The ten letters that Rainer Maria Rilke wrote to an aspiring young poet from 1902 through 1908 comprise a much-loved trove of advice on living a purposeful life in or out of the arts. We’ve just published a handsome little edition of the letters, newly translated and introduced by Mark Harman, a Professor of English and German at Elizabethtown College whose translations of Kafka have been widely acclaimed. In a recent episode of The Book Show podcast (which you can listen to here), Harman explained his view that translation can be like a coating of dust on a painting, lending a patina that doesn’t actually reflect the underlying work. He undertook this new translation in an attempt to remove some of the accretion he saw in other English translations, so as to let the original art of Rilke’s letters show through.
Rilke’s writing is notoriously difficult to do justice in translation. The letters were written in German, but Rilke himself was multilingual and once wrote in French that “pour dire tout, il faudrait savoir toutes les langues” (to say everything, one would need to know every language). In his Introduction to the Letters, Harman remarks further on Rilke’s relationship to language:
Rilke’s conception of language resembles that of other great multilingual writers such as Kafka, Joyce, and Beckett. Like his fellow Prague-born writer Kafka, he was always intensely aware of languages other than German. Having learned French at the prompting of his mother, Phia Rilke, young René took a keen interest in Czech literature and culture, an unusual predilection among German-speaking literati in late-nineteenth-century Prague and one of which his social-climbing mother did not approve. Having grown up in that multilingual city, he was aware of the advantages of living abroad, where his German would be removed from everyday usage and could, as he put it in a letter to Countess Margot Sizzo in March 1922, acquire a “distinctive concentration and clarity.” He also prized the differing personality, as it were, of each language: Two years later in a letter to Lou Andreas-Salomé he notes that on the few occasions when he wrote about the same subject in French and in German it “developed very differently in the two languages: which argues strongly against the naturalness of translation.”
The famous letters were written throughout a particularly tempestuous period of Rilke’s life. He was torn between three different women, often on the move, and battling the failing health that would eventually shorten his life. Through that, though, he managed to write incredibly thoughtful advice to the young Franz Kappus, who was eager to find his voice as a poet. Rilke counseled Kappus to be patient with his development, but urgent in his pursuit. From Harman’s translation:
You ask whether your verses are good. You ask me. You have already asked others. You send them to journals. You compare them with other poems, and are upset when certain editorial offices reject your efforts. Now (since you’ve permitted me to give you advice) I ask you to abandon all this. You look outside yourself, and that above all else is something you should not do just now. Nobody can advise you and help you, nobody. There’s only one way to proceed. Go inside yourself. Explore the reason that compels you to write; test whether it stretches its roots into the deepest part of your heart, admit to yourself whether you would have to die if the opportunity to write were withheld from you. Above all else, ask yourself at your most silent hour of night: must I write? Dig inside yourself for a deep answer. And if the answer is yes, if it is possible for you to respond to this serious question with a strong and simple I must, then build your life on the basis of this necessity; your life, even at its most indifferent and attenuated, must become a sign and a witness for this compulsion.
Editions of Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet often surface on the bookseller’s “Graduation Gifts” table, but covering art, love, fear, doubt, and patience, the letters have a broad reach. Indeed, Billy Collins praises Harman’s “fresh translation” for reminding us that “Rilke is addressing not just his young correspondent but everyone, and that his advice is not only about how to write poems but how to live a deliberate, meaningful life. In these overly excited times, it is inspiring to listen to the patient counsel of this meditative man, this champion of solitude.”