The Book of Hours

For many years I’ve been trying to get hold of a good translation of Rainer Maria Rilke‘s “Das Stundenbuch” – The Book of Hours. It all begin twenty years ago when I read this in David Steindl-Rast‘s “Gratefulness: the heart of prayer

He who reconciles the many contradictions of his heart
gathering them gratefully into one symbol
expels the noisy crowd from his abode
and there, in a different kind of festive mood
receives you as his guest on gentle evenings.
You are the other in his solitude
the silent centre for his conversation with himself
and every circle drawn about you
makes his compass span beyond the rim of time.

This evening my task was rekindled when I though I had come across what appeared to be a new translation on Amazon, but turned out just to be a reprint of the disastrous 1997 translation by Anita Barrows. Following the modern fashion, these are not translations but free renderings. Whilst this may be necessary to free the 13th century Arabic of Celladin Rumi, surely we can do better for Rilke’s 20th century German?

So I’m still searching for something that might give me more access to the original. In this context, it’s striking that Edward Snow, who has published beautiful facing-page translations of many of Rilke’s works, has yet to attempt The Book of Hours.

The Book of Hours (tr Babette Deutsch, 1941)Browsing around Amazon I came across a 1941 facing-pages translation by Babette Deutsch which I’ve now ordered from a very helpful seller in the US, and I look forward to reading it very much. This was reprinted by Norton in 1975 and again in 1988, which is quite an achievement for any book. One reviewer on Amazon describes the number of poems that Deutsch considered would bear translation as “heartbreakingly small”.

There’s something about Rilke’s Book of Hours that just gets to people. The poems were written early in Rilke’s life following a visit to Russia, where Rilke was deeply impressed by his encounter with a simpler form of Christianity at a Russian monastery. The title refers to the daily prayers which the monks follow, and the poems themselves follow the spiritual quest of an imaginary Russian monk turned painter in three parts. The first part, “The Book of Monastic Life” (1899), begins in the monk’s cell; the second, “The Book of Pilgrimage” (1901), is a journey across the Russian steppes, arriving in the third part, “The Book of Poverty and Death” (1903), in the sleaze and despair of the big city.

Das Stunden-Buch

For years I’ve been saying that when I’m older and have more leisure I shall learn German, and then I can read Rilke, Jung and Freud in their own language. But why wait? The translators are making metaphorical translations, when a literal translation is what seems to work best. So I’ve gone ahead and ordered Das Stunden-Buch in German!

I live my life in growing orbits
which move out over the things of the world.
Perhaps I can never achieve the last,
but that will be my attempt.
I am circling around God, around the ancient tower,
and I have been circling for a thousand years,
and I still don’t know if I am a falcon, or a storm
or a great song.

(tr. Robert Bly)


~ by scalambra on May 6, 2007.

One Response to “The Book of Hours”

  1. I, too, for many years, have been waiting for a faithful, complete translation of Rilke’s first enduring book. I imagine Snow will eventually get to it; doesn’t make sense to skip it since he’s done all of the major poetry volumes except this (I don’t count Life of Mary (1913) as one of them). His most recent translation, if you don’t know, is the complete correspondence with RMR’s first real love and mentor, Lou(ise) Andreas Salome. She was a close friend of Freud’s; she wrote something translated into English as “The Freud Journal”; Hers and Freud’s letters have been translated into English; Freud wrote her obituary, which appears in his collected works. Good for you to order Das Stundenbuch as RMR wrote it! The comments re the Deutsch are right on; though I don’t believe Norton reprinted it. It was published by New Directions. Could be wrong, and Norton picked it up later. (God bless M. D. Herter Norton, RMR’s faithful translator. I only wish she had tackled the Elegies.)

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