Sunday, 19 August 2012

Rilke's French 'Rose' Poems and My Excursions Into Translation-Land

With my relatively recent interest in translated poetry in full flower, I decided that I'd like to try translating Rilke's French poems on roses (see what I did there?). I've only recently become aware that Rilke wrote in French at all. These sequences of poems, which also include Les Quatrains Valaisans and Saltimbanques, are considered minor compared to his great German poems, but my initial impression is that they are beautiful. And I can translate from French, whereas I can't from German...

It has been about fifteen years since I have tried to translate poems. Then, it was mainly Baudelaire, I think, and at university. I admire Baudelaire but find him unpleasant, much as I admire Salvador Dali but find him unpleasant. So I am quite glad that Rilke wrote some French poems, too. Here I have translated the first two short poems in the sequence, which has more than twenty.

I have included both my English translations and the French originals, and constructive criticism is very welcome.

THE ROSES (Rainer Maria Rilke, translated by Clarissa Aykroyd)


If your freshness sometimes startles,
joyful rose,
it's because within, deep inside,
petal on petal, you're in repose.

Awakened entity, whose centre
sleeps, while countless tendernesses lie
in touching layers, reaching out
from that silent heart, opening to the sky.


I see you, rose, half-open book,
holding so many pages
of so many happinesses
never read. Book of magic images,

opened by the wind, legible
with eyes closed...,
from which butterflies dart, confused
that their ideas are one with the rose.



Si ta fraîcheur parfois nous étonne tant,
heureuse rose,
c'est qu'en toi-même, en dedans,
pétale contre pétale, tu te reposes.

Ensemble tout éveillé, dont le milieu
dort, pendant qu'innombrables, se touchent
les tendresses de ce coeur silencieux
qui aboutissent à l'extrême bouche.


Je te vois, rose, livre entrebâillé,
qui contient tant de pages
de bonheur détaillé
qu'on ne lira jamais. Livre-mage,

qui s'ouvre au vent et qui peut être lu
les yeux fermés...,
dont les papillons sortent confus
d'avoir eu les mêmes idées.

Translations © Clarissa Aykroyd, 2012. Not to be reproduced without permission


  1. I find your translations to be very beautiful! More importantly, I suppose, they draw me into the fascinating ideas of the poems themselves, for which thanks. Like you, I admire Baudelaire and Dali but find them unpleasant, so I avoid them, as I do Rimbaud. Now I want to do two things: look for German versions of these poems (for various reasons I don't want to bore you with here), and try my hand at translating them myself from French--because I've found that grappling with the process of translation is a really fine way of entering into the original work more deeply. I hope you translate more in days to come.

    1. Thanks for the nice comments. I think my translation was a bit loose in parts. But perhaps it sounded better than something very literal...but is that the right choice to make? So many decisions. Also, I have a partial rhyme scheme (second and fourth lines of each stanza) in place, which reflects the fact that the original rhymes, but that was a 1/3 2/4 rhyme scheme - but in that case I would have sacrificed more meaning. Translation is so tricky. I am going to try and do the whole sequence though. In terms of language they are not too too complex so I think it is a good place to start after years of not attempting translation.

      I agree that it's one of the best ways to enter the original work. I am starting to think increasingly that the main reason for translation is, not even so much to make poetry more accessible to different language groups (though that is part of it, of course) but to engage in artistic dialogue (between yourself and the poem, between different poets and translators, etc). Going to Poetry Parnassus and glimpsing the different ways that poets and translators play with translation reinforced that for me. I really think it's a dialogue. Or a message in a bottle. (Paul Celan again.)

  2. Clarissa,
    I wouldn't venture to comment on the quality of your translation. I am interested however in your perception of mood in Rilke's Rose Poems. I am writing an article that draws on these moods in another discipline (pastoral theology). I have long been fascinated by Rilke's conceptualizations of the interior life. I would be interested in your comments about this. I grew up in Vancouver so have a West Coast connection with you.

    1. Thank you for commenting and sorry for my slow reply. I am honestly not sure how much I can contribute, being far from a Rilke expert - these have mainly been translation exercises for me so far, though I find Rilke fascinating too. My only real "criticism" of Rilke so far (I should say, what I find less enjoyable about his work) is what I find to be a certain self-absorption, or perhaps it's an excess of self-sufficiency. These rose poems can almost seem as though they are the product of a mind enraptured with itself, which looks outward only with difficulty. And yet, he has a lot to say about self-knowledge and uncovering psychological depths and layers within oneself. These particular rose poems are certainly "lighter" than much of his other work but I think these preoccupations run through the poems as they do through his more famous and "deeper" German works.