Monday, May 30, 2016

Rilke on Music and Breath

By Tracy

John likes to have music playing in the background when he writes; I can't. I have to have silence.

We've both often written poems inspired by or about music, as have many other poets.

Rilke wrote several poems about music: here is a translation of one of them.

Rainer Maria Rilke

Music: breath of statues. Perhaps:
stillness of pictures. You language where languages
end. You time,
who stand perpendicular to the way passing hearts go.

Feelings of whom? O you the changing
of feelings into what? —: into audible landscape.
You foreigner: music. You heartspace that’s
outgrown us. Our innermost
that, exceeding us, expels us —
holy farewell:
while the inside surrounds us
as the most skilful distance, as the other
side of air:
no longer habitable.

         trans. Tracy Ryan

One of the most basic challenges of translating is the simple yet heavily polysemous words that can tilt a poem one way or the other. 

In the poem above, I chose "stillness of pictures" for Rilke's "Stille der Bilder". Stille in German means both stillness (lack of motion) and silence — the translator might go with either. 

Likewise, Bilder could refer either to literal pictures or to mental images. So the reader of German gets both (all) resonances; the translation's reader gets a narrowed interpretation. 

In this case I went for "stillness of pictures" because of the preceding literal reference to statues, and because of the assonance; however, the English-language reader thereby loses the idea of silence pertaining to music, and of the mental image (though pictures might suggest them).

It's not a matter of the choices here being right or wrong; all translations are in a sense provisional and incomplete insofar as they convey any "original". 

Of course it's also not a case of there being only one or two polysemous words — all language has this lovely problem — but often a poem is built around the charge of a particularly ambiguous word or two.

There's a similar apparently "simple" hinge-word in the following poem. 

Rainer Maria Rilke

Breath, you invisible poem!
Outer space always purely
exchanged for our being. Equilibrium
in which I happen rhythmically.

Single wave, whose
gradual sea I am;
you thriftiest of all possible seas, —
gaining of room.

How many of these points in space were already
inside me. Many a current of air is like
a son to me.

Do you recognise me, air, you full of my past places?
You, once smooth bark,
curve and leaf of my words.

         trans. Tracy Ryan

The hinge-word I'm thinking of here is Blatt in German, both leaf and sheet (as in a sheet for writing on). The German text has clearly set up the plant associations with bark, curve, leaf, but though the English "leaf" can also refer to the page of a book, it doesn't sound quite as strongly for both senses in English. That is, when the reader sees it in English, it doesn't seem to stand quite as clearly as both tree-leaf and leaf written upon.

Working on translations (and especially revisiting them) is a great way to hone one's consciousness of this "problem" -- it's a problem that's really a gift.

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