Reading Rilke: Reflections on the Problems of Translation

William H. Gass, Author
William H. Gass, Author Alfred A. Knopf $25 (256p) ISBN 978-0-375-40312-5
Reviewed on: 08/30/1999
Release date: 09/01/1999
Paperback - 256 pages - 978-0-465-02622-7
Open Ebook - 1 pages - 978-1-299-74306-9
Open Ebook - 256 pages - 978-0-8041-5092-7
Paperback - 272 pages - 978-1-56478-912-9
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In 1922, four years before he died of leukemia at age 51, Rilke finally completed the Duino Elegies, named for the castle where they poured out over an intensive four day (and night) period; within days of their completion, the Sonnets to Orpheus emerged as a reality-affirming coda. Rilke's dense and intricate verbal texture has made translation all the more irresistible over the years, and Gass, an intellectual eminence (Cartesian Sonata; Finding a Form; The Tunnel; etc.) is the first to meet the challenge discursively: this genre-bending book is a series of personal essays--at times veering between melodramatic and elliptical--that explore Rilke's biography as much as they address Gass's own difficult choices in the translations scattered throughout. Gass vividly evokes a poet ""getting used to strange dark halls, guest beds, always cadging and scrounging, eating poorly,"" finding Rilke's lyrics ""obdurate, complex, and compacted... displaying an orator's theatrical power, while remaining as suited to a chamber and its music as a harpsichord."" In the translations themselves, however, Gass tends to replace complexity with unwarranted truism, as in the Fourth elegy--""but the contours of our feelings stay unknown/ when public pressure shapes the face we know""--as if to shield readers from the difficult and the strange. (Translations of all 10 elegies appear in an appendix at the book's end.) That said, Gass has an impressive ear for dramatic prosody, and a sensitivity to Rilke's playfulness and formal elegance (especially in the Tenth Elegy). Its willingness to be bold in a climate of scholarly restraint makes this translation one of the best available--superior, in particular, to the once-standard versions by Leishman and Spender, and to the recent versions of Stephen Mitchell. (Sept.)
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