Sonnet 19 by Rainer Maria Rilke
Sonnet 19 by Rainer Maria Rilke
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David Radavich Sonnet 19
Rainer Maria Rilke Sonett 19
Somewhere gold lives in the spoiling bank
and is intimate with thousands. But even
the blind one, the beggar, is to the copper penny
like a lost place, a dusty corner under the chest.
In the businesses nearby money feels at home
and garbs itself in silk, carnations, and furs.
He, the silent one, stands in the breath-pause
of all the breathing money, awake or asleep.
O how does it close at night, this always open hand?
Tomorrow it hauls fate again, and daily
holds it out: bright, suffering, ever destructible.
If only someone, a witness, finally grasped and praised
its long duration, astonished. Only speakable
by the singer. Only audible to the godlike.
When translating a poet as well-known and frequently
interpreted as Rainer Maria Rilke, one must have compelling reasons.
Many gifted poets, in many languages, have tried with varying
degrees of success to render Rilke’s complex syntax and
multilayered meanings into something approaching accessibility in a
totally new language. This is a Sisyphean task, to be sure, but a
number of us are driven to it by love of these poems and poet.
In a case like that of Rilke, I am driven at the outset by
frustration. Many available English translations, in my view,
don’t get close enough to the original to satisfy. Of course, no
English version can approach anywhere near the original for
complexity of thought and density of language; some
associations must be sacrificed. Nonetheless, I want to try to reach
further in my own searching.
That reaching involves a number of small but
important decisions that nevertheless add up to a substantial overall
effect. The first line of Rilke’s Sonnet 19 (from Part II of
Sonnets to Orpheus) I have rendered as “Somewhere gold lives in
the spoiling bank.” Other translators have rendered the
German word verwöhnenden as “indulgent” or “pampering.” While
these are legitimate meanings of the German, they strike me as
too mild, or even cute in the case of “pampering,” for a poem
which communicates such a trenchant critique of wealth and
power. “Spoiling” in English carries with it a negative connotation
of rottenness, which I consider justified by the later assertions
of the poem.
Word order is a crucial question when translating German.
This language, with its four declensions, allows for freer word
positioning than does English. This issue presents itself in the
second and third lines of the first stanza. I have decided to hew
close to the original word order with “But even / the blind one,
the beggar, is to the copper penny / like a lost place. . . .”
Moving the prepositional phrase would not help elucidate the dative
German original in English.
In the final stanza, however, one needs to bring the
verbs “grasped” and “praised” closer to the subject in English.
Here the German word order cannot be effectively maintained:
“finally its long duration, astonished, grasped and praised.”
Also in this line, I used the word “grasped,” with its double
meanings of both understanding and reaching out to touch the
“open hand” of stanza 3.
For some reason, none of the English translations I have
read make a point of keeping Rilke’s emphatic “only” parallel in
the last two lines. This strikes me as important, both musically
and in terms of meaning. The word Göttlichen, “godly” or
“godlike,” is rendered in one translation simply as “the god.” This
is an unfortunate misreading. At the end of this sonnet of
noteworthy social critique, Rilke leaves open the real possibility that
the artist (poet or musician) or spiritually aware (“godlike”)
person can witness and grasp the suffering, lost, forgotten
beggar. This is an incisive assertion by a poet we often assume is
concerned more with philosophical or aesthetic matters. I felt
called to capture that assertion more forcefully in my English
translation than I have seen elsewhere.