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.