Autumn Day: Rilke : Translation

I’ve been pondering the Rilke translation done by Mary Kinzie in the current issue of Poetry Magazine. I really like her translation, but the final stanza didn’t win me. I was almost ready to buy it for the sake of “when the wild leaves loosen” which is marvelous, but I decided to track down the original to see how Rilke himself brought this one down for a landing.

Herbsttag – Rainer Maria Rilke

Herr: es ist Zeit. Der Sommer war sehr gross.
Leg deinen Schatten auf die Sonnenuhren,
und auf den Fluren lass die Winde los.

Befiehl den letzten Fruchten voll zu sein;
gieb innen noch zwei sudlichere Tage,
drange sie zur Vollendung hin und jage
die letzte Susse in den schweren Wein.

Wer jetzt kein Haus hat, baut sich keines mehr.
Wer jetzt allein ist, wird es lange bleiben,
wird wachen, lesen, lange Briefe schreiben
und wird in den Alleen hin und her
unruhig wandern, wenn die Blatter treiben.

Yeah, I don’t know German either, but I can see that there is a rhyme scheme at work here. In searching for the poem I found a rhymed version by William Gass:

Lord, it is time. The summer was too long.
Lay your shadow on the sundials now,
and through the meadow let the winds throng.

Ask the last fruits to ripen on the vine;
give them further two more summer days
to bring about perfection and to raise
the final sweetness in the heavy wine.

Whoever has no house now will establish none,
whoever lives alone now will live on long alone,
will waken, read, and write long letters,
wander up and down the barren paths
the parks expose when the leaves are blown.

Like many translated poems into English the rhymes throw the flow well off. It’s very stilted without any of movement of Mary Kinzie’s version:

After the summer’s yield, Lord, it is time
to let your shadow lengthen on the sundials
and in the pastures let the rough winds fly.

As for the final fruits, coax them to roundness.
Direct on them two days of warmer light
to hale them golden toward their term, and harry
the last few drops of sweetness through the wine.

Whoever’s homeless now, will build no shelter;
who lives alone will live indefinitely so,
waking up to read a little, draft long letters,
and, along the city’s avenues,
fitfully wander, when the wild leaves loosen.

So much here to enjoy, “let your shadow lengthen”, “to hale them golden toward their term”, and the aforementioned “when the wild leaves loosen”. But as you see there’s no attention paid to the rhyme scheme. Obviously, there’s no merit in rhymes if the poem itself is clunky and given the choice between Gass and Kinzie I’d take Kinzie, but I thought I’d try my hand it the poem (“trusty” online German to English dictionary at hand and relying on those who had gone on before). Here’s what I came up with:

Autumn Day

Lord, it is time, after the summer’s yield
to let your shadow lengthen on sundials,
and let the wind go loose among the fields.

Make ripe the final fruits along the vine.
Give them yet two more long summer days
to bring on ripeness and to press
the final sweetness into heavy wine.

He who is homeless now will build no home.
He who’s alone will now remain alone;
he will wake, will read and write long notes
and in the alleyways will roam,
up and down, where leaves are wildly blown.

by Rainer Maria Rilke
translated by Remy Wilkins

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5 thoughts on “Autumn Day: Rilke : Translation

  1. Not a classic translation on my part, but I enjoyed writing it:

    Boss, the time has come. The summer would not yield!
    Wrap all sundials in the thrall of shadows;
    Unstable the winds down the halls of each field!

    Exhort full the holdout blossoms of each vine.
    Though give them two more of the sun’s days
    To perfect their womb, and then drive, place,
    another last sweetness into gravid wine.

    A homeless man has home not to rebuild.
    And lonely will be lonely longer yet;
    he must wake to read, write and forget,
    and clod aimless what each street has willed,
    as driven as blown leaves from his regrets.

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