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Temples in our Hearing


Rilke has been a significant figure for me for a while, although there’s much of his work I’ve yet to read. When I lived in Berlin in the early 1990s, a friend gave me his collected poems in German for Chirstmas. The same friend later gave me the Letters to a Young Poet (in English, although I got my hands on a secondhand German edition a few years after that) and, last Christmas, sent me a CD of the Sonnette an Orpheus. So I was delighted to see a “Responding to Rilke” event on the Scottish Poetry Library events programme for Wednesday past.

The SPL’s mezzanine floor was pretty packed to hear Don Paterson deliver excerpts from his new book Orpheus (an English version–i.e., not a straight translation–of the Sonnette an Orpheus) and Jo Shapcott read from Tender Taxes, her 2002 collection of responses to and versions of some of Rilke’s poems in French. Quite a reading. The narcotic spirit of Rilke was firmly present in Paterson’s versions. To judge by the reading, he has managed find a voice that is distinctly his but still recognisably Rilke in a convincing contemporary English. I’m looking forward tremendously to sitting down and digesting the originals and the new version side by side.

In Shapcott’s work, the spirit of Rilke was somewhat less direct. I remember hearing her read some of the work in Tender Taxes about eight or nine ago. My French not being much good, I can’t really comment on Shapcott’s poems as responses and versions, but Tender Taxes looks and sounds like an strong and stimulating book. She calls it “a reader’s book”, that is, a continuation of the conversation she has with Rilke as a reader of his French poetry.

Some people get prissy about translating v versioning. Personally, I’m quite relaxed about it. Like Don Paterson, I feel both can be legitimate and illuminating exercises. In reality, there are and can be few if any one-to-one correspondences in the translation of poetry, even between closely related languages. This means that a translation is always a version to some extent. The most important factor is whether the translation/version works as a poem in the target language. This is surely part of the reason why each generation revisits great texts of other languages that have already been translated time and again.

After the reading, I wound up in the pub with some folk from the MLitt in creative writing at St Andrews. Ended up missing the train I’d intended to catch, and the next one. It was worth it though.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Anonymous permalink
    26/11/2006 18:40

    Very well put re. translating poetry. See:

    for 26 translations of a single Catullus poem, itself a translation from Sappho.

    My favourite’s Wigham’s.


  2. Andrew Philip permalink
    04/12/2006 10:10

    Fascinating link. It seems to demonstrate that the notion that writing a version is a separate activity from translation is a pretty recent idea.

    I like Wigham’s headlights, but I’m not at all sure about Lowell’s card player.

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