I was as surprised as many readers of poetry to find that Rainer Maria Rilke had written a large body of poems in French. It was 1994; an earthquake in southern California had just dumped my books onto the floor and I sat down among them, hoping to find some comfort in their pages. At random, I opened Rilke’s French poetry in translation, with the original on the left-hand page. I knew French well; I had just returned from living in France and Morocco for four years. So when I compared the English with the original, I was not satisfied. I wanted poems I could chew on, learn by heart, poems I could love and use as a mirror for my life. I especially wanted poems that didn’t sound like translations.
Gingerly I began replacing a word here, a phrase there, until re-translating these poems became the project of my life. Why did Rilke write in French? A partial answer may lie in Rilke’s particular love for a handful of French words he considered untranslatable, at least in sound, rhythm and spirit. One of them was verger, orchard. The title poem of the series called “Orchards” begins thus:
Perhaps, dear borrowed language, I’ve been
so bold as to write you because
of the rustic name whose unique domain
has taunted me forever: Verger.
He was fluent in French, having learned it as a child. Still, it was his second language, which may explain the fact that the French oeuvre is syntactically simpler and more straightforward than the German. That’s not to say they are easy to translate. They simply present a less ornate doorway into the same complex, paradoxical ideas as those in Rilke’s German poems.
It is important to note that Rilke wrote the 325 French poems during the last four years of his life. His health was deteriorating and the French poems, especially “Orchards,” serve as a farewell letter to his beloved world and the audience that had become so loyal to him. Because of his fear of doctors and hospitals, he sought medical help only when it was too late. A rare form of leukemia was diagnosed only days before his death on December 27, 1926. He was just 51 years old. Many of the French poems were found among his papers and published posthumously. “My Body,” a poem from “Orchards,” was published by Gallimard in 1926.
Rainer Maria Rilke (poet), born in 1875 to a German-speaking family in Prague, was a prolific poet, essayist, critic and correspondent who never did anything but write. Well-known for his restlessness, he often became dissatisfied with his current “home” sometimes only days after moving there with his custom-made standing desk. Among many other places, he lived in Paris, most notably in 1902-03 when he worked for Auguste Rodin. Inspired by the great sculptor, he began to look with an artist’s eye at objects, developing a new lyrical style in his so-called Dinggedichte, “thing poems.” During the last years of his life he lived mostly in Muzot, Switzerland where he wrote over 325 poems in French. Rilke died of leukemia in December, 1926.
Susanne Petermann (translator) graduated with a B.A. in German and French from Macalester College in 1979. She spent almost a decade traveling in Europe and teaching English in Morocco before returning to the USA. After discovering Rainer Maria Rilke’s French poems in 1994, she began to re-translate them, while also writing original poetry and essays on the relationship between healing and writing. Her translations have appeared in Transference, Agni, Epiphany, Solstice, Jung Journal of Culture and Psyche, Inventory, and Rhino, among others. Her forthcoming book When I Go (Wipf and Stock, Eugene, OR) is a selection of 125 translations of Rilke’s French poems. She works as a personal organizer in southern Oregon.
How sweet sometimes to agree with you,
O my body, my elder brother,
how sweet to be strong
with your strength,
to feel you, leaf, branch and bark
and all that you are still becoming,
you, so close to the spirit,
so free, so at one
with the obvious joy
of being this tree of gestures.
You slow heaven down
for a moment, and give it
a place to call home.
Qu’il est doux parfois d’être de ton avis,
frère aîné, ô mon corps,
qu’il est doux d’être fort
de ta force,
de te sentir feuille, tige, écorce
et tout ce que tu peux devenir encor,
toi, si près de l’esprit.
Toi, si franc, si uni
dans ta joie manifeste
d’être cet arbre de gestes
qui, un instant, ralentit
les allures célestes
pour y placer sa vie.