… I thought I’d try translating Rainer Maria Rilke‘s great poem, “Archaïscher Torso Apollos.” Hey—even our pizza delivery guy has tried his hand at this one!
For background, I think the single most interesting, if sometimes oddball, commentaries on translating this poem is this one by Art Beck. He looks are a number of translators’ efforts, including those by J. B. Leishman, M. D. Herter Norton, C. F. MacIntyre, Stephen Mitchell, David Young, Edgar Snow, and William Gass—the last for whom Beck reserves his harshest critique.
Why have so many turned their hands to this elusive Petrarchan sonnet? Aside from the fact that Rilke translation has become a cottage industry, it must be because the text is so elusive—an ekphrastic poem whose core idea is that the ancient god’s illuminating gaze persists inside the broken statue, and as the poet contemplates it, suddenly feels seen in a way that strikes him as a command: Du mußt dein Leben ändern, which most translations render as You must change your life.
So, again, why not me?
|ARCHAÏSCHER TORSO APOLLOS
Rainer Maria Rilke 
Wir kannten nicht sein unerhörtes Haupt,
sich hãlt und glänzt. Sonst konnte nicht der Bug
Sonst stunde dieser Stein entstellt und kurz
und bräche nicht aus allen seinen Rändern
|ARCHAIC TORSO OF APOLLO
Rainer Maria Rilke 
We never knew his incredible head
abides and shines. Otherwise the prow
And this stone would be maimed, disfigured,
nor would it be breaking out from all its limits
You’ll see that I’ve not attempted to bring over Rilke’s precise rhymes, though I have attempted to rhyme slant—sometimes acutely slant—having been given permission long ago by Emily Dickinson. I’ve also tweaked the god’s message to make it a message that I think more aligns with Rilke’s vision of his mission in life: that is, to be a composer or maker of poems. The god of light, music, poetry, healing, and divination is reminding the poet that he needs not simply to change his life, an easy and often cost-free choice, but to remake it to align with his spiritual mission. No wonder the poem speaks so powerfully to us all….