10:12 AM Posted by James Owens


L’Ensemble Silent

À quoi donc mesure-t-on
ce qui passe et, tour à tour,
semble trop long ou trop court
à l’imprévisible saison
de nos cœurs peu utilisables?
N’importe que vous dormez
ou que vous vous mettez à table,
on finit par se conformer
à l’inénarrable.
Quel silence autour de nos vies,
malgré tel mot qui voudrait
vivre. On pleure, on crie,
mais l’ensemble se tait.

Rilke, La Migration des Forces


The Silent Whole

What measure holds firm
against what is and goes
and passes too fast or too slow
for the unforeseeable term
our hearts are still just usable?
Even if you are asleep
or sitting at the table,
in the end you take the shape
of the untellable.
What silence around our lives,
despite some word that seeks
to live. We shout, we cry.
Das Alles never speaks.

(my translation)


The Silent Whole

Against what, then, do we measure
whatever happens and, in turn,
seems too long or too short
for the unpredictable season
of our barely useable hearts?
Whether we are sleeping
or just sitting at the table,
we end up by comforming
to the unutterable.
Such silence around our lives,
despite this word that wants
to live. We cry, we shout,
but the whole says nothing.

Translated by A. Poulin



Roxana said...

J, here I have almost no objections :-) you take the shape of the untellable - is so good. but of course you are expecting this question: why das Alles? I am not sure I get you here. if you want a german expression (but again, why would you), then it would be "das Ganze". I can't see other possible translation for "ensemble". but by doing so you also give up the repetition title/last line, which is important, I think.

James Owens said...

Roxana: Let me say first that I assume absolutely that you are right -- "Das Alles" ought to be "Das Ganze." You have a better ear for what sounds right in German than I have, especially since I only pretend to know any German at all :-)

That said, here is what I meant to do. "Das Ganze" is certainly the best translation for "l'ensemble" if "l'ensemble" means "the whole of one person's life." I was trying to make it mean more than just that, though -- something like "the whole sweep of history" or "the all of the cosmos." German Romantic philosophers (who, I mean to suggest, are the ultimate source of many of Rilke's ideas) used to use "Das Alles" in a way that means something close to this.

Schopenhauer writing of history: "sähen wir das Alles, wir würden schaudern und wehklagen über die verlorenen Schätze ganzer Weltalter," or of the illusion of dreams, "was Sie jetzt sich vorstellen, ist bloss ein Auge, das Das Alles sieht." I think Goethe uses "das Alles" like this, too.

I'm over-reaching, no doubt. Those writers' way of using this phrase isn't really distinctive or memorable enought for a reader to make the connection I'm trying to make. (Or -- seriously, and I won't mind if this is true -- I've just misunderstood the whole issue.)

Why German at all, when Rilke doesn't so this? First, to make the relationship I mention above -- if it is valid. Next, the bit of German just appealed to me as a small acknowledgement that we are reading in a complex linguistic environment here -- a German poet (actually a Czech poet who grew up with German) writing in French and now being translated into English! "Das Alles" (or "Das Ganze") would be a reminder of this history. Benjamin says something about the true purpose of translation, that it is not for the reader or for the writer, but that it is to make clear the relationships between languages....

On the other hand, and after all the above, I was just about to come back and delete this post, before I saw that you had commented and decided to leave it here. My translation is different from Poulin's version -- but is it really better? I do save "the untellable" -- Poulin's "the unutterable" is wrong -- and keep to the form a bit more closely .... but then I don't know -- on subsequent readings it doesn't seem like much of an improvement....

I keep finding myself drawn to Rilke's French poems, for some reason. I'm not sure why, since I really think a lot of them just aren't so good....

Anyway, thank you for raising this question that I've tried to answer in such a long-winded way. When I get things wrong, don't let me get away with it :-)