I've said it before
: Rilke in translation is often misrepresented. And with the advent of the so-called "inescapable unicorn trend"
, he might become as misunderstood for his unicorns as for his angels.
However, that is no reason not to go on translating him (as Gass
suggests, "Great poems are like granaries: they are always ready to enlarge their store.").
Despite Clive James's assertion
"[p]oets in English continue to line up for the inevitable failure of translating his short lyrics" and "everyone falls short",
I don't find Rilke as precious as people sometimes say -- though perhaps that's because I'm reading German not
as a native speaker, so for me it has a toughness to it. The English translations sometimes do veer into being precious.
His unicorns are nothing like a high-sugar "frappuccino", or like the bizarre cake
(non-vegan, not recommended!) I saw as I walked past a Miss Maud's yesterday...
He revisits unicorns in more than one poetic context: the most interesting to me is his response to the Lady and the Unicorn tapestries at the Musée national du Moyen Âge
in Paris. (They also appear in his one novel
As a young woman I had a print of one panel from the tapestries on the wall of my flat; later in the '90s I first got to see the real thing on a visit to Paris with John and our then-small daughter.
There are six of these tapestries. The one shown here is for me the most mysterious: the tent bears the words, "À mon seul désir", which can mean more than one thing ("by my desire alone"; "to my only desire", etc).
Here is a very simple English-language, deliberately colloquial, approximation of Rilke's poem. He keeps the French name for the tapestries.
More unicorns will follow.
Rainer Maria Rilke
La Dame à la licorne
(Tapestries in the Hôtel de Cluny)
for Stina Frisell
Woman and Worthiest: we’re always sure
to wound women’s destiny we just don’t get.
We are for you the still-not-matured-yet
for your life, that if we even graze against it
turns to unicorn, a shy white creature,
who flees... and has enormous fear that you
yourself / how slight it passes out of view /
after much unhappy living only
just find it again, warm, breathless, easily
startled. Then you stay with it, far from us
and softly your hands move over the keys
of the day’s work; things are meek in your service,
yet this is the sole desire you wish to fulfil:
that the unicorn find this once a forceful
mirror for its lulled image in your soul.
[trans. Tracy Ryan]
Gass, W. H. (1999) Reading Rilke: reflections on the problems of translation. NY, Basic Books, p. 49