Dingo the Dissident

THE BLOG OF DISQUIET : Qweir Notions in the Armpit of Diogenes by DINGO the DISSIDENT binge-thinker here since 2008.

Sunday 14 May 2023


– my free translation of a sonnet from Rilke's

Der Neuer Gedichte, Anderen Teil, 1908. 

Headless, he glows! See in the slight
twist of his hips a kind of smile swerve
towards his broken neck. How the curve
of his chest dazzles with a light -

no - more like the glint from a still-living pelt.
An echo of a gaze gleams from a mere torso
as from an oil-lamp turned down low.
This mutilated marble stump can melt

our stony hearts, its radiance spreading far
beyond its broken surface, like a star!
On this small ruination there is nowhere

that does not greet you with an accusing stare.
This fragment that could sit upon a shelf
commands you now to change your very self.

I first tried to tackle the translation of this famous poem around 1970.
It appeared in my Tide and Undertow (1976) as an example of a failure
in translation.  This was because – as with most poetry translations (most poetry-translations are failures) – I tried to be too faithful to the difficult original.

Today, still rejoicing in the uplift of my recent (non-menopausal) change-of-life*, I read this misquotation or mis-translation of the last line of the above poem by the popular (hence shallow) poet Heaney: 'You must change your life.'  Well, changing one's life is very much not the same as changing your self

So I went back to the original and decided to have another go.  Although I retain the rhyme-scheme of the original sonnet (which I think is important) I have been more relaxed (and maybe also more perceptive) in my approach some fifty years later.

I hope you like it.

Back in the 1970s I could only imagine what the torso looked like.  But today (Glory Be!) I found within 5 seconds via the internet what looks very much like what Rilke saw in the Berlin or Paris museum.  Note the smile!

*occasioned by my abrupt abandonment of a long-prescribed anti-depressant, resulting in my return to a bi-polar high, such as I enjoyed in the 1970s and 1980s.

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