an Orpheus (The Sonnets to Orpheus), which are concerned with "the identity of terror and bliss" and "the oneness of life and death." 

For more information about Rainer Maria Rilke, I recommend this website:

The Rainer Maria Rilke Archive
An anthology of poetry and quotations

An important part of Rilke´s writings are his letters (to Marina Tsvetaeva, Auguste Rodin, André Gide, H.V. Hofmannstahl, B. Pasternak, Stefan Zweig, etc.), which have been published posthumously in different collections. To read letters written over a period of several years on the vocation of writing by a poet whose greatest work was still to come: Letters to a Young Poet

The Problems of Translation

Since the original language of Rilke's poetry is German, those of use who don't speak German are at the mercy of the translators. This might not be an issue if Rilke used short noun phrases, simple sentences and concrete imagery but he doesn't. Instead, his poetry is comprised of lengthy sentences with complex syntax and abstract language resulting in a range of conflicting interpretations. For many years, the J. B. Leishman translation was thought to be the best. Nowadays, Stephen Mitchell is one of the more popular translators. There are some questions about his accuracy, but he is considered by many to have captured the nuances of Rilke's poetry. Perhaps Mitchell's translations should actually be looked upon as poetic recreations in English. But at least, say some, his versions are preferable to the "plodding, utterly prosaic translations by Edward Snow, who knows his German but has no ear for verse." 

Consider the opening lines of the first of the Duino Elegies: "Wer, wenn ich schriee, hörte mich denn aus der Engel / Ordnungen?" While the story of Rilke hearing this question ring out in the gale on the stormy cliffs of Duino is well known (recounted consistently in the Preface of every edition), we have to rely on the translators for what came next. And, like the conflicting stories of eyewitnesses, none seem to agree. The crystalline voice that Rilke supposedly heard has been shattered into more than twenty English language translations. Who, if he cried out, could be heard among this clamor?

"Who, if I cried, would hear me among the angelic / orders?" (both Leishman and Snow went with this translation of the first line)

"Who, if I cried out, would hear me among the angelic / hierarchies?" (both Albert Ernest Flemming and Mitchell opted to start with this version; Flemming's translation of The First Elegy is my personal favorite)

"Who, if I cried out, would heed me / amid the host of the Angels?" (Harry Behn)

"Who of the angelic hosts would hear / me, even if I cried out?" (Elaine E. Boney)

"WHO, if I cried out, might hear me-- / among the ranked Angels?" (Stephen Cohn)

"If I cried out / who would hear me up there / among the angelic orders?" (David Young)

"Who, if I cried, would hear me among the Dominions / of Angels?" (William Gass)

Dare to compare for yourself (if you know of any other translations of this poem that are on the internet, please let me know):

The First Elegy, translated by Albert Ernest Flemming

The First Elegy, translated by Stephen Mitchell

The First Elegy, translated by Robert Hunter

An interesting article on this subject:
Reading Gass Reading Rilke by Marjorie Perloff

And another:
Wrestling with the Angel by Jan Schreiber

And the book that they're both referring to (I haven't read it yet, but I'm intrigued by the approach):
Reading Rilke: Reflections on the Problems of Translation by William H. Gass

For further reading about Rilke:

Rilke: Poems (Everyman's Library Pocket Poets)
Translated by J.B. Leishman and Stephen Spender

Selected Poems
Translated by Albert Ernest Flemming

The Selected Poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke
Translated by Stephen Mitchell

Letters to a Young Poet / The Possibility of Being
Translated by Joan M. Burnham

The Best of Rilke
Translated by Walter Arndt

Uncollected Poems
Translated by Edward Snow

The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge: A Novel
by Rainer Maria Rilke, Translated by M.D. Herter Norton

The Beginning of Terror: A Psychological Study of Rilke's Life and Work
by D. Kleinbard

A Ringing Glass: The Life of Rainer Maria Rilke
by Donald Prater
(This book is out of print. To locate a copy, try searching at abebooks.com.)

Life of a Poet: Rainer Maria Rilke
by Ralph Freedman

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