Tuesday, October 9, 2007


Rilke Book of Hours

The translation is by Anita Barrows and Joanna Macy. They start out by detailing their conversion to Buddhism. Now Rilke wrote this after a visit to a Russian Orthodox, i.e., Christian, monastery, so the translators’ may attempt to remake Rilke into something closer to what they want.

They drop one of the three stanzas of the opening poem. They omit others, and consolidate two poems into one. They drop lines from other poems. So the whole translation is immediately suspect. They give the German text of what they do translate, and it is immediately evident, even to those, like me, who can’t read German, that the English text in no way matches the German.

It is impossible to comment with assurance on what Rilke wrote because the translation is so defective and lacking integrity.

The translators claim that I.36 is about God’s need for us. Did Rilke say that? I’m not sure, but is that solely a New Age thing? There is a passage where Paul says that he makes up in his own body whatever is lacking in the sufferings of Christ, and there is a passage in Colossians, if I recall correctly, that speaks as if we complete something in creation, but a lack, a poverty as Rilke apparently puts it, I don’t think so.

One contrast with the greatest mystical poetry, that of the Song of Songs and the poetry of St. John of the Cross, is that whereas both the scripture and the saint frame mystical experience in terms of love, and usually in the third person, Rilke’s poems are full of “I.” This isn’t to say that he didn’t have a profound experience in the monastery, or even to evaluate the poems esthetically, merely to say that as records of mystical experience I don’t think they belong in the same category as John of the Cross.

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