“Spanish Dancing Aboard the Queen Elizabeth” by Art Beck

Art Beck


(in collaboration with Silvia Kofler)

I. A Small Question of He or It

At this year’s American Literary Translators Association conference, Silvia Kofler, an old friend and colleague, showed me a translation of Rilke’s “Spanish Dancer” that she’d come across in an anthology. “Look how they translated this line! Why?” And so began a conversation. While I take full blame for the vagaries of the translation at the end
of this piece, this essay is really a joint endeavor, a record of the dialogue between Silvia and myself.

Silvia is a native Austrian who emigrated to the United States in her twenties. She’s a published poet in both English and German. Rilke is, of course, a poet she’s known since her school days, but it’s worth noting that Rilke is not, for contemporary German readers, the ubiquitously read icon he is in America. A German speaking poetry reader might delve into Rilke as often as contemporary Americans read, say, Wallace Stevens.

And as for us with Stevens, the German reader often has to slow down and mull over just what it is that Rilke is saying. But in this case, Silvia seemed emphatic.

Silvia’s issue was a line in Rilke’s “Spanish Dancer.” Und plötzlich ist er Flamme ganz und gar. The line comes immediately after the first stanza and is, in fact, a stanza unto itself. “Spanish Dancer,” an extended metaphor set in a Paris nightclub, is one of Rilke’s least opaque poems. Most, if not all, Englishspeaking translators have roughly followed Herter Norton’s 1938 translation. Norton’s reading of the first stanza and the stand-alone line that follows is:

Wie in der Hand ein Schwefelzündholz, weiss,
eh es zur Flamme kommt, nach allen Seiten
zuckende Zugen streckt -: beginnt im Kreis
naher Beschauer hastig, hell und heiss
ihr runder Tanz sich zuckend auszubreiten.
Und plötzlich ist er Flamme ganz und gar.

As in one’s hand a sulfur match, whitely,
before it comes aflame, to every side
darts twitching tongues – : within the circle
of close watchers hasty, bright and hot
her round dance begins twitching to spread itself.
And suddenly it is altogether flame.

Why, Silvia asked, did they translate er as it when it should be he?

The answer that Rilke’s myriad translators would uniformly give her is that in German, unlike English, inanimate nouns are gender specific. Either masculine or feminine. Der Tanz is masculine. And so in German, the pronoun for dance is “he.” And er, in this case, refers to the dance.

It’s logical. There’s no “he” mentioned anywhere else in the poem. And, as I said above, I’m not aware of any English or American translator who’s treated the line otherwise.

But, no, no—Silvia said. Sure that’s “logical,” but it’s not the way a native speaker would read this poem—at least at first. This, after all, is a very erotic piece and it’s as much about a man watching as a woman dancing.

Which got me thinking. Grammar has rules that seem logical, but poetry has it’s own linguistic logic. And Rilke, especially, has his own poetics. His imagery can be as musical as his metrics—often fugue-like and ambiguous with interchangeable melody and harmonic lines as it were. In this context, it may well be that another native speaker might read this line differently than Silvia has always read it. But why does she read (and want to read) er as a he rather than a gendered dance? What happens when you interject a specific man into the poem?

First, to me, the effect is reminiscent of a film director zooming in on a face in the crowd. It crystallizes and personalizes the eroticism of the dance. And second, it stops you (at least in German) because you have to ask yourself—did Rilke really mean “he”? And so that image might (for another German reader) flash and disappear if you finally settle on “it.” But the image is there, at least subliminally.

And one shouldn’t overlook the poem’s line structure. Rilke has set one stand-alone line between two five line stanzas. He’s making us stop; the standalone line doesn’t flow smoothly from the Tanz in the previous stanza. Read by itself, without referring to the previous stanza, er is just as readily he as it.

It’s hard for an English speaker to connect with this, because we have so few gender specific inanimate nouns. What’s happening in the German, seems to me, to be similar to what happens if you come across something like:

The queen boarded the Queen Elizabeth
then she promptly set out to sea.

Is the “she” that sets out to sea the queen or the ship? You stop to think, and may say, what’s the difference because both, in fact, set out to sea. But you stop to think. And the image of the queen and the Queen both come to mind.


II. But How in the World Can You Translate Something Like That?

I’m not sure, but I think it’s a good example of why poems as resonant as Rilke’s benefit from regular re-translation. It’s a commonplace observation that Rilke has become overdone in English. There are commercial reasons for this—he’s in the public domain, and most of the selections sell. Sadly, most of the selections read like workshopped versions of each other. So the only reason to do another version is to try to bring something across that hasn’t been attempted. And I think that’s a good enough reason here.


III. So Here’s the Attempt

Some tricks just can’t be duplicated. I can’t think of a masculine English noun remotely equivalent to “dance.” My first thought was to just choose “he”—as Silvia seems to have done. Say something like and suddenly he’s utterly on fire.

That’s consistent, it adds a close-up of a face in the crowd that instantly focuses the poem, makes the dance as much a dialogue as a performance. I can understand why Silvia was so incensed at losing this aspect in the translation she read.

But then, is that too onedimensional? Does it lose the resonance implicit in choosing
between images? You could also dodge the issue entirely and say: and suddenly, completely, helplessly: -fire. Leaving out both “he” or “it.”

If you took that approach, you could stretch Beschauer—spectators, watchers—into something more gender specific and overtly erotic, like voyeurs.

But then you lose that wonderful effect of a close-up, zoom in.

And—as Silvia pointed out to me as our dialogue progressed—there’s another subtlety in the way Beschauer is used. This is another masculine noun, but also one that in German normally takes its singular or plural form from whether it’s prefaced by the masculine der (singular) or the feminine article die. In this case, it’s not prefaced by a definite article, because the plural is inferred from Kreis—the circle of spectators.

Even so, Silvia observed—the lack of the usual definite article might subtly nudge the German reader into the ambiguity of er in the standalone line.

Most of this isn’t possible in English. So finally, the best approach may be to try to find the tangled resonance of “he/it” elsewhere in the poem. And just overtly go with what seems Rilke’s intent.


Rainer Maria Rilke


Wie in der Hand ein Schwefelzündholz, weiss,
eh es zur Flamme kommt, nach allen Seiten
zuckende Zugen streckt -: beginnt im Kreis
naher Beschauer hastig, hell und heiss
ihr runder Tanz sich zuckend auszubreiten.

Und plötzlich ist er Flamme ganz und gar.

Mit Ihren Blick entzündet sie ihr Haar
und dreht auf einmal mit gewagter Kunst,
ihr ganzes Kleid in diese Feursbrunst,
aus welcher sich, wie Schlangen, die erschrecken,
die nackte Arme wach und klappernd strecken.

Und dann: als wurde ihr das Feuer knapp,
nimmt sie es ganz zusamm und wirft es ab
sehr herrisch, mit hochmütiger Gebärde
und schaut: da liegt es resend auf der Erde
und flammt noch immer ergibt sich nicht -,
Doch sieghaft, sicher und mit einem süssen
grüssenden Lächeln hebt sie ihr Gesicht
und stampft es aus mit kleinen festen Füssen.

Rainer Maria Rilke
—tr. Art Beck


The way a sulfur match, cupped in the hand, whitens
before it flames, licks out in every direction: –
within the intent ring of watching eyes,
the quick, bright heat of her circling
feet shivers until it flares.

And suddenly he and the dance are altogether fire.

With a blink, she ignites her hair,
then instantly with seductive mastery,
whirls her entire dress into the bonfire
from which her naked arms rear
up like startled rattlesnakes.

As the fire finally clings to her like a slip,
she strips it off completely, aristocratically tosses
it aside with a haughty shrug. And watches:
There it lies, smoldering on the ground, still
burning and unwilling to surrender. And with
a smile on her face and a sweet “hello,” she
stamps it out with small, sure steps.

from Rattle e.6, Spring 2009 (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). He’s currently trying to atone for some of his earlier Rilke versions by retranslating the Sonnets to Orpheus.

Silvia Kofler teaches at Rockhurst University and is editor/publisher of the poetry magazine, Thorny Locust. Her latest poetry collection, Radioactive Musings, was included in the Kansas City Star’s Top 100 books of 2007 by local authors.

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