Last episode used my best effort at a faithful translation of Rainer Maria Rilke’s “The Dark Interval.” Now, as promised, my alternative translation.
As I discussed, I first heard Rilke’s “The Dark Interval” by hearing it. In the immediacy of that encounter, I heard it as a meditation on how our lives pass by while we do not speak up to them and use their singular moment, however imperfectly. Upon reflection, I now understand the poem was likely speaking of Rilke’s more impending death. The more literal translation I used for yesterday’s piece retains more of that focus.
Today’s version uses a freer translation, reflecting my original understanding of the piece. The original poem includes three or four images, which I sought to vivify in modern English. The first image, that of the “steep hour” (diese steile stunde) we know is a downhill slope, not a slow, steep incline one is ascending, because the next line includes a sense of rushing or hurrying (eilen). I have no idea if Rilke ever skied or otherwise could be thinking of skiing or sledding down a hill, but that was the concrete image that presented itself to me, and this choice helped me deal with most enigmatic image in the piece, the “I am a tree before my background” (Ich bin ein Baum vor meinem Hintergrunde). My choice in this translation is a risky one. I made the vaguest image in the German into the most immediate image in English, that not only am I sliding rapidly, but there is dangerous obstacle, a tree, to deal with. I now think my translation of “hintergrunde” to “my past” may be inaccurate. Given the poems concluding images, I think Rilke may been thinking of background more in the sense of “musical background”—but it was the choice I made then, and it works well in my first understanding of the poem’s intent.
The next image is also a bit obscure. “I am only one of many mouths, and the one that closes the soonest.” (Ich bin nur einer meiner vielen Munde/und jener, welcher sich am frühesten schliesst.”) I’m still unsure of which meanings Rilke meant to convey there. Is he saying, “I am only one of the multitude, and I’ll be dead (and silent) sooner than most.” Or is he saying “I could speak up in many ways (I can’t quite decide what is the right way to speak up), so instead I clam-up and never express myself. In this translation, I chose the latter. I now think Rilke likely meant the former.
The last image is the most developed one, and the most attractive to a poet and musician like myself, because it’s an image out of music itself. I read “the dark interval,” that I use as the title for this piece, as a reference to the tritone, a dissonant interval that was being exploited widely in musical works contemporary with Rilke. And of course, modern popular music based on blues and jazz forms makes use of the dissonant intervals too, so I chose to use the more modern “funky.” And in developing this musical image I chose to use another informal term to vivify the “death tone” (Ton Tod), translating it to “wolf-tone,” which is the howling feedback sound a string instrument makes when the sounded note is the same as the strongest natural resonant frequency of the instrument’s body.
Keeping with my initial understanding of “The Dark Interval” I was trying to say that we keep silent, and do not act, out of fear of “dissonance,” of fear of not fitting in with the expectations; or because we fear a “wolf-tone,” an unwanted strong response; but that when we do, if we do, as can be done within music, the dissonance can be resolved, that musical consonance sounds even sweeter when dissonance shows it in contrast.
So, there you go, that was once my understanding of Rilke’s “The Dark Interval” that I used in this second translation. As a piece, in English, it stands up, it has coherence, and I think it’s livelier than yesterday’s more literal translation—but I also think I got Rilke’s meaning wrong. How much does this matter?
To the listener, it may not matter. If they don’t know the original in German or from another translation, they experience this work as it is. To art also, it may not matter. A misunderstood work is still a work of art, another one of many mouths that isn’t shut. I often consider translations of poetry like a musician doing a cover song, where there is value in recreating the song differently. Still, I can’t shake off the thought that I was unfair to Rilke.