Reviews for Reading Rilke : Reflections on the Problems of Translation


Book News Reviews
After reading the 20th-century German poet in English for most of his life, essayist, novelist, and philosopher Gass (
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Booklist Monthly Selections - #1 September 1999
/*Starred Review*/ Translation into English, especially within such an idiomatic genre as poetry, always poses a difficulty to the reader. Gass--a writer, poet, and translator--shows in painstaking detail what a translator goes through in order to produce a work that not only makes sense in English but remains faithful to the structure and meaning of the original language in which it was written. Rainer Maria Rilke wrote in a German so expressionistic, so often untranslatable, and so utterly beautiful in its original format, that he proves to be a good guinea pig for this experiment. Gass translates Rilke's poems himself and then takes critically regarded Rilke translations and compares them, line by line, often word by word. Gass dismisses many of the translations and gives his reasoning for it. Brutally honest, he sometimes dismisses his own translations; brutally catty, his dismissals are often delightfully acerbic. Gass is a beautiful writer, and he includes much on the life and influences of Rilke, for the history and background of a writer is as important as language when it comes to translation. Gass offers excellent interpretations of Rilke and an entertaining and provocative look at a subject that could be fearfully dreary. ((Reviewed September 1, 1999)) Copyright 2000 Booklist Reviews

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Choice Reviews 2000 February
Fiction writer and philosopher William Gass does not "reflect on the problems of translation," as his subtitle claims; instead, he offers a reading that essentially "buys into" Rilke's self-promoting myth of the poet's special oracular vocation. Ignoring a body of drafts and poems that explore the Duino Elegies themes and images, Gass reads the Elegies much as Rilke willed them to be read--as transcendent, bestowed gifts. Gass is so enamored with the oracular myth that his seductive narrative of Rilke's life, which laces in the book, borders on hagiography. This narrative grounds the Elegies in "life as consciousness" and in turn gives Gass's translations a coherence that many readers will find comforting. But although the translations achieve passages of remarkable felicity, Gass's quest to find a language that balances oracular seriousness with the colloquial leads him to jarring shifts in diction: for instance, contractions often fall with a leaden flatness. This book may well add to Rilke's longevity as the most-read and most-translated non-English poet of the 20th century. Recommended for undergraduate collections; knowledgeable Rilke readers will find their pleasure mixed with annoyance. Copyright 2000 American Library Association

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Kirkus Reviews 1999 July #2
The American novelist probes the Austrian's metaphysical poetry with exceptional clarity of mind, verbal grace, and shrewd skepticism. Apart from his five works of fiction, Gass has published five books of literary and philosophical essays (Finding a Form, 1996, etc.). By now there can be no doubt that he s one of our foremost public critics of literature. This new book dedicated entirely to Rilke and focusing special, superbly concentrated attention on the Duino Elegies has the effect of a declaration of love. It comes as no surprise: readers of Gass know him to be in love with language; and Rilke, as Gass presents him, is the century's supreme master of verbal dance. But Gass is also a professor of philosophy at Washington University and not much inclined to the kind of gushy imprecision that Rilke's poetry has sometimes evoked in admirers. Gass may love Rilke's poetry, but he also presses it with hard-nosed questions and demands. The result is as impressive as it is engrossing. He explores problems of translation in a workmanlike way. His German is evidently flawless, and his commentaries on the many translations of the Elegies are acerbic, generous, and revealing. In addition, he concludes the book with his own translations of these very difficult poems. Gass's are certainly among the best renditions of Rilke into English. His gift for metaphor and his uncanny ability to mimic Rilke's cadences (very different from his own) are striking. But perhaps most satisfying of all is Gass's thought about poetry itself as an autonomous way of knowing the world. Rilke's poetry ``sets the mind free of the world. Free to see and feel afresh the very world it's been freed from.'' A book not only for people interested in Rilke or Gass, but for anyone who takes poetry seriously. Copyright 1999 Kirkus Reviews

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Library Journal Reviews 2000 January #1
Gass offers so much more than the subtitle to this gem might imply. The pages are filled with seamlessly intertwined biographical insights, textual analysis, commentary on the elusive art of translation, and fresh and vibrant new renderings of many of Rainer Maria Rilke's key works. A fitting tribute to one of the 20th century's greatest poets and everything literary criticism should be. (LJ 8/99) Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.

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Library Journal Reviews 1999 August #1
Anyone with a background in linguistics will agree with Gass (Finding a Form) when he emphatically asserts that "translation is a form of betrayal." In this country, when it comes to the pensive but unjustly neglected poetry of Rilke, Gass observes that challenging the obscure and difficult art of translation is essential in order to grasp Rilke's verse fully. Although not meant to be a primer for the novice, this work is, unlike traditional academic criticism, attainable and unambiguous. Gass elegantly scrutinizes the "ghosts" of Rilke's poetry, discussing recurrent themes such as the role of the poet, the cryptic character of death, space vs. time, and Rilke's unending love/hate attitude toward religion. He also gives a sharp-witted translation of the notable Duino Elegies, making previous interpretations seem inferior and somewhat insipid. While not original in its fastidious approach to Rilke's life (see Ralph Freedman's Life of a Poet, LJ 12/95), Gass's analysis remains original in its literary sensitivity, and this reviewer is especially envious of his effortlessly lyrical and mellifluous writing style. Gass has indeed succeeded in getting closer to unveiling Rilke in his rightful glory.AMirela Roncevic, "Library Journal" Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information.

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Publishers Weekly Reviews 1999 July #4
In 1922, four years before he died of leukemia at age 51, Rilke finally completed the Duino Elegies, named for the castle where they poured out over an intensive four day (and night) period; within days of their completion, the Sonnets to Orpheus emerged as a reality-affirming coda. Rilke's dense and intricate verbal texture has made translation all the more irresistible over the years, and Gass, an intellectual eminence (Cartesian Sonata; Finding a Form; The Tunnel; etc.) is the first to meet the challenge discursively: this genre-bending book is a series of personal essays at times veering between melodramatic and elliptical that explore Rilke's biography as much as they address Gass's own difficult choices in the translations scattered throughout. Gass vividly evokes a poet "getting used to strange dark halls, guest beds, always cadging and scrounging, eating poorly," finding Rilke's lyrics "obdurate, complex, and compacted... displaying an orator's theatrical power, while remaining as suited to a chamber and its music as a harpsichord." In the translations themselves, however, Gass tends to replace complexity with unwarranted truism, as in the Fourth elegy "but the contours of our feelings stay unknown/ when public pressure shapes the face we know" as if to shield readers from the difficult and the strange. (Translations of all 10 elegies appear in an appendix at the book's end.) That said, Gass has an impressive ear for dramatic prosody, and a sensitivity to Rilke's playfulness and formal elegance (especially in the Tenth Elegy). Its willingness to be bold in a climate of scholarly restraint makes this translation one of the best available superior, in particular, to the once-standard versions by Leishman and Spender, and to the recent versions of Stephen Mitchell. (Sept.) Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information.

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