“Evening” by Reiner Maria Rilke in Two Translations

I. EVENING

Slowly now the evening changes his garments

held for him by a rim of ancient trees;

you gaze: and the landscape divides and leaves you,

one sinking and one rising toward the sky.

And you are left, to none belonging wholly,

not so dark as a silent house, nor quite

so surely pledged unto eternity

as that which grows to star and climbs the night.

To you is left (unspeakably confused)

your life, gigantic, ripening, full of fears,

so that it, now hemmed in, now grasping all,

is changed in you by turns to stone and stars.

translated by F.C. MacIntyre 

II. EVENING

The sky puts on the darkening blue coat

held for it by a row of ancient trees;

you watch: and the lands grow distant in your sight,

one journeying to heaven, one that falls;

and leave you, not at home in either one,

not quite so still and dark as the darkened houses,

not calling to eternity with the passion of what becomes

a star each night, and rises;

and leave you (inexpressibly to unravel)

your life, with its immensity and fear,

so that, now bounded, now immeasurable,

it is alternately stone in you and star.

translated by Stephen Mitchell

“Evening” is one of the most famous poems by Rilke. It is also a poem that I have always regarded as unbelievably, sublimely beautiful, expressing how we humans are torn between the simultaneous boundedness and unboundedness of existence. Our substance consists both of the immense stars and of the perfect and silent stones. Our life, “gigantic, ripening, full of fears” is dramatically poised between the two. I am reminded of Jung’s Red Book and his beautiful vision in the desert:

 “How beautiful it is here! The reddish color of the stones is wonderful; they reflect the glow of a hundred thousand past suns these small grains of sand have rolled in fabulous primordial oceans, over them swam primordial monsters with forms never beheld before. Where were you, man, in those days? On this warm sand lay your childish primordial animal ancestors, like children snuggling up to their mother. /o mother stone, I love you, I lie snuggled up against your warm body, /your late child. Blessed be you, ancient mother.”

stonecircle

Circle of Stones, Tenere Desert

I have been wondering about how a translation can make or break a poem. Stephen Mitchell’s translation of the poem by Rilke I am featuring today is the most celebrated but, frankly, I do not understand why. The translation I favor is the first one. Edward Snow, another renowned translator, called Rilke “…the poet of thresholds and silences, of landscapes charged with remoteness and expectancy.” After a careful study of the poem in the original German I can say just this: while I was able to understand both Rilke’s original verse and MacIntyre’s translation, if I had just been presented with Mitchell’s rendition, I would have been rather lost and confused. The emotional reaction I experience is also much more palpable when I read the first translation.

gerzhedovich

Yaroslav Gerzhedovich, “The Midnight Stars“

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28 Responses to “Evening” by Reiner Maria Rilke in Two Translations

  1. Don says:

    The poetry is exquisite Monika. It touches something deep in me. I also love those words of Jung from his red book. I’m with you on the translation. I much prefer Edward Snow’s. Good to come back to your blog again.

    • Good to have you back, Don, with your heartfelt, candid impressions. I am rediscovering Rilke – I spent a good few hours immersed in his poetry today, of course translated by Snow.

  2. I like how you have two translations. I read them each twice. On first pass, I leaned toward Mitchell’s, though on a closer second pass, I would say both have merits and weaknesses. We should make a hybrid 😉

    • “In all judgements by which we describe anything as beautiful, we allow no one to be of another opinion,” – this is Kant. But I do welcome a difference of opinion, so maybe Kant was wrong.
      Thank you for a thought-provoking reply.

  3. Monika, whether one poem or another here is right or better, becomes the question. What I know is that I wake up to your exquisite blogs, their chosen images , whether psychic, ocular, or written, and I am moved to a place of reimagining and tormented beauty.

  4. Marie Taylor says:

    I have been comparing translations of the Tao te Ching, one of which is by Stephen Mitchell. I agree with you that there is something lacking – a loss of poetry, a bit too common in the same way I find the old Catholic mass with its Latin and incense much more inspiring than the contemporary, guitar-playing version. I liked your except from Jung.

    • Yes, yes – “ a loss of poetry, a bit too common“ – this is exactly how I felt about the Mitchell. He is no poet, at least not to my ears.
      Thank you for a thoughtful comment.

  5. I had to read both translations a couple of times, and then I compared each, line vs. line. I agree that Snow’s is better. Each line in Snow’s holds more wonder in it. For me, the line that you brought out — ” your life, gigantic, ripening, full of fears,” — is a great example of how Snow’s is better. It’s incredibly brilliant.

    • Thank you! That was exactly the line that I also thought showed Snow’s mastery. In German it says: “dein Leben bang und riesenhaft und reifend,“ which word for word means, “your life anxious/full of anxiety, gigantic and ripening.“ I think leaving out “ripening“ by Mitchell was tremendous loss, wasn‘t it?
      Brilliant comment – thank you.

  6. herongrace says:

    Breath takingly beautiful photo. The first time I saw desert was sunrise after getting down from a massive road train truck after travelling along the west coast of Australia all night long, sick with the flu, alongside a cute young truck driver, and awed at the red of the dirt as far as the eye could see, the new dawn on a blue sky with majestic tall white eucalypts and realising that Albert Namajira’s paintings were accurate depictions of that landscape and not exaggerated in the slightest.

    • Thank you very much for sharing. I have had a look at this artist and I love his paintings. How incredible for you to have made this trip and with a cute “animus figure” alongside to boot. Beautiful reflections.

  7. ptero9 says:

    I, too favor the Edward Snow translation Monika.

    I was just reading yesterday that in alchemy, it is said that one must keep the stones, the philosophers stone that is, warm.

    The poem is beautiful and speaks of liminal places, but with a tension of binding. Is this Ananke?

    • Interesting about the stone. I remember reading about the philosopher’s stone and its paradoxical qualities. Stones are so incredibly fascinating. For example, I have this pair of earrings made of lava rock and I always think how how they must have been at one point and that this heat is somehow still present in them.
      I also think we are bound by Ananke – binding seems like an important theme in this poem.
      Thank you, Debra.

      • ptero9 says:

        We share that love of stones Monika, I have been collecting them since childhood. I hadn’t thought of them as carriers as you suggest, but that’s true. Stones are a marvel for their age and for whatever it is that formed them to be the type of stone they are. Their past you might say, has formed them.

        I have been contemplating character recently and love how much this fits right in!

        Love,
        Debra

  8. Wonderful ! I particularly enjoyed the quote from Jung’s Red Book.

  9. Pingback: “Evening” by Reiner Maria Rilke in Two Translations | lampmagician

  10. Dear Monika, thank you for taking the time to explore all of this and share. I also agree about the Snow translation, as it is deeply moving, and the meaning of it’s movement I do not sense in the Mitchell translation. Perhaps it is about poetic skill of the translator, as well as their own experience. I remember reading Kurt Vonnegut write something to the effect that as an author, you need your translator to be a better writer than you are to pull it off. I find myself continuing to look at your post and stare at the stone circle in the desert for some reason. Finally, your choice to include the Carl Jung vision has helped me get some new thoughts about a subject I am exploring: the astrology of Neptune in the chart of Charles Darwin, including the planetary nodes, in connection to his relationship with the collective unconscious. Darwin had the South Node and North Node of Neptune square the South Node and North Node of his Moon. His natal Capricorn Moon is conjunct the South Nodes of Jupiter, Saturn, Pluto, Venus, Vesta, and Mercury (most closely Saturn, Pluto, Venus). Anyway, so far I have been thinking about the collective unconscious of the development of human civilization as a result, but your quote from Jung just expanded my perspective.
    Thank you, as always,
    Gray

    • I hope to read your thoughts on Darwin, Gray. It is especially fascinating about his Moon in Capricorn being conjunct so many South Nodes – one does think of stones and fossils and the past petrified in those eternal forms. Only with a Moon like this was he able to perceive the whole structure and order. The nodes are quite new to me but I think they are extremely illuminating.
      About translation and poetry, I love Vonnegut’s take on it: it takes an artist to translate one. Translator’s work is a delicate interplay between the spirit and the letter of a work of art.
      You know I always read The New York Review of Books. In one of the recent issues there was an essay on the notion of genius- you can find it here: http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/2014/oct/09/wonder-boys-genius/
      These two paragraphs on Darwin in particular struck me:
      “If the idea of genius, then, served as a theodicy of the human mind, what of the extraordinary individuals whose intellectual achievements did not exalt us? Charles Darwin, who was responsible for one of the greatest transformations in human self-understanding there has ever been, brought us very much down to earth. And indeed he did not supply a new archetype for genius; in fact there has always been controversy over whether he deserves the title (he is barely mentioned in McMahon’s book). He did not even consider himself a genius: “I have no great quickness of apprehension or wit,” he said.

      Darwin saw himself as rather a plodder and marveled that with his “moderate abilities” he had nevertheless managed to influence scientific thought to such an extent. Some of his most important breakthroughs were made during eight years of work on barnacles and after all his tremendous discoveries he spent his final years studying worms. An understanding of our place in nature in purely materialist terms did not seem to constitute an explosion of light in the universe.”
      Love,
      Monika

      • Monika, thank you again, you are a real blessing. It is amazing how we can be thinking about different things it seems on the surface yet find the strong underlying connection nonetheless. This review by Tamsin Shaw, as well as the substance of her focus, the work on genius by Darren McMahon you have been analyzing with beauty, are all helping me a great deal understanding more about Darwin, especially pulling myself out of an astrology focus on him. He seemed to be complicated- on the one hand he was very ambitious and gave clear indications of wanting the glory of being the genius behind the origin of species theory. On the other hand, I am also not surprised to hear he had misgivings over being called a genius. He apparently was very self-critical, very depressive and melancholic. He also suffered great loss, such as the death of his mother at a young age, and the death of his beloved daughter at a young age. Your poem selection I feel relates to him on many levels, including the fertile depth of his darkness, his connection between stone and stars. He wrote a great deal on geology and studied stones and rocks to a great extent, and I agree with you it is amazing to contemplate the presence, wavelength, time of stones and their perspective. It is worth noting that there was a powerful Juno behind his work as well, his wife Emma who was his cousin, and who he was able to hold conversations with him about his thoughts. Who knows what he would have come up with exactly without her. He even has a powerful Juno in his chart- Pisces Juno conjunct Pisces Jupiter in his third house. He also had a Pisces Mercury conjunct Ceres and Pluto in Pisces in his third house, and this Pisces Mercury-Ceres-Pluto is square to a Saturn-Neptune conjunction in Sagittarius above his ascendant. His Neptune is less than a degree away from his ascendant, technically in the 12th House in a quadrant house system. I think I may end up posting what I write on my blog, so you can see it. Thank you for taking the time for a stimulating response to my comment.
        Love,
        Gray

      • Dear Gray, this is really very fascinating what you are sharing here about Darwin. Amazing about his Juno, too. I hope it is ok to recommend something to you again:
        http://www.theguardian.com/science/2010/mar/19/evolution-darwin-natural-selection-genes-wrong
        Always looking forward to your writing,
        Monika

  11. Dewin Nefol says:

    Hey Monika,

    I am often entertained by words relating to transition, or initiation of process, or those that appear to occupy a position at a boundary or threshold. ‘Evening’ presented such an opportunity to sit in the ‘tormented beauty’ of twilight’s glow. Thank you for reflective imagery to accompany writing that distils thought a little further. The photograph of the Tenere desert circle is particularly motivating towards ideas of Platonic symbolism.

    With regard to the poem/s…both renditions display their eloquence and virtue, but like you, I too feel the omission of ‘ripening’ robbed Mitchell’s version of an emotion not easily defined but knowingly missing…an indefinable something that hangs waiting in space for recognition. Marie Taylor’s ‘loss of poetry’ is succinctly put.

    As to my consumption of Evening…it is a pleasure to be reminded of the notion of beauty innate to every moment of living! We have a capricious existence, which is both fleeting and ephemeral.
    Curiously, I was reminded of the story of Castor and Pollux wherein we have the same compromise as the poem presents – the division of life between the earth and the heavens…where the immortal Pollux descends to the Underworld so that his twin, Castor, might alternatively feel a mortal life proceeding cyclically within him. I think it is the beauty in this eternal tragedy of the heart, which ignites the soul and asks it to experience and communicate the waking life as a living adventure with words. Perhaps this is why Mercury became manifest in reality as a ruler of form dispensing magic with his symbolic staff Caduceus…so as to enable ‘language’ as a means of maintaining exact balance in the liminal space between positive and negative life-streams, between earth and heaven. Without him how else might we express with the eloquent heart and commit to written form fundamental ideas that stave off the approach of night? But I do consider it to be the combined influence of Venusian and Mercurial energies that underpin the motivation towards poetry and fine art…both have the propensity to be romanced and reborn from the cosmic tragedy of an evenings close.

    And lastly…your mention of the latent heat in lava stone ear-rings is quite evocative Monika. It lingers with the mind as would the ‘lic-k’ in a delicate trace of perfume entice the warm air of a late summers breeze.

    An enjoyable and warming blog as always. Thank you.

    Namaste

    DN – 11/10/2014

    • Hi Dewin,
      I saw this on astrologer’s Daniel Fiverson’s website today: “We are passing through the liminal region between the lunar and solar eclipses. The veil is thinner and our impressions are more vivid.” We may be in the most liminal time of the year right now with Mercury retrograde, in the midst of the eclipse season and right before Samhain. The atmosphere of liminality is so palpable to me.

      Thank you for your thoughts on Castor and Pollux, and Caduceus, and language – very beautiful and enriching the meaning of Mercurius for me.

      In gratitude,
      Monika

  12. Abdul says:

    Hello Symbol Reader: Thank you for this write-up. I am confused about one point though. The first translation you quoted above as Snow’s, I cannot find this translation in the book from Snow. [https://www.amazon.com/Poetry-Rilke-German-Rainer-Maria/dp/0374532710/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1494442246&sr=1-1]. This translation actually is by C. F. MacIntyre. [cf: https://books.google.ae/books?id=_tNvHF11NpcC&printsec=frontcover#v=onepage&q&f=false page 47]. Is this so?

    • Thank you so much for pointing that out – You are absolutely right. The Edward Snow translation can be found in The Book of Images. I think it is also good though I prefer the one in my post. I need to find out more about C.F. MacIntyre.

  13. benjolliffe says:

    I agree. MacIntyre is better except for that opening couplet:

    The sky puts on the darkening blue coat
    held for it by a row of ancient trees;

    It’s an incredible opener. So maybe a combo of Mitch and Mac is best!!?

    The colour also brings to mind another favourite poem of mine which explores self and other: Wallace Stevens’ Man with blue guitar.

    The man bent over his guitar,
    A shearsman of sorts. The day was green.

    They said, “You have a blue guitar,
    You do not play things as they are.”

    The man replied, “Things as they are
    Are changed upon the blue guitar.”

    And they said then, “But play, you must,
    A tune beyond us, yet ourselves,

    A tune upon the blue guitar
    Of things exactly as they are.”

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