Rainer Maria Rilke's Neue Gedichte have attracted translators much less frequently than have the elegies and the sonnets. All the more reason, then, to welcome Stephen Cohn's translation, now in paperback.
Cohn provides us with a marvellously urgent and readable Rilke. On the whole he does not seek to reproduce Rilke's amazing facility with rhyme. In consequence, his versions sometimes lack the hypnotic, incantatory quality of Rilke's verse, the sense of materiality consorting and colluding with the poetic task. Yet there are gains - not least because English frequently handles the concrete, tactile and immediate more effectively than does German. So, in place of ontology we get a rich sense of materiality. Which may be no bad thing (not least because of Rilke's much-vaunted relationship to things). Particularly the poems concerned with human figures and their experience are enriched by a sense of human drama. Witness the last stanza of Madchen-Klage: "and I felt cast out, an exile/ in a solitude grown monstrous,/ hearing all my senses cry/ from their hill-top, from my breasts:/ Give us wings or let us die!" or the opening of Uebung am Klavier: "Breathing the fresh scent of her cotton dress,/ feeling the summer buzzing drowsily,/ she made a cut-and-dried etude express/ how bored she was with unreality." Certain cherished Rilkean themes - such as the notion of love without possession - acquire a sharper moral focus than in the original. In Der Auferstandene, for example, the final stanza reads: "he meant to build of her that loving woman/ who keeps true faith but finds the strength to part;/ whose courage and whose force surpasses all men's/ when driven by the tempests of the heart." Similarly, the poems that express a surrender to and sense of place gain from Cohn's vigorous particularity. The opening of Quai du Rosaire is superb: "The little streets stroll at a gentle pace/ (dawdling like convalescents at a spa,/ halting to wonder - what was it stood here?),/ they take long rests each time they reach a Place." In this stanza Cohn manages - as he does occasionally elsewhere in the volume - to re-create Rilke's rhyme (Gang/lang; pace/Place). Here the masculine rhyme rings out with splendid authority.
Equally, there are casualties. Some have to do with the differences between the two languages; echoes, double meanings in one are simply not reproducible in the other. The central lines of L'Ange du Meridien (with their play on the multiple meanings and the sound value of gleich) are bound to induce translator's despair: "...wie dir unsre Stunden/ abgleiten von der vollen Sonnenuhr,/ auf der des Tages ganze Zahl zugleich,/ gleich wirklich, steht in tiefem Gleichgewichte,/ als waren alle Stunden reif und reich?" And the operation of gender in English as largely a matter of commonsense referentiality (males are he, females she, things it) is a cruel handicap when a poem such as Spanische Tanzerin is at stake, because Rilke plays wonderfully with the female of the dancer (Tanzerin) and of the flame, and the masculine of the dance: "...beginnt im Kreis/ naher Beschauer hastig, hell und heiss/ ihr runder Tanz sich zuckend auszubreiten./ Und plotzlich ist er Flamme, ganz und gar./ Mit einem Blick entzundet sie ihr Haar..." Sometimes, however, the loss is occasioned not just by the English language but by Cohn's unwillingness to hear some of Rilke's ontological intimations. In Der Stylit "und da war kein Ende: er verglich;/ und der Andre wurde immer grosser" seems to me to be travestied rather than translated in "He preached on forever, he compared/ and grew ever smaller by comparison." The closing cadence of Romische Fontane loses the force of Rilke's contrast between humankind, displaced by transitions, and the radiant integrity of the fountain's movement - "it lets an absent-minded trickle go/ sliding along the mossy ornaments - / the basin shining upwards at its flow." Particularly troubling is the end of Leda, where Rilke's expression of multiple transformations acquires a very male macho register: "he fell upon the maiden: frenziedly/ he thrust into his love, dissolved in her./ Locked in her lap and every inch a swan/ he felt a feather grow on every feather." The plusses and minuses of Cohn's work can best be seen in his rendering of Das Karusell. Many passages strike me as quite wonderful ("a tiny girl in blue, strapped safely in"; "the hot excited hands hold very tight"); but on occasion the mystery of the poem is forfeited ("And sometimes children's voices unrestrained/ sound out in brilliant laughter, while they stay/ enchanted in their breathless, endless play").
I do not want to end on a negative note. Cohn's translations gave me enormous pleasure; they carry the reader irresistibly along. We are given both the German and the English and there is an affectionate and thoughtful introduction by John Bayley. And all this for under £10.
Martin Swales is professor of German, University College London.
Neue Gedichte/New Poems
Author - Rainer Maria Rilke
ISBN - 1 85754 323 8
Publisher - Carcanet Press
Price - £9.95
Pages - 296
Translator - Stephen Cohn