“Hearken, o Mensch!”
|February 25, 2013|
by Daniel Bosch
In a recent New York Review of Books, novelist John Banville has written ecstatically on behalf of a new edition of the book known as Letters to a Young Poet (LTYP),
one of Rilke’s most popular books — if we may call it his book, since it was assembled by Kappus after the poet’s death — well known to poets in their youth and an ideal handbook for beginning writers.
Banville praises Mark Harman’s “burnished, elegant new translation…the fifth English version.” His enthusiasm for all things Rilkean is charming, and his essay review, supported by photos and a sketch of Rilke’s Parisian panther, is a delight. (NYRB knows this, and has made it available).
Yet while Banville hints that he is aware of some of the problematic contexts of this particular edition of LTYP (“…if we may call it his (Rilke’s) book,” “…the fifth English version….” “there are numerous places where it would be illuminating to know what exactly were the questions and observations that Rilke is responding to…”) his review neglects to explore why Harman and Harvard University Press have entered the Rilke industry with this particular book.
I don’t believe the motive can be a strong sense of Harman’s having improved upon the English texts available. A comparison of Harman’s translation with M.D. Herter-Norton’s, published in 1934, shows difference, but little ground on which to stake a strong preference. Consider Harman’s and Herter-Norton’s takes on a crucial passage in first paragraph of the first letter, written to Franz Xavier Kappus on February 17, 1903 (Herter-Norton’s is in italics):
I cannot say anything about the form of your verses, for I find all such critical intent quite uncongenial. Nothing could be less conducive to reaching an art-work than critical remarks: it’s always simply a matter of more or less fortunate misunderstandings. Everything cannot be so easily grasped and conveyed as we are generally led to believe; most events are unconveyable and come to pass in a space that no word has ever penetrated; more unconveyable than all else are art-works, whose mysterious existences, whose lives run alongside ours, which perishes, whereas theirs endure.
I cannot go into the nature of your verses; for all critical intention is too far from me. With nothing can one approach a work of art so little as with critical words: they always come down to more or less happy misunderstandings. Things are not all so comprehensible and expressible as one would mostly have us believe; most events are inexpressible, taking place in a realm which no word has ever entered, and more inexpressible than all else are works of art, mysterious existences, the life of which, while ours passes away, endures.
But it could very well be that Harvard University Press is smart enough to recognize a Harvard edition of LTYP will have an imprimatur. Whatever its relative virtues, the Harman translation out of Cambridge, as Banville points out, is “likely to become the standard one.”
This is not big news, but over time it will mean big business. LTYP is one of the biggest selling books in literature. I have written elsewhere that over-praise of LTYP is a shibboleth — that these ten letters are among Rilke’s worst, not best, letters, and some of his vaguest-in-a -polite-way accounts of poetry.
It’s novelists and others who are not concerned with verse craft who tend to take LTYP seriously. I should hasten to add powerful presses take it seriously, too — when they find that is out of copyright.
About the Author:
Recent poems by Daniel Bosch can be read at B O D Y and The Istanbul Review. “In Memory of Johnny Cash” is forthcoming at Plume. He lives in Chicago.
Inherent Vice’s Two Directions
The jokes certainly strike one as sophomoric and the latter one as clichéd, further below Pynchon’s intelligence than one would like to think he would stoop, at least in print. Discounting them and moving on, or throwing the book across the room as Parker half implies we should do, however, would be to lose sight of “that high magic to low puns”.
Auden, Larkin and Love
I was prompted to revisit these ancient questions anew by a long footnote about a single line in the new Complete Poems edition of Philip Larkin’s poetry. The footnote refers to “An Arundel Tomb” contains a provocative remark about that the poem’s celebrated, controversial, closing line, the one about the true nature of immortality: “What will survive of us is love.”
Plato, Our Comrade?
Not surprisingly, there have already been critics of Badiou’s translation. The first is that his translation breaks the formal rules of translation to such a degree that the original meaning of the text has lost its significance. But this critique is inadequate at face value because Badiou’s hyper-translation is forthright in its intention of taking Plato’s concepts and modifying them into his own lexicon.
You may also like :
To read George Eliot attentively is to become aware how little one knows about her. It is also to become aware of the credulity, not very creditable to one's insight, with which, half consciously and partly maliciously, one had accepted the late Victorian version of a deluded woman who held phantom sway over subjects even more deluded than herself.
Although Charles Kenneth Scott Moncrieff’s translation of À la recherche du temps perdu is considered by many journalists and writers to be the best translation of any foreign work into the English language, his choice of Remembrance of Things Past as the general title alarmed the seriously ill Proust and misled generations of readers as to the novelist’s true intent.
On May 31, two weeks after his death, and the day before Orlando was sent to the printer, Woolf noted his death as follows: “Gosse is dead, & I am half reconciled to him by their saying in the papers that he chose to risk a dangerous operation rather than be an invalid for life. This kind of vitality always gets me”. The comment is atypically generous, as, of all his detractors, Woolf was one of the strongest, both in public and in private.