Susan McLean – Four Translations of Rainer Maria Rilke


Der Panther

Im Jardin des Plantes, Paris

Sein Blick ist vom Vorübergehn der Stäbe
so müd geworden, daß er nichts mehr hält.
Ihm ist, als ob es tausend Stäbe gäbe
und hinter tausend Stäben keine Welt.

Der weiche Gang geschmeidig starker Schritte,
der sich im allerkleinsten Kreise dreht,
ist wie ein Tanz von Kraft um eine Mitte,
in der betäubt ein großer Wille steht.

Nur manchmal schiebt der Vorhang der Pupille
sich lautlos auf — Dann geht ein Bild hinein,
geht durch der Glieder angespannte Stille —
und hört im Herzen auf zu sein.

The Panther

In the Botanical Garden, Paris

From passing by the endless bars, his gaze
has wearied till there’s nothing it can hold.
It seems to him there are a thousand bars,
and out beyond the thousand bars, no world.

The soft tread of his powerful, lithe stride
that turns in circles of the smallest size
is like a dance of strength around a void
in which a mighty will stands paralyzed.
Only at times the pupils’ curtains rise
soundlessly:  then an image enters them,
passing in silent tension through each limb
before it lodges in his heart and dies.


Vor dem Sommerregen

Auf einmal ist aus allem Grün im Park
man weiß nicht was, ein Etwas fortgenommen;
man fühlt ihn näher an die Fenster kommen
und schweigsam sein. Inständig nur und stark

ertönt aus dem Gehölz der Regenpfeifer,
man denkt an einen Hieronymus:
so sehr steigt irgend Einsamkeit und Eifer
aus dieser einen Stimme, die der Guß

erhören wird. Des Saales Wände sind
mit ihren Bildern von uns fortgetreten,
als dürften sie nicht hören was wir sagen.

Es spiegeln die verblichenen Tapeten
das ungewisse Licht von Nachmittagen,
in denen man sich fürchtete als Kind.

Before Summer Rain

At once, from all the greenery of the park,
something—you don’t know what it is—has gone;
you feel it approach the window and remain
silent.  Yet from the wood, pleading and stark,

a plover’s call reverberates, and you
are put in mind then of a St. Jerome: 
such loneliness and zeal are rising from 
that one voice, which the rain will hearken to.

The portrait-covered walls of the great hall 
have stepped away from us, as if they should
not overhear what we might say in them.

The faded tapestries reflect the dim,
uncertain light of afternoons, that filled
you with anxiety when you were small.


Der Aussätzige König

Da trat auf seiner Stirn der Aussatz aus               
und stand auf einmal unter seiner Krone,                       
als wär er König über allen Graus,                                   
der in die andern fuhr, die fassungsohne           
hinstarrten nach dem furchtbaren Vollzug                     
an jenem, welcher, schmal wie ein Verschnürter           
erwartete, daß einer nach ihm schlug;                             
doch noch war keiner Manns genug:                               
als machte ihn nur immer unberührter              
die neue Würde, die sich übertrug.

The Leper King

Across his forehead, leprosy then spread
and stood out suddenly below his crown,
as if he were the monarch of all dread,
which passed into the others, who stared on,
unnerved, at the appalling retribution
on him, slim as a tight-laced girl, who feared
that someone would strike out at him—and yet
no man possessed sufficient resolution:
as if the newfound dignity conferred
on him just made him more inviolate.


Gott im Mittelalter

Und sie hatten Ihn in sich erspart
und sie wollten, daß er sei und richte,
und sie hängten schließlich wie Gewichte
(zu verhindern seine Himmelfahrt)

an ihn ihrer großen Kathedralen
Last und Masse. Und er sollte nur
über seine grenzenlosen Zahlen
zeigend kreisen und wie eine Uhr

Zeichen geben ihrem Tun und Tagwerk.
Aber plötzlich kam er ganz in Gang,
und die Leute der entsetzten Stadt

ließen ihn, vor seiner Stimme bang,
weitergehn mit ausgehängtem Schlagwerk
und entflohn vor seinem Zifferblatt.

God in the Middle Ages

They’d saved Him up inside themselves, intent
on having him exist and arbitrate,
and (to prevent his heavenward ascent)
eventually they hung on him, like weights,

the heft and vastness of their great cathedrals. 
And he was just to circle, pointing, through 
the cycle of his endless numerals
and, like a clock, to furnish signals to

direct their conduct and their daily work.
But suddenly he fully hit his stride,
and the people of the city, horror-struck,

left him going, fearful of his voice,
his inner clockworks hanging open wide,
and fled away before his dial’s face.


Author’s Statement on Beauty

As a woman, I have mixed feelings about the tyranny of beauty.  When I was a teen, I rebelled against the expectation that every woman should take pains to transform herself into a work of art for men’s approval and enjoyment.  Physical beauty gives some people unearned advantages and then cruelly takes them away after a relatively short while.  I didn’t want standards of beauty to dictate my worth or limit my choices.

However, as a poet, my attitude toward beauty is entirely positive.  The beauty of a work of art is earned through enormous effort, skill, and attention on the part of its creator.  A poem can be beautiful on all sorts of levels: the visual, the aural, the intellectual, the emotional, the imaginative.  Yet beauty itself is under attack in contemporary art, where it is often seen as being sentimental, clichéd, and antithetical to the grittiness or chaos of reality. 

My friend Elizabeth Blair, a photographer, refers to beauty as “the B word,” a criterion that contemporary photographers no longer tend to mention in evaluating a photograph’s artistry. She photographs wild orchids and natural scenes of startling beauty, and this attitude is one of the obstacles she faces as an artist.  I am most attracted to writing poetry that makes use of the full range of sonic devices to create beauty and memorability, including rhyme, meter, alliteration, assonance—even though such devices are currently considered hopelessly old-fashioned and backward-looking.  I also translate poetry, and differences between languages can make some of the beauties of a poem difficult or impossible to recreate in another language.  Many translators now, faced with a rhymed, metrical poem, discard the rhyme and meter in their translation, focusing only on capturing the meaning of the original.  But I think the impossibility of achieving a perfect replica of the original should not prevent translators from making every effort to achieve as much beauty as they can without sacrificing the meaning of the original. 

Rilke’s German poetry is very popular in English-speaking countries, where it is typically read in translations that strip the poems of the sonic beauties that rhyme and meter lend many of the poems in German.  Rilke’s powerful metaphors and images, close observation of nature, art, and human behavior, and mystical insights all manage to help his poems survive these other aesthetic losses.  Yet with the help of slant rhymes and slight variations in his rhyme schemes, I hope to be able to suggest the rhythms and highly crafted sonic patterns of the originals without departing far from their literal meaning.


Susan McLean recently retired from teaching English at Southwest Minnesota State University.  She has published two books of poetry, The Best Disguise (winner of the Richard Wilbur Award) and The Whetstone Misses the Knife (winner of the Donald Justice Poetry Prize).  She has also published a book of translations of Latin poems by Martial, Selected Epigrams, which was a finalist for the PEN Center USA Translation Award in 2015.  Her translations of poems from Latin, French, and German have appeared in Transference, Subtropics, Literary Imagination, Arion, Measure, and elsewhere.  She lives in Iowa City, Iowa.