People interested in top end intuitive spirituality of an aesthetic kind have often been drawn to the exploratory and equivocal signifiers of poets like Rumi (1207-1273) and Rilke (1875-1926).
It is encouraging to note, therefore, that a paperback edition of Don Paterson's 2005 translation of Rilke's 55 sonnets to Orpheus has recently been published. (Sonnets to Orpheus by Don Paterson; Faber and Faber; ISBN 0571222692; £8.99 from Amazon).
Originally written rapidly in a few days and published in 1923, Rilke described his Orpheus sonnets as "perhaps the most mysterious - in the way they arrived and entrusted themselves to me - the most enigmatic dictation I have ever received. The whole first part was taken down in a single breathless act of obedience, between the 2nd and 5th of February 1922, without one word being in doubt or having to be changed."
Writing in The New Statesman (London, UK), Don Paterson explains the difficulty he encountered with his new translation of Rilke: "Translating a complex, visionary poem leaves you with two choices. Either you translate something you don't understand in German into something you understand even less in English, or you make a single reading of it, knowing that this denies many others. In translating Rilke's Sonnets, I took the latter course, which is to say I made a travesty of sorts - as any single interpretation must be. The one thing a poet must avoid, however, is pretending that both the meaning and the music of the original poem can be carried into the new language. Because a poem works on the heretical principle that sound and sense are the same thing, a poem is locked for ever in its original form. The poem's effect, which is all there is of it, can no more be 'translated' than can a piece of music. Yet we are compelled to seek some new incarnation for foreign poems in our own language."
Don Paterson's 2005 translation has been widely applauded. Writing in The Guardian newspaper (London, UK), Mark Doty says: "Paterson gives the sonnets, perhaps for the first time in English, a true sense of an inhabited skin, a pulsing body responding to the life of the senses." And Doty quotes a 1920 letter of Rilke where the poet observes: "Ultimately there is only one poet, that infinite one who makes himself felt, here and there through the ages, in a mind that can surrender to him."
Other useful reviews of Paterson's Orpheus in the British press can be found here, and here.
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