On Rainer Maria Rilke, William Gass, Stumbling Across My Younger Self, and the Pleasures and Perils of Translating Poetry

Kai Maristed in Agni:

ScreenHunter_2166 Aug. 25 21.48This past spring, at AGNI’s Issue 83 launch, I had the chance to chat with David Daniel, whose atmospheric, heart-moving poetry I had just discovered in the way you discover something you’ve missed before knowing it exists.

At some point I confided to David that, not being a published poet, I had recently experienced twinges of self-doubt, of feeling like a trespasser, while translating Ingeborg Bachmann, Paul Celan and others. At the same time, the doing itself was exhilarating, and seemed, well…if not exactly easy, to flow toward rightness and resolution. Or was I being grossly naive, to believe I could simply listen closely to the German words and verses, immerse myself in the worlds they made, twirl them through my ear and mind and have them emerge as lines of English, lucid and faithful to original meaning while carrying as much of the original music as possible?

Shouldn’t there be more hard labor involved, more agony and frustration? Isn’t that why so many modern poetry translations appear to have been composed by a duo of Established Poet and her/his trusty sidekick, the Native Speaker? Like high level military brass going into the battlefields guided by, well, local translators. Didn’t William Gass, in his 1999 book-length essay, Reading Rilke, Reflections on the Problems of Translation, assert that, compared to having fluency in both languages, “it is more important that the translator have native-like possession of the language into which he is trying to put his chosen poem”? (‘Native-like possession’ being in context a strikingly awkward euphemism for ‘should be a skilled poet or literary eminence, capable of wrestling with the intransigency of the task.’)

David listened patiently to my questions, then answered with a single one of his own: “Well, and aren’t Gass’s translations of the Duino Elegies really terrible?” Nothing like a baldly-stated truth to make you burst out laughing.

More here.