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Susan McLean 02-06-2019 02:45 PM

Rilke, Lament for Antinous
Lament for Antinous
by Rainer Maria Rilke

None of you understood the Bithynian lad
(so that you’d seize and lift him from the river).
It’s true I spoiled him. Yet we’ve merely made
him full of heaviness and dimmed forever.

Who then can love? Who knows how? None so far.
And so I’ve caused no end of pain. He’s now
one of Nile’s fostering gods. I hardly know
which one he is, and I cannot draw near.

And still you’d thrust him, madmen, to the stars,
that I might call and urge: “Is that the one?”
Why isn’t he simply dead? He wouldn’t care.
And maybe nothing would have happened then.

S1L3 "merely" was "simply"
S3L2 "urge" was "beg"

Klage um Antinous

Keiner begriff mir von euch den bithynischen Knaben
(daß ihr den Strom anfaßtet und von ihm hübt . . .).
Ich verwöhnte ihn zwar. Und dennoch: wir haben
ihn nur mit Schwere erfüllt und für immer getrübt.

Wer vermag denn zu lieben? Wer kann es? – Noch keiner.
Und so hab ich unendliches Weh getan –.
Nun ist er am Nil der stillenden Götter einer,
und ich weiß kaum welcher und kann ihm nicht nahn.

Und ihr warfet ihn noch, Wahnsinnige, bis in die Sterne,
damit ich euch rufe und dränge: meint ihr den?
Was ist er nicht einfach ein Toter. Er wäre es gerne.
Und vielleicht wäre ihm nichts geschehn.

Literal translation:
Lament for Antinous

None of you understood [for me] the Bithynian boy
(so that you might seize and lift the river from him. . .).
I spoiled him, it’s true. And yet: we have
merely filled him with heaviness and dimmed him forever.

Who then is able to love? Who can do it? Still nobody.
And so I have done endless hurt—.
Now he is one of the nurturing gods on the Nile,
and I hardly know which one, and cannot draw near him.

And still you thrust him, madmen, into the stars,
so that I might send for you and urge: do you mean that one?
Why is he not simply dead? He would be glad of it.
And perhaps nothing would have happened to him.

John Isbell 02-06-2019 04:25 PM

Hi Susan,

Your usual high standard. I do have a couple of possible nits: in the (untranslatable) opening, mir is gone and the object of anfasstet has shifted (not that I'm sure anything can be done here); and draenge for me is not beg.


Susan McLean 02-07-2019 10:42 AM

John, thanks for your helpful comments. I did omit the "mir" from the first line (I have restored it to the literal translation) because the idiom doesn't really work in English, and I also changed around the second line to make it more intelligible. I have now changed the literal translation back, but I still wonder if we are supposed to think in that second line that Hadrian himself is confused, since it is not possible to lift a river from someone. I am torn between reproducing the oddity or making it make sense in English. But you are right that "dränge" is more literally "press" or "urge," so I have gone with the latter.


John Isbell 02-08-2019 12:19 AM

Hi Susan,

I agree, the opening is basically untranslatable. The only thing I can think of for the mir is "for me" - "for me, this is great", kind of like bei mir bist du scheyn - but I like the opening as you have it, given what the German allows here.
I do like your revision of draenge.


Martin Rocek 02-08-2019 11:45 AM

Hi Susan,
I discussed the opening with my wife, and it really is obscure. One idea is that "begriff" means understand as in "grasp"; maybe you could use the pun in English to keep "for me" in the translation. It is a difficult poem.


Susan McLean 02-08-2019 02:10 PM

Martin, it is good to hear the reactions of a native German speaker. I don't think "for me" really works in L1 in English, not even if I change "understood" to "grasped." If I make the change to "grasped" it will seem to overlap with "seize" and the meaning of "understood" may be lost.


Martin Rocek 02-10-2019 07:35 PM

Hi Susan,
here are a few more thoughts, things to consider. In S1, though the first part is pretty impenetrable and you have chosen to interpret it in a plausible way, the second half makes sense and the crib is more graceful than "made him full of heaviness"; also, why "simply" for "merely" or "just"?

In S2, is the change from "nurturing" to "fostering" justified? Isn't "nursing" the literal translation?

In S3, what is the justification for changing "He would be glad of it" to "He wouldn't care"--the two are quite different?

Thanks again for the read!


John Isbell 02-11-2019 03:09 AM

Hi Susan,

I agree with you about "for me;" it's not a natural or facile expression in our language, and in German it is to my ear a bit of shading that doesn't really need translating at the expense of other more important elements. I was simply arguing that, perhaps thanks to Yiddish, it is conceivable in modern English. Nuff said.


Susan McLean 02-11-2019 01:07 PM

Martin, I have taken your suggestion for changing "simply" to "merely" in S1L3. Though I tried to find other ways to say "full of heaviness," there are a lot of possible meanings to "heaviness" that some of the synonyms would lose. In S2L3 I originally had "nurturing" but changed it to "fostering," partly because the latter term seemed broader and partly because Antinous was not an Egyptian, so I see an analogy to a nurse who is brought in to nourish a child, who is not the child's own mother. I could change it back, so I would be interested to hear about what other readers think of the two options. "Foster" can mean "nurse." In S3 "He wouldn't care" is not an exact translation of the German, but I was boxed in by the need to find a rhyme for "stars," and nothing else would work. I would argue that the idea of acceptance of death is more important than actual gladness at being dead in this context.

John, that usage of "me" in S1L1 is something that Shakespeare sometimes does, but it tends to sound archaic in English, or at least quite foreign, so I avoid it.


Orwn Acra 02-11-2019 01:10 PM

This is great, Susan. For the first line, maybe:

None of you sensed the Bithynian boy

I do feel a pun should be used as Martin suggests, if only to get multiple meanings out of one word and to make it strange.

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