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Susan McLean 07-19-2019 08:25 AM

Rilke, Self-Portrait from the Year 1906
Self-Portrait from the Year 1906
by Rainer Maria Rilke

The old aristocratic family’s
persistence in the contour of the brows.
The childhood angst and blue still in the gaze,
and deference on occasion—not a slave’s,
but what a woman has, and one who serves.
The mouth made as a mouth, precise and broad,
not shrewdly glib, but prone to speaking out
judiciously. The brow without deceit
and fond of a downturned gaze’s quiet shade.

All this, as context, merely guessed at first;
not ever, in success or at the worst,
collected to be scrupulously scanned,
and yet as if—far off, from things dispersed—
some serious, real thing were being planned.

Selbstbildnis aus dem Jahre 1906

Des alten lange adligen Geschlechtes
Feststehendes im Augenbogenbau.
Im Blicke noch der Kindheit Angst und Blau
und Demut da und dort, nicht eines Knechtes
doch eines Dienenden und einer Frau.
Der Mund als Mund gemacht, groß und genau,
nicht überredend, aber ein Gerechtes
Aussagendes. Die Stirne ohne Schlechtes
und gern im Schatten stiller Niederschau.

Das, als Zusammenhang, erst nur geahnt;
noch nie im Leiden oder im Gelingen
zusammgefasst zu dauerndem Durchdringen,
doch so, als wäre mit zerstreuten Dingen
von fern ein Ernstes, Wirkliches geplant.

Literal translation:
Self-Portrait from the Year 1906

The old long-noble family’s
staying power in the eyebrows’ build.
In the gaze still, childhood angst and blue
and humility here and there, not of a slave
but of a server and of a woman.
The mouth made as a mouth, wide and precise,
not persuading, but speaking out
justly. The brow without malice
and happy in the shadow of a silent downward look.

All this, as context, at first merely guessed;
never, in affliction or in success,
drawn together to be lengthily mulled over,
yet as if, with scattered things,
from far off, a serious, real thing were being planned.

John Isbell 07-19-2019 09:04 AM

Hi Susan,

An interesting poem perhaps, but not one that does a lot of credit to Rilke. No nits from me as to your rendering, it seems precise and apt.


Susan McLean 07-19-2019 12:24 PM

John, thanks for your reactions. I, too, think that Rilke reveals more than he realizes in this self-portrait. Yet I think it is good for people to know about him, especially those who idealize him. When I translate poets, I usually like the poems a lot more than I like the poets. One can't study literature without acquiring a rather cynical view of the people who write it.


John Isbell 07-19-2019 02:35 PM

Hi Susan,

Yes, the poems are often nicer than the poets are, I agree. Perhaps that is a point worth making ...


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