05 September 2014

Rilke's Blue Hydrangea, in the William Gass translation and my own

I wanted to present my own translation of Rilke's Blue Hydrangea / Blaue Hortensie side by side with Rilke's original and William Gass's, not to cast doubt on Gass's work, but rather to question the dominance of the Michael Hofmann canon of 20th century German Poems (2005) and their translators, in which Gass's translation appears. Rilke's reception in the English speaking world has spawned to such proportions that there's many a mini ~ and a fair share maxi ~ careers to me made in translating and writing about him. I belong, on the other hand, to the much larger group who will probably never make a cent from their Rilke translations: and it's a relief for me to no longer want to. Many of these translations can stand tall when set against the Hofmann canon. Let us see more examples in blogs, in magazines and in print of them doing so.

BLAUE HORTENSIE                                                 BLUE HYDRANGEA (Holland)                                                  BLUE HYDRANGEA (Gass)

So wie das letzte Grün in Farbentiegeln                    So like that last bit green in artists' paint-pots                 Like the green that cakes in a pot of paint
sind diese Blätter, trocken, stumpf und rauh                   are these here leaves, dry and coarse and raw                    these leaves are dry, dull and rough
hinter den Blüttendolden, die ein Blau                        behind the flowers' umbels, whose blueness                      behind this billow of blooms whose blue
nicht auf sich tragen, nur von ferne spiegeln                isn't from the petals but's reflected from afar.                is not their own but reflected from far away

Sie spiegeln es verweint und ungenau,                          Reflected inexact and washed with tears                          in a mirror dimmed by tears and vague,
als wollten sie es wiederum verlieren,                        as if it wants to lose it in its turn,                           as if it wished them to disappear again
und wie in alten blauen Briefpapieren                         and like in writing paper, old and blue,                         the way, in old blue writing paper
ist Gelb in ihnen, Violett und Grau;                           violet is in them, and grey and yellow too.                       yellow show, then violet and gray;

Verwaschnes wie an einer Kinderschürze                 Washed out as if from out a child's apron                   a washed-out color as in children's clothes
Nichtmehrgetragnes, dem nichts mehr geschiet:       with which nothing more will happen, no longer worn:        which, no longer worn, no more can happen to:
wie füllt man eines kleinen Lebens Kürze.                    how we feel the shortness of one small life.                    how it makes you feel a small life's brevity.

Doch plötzlich scheint das Blau sich zu verneuen                    But suddenly the blue seems to renew                    But suddenly the blue shines quite renewed
in einer von den Dolden, und man sieht                     itself among the umbels, and then you see                    within one cluster, and we can see
ein rührend Blaues sich vor Grünem freuen.                     a touching blueness cheer before the green.                a touching blue rejoice before the green.

Gass's translation was published in  Michael Hofmann (editor). The Faber Book of 20th Century German Poems. London: Faber and Faber, 2005. 6.

In citing Gass's translation in full, I refer to the stipulations regarding citation in German copyright law. Gass actually chooses to divide his poem into an 8-line opening stanza and a 6-line closing stanza, a way of presenting sonnets which has strong precedent. I've changed Gass's two stanzas into four stanzas ~ but have not altered his line-breaks, or anything else in his poem ~ to make it easier for the reader to compare it to my own, or Rilke's original, which presents this sonnet in two opening stanzas of four lines and two concluding stanzas of three lines, as I have done above.
Readers should query all translations, and if any reader wants to know more about my word choices in this translation, they can look at one of my earlier blog posts. Laying out translations side by side might change the consciousness of translators and readers: when reading and/or translating a single poem, the translation is no stand alone exhibit but rather a single patch in the mammoth quilt of Rilke translation, stitched away at since the early 1900s.


  1. Dear Henry Holland,

    I only yesterday saw your postings concerning your translation in the Rilke-Forum, and I instantly wrote a response there.
    Your translation is wonderful, and there are many lines in it I like much more than Gass's!

    I instantly fell in love especially with your first line:
    So like that last bit green in artists' paint-pots
    – this feels so "absolutely right" to me that I would really find it difficult to come up with different words myself...

    I also regard myself as belonging to the "group of translators who will probably never make a cent from their Rilke translations" - :-) nor did I ever expect to, not even being a native speaker! Still, I dared to translate Rilke’s poems, mostly when someone asked about a translation in the Rilke-Forum (my translations are all there).
    And, like you, I want, as you put it so wonderfully, to »sharpen the reader's appreciation of what changes in Rilke's work when it enters the English speaking world«.

    I would very much like to enter in a discussion about all that – did you read what I wrote here, some years ago? I would love to hear your opinion about all that…

    Herzlichen Gruß,
    Ingrid Haselberger ("stilz" in the Rilke-Forum)

    P.S.: What you said about choosing the word "umbels" very much reminded me of my own choice of "belfrys"... :-)

    1. Dear Ingrid,

      many thanks for your post on my blog about my & your Rilke translations back in September;
      because of my technical incompetence I only published it v. late, but at least it's on the blog now.

      I really do apologise for only applying now. I got so caught up in my paid work, & somehow forgot about it.

      I followed your links & looked at your translation of the final Sonnet to Orpheus: "Stiller Freund ....".
      I liked some of the lines v. much, in both the rhymed & unrhymed versions. I really liked, for example:

      "In the gloomy framings where bells peal"; and I was cheered in general by the fact that you created a rhymed version.

      I don't for a second support the dogma that only native speakers should translate into English. I support the very opposite:
      many more people should dare to translate into languages which are not there own. Doing that is such a rich process, and can often
      produce valuable results.

      I understood you sending me the link to your translation, "Silent friend of many a remoteness ..." as one way of you looking for feedback on your poem, your translation. I think it's a great base, and using that base I rewrote your translation, as to what sounds "right" to my ear. I'm not saying my translation is 'right' & yours is 'wrong' -- not at all. Team translations can, in certain cases, produce even better results than individuals working by themselves. I'm sending you these suggestions in a seperate email.

      What do you think of Don Paterson's translation of "Stiller Freund der vielen ....", published in his 2006 book 'Orpheus: A version of Rilke'?
      Paterson's whole book is really worth it: 'versions' of every single Sonnet to Orpheus.
      Would you like to publish your & my joint version of the poem online somewhere?

      More importantly: will you be going to the Sep. 2015 Tagung der Rilkegesellschaft? I went twice, 2009 & 2010 I think -- and it was fascinating. I was also however dismayed by the snobbishness and elitism of a few individual members of the R.G., and this put me off going back. But now I feel like it's time to go back.

      I saw, from following a few links, that you're a soprano singer. Have you ever sung settings of Rilke poems publicly, and, if so, which do you think are good pieces of music? I only know the one setting of "Ich lebe mein Leben / In wachsenden Ringen", which works well as a folk-song, though I don't think would work as a concert piece.

      All the best & would be great if we happened to meet at the big Rilke gathering in 10 months time, Henry Holland

  2. That's actually been too much informative, was looking to find the best place for translation.


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