Archaic Torso of Apollo

New Year’s is a time to look at where one’s been and to look anew, to make resolutions and changes. So, let’s look anew at a 110-year-old work by Rainer Maria Rilke.

That’s appropriate, because Rilke’s “Archaic Torso of Apollo”  is about looking at something old, something that many others have looked at. And Rilke’s poem too has been read and listened to by many, both in it’s original German and in several translations into English. Each translation differs from the others as there are several problems of understanding and reconstruction into a new language that each translator had to solve. So I started by doing my own English translation, working with Rilke’s German words and trying to understand what he’s getting at.

What’s the over-riding observation about the statue that is Rilke’s subject? That it’s broken and incomplete. This is past obvious, but because Rilke spends some time in this brief poem talking about how drawn he is to it, I think it’s possible to misunderstand this point. He says wonder-filled things about it, and this leads many translators and readers to believe that he’s making a case that it’s artistically perfect in some talismanic way.

Torso of Apollo

Worst New Year’s party ever. Woke up without head, arms, legs…

My reading is that he’s making a contrasting case. This is a legless and headless statue. Rilke makes us see right off that the head is missing. Describing that missing head Rilke uses the German word “unerhörtes,” unheard—which we take in the sense of “unheard of.” Translators have translated it into “fabulous”, “legendary”, and so on. There are certainly good German words for those things, but Rilke chose otherwise. Does he want the double meaning that this statue of the Greek god of poetry and music is missing its ability to hear?

What do I make of the remarkable, surrealist-sounding image near the start of the poem that the missing head is surmised to have eyes ripened like apples? Everyone is struck by the audacity of it, but what does it mean? I don’t think Rilke means this in a René Magritte way, as even a small apple is too large for an eye socket. My wife had a suggestion: ripened apples eventually fall and rot, just as the head has been harvested or fallen from neglect.

Magritte Son of Man

Eyes ripened like apples, René Magritte’s way.

Another hard to translate line is the poems eighth, which dips down to the naked statue’s beltline and makes reference to genitals that should be there if we were to continue in the path of the gaze. I suspect the statue has been fractured above them. My translation breaks with most others on the following “beast’s pelt” reference. Some translate that fur as a wonderous quality of the entire remaining stone torso, which seems to make no sense imaginative or otherwise when referring to Greek statues of Apollo*. My translation reads the German as saying that the wild beast’s pelt is missing, that is to say that the statue ends above the pubic hair. So blind, deaf, headless, and also without his sex organs.**

What’s left after these amputations, this incompleteness? First, Rilke is drawn to this torso. He is a poet, and Apollo’s the god of poetry. He’s also spent a couple years working as a young assistant to the great French sculptor Rodin, so statuary is an interest. I think what he sees as still there is the soul, the heart, the essence, which he portrays as that mysterious flame-like glow in the marble and the remaining curves that smile at the damage.

Which brings us to the poem’s notable surprise ending, which I won’t spoil in my explanatory text if you don’t know it already. I think Rilke is drawn to this torso because he senses this soul, that which eternally remains, that which is without borders and broken places, can heal or transcend this: the lack of fulfilled desire, vision, mind, and music. Perhaps he is drawn to this broken statue so intensely because he feels he and his art are broken and incomplete too.

To hear my performance of a new translation of Rilke’s “Archaic Torso of Apollo,”  with its conclusion that many readers/listeners find unexpected, use the player gadget below. And to all the brave readers and flexible listeners here: an exploring and improving New Year!

*Rilke may not have known it, but something else was missing on that statue. We have become accustomed to viewing classical Greek statues as glowing white marble, aesthetically we may have even absorbed the idea that this monochromatic paleness is the timeless ideal. However, the Greeks painted their statues, even the nudes got skin tones and hair color. Oh, and they were Southeast Mediterranean people with interchange with Africa and the Middle East, those skin tones weren’t pasty white, as examination of pigment remnants on classical Greek statues reveal.

**Of course, I must be modest. My knowledge of German (like my knowledge of French and classical Chinese which I’ve also translated here) is lacking, which can lead to translation errors. The only skill I can bring to this is that I read, perform and write poetry.

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The Dark Interval Version 2

The last post used my best effort at a faithful translation of Rainer Maria Rilke’s “The Dark Interval.”  Now, as promised, my alternative translation.

As I discussed, I first heard Rilke’s “The Dark Interval”  by hearing it. In the immediacy of that encounter, I heard it as a meditation on how our lives pass by while we do not speak up to them and use their singular moment, however imperfectly. Upon reflection, I now understand the poem was likely speaking of Rilke’s more impending death. The more literal translation I used for yesterday’s piece retains more of that focus.

Rilke and Tree

Rainer Maria Rilke. “A tree before my background”

 

Today’s version uses a freer translation, reflecting my original understanding of the piece. The original poem includes three or four images, which I sought to vivify in modern English. The first image, that of the “steep hour” (diese steile stunde) we know is a downhill slope, not a slow, steep incline one is ascending, because the next line includes a sense of rushing or hurrying (eilen). I have no idea if Rilke ever skied or otherwise could be thinking of skiing or sledding down a hill, but that was the concrete image that presented itself to me, and this choice helped me deal with most enigmatic image in the piece, the “I am a tree before my background” (Ich bin ein Baum vor meinem Hintergrunde). My choice in this translation is a risky one. I made the vaguest image in the German into the most immediate image in English, that not only am I sliding rapidly, but there is dangerous obstacle, a tree, to deal with. I now think my translation of “hintergrunde” to “my past” may be inaccurate. Given the poems concluding images, I think Rilke may been thinking of background more in the sense of “musical background”—but it was the choice I made then, and it works well in my first understanding of the poem’s intent.

Charles Adams' skier and tree

Like the skier with the light jacket, I may be puzzled.

 

The next image is also a bit obscure. “I am only one of many mouths, and the one that closes the soonest.” (Ich bin nur einer meiner vielen Munde/und jener, welcher sich am frühesten schliesst.”) I’m still unsure of which meanings Rilke meant to convey there. Is he saying, “I am only one of the multitude, and I’ll be dead (and silent) sooner than most?” Or is he saying “I could speak up in many ways (I can’t quite decide what is the right way to speak up), so instead I clam-up and never express myself?” In this translation, I chose the latter. I now think Rilke likely meant the former.

The last image is the most developed one, and the most attractive to a poet and musician like myself, because it’s an image out of music itself. I read “the dark interval,” that I use as the title for this piece, as a reference to the tritone, a dissonant interval that was being exploited widely in musical works contemporary with Rilke. And of course, music based on blues and jazz forms makes use of the dissonant intervals too, so I chose to use the more modern “funky.” And in developing this musical image I chose to use another informal term to vivify the “death tone” (Ton Tod), translating it to “wolf-tone,” which is the howling feedback sound a string instrument makes when the sounded note is the same as the strongest natural resonant frequency of the instrument’s body.

Keeping with my initial understanding of “The Dark Interval”  I was trying to say that we keep silent, and do not act, out of fear of “dissonance,” of fear of not fitting in with the expectations; or because we fear a “wolf-tone,” an unwanted, strong response; but that when we do, if we do, as can be done within music, the dissonance can be resolved, that musical consonance sounds even sweeter when dissonance shows it in contrast.

So, there you go, that was once my understanding of Rilke’s “The Dark Interval”  that I used in this second translation. As a piece, in English, it stands up, it has coherence, and I think it’s livelier than yesterday’s more literal translation—but I also think I got Rilke’s meaning wrong. How much does this matter?

I often consider translations of poetry like a musician doing a cover song

To the listener, it may not matter. If they don’t know the original in German or from another translation, they experience this work as it is. To art also, it may not matter. A misunderstood work is still a work of art, another one of many mouths that isn’t shut. I often consider translations of poetry like a musician doing a cover song, where there is value in recreating the song differently, just as The New Standards did with their Clash cover that I linked to yesterday. Still, I can’t shake off the thought that I was unfair to Rilke.

So here’s the second version of Rilke’s “The Dark Interval.”   It’s a different performance, with acoustic and electric guitar and bass, but it uses the same music as yesterday’s. Use the player below to hear it.

 

 

The Dark Interval Version 1

How faithful should a translation be? I can hear your first answer even over the silence of the Internet: “As faithful as it can be, of course.”

And there are many times when I wish it could be so. One has to accept the translation loses when the devices of one language can’t make it over to the new one. Then, often there is the decay of time and the distances of cultures, and this can make meaning murky and less vibrant—but even between two people, of the same time and culture, native speakers of the same language, misunderstanding and misinterpretations of poetry occurs, as you can see with some pieces here where I perform words written by alternative reader and LYL Band keyboardist Dave Moore, which I didn’t fully grasp.

In the next two episodes of the Parlando Project, I’m going to demonstrate two different paths I’ve taken with the same poem, Rainer Maria Rilke’s “The Dark Interval.”  Today’s version is an attempt at a faithful translation.

rainer-maria-rilke

Looks like kind of the intense sort: Rainer Maria Rilke

 

Rilke, like Tristan Tzara or Apollinaire is another one of those WWI area European artists who exact nationality is hard to pin down. Is he Czech, Bohemian, Austrian, German, Swiss? It’s doesn’t help that the maps of Europe were being redrawn during his lifetime by the outcome of the WWI.

Nor does it help our translation task that he wrote “The Dark Interval”  in German, the language that one set of my grandparents spoke in their youth, and that even my mother was somewhat fluent in as a child, because I know even less German than French.

And Rilke is philosophically dense. His poems are full of compressed thoughts about the inexplicable, and he has a strong spiritualist bent. The former makes it hard for anyone to marshal his thoughts into another language while impressing on you the need to do so; the later makes it harder for me in particular, as I have come to believe that a philosophical spirituality is (at least for me) an impediment to approaching the mysteries.

It may help that I first encountered Rilke’s “The Dark Interval”  in a way deeply integrated into life. I, along with my friend John, was watching a band, The New Standards, perform in 2006, and during an interval in their show a man (who name I should remember, but can’t) read this poem. He did a good job of it, transmitting something of Rilke and himself in his reading. The translation he read was somewhat like the one I made later, and perform for today’s piece.

Just to give you a flavor of that concert, here’s the first piece they played. They did not pre-announce the song they were covering, leaving us in the audience to recognize it as their very different version unfolded:

 

I heard the Rilke poem immediately then as a meditation on the hurried mid-lives that John, I, and perhaps many of the audience were living at that time. Perhaps he—or the band performers, largely composed of veterans of locally famous indie rock bands of the 1980s and ‘90s—selected it for just that reason.

That’s not the version I perform here today. I did not change the words of this first translation, which sought to be faithful as I could understand it to be to the original German words, but circumstances changed how I hear it. John died, unexpectedly, way too young, a short time after we attended that concert. I learned later that Rilke composed it as he began to suffer from his final fatal illness. I can now see this not as a work about the busyness of middle age, but a work about the busyness of living nearer to dying. Different poem.

Here’s my performance of Rilke’s “The Dark Interval.” Just use the player that appears below to hear it. Tomorrow, my second translation of the same poem, with a different performance.