Herbsttag

Herbsttag

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?

63 responses

  1. Interesting and thought-provoking post – thanks! I can’t speak to the German, but just for fun I put the who thing in google translate. It did a poor job as expected, but translated ‘alleen’ as ‘alley’, which I think fits nicely with the sense of urban malaise you mentioned; what’s more melancholy than wandering urban alley-ways with autumn leaves dancing about your feet?

    • Thank you for posting this wonderfull poem!

      As a native speaker of the German language I am kind of sorry to say that “Allee” really does not translate into urban alley-ways all that well. Allee means a road (most of the time pretty straight), lined with trees and also built with a certain aim to impress.

      Still those avenues can look very melancholy in autum – especially in the flat landscape in northern Germany. Just like the morning after a party: everybody tried to look their best last night, but now they seem weary and a little worn out.

      I really like Margarete Münsterberg’s translation best, since it somehow feels closest to th original to me, even though I cannot say why.

      • I also am a native speaker of the German language and agree with Anja, completely. I loved reading the poem,, in German best, of course. It makes me look forward to our vacation in Germany beginning at the end of this month. An Allee is such a German street scape to me. It evokes so many memories, feelings, smells. Especially after a good rain. I like the Margarete Muensterberg translation, it has the correct melancholic feel to it. The Walter Arndt translation does not capture the essence of the season as well, the language is to current. Thanks for posting the poem.

  2. I can’t be the first to read this……but perhaps I am the first to consider posting….I like the 1916 translation by Margarete Münsterberg. Thank you for a lovely poem that describes this time of year perfectly for me.

  3. A beautiful poem, thanks for posting!

    I prefer different lines from the different translations that you’ve posted.

    I think that “grand” is what is needed for “Groß” here. Vollendung is a mixture of “perfection” and “completion”, and I’m not sure there’s an English word for that! Ripen (German reifen) doesn’t quite hit the nail on the head. And I was a bit irritated by the translations that left out the feeling of “southern” for “südlichere”.

    An Allee is any street that is lined with trees, really, and doesn’t necessarily have to lead to a country estate (or anything else “fancy” for that matter). There are a lot of addresses with “Allee” in Germany that are just normal streets, so I think it’s lost its real meaning anyway…

    P.S. I’m a German to English translator who would never dare to translate poetry! :-)

  4. well, the most distinguishing characteristic of an Allee are the trees to the left and right. The etymological dictionary says that is comes from the French, as your alley, but those alleys can be either small country streets, even paths in the garden, or rather grandiose streets, boulevards.

    I for one always pictures a small country road, only one track, in the distance becoming grey in grey with the mist….. For some reason I never pictured either garden or city….

    well, it was a good a long and probably warm summer, (everything we did not get this year) so it was not too long, but only long enough, time now for a change, and there is a sense of that we have to submit to that change. Not sure how to put it, but it will happen eventually, so let it happen now… and why the letters have to be grey one is left to wonder. :) They are only long letters in German, so it seems to be over-stressing the mood. Dunno, I find them all missing something, but then it is nearly impossible to get it right. I think I quite like the Margarete Münsterberg, but would want to change that a bit….

    But I think it is still a bit early for that Rilke poem. Currently i am more thinking of Mörike: Septembermorgen. Im Nebel ruhet noch die Welt, noch träumen Wald und Wiesen……. Rilke I always put in the later part of October. Even though yesterday and today was really autumnal here in Munich, it is supposed to get more summery for the rest of the week ( südlichere Tage :) )

  5. fortunately, I am a German native speaker. Rilke paints in my mind, I love the style his poems have. I think, no translation can really catch his spirit. But unfortunately my English is a bit poor… just school english. In fact, Rilkes poem is very melancholic.

    “Groß” in this case I think means sort of giant, wow, wonderful, sunny, perfect, blue sky, warm weather… maybe bright?
    You love the “transparent days” but the sense in German is something else. “Südlichere Tage” mean the weather of Italy or Spain “more southern days”

    “Wer jetzt kein Haus hat, baut sich keines mehr” in my opinion is not “house”, it is a home you need to sleep in in Winter. Like hedgehogs. If you don’t have one NOW, you will have a hard cold time. It is too late to build one.

    With “Allee” he in fact means the road with trees. You find (found) them very often here and in fall they are a bit rough because of wind and little branches and so on falling on you. Look at this image, sorry, long url:
    http://view.stern.de/de/picture/1334080/Winterstimmung-R%FCgen-Lichtstrahlen-Allee-B%E4ume-Stra%DFe-Lancken-Granitz-510×510.jpg
    http://view.stern.de/de/picture/1615954/Herbststimmung-Nebelstimmung-Usedom-Allee-B%E4ume-Stra%DFe-HERBSTSTILLE-510×510.jpg
    Maybe you can interprete it as a road which is the “final” path to winter/death. The strong trees keep you on track but you can’t see where to go because of the fog and the falling leaves. It is a strong symbol for loneliness also.

    The poem has three parts in my opinion. The first one is a little farewell to the perfect summer – Time for a change to a season with more shadows and wind. A “soft start”, I would say. The second one tells about the fruits and the colors and the “good side” of fall, the perfect sweet harvest. The last one is about the “final” – summer is dead, winter is cold, if you don’t do it NOW you have to stay alone for the winter time, the fall will make you sure that you are alone, restlessly.

  6. I’m with you Kate, I’ve always preferred Arndt’s translation to any other that I know. I don’t have more than a smattering of German – I couldn’t hope to read the original – but I doubt any translator will ever properly capture Rilke’s autumnal melancholy. I do have many multilingual family members (we’re a mixed bunch of English, Welsh, Polish and Portugese) and they frequently switch back and forth between languages when trying to find just the right word to express how they feel etc..It has always fascinated me, this impossibility of translation.

  7. I’ve come to know this poem in school and held it dear ever since. Although the German language is my specific field I’ve never approached this poem scientifically. Being German I will try to describe my understanding of the lexical item ‘Alleen’ in this context anyway: I’ve always imagined these ‘Alleen’ as rural tree-lined roads. When I look at the words now, I find reasons for this specific imagination: ‘Sonnenuhren’ and ‘Fluren’ in the first stanza already gives a rural theme, which is then engrossed with the subject of fruit and the rather peasant wish for the crop to be good. Following up: “Wer jetzt kein Haus hat, baut sich keines mehr.” In my opinion the possibility of the absence of a house, a home to spend the winter in, corresponds with the seclusion of a pastoral estate. The overall impression for me is more one of Worpswede than of Paris, so to say.
    Sadly my English is not good enough to really explain the connotations and to nail down the perfect translation of the words in question …

  8. This is an unexpected post, but lovely to read! I’m surprised by how many of the translations read the word ‘lange’ as indefinitely. Is this translator’s licence?

  9. I guess this poem has been the starting point of deeply admiring Rilke for me as well as for many of my fellow german-speakers. I second the translation of “Allee” as any road lined on both sides by trees. It’s a usual sight especially in rural nothern germany. And “Haus” I’d also put into the warm place to stay/home context.
    The translations: I like the ones by Münsterberg and Arndt the most as they both got the rythm of the poem right and this is something very dear to me in this poem and an important part of its charm and atmosphere. In my opinion Münsterberg concentrates a bit too much on the Lord and the gray letters really only make sense for the rythm (which feels the closest to the original to me). Arndt creates a stunningly beautiful poem but (and here I’m really not sure) I have the feeling he sounds too optimistic.

  10. Perfect poem for a day like today here in southern Bavaria. Cold, rainy, and, when the clouds lifted, snow on the mountain tops. I like both the Arndt and Münserberg translations. Thanks for posting this!

  11. Oh! What an unexpected, lovely post – thanks for sharing this, the poem is beautiful, and it’s really interesting to see the different nuances in the translations.

  12. What a great read, Rilkes poem, the translations, your thoughts and the comments. Translating is fascinating, it is never just a change of language, but always an interpretation, isn’t it? I’m neither an English nor a German native speaker, but I like Munsterberg’s too. The sense of urgency in the “chasing” the final sweetness, but maybe “speeding” would be better. There is an awareness of winter that is important in the poem I think. Another word I wondered about was the unruhig, isn’t it a little more troubled than restless? And I agree with other commenters about the long/indefinitely. Winter is long, not eternal, fortunately :)

  13. I am a translator, although not from German, and it’s a rare pleasure to see attentive readers reading the poem closely and seeing what the different translators were trying to do. The Italian saying is “”traduttore, traditore”, the translator is a traitor. No matter how clever you are, you are going to lose something: the sense of the original if you go for felicitous English, or the beauty of the language if you try to take the literal route. It may be impossible to translate literature, especially poetry, but so much of the world’s literature would be lost to us if someone didn’t try.

  14. Oh, I like so much the music of this poem. Germand “Allee” definitely comes from the French “allée”, which is a lane with trees left and right, add a slight elegant connotation to it, or a path as in a garden, “allée” being just as soft to pronounce in French as the German “lieben”, and not an avenue or a boulevard – wrong translation harsh word. I quite like the 1916 translation, “gray” seems to underline the impossible perfection of poetry translation.

    Now : “Der Herbst ist immer unsere beste Zeit.”, Goethe.

    Is it ?

    • I very much agree with you on the soft vs hard words! “Boulevard” has no music to it. Not Rilke’s kind of music, anyway. Like Kate, I like “lanes” – it loses the specific meaning of the tree-lined streets, but has the same musical quality

  15. Keeping us all on our toes with your wonderful post today. I have never read any Rilke but now perhaps I may be casting around for some I loved the imagery in the poem. Fascinating how words shape and bend the original meaning once translated. Today is my writing class – the last of the little course I have been doing. We have to read out our short stories and mine is a very very very short story! Here we go, wish me luck!

  16. Thank you for sharing this beautiful poem, Kate. I understand enough German to get the feel of the original, but not enough to attempt a translation. We are enjoying a lovely sunny autumn afternoon here on the Canadian west coast, and I thought of my last few tomatoes left to ripen on the vine when I read the second stanza.

    PS: I popped the poem into Babelfish and got a good laugh, especially from the last line: “in the avenues back and forth walk jerkily, if the sheets float.”

  17. Possibly Rilke was thinking of Worpswede, the small artist’s colony in Northern Germany, where he met his wife Clara and where he visited often. Worpswede is full of tree-lined little roads, a village in the moor, but because of the artists living there it must have had quite an urbanite feel too it…
    I am a German native myself (living in Bremen, near Worpswede), and I never thought of cities reading this poem, it was always rural for me – but the speaker never was. Well, even hundred years ago, the city dwellers grew all nostalgic about the countryside.
    Thanks for giving the different translations – each has their merits, but I prefer Münsterberg and a Walter Arndt…

  18. Although I live in Massachusetts, I am also a native german speaker. (Swiss german, that is) I was delighted to read Rilke’s poem as it so aptly describes the melancholy of summers passing. I looked into other translations as well as those you have so generously posted, and in the end, there are translations that come closer to the intended meaning, but the words and the mood that poets paint are not translatable. It is, however, a noble effort to make that attempt so that everyone can share in the profound changes that come with seasons that come and go. The poem may be symbolic of the inevitability of life forever transforming while we are merely mortals witnessing the passages of time.
    Kate, I have been following your story for some time now. You are an inspiration in your perseverance of recovering from an unexpected affront to your health.
    I especially enjoy your ventures in the outdoors as this brings my roots in Europe a little closer to my home here in Carlisle.
    Thank you and keep well.

  19. Every time I encounter Rilke, I feel a slight lament that I cannot read him in German. I always feel that I’m missing out on a lot because I’m reading a translation. I really ought to study German a bit, especially as it’s a huge part of my heritage.
    I love the collection of translations you have here. As I can’t compare them to their original language in any way, I am left simply to admire them in each English form, and I feel that the Münsterberg reads beautifully.

    I’ve really enjoyed these comments, too.

  20. I have recently been savoring Rilke’s Book of Hours, translated by Anita Barrows and Joanna Macy, and always return to Sonnets to Orpheus, translated by M.D. Herter Norton. If native speakers have alternate recommendations for translations of those works, I’d love to hear them. His work is inexhaustible.

  21. My first encounter with a German allee didn’t even involve a lane. The fiancee of a friend had just finished planting two lines of trees through a field adjacent to the house, down to a stream. There was no road or track in between, but he wanted to make it a place where they could watch children and trees grow through time. I thought it was a lovely idea made real.

    Also… though I have studied German literature this poem was new to me. Your discussion of translation got me thinking and I put the original through google translate just to see how automated translation compared to the other versions. I was amused (and rather grudgingly impressed) by the results. Though the idea of the lord releasing a winch doesn’t quite do it for me…. I particularly liked “urge them toward completion, and pursue/ the last sweetness into the heavy wine”.

    Lord, it’s time. The summer was very big.
    Lay your shadow on the sundials,
    and in the corridors let go of the winch.

    Befell the last fruits to be full;
    Give them another two more southerly days,
    urge them toward completion, and pursue
    the last sweetness into the heavy wine.

    Whoever has no house, no longer builds.
    Whoever is alone now will remain there long,
    watch will read, write long letters
    and in the alleys back and forth
    restlessly wander, when the leaves drift.

    • Les enfants jouent dans l’allée, à l’ombre des cerisiers. (The children are playing in the garden allee, in the shadow of the cherry trees). Poor rhymes – sorry the sonnet is mine !- but this meaning of allee of the lovely memories of yours sounds truly French. Too. “Allée” comes from the verb “aller”, meaning “to walk along”, an ancient word. Rilke did speak French since he worked in Paris and wrote poetry in this language, and he probably could easily master the music of every word.
      Interesting google-translation !

  22. Love Rilke’s pieces, although I can only understand them when written in English.
    I think this is a lovely piece, and it is interesting to read all the translations. It made me think of seasons coming and going, and this poem by R Herrick;
    “Sweet, be not proud of those two eyes
    Which starlike sparkle in their skies;
    Nor be you proud, that you can see
    All hearts your captives; yours yet free:
    Be you not proud of that rich hair
    Which wantons with the lovesick air;
    Whenas that ruby which you wear,
    Sunk from the tip of your soft ear,
    Will last to be a precious stone
    When all your world of beauty’s gone.”

  23. Love this poem, but to me none of the translations work. I am happy to have a good command of German to enjoy the original and not to care about any translations.

  24. Loved this post and all the comments. My German is sketchy but I know enough to get the gist of the poem. What I love about speaking German (which I do badly but with great enthusiasm) are all the new sounds you have to find in your mouth to pronounce the words. I feel it is very difficult to translate many of the original words without losing their sounds, which are close to the meaning and atmosphere of the poem. There is nothing as fragile and Spartan sounding as the German “los”, for instance. Loose is close, but it sounds longer, heavier and to my ears less desolate than los.

    Love how your German readers have explained “alleen” and I wonder if any English word can possess the full roundness of “befiel”.

    • So true ! I’ve studied German at school and then at University and I can’t talk but I try like you “with great enthusiasm.”
      I am immensely enjoying all these comments !

  25. This is one of my favourite poems and I thought about it just yesterday! As autumn is my favourite season and I’m not too fond of hot summers I’m always relieved when September rolls in and one can feel the first glimpses of autumn in the air. There’s finally a chill in the air and in the afternoon the light slowly changes. So, to me that first line “Herr es ist Zeit. Der Sommer war sehr groß” means something like “no more hot summer days, please! It has been long enough now!”. Not sure that’s what Rilke had in mind, though. As for the translations, Münsterberg seems overall the best but I like the one by Mary Kinzie as well, maybe because she sets it into an urban context. When I read the passage “und wird in den Alleen hin und her unruhig wandern, wenn die Blätter treiben” I see a tree-lined path in a park in the city where I live, with leaves being whirled around by the wind and the afternoon slowly turning into dusk. Thanks for sharing this poem here! autumnal greetings from Germany!

  26. I am Austrian, I am a German speaker :-)
    It was great to read your posting and all the comments so far.
    I love Rainer Maria Rilke – and I love his style because it is so “reduced” – these are no big poems, with abundance in style and extreme huge word pool, it is so close to normal (plain) words we use when talking – and he was born 100 years earlier than me.
    At least that is my very personal approach, never studied German literature.
    Translations are always a form of interpretation and for poems I hardly found “perfect interpretations”. As each poem strings some chords in us, and we are probably all different instruments. I always perceived Rilke as very melancholic, there seem to be inbetween the lines, but there is always that glimps of hope (the third stanza says to me that winter is long and harsh, but it will end)

    What is striking to me – I have been always told that German is complicated, long words, one can’t say things shortly. Here, we see that Rilke’s original words are shorter than the English versions.
    My preferred translation, hard to say – I guess I stick too much to the original – I like Arndt’s third stanza (as the building house in Rilke – reads to me that they won’t build one during winter).

    In Austria – an Allee can be found close to the city and in the city as well (think of Vienna or Salzburg), and I always see him walking in a street (100 years ago – no cars there), lined with trees. I think of all the wonderful park ways close to castles or even something like Champs Élysées.
    As I don’t know Worpswede, I think of an Alle in the city – and knowing that Rilke born in Prag, some school years in Austria, then lived in Munich, Berlin and Switzerland, did himself translation to French,.. Well it could be rural or an urban poem, we might have to ask him.

  27. Fascinating post. I much prefer the German version with its melancholy and – let’s say – grandness. I did not know the poem beforehand, but I am delighted with how aptly it captures my feelings about this change from summer to fall – my favourite season.
    I’d say ‘avenue’ is actually more appropriate for ‘alleen’, and ‘grand’ is to me the more correct translation of ‘gross’. Huge, big, too long, etc. is not what I understand from ‘gross’ in this context. Of the English versions I much prefer Münsterberg’s as I think it captures the atmosphere of the original poem best, but would choose the original any day.

  28. Yep – the ‘gray’ jarred with me, too. I am not really into poetry but I liked this very much and every translation had it’s high points. Interesting and thought-provoking post.

  29. I am more of a process-translator than a product-one (though as a knitter I enjoy both aspects), and as neither German nor English are my native or specialty tongues, I will not comment on the translations themselves, but on your choice of this poem, right after disposing of your books and reflecting on them. Like many others, my first thought was how brave you are, and I need to do the same with my books – at least, part of them. I’m now thinking of my wool stash, and how it is both similar and different to a library of books – because once a yarn has been knitted or a top spun, it becomes a different object with a different use so while the act of knitting is repetitive, once you have been through a skein you will (most likely) not repeat the operation. Then, after reading this poem and its translations, I started wondering how you had passed from the books to it, and it seems a little paradoxical : summer and autumn are for storing food and making ready for the winter, and it seems you have been making ready for it by doing the contrary – not that I fear you may lack for reading material this winter or the next ones. There is also a sense of mourning in the last stanza, even though the solitary ‘homeless’ activities that face the person who has not built a home are as pleasurable and positive as growing, reading and writing. You have done the right thing, even in not telling where your books went, but it is clear it has been a difficult task and you are still dealing with the aftermath. However, you do have a home, and even though you have one you will still be able to grow and write and read, and not in loneliness since so many people keep you company when you wish us too. Here is to a serene and fruitful winter.

  30. A relic of my obsession with Rilke translations and translators:

    AUTUMN DAY

    Lord: it is time. The summer was very long.
    Lay your shadows on the sundials
    and in the fields loose the winds.

    Order the last fruits to be full;
    give them two more southern days,
    push them to repletion and drive
    the last sweetness into the heavy wine.

    Whoever has no house, will never build one now.
    Whoever is alone, will long remain alone,
    will watch and read and write long letters,
    will wander here and there restless
    in the avenues, when leaves drift down.

  31. How odd, I seemed to like all the lines that jarred with you, but German is not one of my languages.

    I think the “Whoever has no house now, will never have one.” which I like, from the first translation needs a repetition (like a repeating hammer blow) in the following line, thus: “Whoever is alone now, will stay alone,” to really work.
    In fact, it might be better “ne’er” rather than never (which would mean “whoever would become whoe’er”. Arrgh! Translators must be permanently frustrated).

    I think the “long letters gray” is a lovely phrase”, in fact the Musterberg is my favourite version.
    Thank you for introducing me to this poem.

  32. One of my favourite occupations is hurling translations of poetry out of high windows (in may case, particularly attempts at Beaudelaire and – agh – Rimbaud), but I’ve only ever known this in translation, alas. For me it’s always conjured up Paris and the streets around the Musée Rodin…

    Sigh. Must get on with work!

    • You should try Paul Verlaine. Why not “Chanson d’automne” (short, musical, beautiful), it would match the “Herbsttag” of the day ?! Beaudelaire and Rimbaud are extremely difficult, congratulations !

      • Oh yes – Verlaine… wonderful.

        But for sheer impossibility of translation, I don’t think you can beat Nerval – another autumnal poet, (well, for me anyway). El Desdichado is impossible. I take my hat off to anyone who tries to pull it off and keep even a hintette of the original…

  33. Dear Kate, I´m, reading so often your Blog and now I can say even something personaly to my absolut favorit poet Rilke.
    He was not only an melancholic guy – no, he had a shizoid character – he was full of phobies, obsessions, and a lot of negativ energy – but his poems touch my soul whenever I read his poignantly minds. I adore him!
    Greetings from Germany
    Birgit
    who excuse myself for this horrible English….:o))

  34. It seems a little funny that for me, these days, fall brings on a touch of melancholy because I’m not returning to school, but this post and its comments gave me a dose of that old feeling of stretching stiff parts of my mind. Thank you.

  35. The comments on this post are marvellous – really enjoyed them. My total ignorance of German didn’t stop me from empathising with the difficulties of translation…your inclusion of all these choices makes it obvious how inexact a science it is.

  36. What a lovely poem and a thought-provoking post….
    It confirms my suspicion that translation does not help a lot, the closer you keep to the text, the more you loose of the real meaning, the idea which is behind.
    I suppose poetry is the most difficult to translate….
    “Der Sommer war sehr gross” contains admiration (what a summer, a summer like it should be, not like the one in 2011), tinged with being a bit fed up with all this summer, everything heat, light, flowers and fun, a bit too much of a good thing…how should you translate this feeling? In my humble opinion it is not huge, grand or long…the “great summer’s feast ” seems to capture it best.
    And by the way, Austrians do not really speak German, my Austrian friend and I always need a translator, she keeps insisting that a “Knätzle” is a “Scherzl”…(for foreigners, including Germans from the North: this the hard end-bit of a crusty, fresh German rye bread of the old-fashioned kind, the bit everybody wants to have, best eaten still a bit warm, with butter and salt…maybe very prosaic in this context, but for those who first got this at their grandmother’s, it is even better than poetry)

    • At first, I am sorry – am the “number” from above, don’t know why the comment ate my name.

      And on topic: the thing you mean in your post neither is a Knätzle or a Scherzl, it obviously is a Knust ;-)

      And this is the “problem” of our German language. You have a huge bunch of words for the same things as well as a lot of very small differences between words somebody who normally speaks English would translate into the same word in English.

      A more familiar word is what you would call “apple core”. We don’t have a specific word for that in German. Look at this huge page in Wikipedia for this thing:
      http://de.wiktionary.org/wiki/Apfelgriebs
      And you find deep and fighting discussions about it in the Internet.
      For the people familiar to German a great article for just one word:
      http://www.spiegel.de/kultur/zwiebelfisch/0,1518,331216,00.html

      And then – translate a poem of Rilke. Impossible :-)
      ===========
      Der Panther
      Im Jardin des Plantes, Paris

      Sein Blick ist vom Vorübergehn der Stäbe
      so müd geworden, dass er nichts mehr hält.
      Ihm ist, als ob es tausend Stäbe gäbe
      und hinter tausend Stäben keine Welt.

      Der weiche Gang geschmeidig starker Schritte,
      der sich im allerkleinsten Kreise dreht,
      ist wie ein Tanz von Kraft um eine Mitte,
      in der betäubt ein großer Wille steht.

      Nur manchmal schiebt der Vorhang der Pupille
      sich lautlos auf -. Dann geht ein Bild hinein,
      geht durch der Glieder angespannte Stille –
      und hört im Herzen auf zu sein.

      Rainer Maria Rilke, 6.11.1902, Paris

      • I agree with you both!
        First, about the original poem: I share griseldis’ interpretation about “Der Sommer war sehr groß”, although to me, the sentence contains more admiration than fed-up-ness (there must be a real word for this, but right now, I can’t even think of a German one…). But I do believe that this meaning could be conveyed with “grand”, as others have suggested.
        I noticed that many German speakers prefer the translations by Arndt and Münsterberg. I wondered whether this was related to the fact that these two translators were both German natives? (Please correct me if I am mistaken). Maybe they were somehow more capable of conveying the meaning and feel of the original because they had a better grasp of the language?

        And concerning different words for the same thing: My partner and I, although both born in Saxony, refer to the end of the bread with either “Ränftl” or “Kanten”. And I am sure there are several more words for it, none of them standard.
        I think that this must be a typical phenomenon in languages with distinct dialects – surely the English natives can give us a few examples of this kind, too?

        Anyway, thanks to Kate for bringing up the poem in the first place, and thanks to Nicole for adding “Der Panther”! That’s another favourite.

  37. Like you, I find “warm transparent days” a beautiful phrase and am sorry that it strays from Rilke’s original reference to the south. Meanwhile, however, here in a southerly land, summer is the oppressive season: current temperature 101 degrees F (38.5C). Nothing melancholy about fall here – but I’ll have to wait a few more weeks for it.

  38. Thank-you for sharing…this poem was completely new to me. I readily identify with the overall feeling of the poem as I watch the leaves starting to change color and hope for a few more warm days to ripen my peppers and melons and bring in the harvest…

  39. Another thank you for putting this poem into my path today – I hadn’t seen it in years. You inspired me to try a translation of my own, which I won’t post, but I’m interested what other German-speakers think of the final verb, ‘treiben’: I think of this as a very active kind of verb, e.g. to do mischief is ‘Unfug treiben’, but many of the translations are passive (‘are blowing/blown’), and even Münsterberg’s ‘stray’ feels too accidental; I’m thinking of a conspiracy of leaves rustling and bustling…

    On the subject of lost-and-found-and-lost libraries, here is a beautiful piece in the Chronicle by Ariel Dorfman
    http://chronicle.com/article/My-Lost-Library/128975/ — though he certainly falls into the trap of romanticizing that you so admirably avoided!

  40. I loved this post and the associated comments!! I know little German and have no familiarity with Rilke, but live in English and work in French (and my partner is Italian). I can relate to the obstacles involved in translation. Thank you for introducing me to this poem.

  41. I loved ALL – the original AND the translations. And as I read each one, and adding the reading to a growing stack of Rilke’s original, I felt absolutely calmed and tranquil with the process.

  42. Inspired by this posts and numerous comments, I searched for my dearest autumn poem (that is its title in German) by Rilke, althoug I am not religious at all, I love this poem- I like the panther very much as well, among other of his animal poems it was my first Rilke poem to read (of course in school, but not in German class, first we read and discussed it in art and made linocuts of zoo animals)

    Herbstgedicht

    Die Blätter fallen, fallen wie von weit,
    als welkten in den Himmeln ferne Gärten;
    sie fallen mit verneinender Gebärde.

    Und in den Nächten fällt die schwere Erde
    aus allen Sternen in die Einsamkeit.

    Wir alle fallen. Diese Hand da fällt.
    Und sieh dir andre an: es ist in allen.

    Und doch ist Einer, welcher dieses Fallen
    unendlich sanft in seinen Händen hält.

    For non-German readers – I found several translations, which I don’t really like, but to get an idea of the meaning:
    http://www.maryourmother.net/Rilke.html – e.g. sky and heaven is in German the same term: “Himmel”
    Another thing on language – as kid it amused me extremely to ask about rural terms, e.g. “liquid manure” to fertilise fields – tiny city of Salzburg has at least 4 different words for it at use, and once you cross the river to Bavaria, a whole new world …

  43. Oh, this is one of my favourite poems ever, precisely because of its mournfully accurate descriptions of end-of-summer melancholy. I read it just once or twice a year, around this time, because I don’t want it to lose its vividness for me. I’ve really wanted to share it with non-German speakers before, and I agree, none of the English translations are quite as piercing. My German’s not stupendously fluent, but it’s still far more evocative for me; somehow I think English entails more florid descriptions of what the German does fairly simply, though not bluntly, if that makes sense.

  44. I have been away for a few days and am just now enjoying this post. Although poetry is not my world, I find myself immersed in color, texture and rhythm as I read. I wonder what the knitted translation of this poem would be? I imagine rows of trees reminiscent of Paper Dolls. I imagine color that transforms from greens to oranges to browns. Or a knitted translation of ‘a conspiracy of leaves’. Leaf on top of leaf. A visual confusion of ‘what is on top and what is underneath’. Ohh, a kind of Kaffe Fassett image comes to mind. I am sure that we all have different translations of the imagery as it speaks to each of us. What about the knitting designer? Kate, what comes to your mind?
    Lori

  45. What is missing from most of the translations of course is Rilke’s wonderful rhythm. My German is not all that good and some of the meaning eludes me (until I read the translation), but just reading the lines sends shivers down my spine. It’s the same thing with Goethe. It’s beautiful.

  46. Thank you so much for this wonderful post. I have not read any poetry in a while but you inspired me to do so very soon. It also reminded my that my German mother tongue IS beautiful and powerful after all. In Germany we have the sad tendency to believe everything can be expressed better by using a horrible “Denglish” mixture of German and English and especially the advertising industry seems to have done away with German completely.
    Rilke is my favourite poet, somebody above already said it: he paints pictures with words. And “Der Panther” is actually bringing tears to my eyes everytime I read it, the images are just so powerful.
    With regard to “Herbsstag” I prefer the Münsterberg translation, if I have to pick one.
    I love reading your blog, you often make me see that life is not all about being busy, being successful and having lots of stuff. Dankeschön.

  47. I love internet because it allows you to find gold. I was looking for this poem because I was watching a documentary about a Belgian flemish speaking poet who quoted it. I remembered I learned it by heart when I was 15 for my German class. And looking for a translation on the internet I found this wonderful blog !
    The poem is particularly appropriate for this warm end of October we are having in Paris now. And it also suits my state of mind.
    The comments are amazing ! Thank you everybody.

    The most incredible coincidence is that I just started knitting. I learned how to knit with my grand mother 25 years ago and two months ago I decided to start knitting again. Who could believe there is a connection between knitting and Rilke ?!

  48. Kate, discovered Your marvellous blog recently, always a great pleasure reading and looking. Thank You so much!
    As a german knitting Landscape Architect, living in a wine-growing area in Germany, with some famous French formal gardens in my neighbourhood, I always imagined
    “und wird in den Alleen hin und her
    unruhig wandern…”
    as a place like Jardin du Luxembourg in Paris, a garden that ist made for strolling, to see and to be seen, but now in winter it is a lonely place. The leaves are driven and so the lonely walker is feeling.

    Rilke moved from Worpswede to Paris in 1902, when he composed this poem. To me his pictures change from rural cosy impressions to homeless urban ones. But this change is inevitable as the change of seasons is.

    Imho none of the translations get the sense of “gib ihnen noch zwei südlichere Tage” right. “Südlichere” means in this context, more southern than the days should be in this season, as a last gift. Sorry for my poor English.
    Happy New Year!

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