Herewith, the second installment in our newest monthly column by past Asymptote contributor
“Peru.” Honesty begins at home. I balance my vehement defense earlier about preserving rhyme with a set of true confessions now, acting as my own devil’s advocate by pointing out choices that could be seen as fudging, padding, patching, cheating—all of which might argue against translating rhyme.
“Peru” in a bit, after working to it from another clarifying example. In one of his novella-length stories, Doderer has a character attend a performance of Beethoven’s Fidelio, and he includes a few lines from Leonore’s great solo in Act 1.
So leuchtet mir ein Farbenbogen,
Der hell auf dunklen Wolken ruht.
Der blickt so still, so friedlich nieder,
Der spiegelt alte Zeiten wieder,
Und neu besänftigt wallt mein Blut.
In me there gleams a shining rainbow,
Rests on gray clouds above the flood.
It looks down placidly, serenely,
Mirrors the old times’ image keenly;
With new-found calm now flows my blood.
Ludwig Wittgenstein or Karl Kraus would have my head for tautologies alone: clouds are of course above the flood—where else?; there’s nothing about a flood in the original anyway (but something had to rhyme with “blood”); can an image be “keenly” mirrored, instead of “sharply”?; doesn’t the displacement of the subject in the last line make the word order cheesily “poetic”?
The examples from last month are wobbly as well. In the poem about the Strudlhof Steps, I added a word (“dying”) that’s nowhere in the original—it fits the spirit but strains the letter; the choice of “footfall” corresponds to “Tritte” in the German, and each word duly ends with an unaccented syllable, but the real need was to find a rhyme for “wall.” As for the Latin quatrain about the wine, I may have perpetrated an impossibility of usage. An adjective as generic noun is common in the plural (“The meek shall inherit the earth”; “The rich get richer”), but can that construction even exist in the possessive? Am I cheating with “the bad’s dismay” for “bös dem Schuft” = “pravis prave”? As a final example, consider my metrical change in a couplet from another novella: “Gewalt-Tat gegen Unbekannte / Löscht Feuer ehe es noch brannte” becomes “Violent deeds against men you don’t know / Extinguish a fire before its first glow.” The German four-beat line has an additional beat in English, and feminine end-rhymes become masculine. (As for that, what about the sexism of “men you don’t know”?) If I demand retention of rhyme, why am I allowed to change the meter? (NYRB, don’t fire me, please!)