Friday, 1 June 2012

Translations of Two Rilke Poems: Herbsttag and Panther

Rainer Maria Rilke was not taught in any English class I have taken, probably because he wrote in German. It is a pity, though, because the short quotations of his work that I occasionally read in translation seem wise and beautiful. He is well known for his book Letters to a Young Poet as well as for his poetry.

The movie Awakenings included a translation of the poem that seems to be the best-known of his works to the English-speaking world, "Der Panther." He wrote it after seeing a panther pacing his cage in Paris. It was published in 1902.  This page contains many alternative translations of this poem. The original looks like this:
Der Panther (Im Jardin des Plantes, Paris)
Rainer Maria Rilke
Sein Blick ist vom Vorübergehen der Stäbe
so müd geworden, daß er nichts mehr hält.
Ihm ist, als ob es tausend Stäbe gäbe
und hinter tausend Stäben keine Welt.

Der weiche Gang geschmeidig starker Schritte,
der sich im allerkleinsten Kreise dreht,
ist wie ein Tanz von Kraft um eine Mitte,
in der betäubt ein großer Wille steht.

Nur manchmal schiebt der Vorhang der Pupille
sich lautlos auf -. Dann geht ein Bild hinein,
geht durch der Glieder angespannter Stille -
und hört im Herzen auf zu sein. 

It sounds like this:

I wrote several translations of it, using German dictionaries and other translators' comments as a guide. I wanted to retain the formality of its structure and the original rhyme scheme, as much as possible. Out of those translations, the best, I think, is this one:
The Panther
By Rainer Maia Rilke
Translated by Gareth Jones
His gaze is, from the passing of the bars,
exhausted; they are all it holds,
as if, surrounding him, a thousand bars,
and past the thousand bars, no world.

The strong and supple motion of each joint
move him in the smallest round,
like rippling forces dancing round a point
where, numb, a mighty will is bound.

At times, the curtains pull back in his eyes
without a sound--an image comes,
through the tension of still limbs it flies,
and touches on his heart, and dies.
Another of Rilke's short poems is "Herbsttag" ("Autumn Day"). It is, apparently, a common favorite in Germany. The original is this:
Rainer Maria Rilke

Herr: es ist Zeit. Der Sommer war sehr groß.
Leg deinen Schatten auf die Sonnenuhren,
und auf den Fluren laß die Winde los.

Befiel den letzten Früchten voll zu sein;
gib ihnen noch zwei südlichere Tage,
dränge sie zur Vollendung hin und jage
die letzte Süße in den schweren Wein.

Wer jetzt kein Haus hat, baut sich keines mehr.
Wer jetzt allein ist, wird Es lange bleiben,
wird wachen, lesen, lange Briefe schreiben
und wird in den Alleen hin und her
unruhig wandern, wenn die Blätter treiben
The original sounds like this:

There is a wonderful play of alliteration, rhyme, consonance, and assonance in this poem that makes it a challenge to translate. Similar sounds ripple through a line like "Wer jetzt kein Haus hat, baut sich keines mehr." You can hear the wind whistling with the "ss" sound in the phrase "laß die Winde los." I did my best and came up with this.
Autumn Day
By Rainer Maria Rilke
Translated by Gareth Jones

Lord, it's time. The summer's greatness, done.
Lay your shadows on the sun clocks and
Let the winds across the grasslands run.

Tell last fruits to ripen on the vine.
Give them two more days of southern heat
Urge them to perfection and then speed
Their final sweetness to the heavy wine.

He who has no home will build no more.
He who is alone, for long will be,
Will lie awake, read, write endlessly
And throughout the broad streets here and there
Restless wander while the leaves blow free.

I am proud of this, but I would enjoy reading your comments on it.

Update: I wonder if "the mighty supple motion of each joint" is better than "the strong and supple." It does sound better, I think.


Update: I've had more problems with the second stanza of "Autumn Day" than any other. Specifically, the second and the last line of it. The original just says, "Give them two more southern days," but there is no word meaning "to hurry" that rhymes with "days." Thus, I ended up with "heat" (which is implied by the word "southern") and "speed."

It just occurred to me that I could also use

Tell last fruits to ripen on the vine,
Give them two more Southern days to blush,
Urge them to perfection and then rush
Their final sweetness to the heavy wine.

"Rush" is a better word than "speed." It sounds like liquid flowing. And though "blush" is no more in the original than "heat" is, its meaning connects to the next line ("urge them to perfection") and is the purpose of asking for the southern days.

I don't know if, overall, that's an improvement, though. Those two lines have been hard.


  1. Congratulations! A verse translation of Herbsttag is very difficult to say the least. (I just tried it.)

    You keep the meter well, but to my ears your trochee changes the rhythmic character considerably. The verse lines feel a bit isolated. Rilke uses the iamb and a lot of tempo changes too with a very distinct rhythm for each stanza. In the first one, for example, there are few strong stresses (just two in line 2 and 3). It feels like an accelerating prayer. The second stanza is much more regular (like a quatrain of a sonnet) and feels more festive and "grand". The third one is a flattering ghost.

    Actually I think your last two stanzas are pretty good. Your first one has perhaps too many heavy stresses. Maybe the inner rhyme, "-uhren"/"Fluren" should be translated (some use "shadows"/"meadows").

    All in all bravo, and congratulations again!

    1. Thank you very much for your comment. When I put up these poems, I hoped that people would read them who could appreciate the labour and would appreciate the result. It's satisfying to find an audience.

      When I started the poem, I set the rhythm to match whatever the first line turned out to be. "Herr: es ist Zeit. Der Sommer war sehr groß" sounded impatient and preremptory...and trochaic. In retrospect, I should have paid attention to the alternation of masculine and feminine rhymes. Having all masculine rhymes probably produces the isolated feeling of the lines you mention, although ending one line with "and" should mitigate that a little! And you're right, the "-uhren"/"Fluren" rhyme would have been nice to reproduce, but I was more concerned with filling the last line of the first stanza with "s" sounds to match " laß die Winde los." I wanted it to sound like the wind over grass.

      I appreciate your comments about the different rhythms in each stanza. I'd missed that, I'm afraid.

      Once again, thanks.