Translating Rilke with Some High School German

Poetry / Noh Anothai

:: Translating Rilke with Some High School German ::


At once, from its entirely-green, the park
one knows not what, a something, seems to lose.
One feels it to the window coming close
and falling silent. Urgently and stark

there shrills from in the brush a rainday plover,
momentous as the Word sung through Jerome
must have been. From this arises so singular
a solitude and ardor that the storm

will answer. The walls inside the hall withdraw
from us with their all their paintings, as if these
are not allowed to hear that which we say.

Reflected in the faded tapestries
is the uncertain light of late midday
for which, as children, we felt such awe.


Lord, it is time: this summer was so full.
Now let your shadow on the sundials lean,
across the fields allow the winds to roll.

Command the final fruits to be complete;
grant them just two more days of southernliness.
Urge them to their ripening, then press
into the potent wine its final sweet.

Who has by now no house will not build one;
who is alone will long alone remain,
will wake, will read, will write to friends long letters,
and wander up and down the tree-lined lane
disquieted, while leaves around him flutter.


From the writer

:: Account ::

Man denkt an einem Hierony­mus, reads Rilke’s orig­i­nal Ger­man, lit­er­al­ly One thinks of a Jerome if my Ger­man is cor­rect (and there’s no guar­an­tee that it is). I learned while trans­lat­ing this poem that St. Jerome trans­lat­ed the Bible from Hebrew into Latin, cre­at­ing the Latin Vul­gate, so-called because the “vul­gar,” or com­mon, mass­es could under­stand it. To trans­late a text believed to be the word of God Him­self from its orig­i­nal lan­guage must have been a rad­i­cal act, and to hear it in a tongue that you can under­stand with­out medi­a­tion, equal­ly rev­o­lu­tion­ary (though my under­stand­ing of this could like­wise be skewed). Nev­er­the­less, this con­jec­ture gave me a frame for under­stand­ing the Regenpfeifer, the bird whose Stimme is so raw and ele­men­tal that the world responds from the edge of upheaval—and for devi­at­ing from a more lit­er­al trans­la­tion the way I have.

I don’t know for sure, though, if this is actu­al­ly the Jerome Rilke had in mind. There is a school that would deem my trans­la­tion irre­spon­si­ble or untrust­wor­thy as a result, and it’s true that I could have done more home­work. But I was most­ly inter­est­ed in what hap­pens when a trans­la­tor doesn’t know every­thing or have all his bases cov­ered, when he approach­es a poem not as a spe­cial­ist in either the lan­guage or the author and doesn’t seek an expert’s opinion.

I took Ger­man all four years of high school in west-sub­ur­ban Chicagoland, but the first two were some­thing of ein Witz. Our elder­ly Herr was a light­heart­ed soul, and the clowns com­pris­ing most of our class nev­er stopped tak­ing advan­tage of this. A new, more by-the-book Lehrerin took his place my junior Jahr, but by then most of us were fur­ther behind than our peers in Span­ish or French, who were already read­ing sim­ple verse while many of us were still crunch­ing sen­tence struc­ture. It wasn’t until I was an adult that I dis­cov­ered Rilke’s work. Flip­ping through a bilin­gual edi­tion, I was delight­ed by how much Ger­man I still understood—those years had not been a waste, after all—and intrigued by how much I didn’t. The inter­play between them primed my imagination.


Noh Anoth­ai was a researcher with the Thai­land-Unit­ed States Edu­ca­tion Foun­da­tion (Ful­bright Thai­land) in 2011-12. His orig­i­nal poems and trans­la­tions of Thai poet­ry have appeared both online and in print, most recent­ly in Eco­tone, the Tin House blog, and The Berke­ley Poet­ry Review. Win­ner of the inau­gur­al Lunch Tick­et Gabo Prize for Trans­la­tion and Mul­ti­lin­gual Texts, Anoth­ai serves as an assis­tant edi­tor for Sun­dress Pub­li­ca­tions and teach­es for the online MFA in Writ­ing pro­gram at Lin­den­wood University.