Schade! [Shame!]

I've been reading Reading Rilke: Reflections on the Problems of Translation, just because it looked lonely on my shelf. It was one of those books on Ed Roberson's workshop reading list that I never quite got to, and since we never talked about it in class, well, you wasn't a priority at the time. But temporary reception work does wonders for the book-hungry soul, and so, I've been devouring it. And I must say, despite Gass's frequently uneven tone - he uses such colloquialisms as "helluva," then turns around to brandish such tongue-in-cheek/serious pomposity: "And a tutelary spirit of feminine gender will also be required to attend us while we philosophize" - despite this, I have found myself riveted by his description of Rilke's life and persona.

In particular, I was wowed by his description of Rilke's friendship with painter Paula Becker. She was a lively and brilliant woman, whose life and opportunities were (not surprisingly) stunted by social convention. She was pressured into marriage and childbearing. The rub of it was that her husband, Otto Modersohn, was a painter of inferior talent. Though he eventually succeeded in persuading her to have a child, he did support her while they were separated and she was living and working in Paris - still, she ended up dying soon after giving birth. Gass said of it, "Reconciliations have their own momentum. Giving up always goes beyond the given that has been intended." These moments of poetic insight kept me trusting.

Of her death, Gass writes:
After three weeks, Paula Becker gets out of bed for the first time. Crowned by freshly combed and braided hair, with roses pinned to her dressing gown, she walks slowly from her bedroom, flanked by her husband and her brother in case she should suffer a sudden weakness, into another room, where dozens of candles have been lit and placed about. [...] Seated in a chair, she asks for her baby to be brought to her. This is done. "Now it is almost as beautiful as Christmas." She tries to elevate her foot, perhaps to place it on a footstool. And dies then of an embolism. It's said she said "Schade!"--what a shame.
Truly, a death worthy of any tragic Romance. And her paintings! If I ever have money, I will purchase a Paula Becker.

Now, I'm very interested in seeing some of her work in person, and perhaps reading the Duino Elegies. I give it 1 thumb and a slantywise thumb up. The parts where Gass does get into the issues of translating Rilke, I think his ego gets impedes the communication of what I would think could be some valuable insight on the ethics of translation. He seems to be a purist in this sense, assuming that it is the translator's duty to remain a translator of both word and and intent - tone and the nuances of meaning. It reminded me of this book of the complete Catullus I picked up at a library booksale once - the tone was right, but the translator gave it the beatnik treatment, to make it hep with the young folks, I imagine. It was done in 1957, after all, by a fellow named Frank O. Copley. I admire the moxy and imagination of anyone who is able to make such ancient verse come alive for an uninclined audience, but it must be for love of the poetry itself, for the desire to transmit that love to others. Not for the accolades. Most notably, in the first edition of this collection, Copley's name appears just once, in small italicized type on title page - nowhere on the cover, or anywhere else in the book. The library card reads Catullus, Gaius Valerius. We could all use such humility, I think.

Gass's ripping to bits of his (the only reason I let him get away with the bluntness of his attack is because he was just as savage with his own translations) and others' translations is perfectly warranted, because I think that translation - particularly of a famous and relatively accessible poet like Rilke - has become more of a trade than a labor of love. One ought to know the language to be translated from before presuming to translate. Maybe fluency, but at the very least, basic reading ability, and knowledge of cultural nuances.

I might be a stick in the mud, but I don't think that if you translate a poem that the poem is any less the original poet's work. I liken it to casting a statue. If an artist creates a mold from that statue, in order to reproduce it elsewhere, does it then become that artist's work? Obviously, there is skill involved in the forming of the mold and the casting of the copies, but that's a different type of work, which ought to be heralded as a great skill in itself, but not as the same skill the original artist utilized in creating the first statue.

In any case, that's my poorly analogized two cents on translation. Which, I think, falls mostly in line with Gass's approach. We're both purists, so I can appreciate his approach. I suppose I would have liked his venom a little subtler - more nervous system failure, less ad hominem, if you will.


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