I have great admiration for those who write poetry, mainly because it’s something I can’t do (for the same reason, I appreciate the craft of pottery). The skill required to translate poetry is even further beyond my capabilities, and I can appreciate that it is fraught with difficulties and problematic choices. Whether one attempts to capture primarily the literal meaning, the phrasing, or the rhythm and rhyme of a poetic text, it seems that the translation of style and substance often comes only at the expense of each other. The problem for the reader of translated poetry is that unless we speak the native tongue in which a poem is written, how can we know whether the translation we are reading is faithful to the original, and how can we understand the ways in which it has been changed in the process?
We can illustrate the problem by looking at one poem in a variety of translations. The poem I have chosen is one that I discovered only recently - Archaic Torso of Apollo by Rainer Maria Rilke. Only later did I realize that it was in a book that I own – The Selected Poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke translated by Stephen Mitchell (1987), which includes the original texts alongside the translations. Although I have dipped into it many times, I had never read this particular poem; now it’s one of my favourites. It was written in response to Rilke’s experience in front of an ancient Greek sculpture in the Louvre. The first time I read it, the impact was similar to what Rilke must have felt – it was as if my stomach had suddenly turned to stone. Here is the original German text:
Archaischer Torso Apollos
Rainer Maria Rilke
Wir kannten nicht sein unerhörtes Haupt,
darin die Augenäpfel reiften. Aber
sein Torso glüht noch wie ein Kandelaber,
in dem sein Schauen, nur zurückgeschraubt,
sich hält und glänzt. Sonst könnte nicht der Bug
der Brust dich blenden, und im leisen Drehen
der Lenden könnte nicht ein Lächeln gehen
zu jener Mitte, die die Zeugung trug.
Sonst stünde dieser Stein enstellt und kurz
unter der Shultern durchsichtigem Sturz
und flimmerte nicht so wie Raubtierfelle;
und brächte nicht aus allen seinen Rändern
aus wie ein Stern: denn da ist keine Stelle,
die dich nicht sieht. Du mußt dein Leben ändern.
The following translations are arranged in the order in which I found them. By chance, it appears that the order nearly reflects the quality of the translations. Notice the differences in rhyming structure compared with the original, the quality of the chosen words and phrases, and the relationship of the language to the poem’s meaning.
1. Archaic Torso of Apollo
Translated by H. Landman
We never knew his fantastic head,
where eyes like apples ripened. Yet
his torso, like a lamp, still glows
with his gaze which, although turned down low,
lingers and shines. Else the prow of his breast
couldn’t dazzle you, nor in the slight twist
of his loins could a smile run free
through that center which held fertility.
Else this stone would stand defaced and squat
under the shoulders’ diaphanous dive
and not glisten like a predator’s coat;
and not from every edge explode
like starlight: for there’s not one spot
that doesn’t see you. You must change your life.
2. Archaic Torso of Apollo
Translated by Stephen Mitchell
We cannot know his legendary head
with eyes like ripening fruit. And yet his torso
is still suffused with brilliance from inside,
like a lamp, in which his gaze, now turned to low,
gleams in all its power. Otherwise
the curved breast could not dazzle you so, nor could
a smile run through the placid hips and thighs
to that dark center where procreation flared.
Otherwise this stone would seem defaced
beneath the translucent cascade of the shoulders
and would not glisten like a wild beast’s fur:
would not, from all the borders of itself,
burst like a star: for here there is no place
that does not see you. You must change your life.
3. ARCHAIC TORSO OF APOLLO
Translated by Winslow Shea
We did not know the incredible head
in which his ripened eyeballs blazed. Yet here
his torso glows, an ancient chandelier
in which his gaze, set lower but not dead,
still holds and gleams. Or else the chest curve could
not blind you, neither in the slight bend
of the loins could a smile descend
to center where regeneration stood.
This stone would then stand stunted and deformed
under shoulders of translucent grace,
not shining like some predatory pelt at night
nor breaking all its bounds with light
like some bright star: for nowhere is a place
that does not stare at you and say: Reform!
4. Torso of an Archaic Apollo
Translated by C. F. MacIntyre
Never will we know his fabulous head
where the eyes’ apples slowly ripened. Yet
his torso glows: a candelabrum set
before his gaze which is pushed back and hid,
restrained and shining. Else the curving breast
could not thus blind you, nor through the soft turn
of the loins could this smile easily have passed
into the bright groins where the genitals burned.
Else stood this stone a fragment and defaced,
with lucent body from the shoulders falling,
too short, not gleaming like a lion’s fell;
nor would this star have shaken the shackles off,
bursting with light, until there is no place
that does not see you. You must change your life.
5. Archaic Torso of Apollo
Translated by Don Paterson
You’ll never know that terrific head,
or feel those eyeballs ripen on you–
yet something here keeps you in view,
as if his look had sunk inside
and still blazed on. Or the double axe
of the breast couldn’t blind you, nor that grin
flash along the crease fo the loins
down to the low centre of his sex.
Or else he’d sit, headless and halved,
his shoulders falling to thin air–
not shiver like the pelt of a wolf
or burst from his angles like a star:
for there is nowhere to hide, nothing here
that does not see you. Now change your life.
6. Archaic Torso of Apollo
We did not know his outrageous head
matured to the eyeballs. but
his torso still glows like a candelabra,
in which his shows, just scaled back,
to hold and shine. Otherwise, the bug could not
chest blind you, and in quiet turning
the loins could not go a smile
at that center, which was procreation.
Otherwise this stone would stand disfigured and short
Shulte fall under the transparent
flickered and not as prey animal skins;
and did not bring out all its edges
like a star: for there is no place
which does not see you. You must change your life.
I much prefer the first two translations. Mitchell’s is good, but his version of the third stanza (“translucent cascade” and “wild beast’s fur”) is less elegant than Landman’s (“diaphanous dive” and “predator’s coat”). Shea appears to disrespect the text, daring even to replace the final phrase with a single word. MacIntyre opts for the literal, and lacks grace as a result (“groins”? “genitals”?!). Paterson reads like the Good News version of The Bible – trying to be ‘modern’ but sounding cringeworthy and anachronistic. The Google translation was added as an afterthought, just to see how it fared. Predictably, it doesn’t do very well, but at least the final phrase survives.