This is where reviews by more knowledgeable scholars, not to mention Google Books and Amazon's Look Inside This Book features come in handy. I know there are those who recoil in horror at Google Books and their previews feature. How could it be a good thing to allow people to read content without paying? Well, in my case I've purchased far more books after reading the excerpts than I have based on reviews. It is the equivalent of going to a bookstore and being able to open each copy of a book I am interested in, check the writing style, see if the contents match up with my expectations. I don't live in a big city, with dozens of shops to peruse. We have one small chain bookstore, its offerings are mediocre at best, and non-existent for anyone wanting to do serious research or read poetry other than Shakespeare, Dickinson, and Whitman. (Although I've noticed a recent retail clerk fascination with Charles Bukowski - they have 7 different poetry books by him and nothing by any poet laureate of the U.S.)
Previewing the books allows me to compare and contrast translations. In the case of Rilke, I knew I preferred a book that had the German on one page, and the English translation on the other. Even though my grasp of German is thin, being able to read the words in the original, feel the rhythm and twists of the language helped me get a feel for what the poet was trying to do. On the translation side, I was looking for an interpretation that fit my understanding of Rilke and his poetry. One translation seemed very mechanical. The words were there but seemed stilted, as if the meaning was lost even though all the right words were on the page. Another translation may not have been 100 percent accurate, word-wise, but the flow and depth and loveliness of Rilke's poetry came across very well. You know which translation I went with.
I had no desire to suffer reading the Cloud of Unknowing in Middle English, although I probably could bull my way through. Since this was for private theology study, and not some college paper, I looked for a translation that kept the original wry and conversational tone of the anonymous fourteenth century English monk. I passed on thou's and other ancient affects as well as a William Johnston translation in favor of a Carmen Acevedo Butcher translation. Why? It spoke to me more eloquently than the Johnson translation did. It matched up to the idea in my head of everything I'd heard/read about the monk and his work.
I noticed the same thing while reading two versions of eighth-century Persian poet Rabia al Basri's love poetry. One translation did nothing for me. But another spoke to me, forced me to reread and savor, to confront the mysticism present in her work. A difference in a few words, the presentation, but what a difference it made.
There are those that say we shouldn't even attempt to translate poetry into another language, for the mood, tone, voice will be lost. Don't discount the ability of a poetry lover to come to the meaning without full knowledge of the language. Trust in them to reach beyond the printed word on the page and discover the nuances. After all, poetry is intensely personal. I would hate to have missed out on the transformational encounter that was my first reading of Hafiz, or Rilke, or Li Po and Chiyo-ni. What I read might not have been an exact translation, but the feel was close enough to turn my read into a profound experience. Isn't that what good poetry is all about?
I live my life in widening circles
I live my life in widening circles
that reach out across the world.
I may not complete this last one
but I give myself to it.
I circle around God, around the primordial tower.
I've been circling for thousands of years
and I still don't know: am I a falcon,
a storm, or a great song?
--- Rainer Maria Rilke
Tired of Speaking Sweetly
Love wants to reach out and manhandle us,
Break all our teacup talk of God.
If you had the courage and
Could give the Beloved His choice, some nights,
He would just drag you around the room
By your hair,
Ripping from your grip all those toys in the world
That bring you no joy.
Love sometimes gets tired of speaking sweetly
And wants to rip to shreds
All your erroneous notions of truth
That make you fight within yourself, dear one,
And with others,
Causing the world to weep
On too many fine days.
God wants to manhandle us,
Lock us inside of a tiny room with Himself
And practice His dropkick.
The Beloved sometimes wants
To do us a great favor:
Hold us upside down
And shake all the nonsense out.
But when we hear
He is in such a "playful drunken mood"
Most everyone I know
Quickly packs their bags and hightails it
Out of town.
the human heart, too
------translated by David G. Lanoue