Verloren in Translation

I am a huge (if fledgling) fan of the works of Rainer Maria Rilke. My interest began in a session with Ronald. Weeks before he presented me with the quote that would start the love affair with the Werks of a turn of the century German poet, I had imparted my “How I came to respect psychotherapy” story: essentially, I figured that both therapist and patient were humans, and there was no possible way for objectivity to enter into it because the caregiver could escape his own human frailties no better than any patient could.

He understood, because he understood me. That normally would be enough to say of any patient/doctor relationship, but Ronald is a beautiful, special case. He came back with an answer for me by quoting Rilke, and I was so affected I asked if he had the source. And it was from “Letters to a Young Poet”.

Immediately I went out and bought the book. I read the book through, and the quote was near the end. It was a quite satisfying (and quite emotional) experience. I told Jenniebear about all of this and of course she was way ahead of me, and recommended the Stephen Mitchell translation, and further, his translation of the Duino Elegies.

Lee is here for Christmas, because family belongs together at Christmas-Hannukah-Ramadan-Duali-Kwaanza. He wanted to get to a book store. We got to a Barnes & Noble near “up the mall” and I’d remembered I had wanted the Mitchell translations (the translation I’d bought was not Mitchell’s). I texted Jenniebear and asked her to verify the translations I should be looking for and ended up buying “Letters to a Young Poet” again, and added another book of selected poetry of Rilke, including the Elegies and the Sonnets to Orpheus. An added bonus: each poem is printed auf Deutsch and on the facing page, Mitchell’s translation into English.

So anyhoo, this all gave me a chance to compare one person’s translation of a given text to another translation. In the quote Ronald gave me that so touched me, only a few seemingly insignificant words were different between the two, but even those few (and relatively common) words were enough to produce a noticeably improve adsorption, their sentiment pressed more perfectly to my own mind.

Mitchell’s translation of the quote Ronald gave me, recall, as response to my now long-gone hesitations about therapy:

Don’t think that the person who is trying to comfort you now lives untroubled among the simple and quiet words that sometimes give you pleasure. His life has much trouble and sadness, and remains far behind yours. If it were otherwise, he would never have been able to find those words.

The emphasis is mine. For the dearth of good will in the world, for all those who steal it away like a niggardly coward in the night, the only way to restore our world may be to remember Rilke’s words and inhabit them, either as the comforter and comforted.

And to me, Good Will is nothing more than being both comforter and comforted simultaneously and in like company.

Update: I thought it might be a good idea to include the other translation of the same section. It’s not that I think less of Reginald Snell’s translations skills, just that Mitchell’s seem more habitable to me. Here’s Snell’s translation; perhaps you will find his choices more to your liking:

Do not think that the man who seeks to comfort you lives untroubled among the simple and quiet words which sometimes do you good. His life has much hardship and sadness and lags far behind yours. If it were otherwise, he could never have found those words.

For me, it just may come down to a “would” instead of a “could”.