Thursday, September 29, 2011

Rilke: I have many brothers in the South/Ich habe viele Brüder in Sutanen

I've been touching the subject of blackness and stillness earlier. I have known Rilke for a while, but haven't really read that much of him. Why? My rather lacking skills in German as well as a lack of Norwegian translations of the works I am most interested in. I know there are quite a few English translations out there, but being a speaker of a Germanic language, an English translation just isn't the same as a Scandinavian one.

My interest for this poet has been ignited, though. Funnily enough through an English translation made by Robert Bly.

What attracted me is the following:

Ich habe viele Brüder in Soutanen
im Süden, wo in Klöstern Lorbeer steht.
Ich weiß, wie menschlich sie Madonnen planen,
und träume oft von jungen Tizianen,
durch die der Gott in Gluten geht.

Doch wie ich mich auch in mich selber neige:
Mein Gott ist dunkel und wie ein Gewebe
von hundert Wurzeln, welche schweigsam trinken.
Nur, daß ich mich aus seiner Wärme hebe,
mehr weiß ich nicht, weil alle meine Zweige
tief unten ruhn und nur im Winde winken.

* * *

I have many brothers in the South.
Laurels stand there in monastery gardens.
I know in what a human way they imagine the Madonna,
and I think often of young Titians
through whom God walks burning.

Yet no matter how deeply I go into myself
my God is dark, and in a webbing made
of a hundred roots, that drink in silence.
I know that my trunk rose from this warmth, but that's all,
because my branches hardly move at all
near the ground, and just wave a little in the wind.

* * *

This piece is part of a longer poem from the work Das Stunden-Buch or The book of Hours.

Strange when you recognise so much in a few words, that someone across time can express something so recognisable to you. Rilke is a Northern European and as much as he likes and admires the southern style of worshipping through "burning" paintings, Madonnas and the like, he sees that his own depths are different.  They are dark, a web of a hundred roots that drink in silence. That sentence alone opens my being to this poet.

There is a word in Norwegian (and German) which doesn't have a good correlate in English, which I think this poem reflects. The word is "inderlig" (German: innig) - an adjective or adverb, and "inderlighet" (innigkeit) - noun. What does this describe? A kind of intense personal longing, passionate, with a melancholy side to it - and very personal or even private. The longing is not necessary to this word (begriff), but I put it in this attempt to explain to get at the intensity this word describes. Also, "passionate" gives off rather too warm connotations. Innigkeit/inderlighet has something cool in it - hence the whiff of melancholy.

I understand only too well how he knows his trunk rose from the warmth of the southern cultures, but that up here, in this Northern European consciousness, it is cooler, sharper, and in a strange personal way more intense. Take Luther - the reformation of the Roman Catholic church began in Germany. Not a coincidence. Your relationship to God is deeply personal. Rilke's God is dark (dunkel) and drinking cool water from a deep well. This is the sense I get. The silence, darkness, the sinking feeling of an immense depth - all part of a strongly "inderlig" relationship to yourself and at the same time your god. The sentence "Doch wie ich mich auch in mich selber neige" / "Yet no matter how deeply I go into myself" also points to a Northern European tendency - that of turning inwards, of contemplating silently on your own, in an innig way. His branches growing out of his trunk embedded in the warm, southern history and mindset hardly move at all - they only wave a little in the wind. Why is this so recognisable? The whole image he gives off just fits with a sense I have of ground, of what I rest upon, spring from. A cultural layer, I believe, that easily can be mistaken as a personal layer.

Look at the man's eyes and you can see the darkness, depth and stillness centred. I think maybe only this picture would have made me realise he is a poet to my liking.

And thank goodness for bilateral translations! Now I can learn a lot more of the German language, via English. Kind of ironic, but effective. It is possible to wish to learn a language fully because of an author you like. T. S. Eliot with Dante, J. L. Borges with Ibsen. Rilke definitely tickles that bone in me.

My God is dark, and in a webbing made of a hundred roots, that drink in silence.


Lyle Daggett said...

I first read Rilke something like 35 years ago. I was a college student at the time, and met weekly with a group of writers (mostly poets) to read and talk about our work. Several of the people in the group were reading Rilke (in English translation -- most of the available editions included the original German) -- he had such a large ethereal presence among us that at times his poems seemed to be part of the air we were breathing.

I didn't feel myself greatly drawn to his poems -- I guess I still don't -- though I've gone back and read him from time to time. There are some poets like that, whose work I seek out and read just occasionally, when a particular mood comes over me. I can appreciate the qualities of his poems even when I don't feel a great affinity with them.

At the time I first read Rilke, there were just three or four English translations available. The one I read first, a general selection of the poems translated by W.D. Herter Norton, remains the translation I usually prefer. Of the translations I've read, Norton's seem to me to have the best ear for the echoes between the two languages. To say it another way, with Norton's translations I find I don't need to struggle very much to hear something of what the original German sounds like.

I like Bly's translations well enough (I've loved Bly's own poetry, and much of his translation work, for many many years), though his Rilke sometimes seems to me a little strained in English. Trying to bend the words to do things they don't quite want to do. Translation of poetry isn't an easy thing, I know well enough.

I know only a very little German, though I can somewhat make my way through the German poems if I have a good translation next to them. Though the sounds in Rilke's poems remain the most difficult quality to convey, I think, even with a good translation. "...durch die Gott in Gluten geht.

Years ago I translated, or attempted to, a few lines from the ninth section of the Duino Elegies. I did it mostly to try to get at least a little sense of what the German poem said. When I read Rilke I often have the sense of each one of his words planting an iron foot in the soil of the earth. The translated lines I made did not, I think, convey that kind of weight...

I live in Minneapolis, a city near the center of the North American continent, however the land and climate here are distinctly northern; the winters are long. (Two or three nights this past month, the temperature at night just a few degrees above freezing.) I've stood a hundred times among deep-blue pines and firs and spruce, feeling and hearing around me, beneath me, the hundred roots that drink in silence.

Thekla said...

Hello there, and thank you for your personal and thorough take on Rilke and translations. It is interesting with different language-backgrounds and the way you view translations from that point. I haven't read the translation made by Norton, but I will have a look. To me I guess it is more important that the translator sticks more to what Rilke (and other German authors) originally says than making the English very fluent, as I can understand quite a lot of German just by being Norwegian. The sounds of the language are also quite accessible to me, as I have heard German in movies, TV series and in the news and so on for as long as I can remember. These sounds are a large part of the expression of the German language and are mixed in with the meaning of the words and sentences. There is a cool, hard and organized elegance to the German language (the sounds a part of it) that I come to appreciate more and more.

That said, I would probably prefer the kind of translation that you refer to, if the translation would be from a more distant language. I more want the meaning and tone translated into my own linguistic idiom than a somewhat strange and strained translation (or what we in Norwegian call "gjendiktning"; re-writing or re-poetrywriting).

Rilke has also to me been a poet I have seen as interesting and skilful but not quite for me. But something has shifted and his poetry now hits me in a deeper place and sometimes surprising places, areas of my psyche or being which I didn't really know existed as individual parts and which his poetry is illuminating.

It seems our nature and climate is pretty similar - Minneapolis and Oslo, Norway. Only this is a town by the sea - or rather, at the end of a fjord. But the cold mornings, the spruces and firs and the silence of trees and their roots - that I can sense directly from your words.

To roots that drink in silence.

Michael Whaley said...

Nice post, good commentary. With any Rilke poem it's not long -- sometimes just a few words -- before you're in deep! Check the Bly translation, however, as I think you've made a couple errors.