So I wondered, what would it make of some equally famous lines of poetry, but lines written in a more difficult language, and of a certain inherent difficulty? The poem that sprang to mind was Rilke's first Duino Elegy, simply because I have been grappling with Rilke, on and off, over the past couple of years. Here are the first seven lines:
Wer, wenn ich schriee, hörte mich denn aus der EngelAgain, an awful lot of people have attempted a translation of these words or, more often, a "version" i.e. a poetic rendering of a literal translation by a German speaker. Here is my effort at a literal translation:
Ordnungen? und gesetzt selbst, es nähme
einer mich plötzlich ans Herz: ich verginge von seinem
stärkeren Dasein. Denn das Schöne ist nichts
als des Schrecklichen Anfang, den wir noch grade ertragen,
und wir bewundern es so, weil es gelassen verschmäht,
uns zu zerstören. Ein jeder Engel ist schrecklich.
Who, then, if I were to cry out, would hear me from among the Orders of Angels? And, even assuming one of them were suddenly to take me to its heart: I would die by its stronger being. For Beauty is nothing other than the beginning of a terror which we can only just bear, and we admire it so, because it calmly disdains to destroy us. Each and every angel is terrible.
Here is Google Translate's first attempt:
Who, if I cried out, would hear me among the angels'Again, not bad, but it misses some important points of sense: for example, "gesetzt selbst" (something like "even assuming") becomes "self imposed"*, and "I would die by/of" is crucially misunderstood as "I would be"**. It also comes up with the comic "take a me" by mistakenly associating "einer" ("one of them") with "mich" ("me").
Orders? and self-imposed, it would take
a me suddenly against his heart: I would be his
stronger existence. For beauty is nothing
the beginning of terror we can just barely endure,
and we are so awed because it serenely disdains
to destroy us. Every angel is terrible.
It seemed some of this might be to do with the disruption of word order by poetic line breaks, so I fed it a concatenated version without breaks. Curiously the only differences this made was to change "Orders" into "hierarchies" (good), and to change "I would be his stronger existence" into "I would of his stronger existence" (weird):
Who, if I cried, would hear me among the angels' hierarchies? and self-imposed, it would take a me suddenly against his heart: I would of his stronger existence. For beauty is nothing but the beginning of terror we can just barely endure, and we are so awed because it serenely disdains to destroy us. Every angel is terrible.But definitely a 7 out of 10 for Google Translate, with a red "see me" against lines 2 and 3.
(seen yesterday in the V & A Museum)
*A question for native German-speakers out there: what exactly do you make of "und gesetzt selbst"? It strikes me as the most difficult bit of the extract to translate, often passed over by translators as simply "even".
** Another: what is the difference, if any, between "vor etwas vergehen" (the normal, expected preposition), and "von etwas vergehen"?