Herr: es ist Zeit. Der Sommer war sehr groß.
Leg deinen Schatten auf die Sonnenuhren,
und auf den Fluren laß die Winde los.
Befiel den letzten Früchten voll zu sein;
gib ihnen noch zwei südlichere Tage,
dränge sie zur Vollendung hin und jage
die letzte Süße in den schweren Wein.
Wer jetzt kein Haus hat, baut sich keines mehr.
Wer jetzt allein ist, wird Es lange bleiben,
wird wachen, lesen, lange Briefe schreiben
und wird in den Alleen hin und her
unruhig wandern, wenn die Blätter treiben.
Rainer Maria Rilke (1902)
I am fond of this seasonally-appropriate poem by Rilke, but have never found an English translation that I like completely. Stephen Mitchell’s is perhaps one of the most familiar:
Lord: it is time. The huge summer has gone by.
Now overlap the sundials with your shadows,
and on the meadows let the wind go free.
Command the fruits to swell on tree and vine;
grant them a few more warm transparent days,
urge them on to fulfillment then, and press
the final sweetness into the heavy wine.
Whoever has no house now, will never have one.
Whoever is alone will stay alone,
will sit, read, write long letters through the evening,
and wander the boulevards, up and down,
restlessly, while the dry leaves are blowing.
Trans. Stephen Mitchell (1982)
Though I like the ‘warm transparent days’, and the sense of the imperative in the second stanza, that ‘huge’ in the first line totally ruins the cadence, and the final stanza has some terrible lines in it (I am thinking particularly of “whoever has no house now, will never have one” – with that comma pointing to nothing but the translator’s own syntactical struggle).
Here is a more recent translation by Mary Kinzie:
After the summer’s yield, Lord, it is time
to let your shadow lengthen on the sundials
and in the pastures let the rough winds fly.
As for the final fruits, coax them to roundness.
Direct on them two days of warmer light
to hale them golden toward their term, and harry
the last few drops of sweetness through the wine.
Whoever’s homeless now, will build no shelter;
who lives alone will live indefinitely so,
waking up to read a little, draft long letters,
and, along the city’s avenues,
fitfully wander, when the wild leaves loosen.
Trans. Mary Kinzie (2008)
Probably the only thing I like about this is its stand-out final line. But, even there, the language is too fluid and melodic – there is an irritable melancholy about Rilke’s poem. Perhaps I’m being unfair – my own understanding of German is pretty poor – but I can certainly see how difficult it is for a translator to retain the poise and tone of the original in modern English. Despite its thees and thous, I actually much prefer this version from 1916:
LORD: it is time. The summer was so grand.
Upon sundials now Thy shadow lay,
Set free Thy winds and send them o’er the land.
Command to ripen those last fruits of Thine;
And give them two more southern days of grace
To reach their perfect fullness, and then chase
The final sweetness into heavy wine.
Who now is homeless, ne’er will build a home.
Who now is lonely, long alone will stay,
Will watch and read and write long letters gray,
And in the long lanes to and fro will roam
All restless, as the drifting fall-leaves stray.
Trans. Margarete Münsterberg (1916)
I like the ‘grand’-ness of the summer, and the ‘days of grace’, and yet that hanging ‘gray’ in the tenth line completely ruins it for me.
I still have a certain fondness for Macintyre’s 1956 translation, which was my first encounter with the poem (and which I rediscovered today, among my rescued books):
Lord, it is time. The summer was too long.
Lay now thy shadow over the sundials,
and on the meadows let the winds blow strong.
Bid the last fruit to ripen on the vine;
allow them still two friendly southern days
to bring them to perfection, and to force
the final sweetness in the heavy wine.
Who has no house now will not build him one
Who is alone now will be long alone,
will waken, read, and write long letters
and through the barren pathways up and down
restlessly wander when dead leaves are blown.
Trans. C.F Macintyre (1956)
. . . and yet there’s much that seems wrong here, too. I’m not sure how that ‘groß’ in the first line of the original could suggest that the summer was “too long'” I’m not over-keen on the “friendliness” of the southern days, and though the final stanza is more pleasing to me than either Mitchell’s or Kenzie’s translations, wouldn’t the ‘when’ in the final line be better rendered as ‘while'; and why not just get rid of the “him” in the eighth line? (I rather like the line as “who has no house now will not build one”).
I could show you many more translations (Robert Bly’s is truly appalling), but here’s a final version from Walter Arndt, which seems almost form-perfect.
Lord it is time: Great was the Summer’s feast.
Now lay upon the sun-dials your shadow
And on the meadows have the wind released.
Command the last of fruits to round their shapes;
Grant two more days of south for vines to carry,
To their perfection thrust them on, and harry
The final sweetness into the heavy grapes.
Who has not built his house will not start now
Who now is by himself will long be so,
Be wakeful, read, write lengthy letters, go
In vague disquiet pacing up and down
Denuded lanes, with leaves adrift below.
Trans. Walter Arndt (1989)
I find the second stanza distractingly awful with its ‘thrusting’ perfection, but really rather like the final stanza, which not only makes syntactic sense, but properly captures that self-absorbed unease which sits at the heart of the poem. I also much prefer ‘lanes’ than either ‘boulevards’ or ‘avenues’, though ‘avenue’ does seem a better direct translation of ‘alleen’. I’m not aware of the nuances of ‘avenue’ in German, but the tree-lined approach to a country estate seems far too grand for the poem’s distinctly urban malaise. (But does disquiet really need that ‘vague’?) Anyway. Does anyone have another preferred translation? And what do the German speakers think?