January 11, 2013

Art Beck



The American Literary Translators Association is a loosely knit, unique organization where academics and professional linguists interact with an eclectic mix of creative writers and poets. (A number of its members wear all the above hats.) A perennial topic at annual conferences is the question of translating poetic form. What follows is adapted from my notes for a 2003 panel talk on translating form in poetry. “Reading papers” is strictly forbidden at ALTA panels, and hopefully this piece retains some of the conversational dynamic of an ALTA conference.

Let me preface by saying that I plan to talk about some specific Rilke poems—some of which I translated in “free-form” in the late ’70s. And re-translated more formally in the last several years. But before getting specific, I’d like to talk about what I think are some of the general questions inherent in translating form into similar form. Some of these have to do with something as basic as positing a definition of poetry.

I don’t know if my experience is similar to yours, but for years I happily wrote poetry without giving much of a thought to poetics. It wasn’t until I started translating that questions of theory began to get insistent.

Until then, I have to confess I never asked myself what constituted a poem. But when you take on the task of translating someone else’s poem in someone else’s language into a poem in your language—you do have to ask yourself—just what is a poem?

I began translating poetry in the early ’70s—a time when hardly anyone thought of writing in anything but free verse. This made defining a poem harder than, say, in the 19th or early 20th century when end line rhyme schemes dominated. Then a poem either rhymed or—it wasn’t a poem.

Along these lines, a 19th century American translator of Horace, William Peterfield Trent wrote:

When the translator makes up his mind to attempt a close approximation to the Horatian meter, it would seem that he should eschew the use of rhyme as likely to operate against that effect of likeness to the original which he is striving to secure. But, since the use of rhyme in lyric poetry appears … to be essential at present if the English version is to be acceptable as poetry, this close approximation can be desirable in a few special cases, only.

From the 18th through the 19th century, Horace was almost universally cast in strictly rhymed translations. Of course, this kind of thing grates today. Horace wrote in formal meters, but rhyme was only an incidental embellishment in his poetry. Why artificially impose a rhyme scheme that isn’t there? But can’t the same objection be made to ignoring a rhyme scheme in the original?

What Trent said is also good to keep in mind if anyone is inclined to question why the modernists felt the need for liberation from rhyme schemes. But, now we’re liberated and we face the other side of the coin.

There’s a 1948 entry in the Greek Nobelist George Seferis’ (mid 20th century) diary that contrasts formal and informal ages and implicitly points up one of the problems inherent when an “in-formalist” tries to mimic a formalist. To quote Seferis:

In Byzantine art everything is traditional, predetermined by tradition … It is a “god-given” art … it issues from the “Sacred Scarf,” the icons are miraculous because they are god-given; its basis is imitation. And yet, in spite of what people say, it has lived, with intermittent reflowering, for so many centuries. In this art the excellent artist excels by a minute deviation from the traditional …  The ultimate evil of the Byzantines is ossification, the ultimate evil for us is dissolution.

In other words, in formal periods the craft may lie in the constraints—but the art is always a jailbreak. The in-formalist trying to imitate the formalist needs to remember that breaking into jail isn’t very exciting.

Of course, informal poetry, as Seferis says, has its own danger—dissolution. The danger of becoming mere “words on paper.” For me, one working definition of a poem—formal or informal—is: an arrangement of words that has reached the point of becoming something that can’t be said in any other way—the point where language talks back to you.

But this is of course hopefully the case with the poem you’re translating. So how do you find another way of saying what can’t be said any other way?

I’m going to offer the opinion that one way you can’t do it is simply by imitation. From the time Robert Lowell used Imitations as a title for his collection of loose translations, I’ve always disliked calling translations “imitations.” And I think Lowell’s translations are the opposite of what I perceive as “imitation.” For me, imitation is akin to a slavish art forgery.

Conversely, I think a successful poetic translation reaches into the original, and draws as much directly from the landscape that’s portrayed as from the original poem’s portrayal. The object of the translation is, ideally, not the “portrait,” but the subject of the portrait: A new poem that attempts to tap the same source the original poem tapped.

That, of course, is what Lowell was doing and, while his caveat not to expect a literal translation was appropriate, I wish he had used a different word. I’d have preferred “performance.”

What I think is essential to a “performance” is—for want of a better word—what I characterize as the “internalization” process. The long, slow taking in of the original until you reach a point where you’re no longer working with the energy of words in the source language, but in your own. So that like a fledging swimmer plucked from a pool and tossed into a river, the poem and its images either sink or swim on its own in English. (Or whatever language you’re writing in.)

The implication with any performance is that the performer won’t be invisible. But that presence may be more or less noticeable. For example, you can’t listen to John Lewis’ adaptations of Bach without being aware that Lewis is a jazz pianist having a dialogue with Bach. What he’s playing isn’t quite jazz, isn’t quite Bach—but there’s a distinct sense that Bach might tap his foot and smile. Glenn Gould is a pure classical pianist, but are his renditions of the Goldberg Variations—music originally written for a plucked keyboard and reborn with all the dynamic nuances of the pianoforte and Gould’s rich ear—any more “pure Bach” than John Lewis’ syncopated renditions?

Which brings us back to breaking in and out of jail. What happens with Gould and Lewis—with any performer worth listening to—is that they’re enraptured—arrested if you will—by the piece they’re performing. They’re already in jail and free to plot their break.



In poetry, the “jailbreak” is the difference between writing into a form or out of a form. Perhaps it’s worth remembering that Rilke whipped out the 55 Sonnets to Orpheus in what he claimed was a two week space in 1922. It’s obvious he wasn’t writing into but out of the form—the way Charlie Parker might roll out chorus after chorus of the blues. I use Parker as an example, rather than someone more traditional, say Jimmy Rushing, because in the Orpheus sequence I think Rilke stood the traditional sonnet on its head.

The sonnet form often takes on an almost geometric progression leading to a “closed conclusion.” The Sonnets to Orpheus, and even some earlier Rilke sonnets such as Archaic Torso, tend instead to take flight and end with harmonic ambiguities and open statements. It’s worth noting, I think, that when Rilke returned to the sonnet form for this late in life sequence, he said he wanted an “open,” “conjugated” sonnet, i.e. something both akin to and yet not a traditional sonnet.

One of the problems in translating these poems formally is that I don’t think we have any precedent for them in the traditional closed iambic logic of the English sonnet. They almost require a new sense of form in English. I’ve always felt that Rilke stands with one foot in the 19th and century with the other firmly planted in 21st. So for me, the main danger in translating these essentially modern—maybe even still emergent—poems is that in chasing form we may risk pushing back into the 19th century rather than to following to where the poem is pulling us.

But conversely, how can you ignore the question of form in a poem like #5 Volume 1 of the Sonnets to Orpheus. My translation is still in an early draft, but far enough along I think to demonstrate a point.

As an aside, one reason I’m tentative about the quality of my translation attempt is that Rilke’s poem has such big historic echoes—Shakespeare’s sonnet #55: “Not marble, nor the gilded monuments of princes shall outlive this powerful rhyme … ”

And Horace’s Ode #30, book 3, which Shakespeare probably drew on for his sonnet #55. The Horace ode opens (in Burton Raffel’s translation): “The monument I’ve made for myself will outlast/ brass, reaches higher than Egyptian/ kings and their pyramids … ”

Rilke, in his sonnet, focuses not on his own mastery, but on the prototypical mythic poet, Orpheus, who serves throughout the sequence as a persona for Rilke, the poet and man. And distinct from its predecessors, Rilke’s sonnet speaks to the vulnerability as well as durability of poetry. It begins:

Errichtet keinen Denkstein. Laßt die Rose
nur jedes Jahr zu seinen Gunsten blühn.
Denn Orpheus ists. Seine Metamorphose
in dem und dem. Wir sollen uns nicht mühn …

Don’t erect memorials of stone. Just let the rose
bloom every spring as his token. Because this
too is Orpheus—another of his metamorphoses
into one thing or another. Why stress ourselves

deciphering all his names? If there’s singing,
now and forever, it’s Orpheus as he comes and goes.
Isn’t it enough that every so often he lingers
a few days with the rose petals in the bowl?

So much of him has to wither so you can know.
That frightens him too, as he fades. But just as his
word goes beyond what’s here, what’s now—

he’s already there: alone where you can’t be.
The bars of the lyre strings don’t cramp his
fingers. Even transgressing he obeys.

A poem, I think, not only about the coexistence of life and death in poetry, but, incidentally, about form and the jailbreak of art.



Below are samples of my old and more recent translations of two of the Sonnets to Orpheus. The first versions date from a volume I published in the early ’80s and obviously the translations aren’t in sonnet form.

Let me tell you a little of what I was trying to do. At the time Rilke wasn’t the icon in America he’s since become. The only translations I was aware of were Mrs. Norton’s and Mac Intyre’s and a few others dating from the ’30s and ’40s. But this was also the time that David Young’s iconoclastic translations of the Duino Elegies started coming out in Field. They bowled me over. Young recast the Elegies in William Carlos William-like triplets that seemed to energize and focus the rambling poems. This was a poet I didn’t recognize in Norton or Mac Intyre. So I started playing with translating Rilke on my own—not the Elegies but the New Poems and Orpheus sonnets. Above all. I wanted to hang onto that “21st century leg.” Not only, sad to say, did I not have the slightest interest in the sonnet form, I couldn’t have written one if I wanted to. I was a child of my time.

I still like some of those old translations although I wouldn’t do them this way again. I imagine some of you may like them, and others will grit your teeth. But—I think—for reasons other than formal vs. informal. It’s interesting that the editor of the chapbook series these first appeared in was a budding formalist and I got surprisingly warm feedback on my 1983 volume from other dedicated formalists. But for a lot of people, these won’t sound like the Rilke they’ve come to love. It’s the voice not the form—and that voice was intentional on my part.

I’m also including my recent, more “formalist” translations. The new versions were prompted by a challenge from someone I respected, but the re-translation went far beyond a re-casting as “faux sonnets.” In revisiting the Sonnets to Orpheus, I found that in my young enthusiasm I’d often left half the poem on the table. But what didn’t change much, I think, was the voice—for me Rilke’s “voice” seems to live in the harmonic, half elusive images—not especially the rhyme or meter. Rather in a more subtle underlying music that resonates with what might be said as much as with what’s said.

I should note that I use the term faux-sonnet because none of these use full rhyme. Some of it may be a continued lack of skill on my part, but over time I’ve also come to feel that English has come from being the language of a small island to being a planetary language. There’s no longer any one correct way to speak it. It’s too dynamic and fluid. And for me at least, it likes assonance and corresponding words and hints of rhyme. When I find myself using full rhyme, it’s usually in a comic mode.

For readers accustomed to a “different” Rilke voice, I can only offer that as with any performance, the choices are personal and will vary between performers. I think it’s wonderful that America is rich enough to have dozens of versions of the Sonnets to Orpheus—the Germans can only have one. But, of course, they’ve kept the best for themselves.

from Rattle e.8, Spring 2010 (PDF)


Art Beck is a San Francisco poet and translator who’s published two translation volumes: Simply to See: Poems of Lurorius (Poltroon Press, Berkeley, 1990) and a selection Rilke (Elysian Press, New York, 1983). His chapbook, Summer with all its Clothes Off, is reviewed by Ellaraine Lockie  in Rattle E-Reviews. His article on Rilke, And Yet Another Archaic Torso– Why? can be accessed in the Australian online journal Jacket at: www.jacketmagazine.com