Vox Populi

A Public Sphere for Poetry, Politics, and Nature

Eva-Maria Simms, Michael Simms: Translating Rilke

When Something Falls from my Window

When something falls 
from my window
(even the smallest thing)
the law of gravity rushes
like an ocean storm 
to bear ball and berry 
into the core of the world.
 
Every thing is protected
by a grace ready for flight,
every stone and flower
every child at night.
 
Only we, in arrogance, thrust
out of peace
into space.
Not giving ourselves
to the mind of the world 
to rise like trees.
Leaving the path
we're in knots;
abandoning bonds,
we’re namelessly alone.
 
You who thought
to best birds in flight
learn from things
like a child. 
They are close
to God’s heart:
never leave him,
able to fall,
patiently 
at rest in gravity.

--

Wenn etwas mir vom Fenster fällt
 
Wenn etwas mir vom Fenster fällt
(und wenn es auch das Kleinste wäre)
wie stürzt sich das Gesetz der Schwere
gewaltig wie ein Wind vom Meere
auf jeden Ball und jede Beere
und trägt sie in den Kern der Welt.
 
Ein jedes Ding ist überwacht
von einer flugbereiten Güte
wie jeder Stein und jede Blüte
und jedes kleine Kind bei Nacht.
Nur wir, in unsrer Hoffart, drängen
aus einigen Zusammenhängen
in einer Freiheit leeren Raum,
statt, klugen Kräften hingegeben,
uns aufzuheben wie ein Baum.
Statt in die weitesten Geleise
sich still und willig einzureihn,
verknüpft man sich auf manche Weise, –
und wer sich ausschließt jedem Kreise,
ist jetzt so namenlos allein.
Da muss er lernen von den Dingen,
anfangen wieder wie ein Kind,
weil sie, die Gott am Herzen hingen,
nicht von ihm fortgegangen sind.
Eins muss er wieder können: fallen,
geduldig in der Schwere ruhn,
der sich vermaß, den Vögeln allen
im Fliegen es zuvorzutun.

--

Rainer Maria Rilke (1918) Das Stunden-Buch, Buch Zwei: 
Von der Pilgerschaft. Leipzig: Insel Verlag.Translated 
by Eva-Maria Simms and Michael Simms

--
The translation of the Rilke poem above is a collaboration
between Eva-Maria and Michael Simms who bring two different
kinds of sensibility to the process of translation. Michael
is a poet and poetry editor with a lifelong love of Rilke’s
work and a large collection of Rilke translations by various
poets. Eva is a psychologist and philosopher who has written
her dissertation and a number of scholarly articles on Rilke
and the psychological and philosophical transformation of
consciousness in Rilke’s Duino Elegies, and who gives
workshops on the spiritual dimension of Rilke’s work. The
above translation is the result of dissatisfaction with
popular translations of this poem: they often miss the
complicated and sophisticated philosophical issues that
Rilke is working on; or they are simply bad poetry. In
translating Rilke from German to English, the tension
between philosophical fidelity and the poetic music of
language is very difficult to hold.  German has a
complicated grammatical structure which allows words to
carry fine differences in object reference or temporality
through prefixes and suffixes while English has a huge
vocabulary and a grammatical structure which is often
indicated by word order.  

In order to see some of the choices that a translator
has to make, let's take a look at three different versions
of the last lines of Rilke's poem -- first the German text,
then a fairly literal translation by Eva-Maria, then
Joanna Macy’s inspiring but loose translation (Rilke's 
Book of Hours: Love Poems to God. Translated by Anita
Barrows & Joanna Macy, published by Penguin, 2005), 
followed by the stanza from Eva-Maria and Michael’s
translation at the top of this post. The differences in
rhythm and connotation are striking:
 
Rilke's Original:
Da muss er lernen von den Dingen,
anfangen wieder wie ein Kind,
weil sie, die Gott am Herzen hingen,
nicht von ihm fortgegangen sind.
Eins muss er wieder können: fallen,
geduldig in der Schwere ruhn,
der sich vermaß, den Vögeln allen
im Fliegen es zuvorzutun.

--
 
Literal translation by Eva:
He must learn from things
To begin again like a child,
Because they, attached to God’s heart,
Have never left him.
He must be able to do this again: to fall,
patiently resting in gravity
He who thought
To best all birds in flight.

--
 
Joanna Macy’s translation:
So, like children, we begin again
to learn from the things,
because they are in God’s heart;
they have never left him. 
This is what the things can teach us:
to fall,
patiently to trust our heaviness.
Even a bird has to do that
before he can fly.

--                                   
 
Mike and Eva’s translation:
You who thought
to best birds in flight
learn from things
like a child. 
They are close
to God’s heart:
never leave him,
able to fall,
patiently 
at rest in gravity. 
 


Copyright 2019 Eva-Maria Simms and Michael Simms.

 Rainer Maria Rilke (1875 -1926)

2 comments on “Eva-Maria Simms, Michael Simms: Translating Rilke

  1. Patricia A. Nugent
    December 7, 2019

    For instance, what if, through subsequent translations of the Bible, the phrase interpreted as “have dominion over” was actually closer to “be responsible for,” as in “Man should be responsible for the fish of the sea and the birds of the heavens”? Might that have changed our pillaging of the earth?

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Patricia A. Nugent
    December 6, 2019

    Love the poem – and learning about the collaborative translation process. Instructive and beautiful. Makes me think about how the Bible’s original message must be long-gone after being translated into various languages so many times. And…I’m ashamed to admit that I always thought Rilke was a woman – perhaps because of his name but likely because of his sensibilities. Many lessons for me in this post. Thank you.

    Liked by 2 people

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