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Two from Rilke

January 6, 2011

translated by Florence Major

Porträt des Rainer Maria Rilke (1906) by Paula Modersohn-Becker

Porträt des Rainer Maria Rilke (1906) by Paula Modersohn-Becker (public domain image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons)



Herr: es ist Zeit. Der Sommer war sehr gross.
Leg deinen Schatten auf die Sonnenuhren,
und auf den Fluren lass die Winde los.
Befiehl den letzten Fruchten voll zu sein;
gieb innen noch zwei sudlichere Tage,
drange sie zur Vollendung hin und jage
die letzte Susse in den schweren Wein.
Wer jetzt kein Haus hat, baut sich keines mehr.
Wer jetzt allein ist, wird es lange bleiben,
wird wachen, lesen, lange Briefe schreiben
und wird in den Alleen hin und her
unruhig wandern, wenn die Blatter treiben.

Autumn Day

Lord: Approach. Summer was everywhere,
Lay your dark hands across the sundials,
And across the open fields, free the coursing air.
Compel the last bounty holding to the vine:
Engorge. Permit two more balmy days’ reprieve,
Then press them to fulfillment, drive
Crowning fragrance into the heady wine.
Those without homes are too late.
Those without company will remain alone,
With books, with pen in hand till night is gone
Or searching, in the city’s corridors, a state
Of mind, as dead leaves when they blow.


Sonnets to Orpheus, II. XV

O Brunnen-Mund, du gebender, du Mund,
der unerschöpflich Eines, Reines, spricht,–
du, vor des Wassers fließendem Gesicht,
marmorne Maske. Und im Hintergrund

der Aquädukte Herkunft. Weither an
Gräbern vorbei, vom Hang des Apennins
tragen sie dir dein Sagen zu, das dannam
schwarzen Altern deines Kinns

vorüberfällt in das Gefäß davor.
Dies ist das schlafend hingelegte Ohr,
das Marmor-Ohr, in das du immer sprichst.

Ein Ohr der Erde. Nur mit sich allein
redet sie also. Schiebt ein Krug sich ein,
so scheint es ihr, daß du sie unterbrichst.

O fountain mouth, unceasing passage
of eternal oneness, inviolate, your speech
flows through the marble mask to reach
across distant peaks; a timeless message

brought descending from distant graves.
The steep aqueduct of the Apennines
inclines from a pressure as of laves
through blackened pipes that sing of time

and falls arising in your marble bowl
with lips that curl round as a waiting ear;
you awaken to hear her godlike whisper.

Earth, it is you who speaks, the ear the soul
laid down to wait for waters cleared,
for you to stir and Orpheus to linger.


Translator’s note: These translations are not literal, but true to the meaning of the poems as I read and experienced them. I find that when translations are dogmatically literal, the poem often falls flat as the essence of what one feels on reading the poem is no longer in evidence. How words are spaced and arranged creates timing as in music. Compulsive rhyming in translations creates “dead meter,” and eludes the inner musical resonance of a poem that was rhymed in the original. Tricky stuff, but as the French say, à chacun son goût (to each his own taste).

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Rainer Maria Rilke (1875-1926) was a Bohemian/Austrian poet and art critic, famed for his critique of Auguste Rodin. He is considered to be one of the greatest lyric poets of the German language and in the lexicon of poetry. He is best known for the Duino Elegies, the Sonnets to Orpheus and a semi-autographical prose work, The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge.

Florence Major is an artist and poet born in Montreal, Quebec, and living in New York City. She has poems in The Chaffey Review and Cerise Press.

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  1. Alex Cigale
    January 6, 2011 at 11:14 pm

    These are terrific, Florence, a real accomplishment. Sorry you had a such a tough act to follow and, though you may not hear it said enough, your part herein is invaluable. Thank you for letting us share in your successes.

  2. January 7, 2011 at 5:17 am

    beautiful. “Herbsttag” is one of Rilke’s most powerful winter poems.
    and interesting detail of language / keyboards / translations: the original Rilke poem includes the typical german extra-letters: ä,ö,ü,ß, here the second stanza with signs included:

    Befiehl den letzten Früchten voll zu sein;
    gib ihnen noch zwei südlichere Tage,
    dränge sie zur Vollendung hin und jage
    die letzte Süße in den schweren Wein.

  3. Florence
    January 8, 2011 at 1:45 pm

    Alex..You echoed my thoughts! The previous translations are indeed WOW, superb and creatively idiomatic. Evidently, Qarrtsiluni does not serve prefabricated, mind-machine fare. Thank you for your kind words.

    Dorothee..Rilke was indeed the poet for all seasons of the soul and his sojourn on earth. His god is the shadow on the sundial, an angel’s wing poised as demarcation between our sensate world (the glories of summer) and the unknown that calls to us as the shadow moves. Rilke is the master of transitions. He anticipates but never proscribes. He was Kierkegaard’s Knight of Faith with pen in hand.

    Thank you for your addendum and comments.

    • Alex Cigale
      January 8, 2011 at 2:14 pm

      On behalf of Nick, Nathalie, Ayesha, Beth, Dave and myself: WE THANK YOU!

  4. Miriam
    March 14, 2011 at 3:46 pm

    Florence – you have a true gift. I have been collecting translations of Rilke’s ‘Herbsttag’ and yours captures the essence and the rhyming scheme in a way that none other does. It is very close to the author, and it moved me. I loved your reciting of it too. Wonderful work – thank you.

    • Florence
      March 15, 2011 at 12:37 pm

      Thank you Miriam. Your comment is very, very appreciated!
      Translating Rilke is like trying to catch John Donne’s ‘falling star,’
      trying to gather the ineffable into a net of words. The music in
      Rilke’s work cannot be ignored. Thank you for appreciating my attempt
      to follow his rhymes with my transliteration of them. Having ones
      work acknowledged more than justifies ones efforts. Again,
      thank you Miriam.

  1. January 7, 2011 at 8:09 am
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  3. May 9, 2011 at 3:29 pm
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