Friday, July 25, 2014

Rilke and Slevogt: The Panther

As soon as I saw this etching by Max Slevogt of a black panther, I thought of Rainer Maria Rilke's 1902 or 1903 poem Der Panther, written as a response to Rilke's friend Rodin's urging to work directly from life. So as I had a bit of time on holiday this week, I tried to make my own version of Rilke's poem. I wouldn't call it a translation, as apart from retaining the four quatrains, I have ignored the form of the original - the metre and the rhyme. The best proper translation I know is that of my late friend Stephen Cohn in Neue Gedichte: New Poems (Carcanet, 1992). I didn't have this with me while I sat and struggled with the hilarious responses of Google Translate, but I did have the sensitive translation of Susan Ranson from Rainer Maria Rilke: Selected Poems (OUP, 2011). Back home I have taken the precaution of checking Google's grasp of German with the literal prose translation of Patrick Bridgwater in Twentieth-Century German Verse (Penguin, 1963). Any boo-boos remain, of course, my own.

Max Slevogt (1868-1932), Schwarzer Panther
Etching (with three extra panthers as drypoint remarques), 1914

Jardin des Plantes, Paris

His barred eyes have grown so tired
of pacing, they have emptied out.
As if there were a thousand bars
and beyond those thousand bars, a hollowness.

The supple flexure of his paws,
revolving in an ever-tightening gyre,
creates a passionate dance around
the still centre of his fierce, numbed will.

Just sometimes, the shutter of his lens
lifts, without a sound.
An image enters, pulses through the coiled spring of his sinews,
and winks out in his heart’s great silence.

translation © copyright Neil Philip 2014


Jane Librizzi said...

Neil, Thank you. 80I like this. Isn't it fun to try to translate something? Aside from doing it in college, I translated a few lines of Theophile Gauthier recently and an entire (short) poem by Jacques Prevert at Christmas. You seem to know several translators; I remember you knew the woman who had translated Gaspara Stampa from Italian to English.

Neil said...

Hi Jane - Yes, I've got a lot of pleasure - and creative energy - from translation, including translating from Jacques Prevert. I always feel a bit of a sham, because although my French is quite good (unless I'm speaking!), I have to feel my way in any other language. I taught myself some Danish to translate HC Andersen, but have forgotten most of it now; that and Anglo-Saxon at university have given me a little insight into German, but without prior translations and literal versions I could never even try to translate Heine or Rilke. If I had a superpower it would be to understand, read, and speak all languages.

Jane Librizzi said...

Neil, not sure why people - at least Americans - are so nervous about trying to learn languages. My father studied two (Italian and Spanish) in college and then taught himself Dutch and French out of books. He enjoyed it and I grew up thinking it would be fun. I'm hesitant about speaking French but being able to read another language seems like a treat to me.

ninatranter said...

Thank you for the translation. I had not heard of this poet. If there are any mistakes in your translation it is not obvious. Nothing seems awkward to me the reader. Flexure I like a lot. Passionate dance I am not so keen on but I imagine this is the best or closest to the original meaning. It must be hard to try to re-create a poem with the words of another language, to find the right words to convey not just the meaning but also the essence and feel of the original. I would think a literal translation can often be ugly or even comic. It's something I have often wondered about when reading translated literature. What puns or tricks of language are lost in translation? What has been added by the translators choices. Returning to the poem I have to say I am moved to tears by the The Panther so I would call that a success.I broke at the first line and cried all the way through. I will be looking for those other translations you mention now!

Neil said...

Jane, English-speakers generally seem very foreign-language-averse. I think it stems from a kind of in-built cultural arrogance. Having only one language is a kind of mental impoverishment, and I regret very much not having made a lot more effort at languages when I was young.

Neil said...

Thank you for your kind words, Nina. I might be able to improve on passionate dance, I'll give it some thought. Even closely-related languages like English and German, or English and French, can't ever be translated simply word-for-word or phrase-for-phrase; there are always disconnects between the two. I think this is because language is essentially a mode of thinking, not just a vocabulary and a set of grammatical rules. I've added your Mudlarks blog to my blogroll and look forward to exploring it.

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