Translation Matters: The Panther

I should admit first thing that I don't speak German, but I do have a new bilingual collection of Snow's The Poetry of Rilke and its clear that Rilke did use an "abab" rhyme scheme in these quatrains. Since German and English employ a completely different word order, Snow has not kept to the rhyme scheme in his translation; yet, I can't help but know that his version is closer to the original. Why? Because Snow's translation is by far the better poem. Or is something else at work here? Is Snow's translation best suited an American 21st Century reader? Whichever the case, I feel sure that Rilke would approve.

The Panther

His gaze has from the passing of the bars
become so tired that it holds nothing anymore.
It seems to him there are a thousand bars
and behind a thousand bars no world.

The supple pace of powerful soft strides,
turning in the very smallest circle,
is like a dance of strength around a center
in which a mighty will stands numbed.

Only at times the curtain of the pupils
soundlessly slides open ---. Then an image enters,
glides through the limbs' taut stillness ---
dives into the heart and dies.
                                                            RMK (ES trans)

Der Panther
Jarin des Plantes, Paris

His gaze, going past those bars, has got so misted
with tiredness, it can take in nothing more.
He feels as though a thousand bars existed,
and no more world beyond them than before.

Those supply powerful paddings, turning there
in tiniest of circles, well might be
the dance of forces round a centre where
some mighty will stands paralyticly.

Just now and then the pupils' noiseless shutter
if lifted. - Then an image with indart,
down throught the limbs' intensive stillness flutter,
and end its being in the heart.

Rainer Maria Rilke   Paris, 1903
(unidentified web translation)


  1. Good idea to juxtapose the two translations. It makes the point!

    It made me think of the pitfalls of translation, and of how, in the process, the translator who starts with gold (Rilke’s poem) has to try her/ his best to avoid turning it into base metal.

  2. Thanks Stella, It startles me again to read this juxtaposition. No wonder I didn't "get" Rilke when I first encountered him. The Snow translations make him come alive here in 2010.

  3. The Snow translation is so much the better one. And yet it makes me ask, is the poem Snow's or Rilke's?

  4. Hi Maureen -- that is the question for all translation. It's a fascinating subject. Jane Hirshfield has an excellent essay on the subject in her collection of essays 9 Gates (9?) and the Neruda translator Alistair ??? has a fabulous memoir on his life lived in translation. For me, the answer has to be it belongs to both of them. I've read dozens of Rilke translations (Mitchell, Norton, etc) and the poems change dramatically with each one.


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