23 August 2010


Who, if I cried out, would hear me among the angels'
hierarchies? and even if one of them pressed me
suddenly against his heart: I would be consumed
in that overwhelming existence. For beauty is nothing
but the beginning of terror, which we still are just able to endure,
and we are so awed because it serenely disdains
to annihilate us. Every angel is terrifying.

                                                         - from the Duino Elegies (1923),
                                                           Rainer Maria Rilke,
                                                           translation by Stephen Mitchell

The opening of Rilke's classic sequence of elegies. Beautiful, isn't it? Beautiful and scary at the same time.

I recently acquired a book called Reading Rilke: Reflections on the Problems of Translation by William H. Gass. It's classified as both biography and autobiography, an interesting combination. The subtitle alone makes me excited. And it's about translating poetry, one of my interests. A browse of the table of contents will give you some mysterious titles for chapters. They already sound like lines of a poem:
Ein Gott Vermags
Inhalation in a God
The Grace of Great Things
Erect No Memorial Stone
The Duino Elegies of Rainer Maria Rilke

The final chapter, Gass's full translation of Duino Elegies, is the cherry topping. Add to that the translations of some of Rilke's other poems scattered throughout the text, then I can't wait to down the pages of this book.

Gass's translation first came out in 1999; Mitchell's in 1982. In Gass's bibliography a list of 16 more translations of the same poem are given. This German poem surely resists the many rewordings of it, but it also survives miraculously in these interpretations.

A look at the end of Reading Rilke gives the same lines but with a different flavor:

Who, if I cried, would hear me among the Dominions
of Angels? And even if one of them suddenly
held me against his heart, I would fade in the grip
of that completer existence—a beauty we can barely
endure, because it is nothing but terror's herald;
and we worship it so because it serenely disdains
to destroy us. Every Angel is awesome.

I would certainly prefer an awesome Angel over a terrifying one. But not in this poem. "Terrifying" is simply a better choice and this poem ought to be that, terrifying. The poem inhabits various states of terror and tenderness and confusion. There is a searching edge to the voice. Mitchell's version reads well in terms of the forward movement of the lines and the rhythmic elegance of despair.

I am attempting a translation of "The First Elegy" into Filipino, my vernacular language. As my German is nil, I will use the English texts of both Mitchell and Gass. It will thus be a translation of translations. The inaccessibility of German to me is the main reason why I will be translating more the sense of the poem (from English), rather than the words.

I hope to be able to post my own version before the end of the month. August coincides with the Buwan ng Wika, or the National Language Month, in the Philippines. This exercise then will be my way of celebrating the Filipino language. I shall start like this:

Sino, sa aking pagtangis, ang makikinig mula sa orden
ng mga anghel? ...


  1. One of the first translations I ever did was Rilke's November Day. Cool! Is Filipino your first language or English? What is the distinction between Filipino and Tagalog?

  2. Poetry is notoriously difficult to translate. Rilke's mystical poetry written in German always bears the hall-mark of its translator's sensibility.

    The William H. Gass (b.1924)! book sounds interesting though, as does his first novel 'Omensetter's Luck' (1966)

  3. Jeremy, Tagalog is a regional language of most speakers in Luzon Island, but it has already assimilated nationwide. Filipino is the adopted national language. It is also my first language. Rilke's poem will be the first one I'm translating in it.

    Hydriotaphia, you’re right about the difficulty. Channeling Rilke (via translators) can be blind guesswork. The angels are not approving.

  4. Anyone for the Borgesian exercise of translating Sir Thomas Browne into Tagalog?

    Just how would anyone ever know whether it was a good or even a correct translation?

  5. Oh my. Browne's diction is too dense and knotty a bramble to wade through in Tagalog, or perhaps any accommodating language, for that matter. I won't envy the task of his translator.

    How would anyone know if it is good or correct? I guess only the bilingual who knows his languages can say.

  6. 'Then English and French and mere Spanish will disappear from the globe. The world will be Tlon. I pay no attention to all this and go on revising, in the still days at the Adrogue hotel, an uncertain Quevedian translation ( which I do not intend to publish) Of Browne's Urn Burial.' -Jorge Luis Borges

  7. Not to worry. There's always able translators who will step up to the task. In some cases, even a Pierre Menard who will have the audacity, nay the genius, to match "word for word and line for line" the original work into another language, and even surpass it.