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The Spike Victoria University College Review 1944



In a recent issue of the Australian Magazine 'Angry Penguins' there was a translation from Rainer Maria Rilke, written by Ruth Speirs. It describes Eurydice, while Hermes guides her through the underworld:

her sex was closed
like a young flower towards the evening
and so much had her hands grown disaccustomed
to wedlock that the infinitely gentle
guiding touch of the light god
offended her like too great intimacy.

This is not a bad piece of work. The translator obviously understands Rilke. and she does not over-saturate her version with' Rilkean' adjectives. If she does not manage to get poetry out of her model, it must certainly be a cruel jest of the Muses who just like strip-teasers always make off at the crucial moment. Ruth Speirs has seen the light and the Muses have vanished. Here is the work. What has happened?

We first observe that almost every line has the same sweet sound with a modulation towards the end almost too tender for words, and a sigh which is graciously at the last moment changed into a honey-sweet smile. It is the Rilke sigh, the Rilke smile, repeating itself and haunting us, like a maddening refrain in our sleep. Then we observe that except for this sigh, this smile, this Rilke sweetness, nothing has been transferred into the English; it is only the infinitely precious caressing touch of the light Rilke. Except for that nothing; not a breath of life; the translator has eliminated her whole personality in translating. She flows along caressing and touching things, just like the light Rilke, and she does not stand erect as a separate entity, like Campion did, or Robinson, to understand, feel and express—as soon as Rilke began to speak, just like a bad lover, she was no longer there.

The reason why good translation is so rare is exactly this: that the translator himself needs a strong personality, and when working, he needs to preserve it.