Pick & Mix


Pure Contradiction
, Ian Crockatt's translations of Rainer Maria Rilke
(115pp, Arc)


The title is Crockatt's, not Rilke's, and the book is a pick-and-mix from what Rilke published. The pick and mixer's principal goes by the more solemn name of 'interconnectedness', which means matching up individual poems from wherever in the legacy and setting them alongisde something from elsewhere in it to be so themed. The categories begin with 1. creating art (poetry), 2. concerned with women, 3. death, while 4. 'might be said to trace the arc of a love affair', and so on.
       
You buy the principle or you don't. I find, rather than illuminating Rilke, it jumbles him up without any more purpose than that a reader who cares enough can achieve by reading the original books or sequences and understanding them chronologically.
       
If you picked up the book and missed out the introduction to sample first the poems, you would have no idea, unless you knew Rilke inside out already, that there was this choosing (with poem titles) from here and there from the originals (facing pages in German - some French - and English), and if you did know Rilke well you'd be puzzled. The details of what has been lifted from where are in pages at the back.
                 
If you are happy to settle into the scheme - consulting the back pages  before or after reading the poems each time you turn a page - your mind then will be on whether the translated mix is worth it.
     
Crockatt acknowledges ten previous translators of some or all of the poems. I don't read German but word or phrase order, lines - and rhymes, if they're there - can more or less be traced, and my reading of his translations seems often a bit of this and that from other translations, plus some felicities and some awkwardnesses of his own.
     
The German from which comes, here, 'If I cried out, who amongst the angels' hierarchies/ would hear me?' has been variously rendered over the many years, and defies getting it wrong, its music is too well known, and the whole elegy has that deep resonance, as if part of the evolution of species. Any half-decent translation is a reminder.
      
My response to the whole of Crockatt's book is of this kind: I am glad to be reminded, I am glad to find a passage that makes me want to be better read in all of Rilke than I am, and the whole book is - well, it's a homage to stack with the rest and let time test it.
     
I have, while reading Crockatt's, spent some hours with ten or so translations of Rilke's this and that off the shelf making comparisons (and very annoyingly in Crockatt having to flip awkwardly from each poem to the list at the back to find where it comes from), and I had intended (I have pages bookmarked) bringing in here samples of other versions. But any interested reader who has books or the use of a reference library can do that, and there is no really clear-cut conclusion. I have my own favourites.
     
If you have read me this far you will have noticed my lack of comment on Crockatt's main bright idea: selection by theme. There is no titled separation of sections in either the index or in the body of the book, and I confess to a lack of interest in the theming. The pages seem to run only uprootedly on. I have worked through some of the mix, checking the origins, and what is lost is the context as Rilke, in time and place, wrote. This seems to me of more relevance and interest than the pick-and-mix fragmentation of supposed theming.
   
The translation veres towards colloquial talk as a mode, the Duino Fourth Elegy (two are included), has this,

     But we, absorbed in one thing, are already
     weighing the impact of another. Conflict
     grows naturally in us. Don't lovers
     continually come up against each others' limitations,
     despite their promises of openness, shared work and home?

In his working the shorter-lined poems, those that rhyme, there is also this tendency towards the stilted. 'I love my nature's darkest hours':

     I love my nature's darkest hours,
     those which fully engage my mind;
     in them I've, as in ancient letters, found
     my daily life already lived, with far-
     seeing legends' overwhelming power.

and, for the consistently longer-lined poems, often prose talk is how they flow or not. And whether or not every reader will agree with my view here, I hope they would be bothered by the page in his intriduction where he says,

I have tried not to use what I referred to earlier as Rilke's 'Radical inconclusiveness' - C.F.McIntyre calls it 'purposed vagueness', David Oswald calls it 'careful indeterminacy' - as a licence to take off anywhere. Where I have created some new metaphor, or taken a direction he does not take, it is to bring life and clarity to the apparent significance of the poetry for the twenty-first century English language readers, not to deliberately replace or distort his thought or expression.

He might better have said 'deliberately to replace', a quibble maybe, but the paragraph is worth quoting as a translation-warning; is it Crockatt's metaphor and direction or Rilke's? My overall response is to tell myself to keep some of those other translations off the shelf and shelve this one.


         David Hart 2012