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Reading Rilke

William H. Gass

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To purchase Reading Rilke

Title: Reading Rilke
Author: William Gass
Genre: Non-fiction
Written: 1999
Length: 220 pages
Availability: Reading Rilke - US
Reading Rilke - UK
Reading Rilke - Canada
  • Reflections on the Problems of Translation
  • Includes Gass' own translation of Rilke's Duino Elegies

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Our Assessment:

B+ : interesting overview of Rainer Maria Rilke and study of the translations of the Duino Elegies

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The American Scholar A- Winter/2000 Susan Miron
Boston Review A- Summer/2000 Nicole Krauss
The Hindu A- 23/4/2000 David Davidar
The LA Times A 26/9/1999 S.S. Reynolds
The New Criterion . 1/2000 John Simon
The New Republic C 8/5/2000 Brian Phillips
The NY Rev. of Books A 2/12/1999 J.M.Coetzee
The NY Times Book Rev. A 30/1/2000 Daniel Mendelsohn
The New Yorker . 27/12/1999 .
Rev. of Contemp. Fiction A Spring/2000 Brooke Horvath
The Washington Post B+ 10/10/1999 Robert Wechsler

  Review Consensus:

  Fairly positive about Gass' critical comments (though lots of complaints about Gass' overblown style), fairly divided about Gass' translation (some love it, others don't -- in his review in The New Republic Brian Phillips calls it "a spectacular failure").

  From the Reviews:
  • "Gass gives a highly idiosyncratic, often entertaining reading of his hero's irritatingly termed "Lifeleading" (.....) It's Gass's running meditation on translating (...) that makes this book so valuable. Gass will no doubt infuriate those translators he so mercilessly assails (...), because he is so enticingly persuasive, and surprisingly hilarious." - Susan Miron, The American Scholar

  • "Reading Rilke (...) prefaces his own translation with almost two-hundred pages of glittering commentary on the Elegies, blow-by-blow reportage from the gladiator pit of Duino translators, a recitation of rare of biographical detail about Rilke, and sharp insights into the art of translation and the idea of inspiration. (...) His lyrical gift is irrepressible, impossible to restrain behind the dam of anotherís -- even Rilkeís -- stanzas, and the resulting torrent of words makes for an unorthodox initiation into the most elusive of Rilkeís poems." - Nicole Krauss, Boston Review

  • "What makes this book especially rewarding is the fact that Gass compares his own translation with that of the eight other translators whose work he knows. He critiques those who have gone before and then adds his own version. Sometimes, Gass achieves greatness, but most of the time I preferred my favourite translation of Rilke, that by Stephen Mitchell." - David Davidar, The Hindu

  • "Reading Rilke, a deep celebration of reading and translating, is a kind of antidote for when words become unhinged from meaning, an antidote to the loneliness of reading and of writing. Gass repairs the arteries between the heart and the mind and the mouth and the hand, giving them new flexibility and vigor. (...) It is a clear and refreshing book, like bathing away the hollowness of the words we must translate every day." - Susan Salter Reynolds, The Los Angeles Times

  • "Gass's tone might be forgivable, and the jarring little errors and misleading omissions that mar the book might also be forgivable (...); but Gass's language is hard to forgive. His book is riddled with nauseating and idiotic coinages and phrases (.....) Prose such as this makes one very squeamish about actually flipping to the end of the book and exploring Gass's translation of the Elegies. And one would do better not to flip. (...) (H)e fumbles virtually every significant passage of the sequence." - Brian Phillips, The New Republic

  • "Gass justly denies Rilke the status of a philosophical poet (.....) He gets the quality of Rilke's verse exactly right (.....) As for his treatment of Rilke the man, the problem here is not that Gass is uncharitably inclined toward his subject but that he is out of sympathy with the milieu that formed him. Reading Rilke is an ambitious book, but one of the things it does not attempt is to situate Rilke historically." - J.M.Coetzee, The New York Review of Books

  • "As elsewhere in Gass's work, delicacy of perception, and of expression, can curdle too easily into a showoffy preciousness. (...) But these faults are more than amply compensated for by the grandeur and passion of the author's defiantly old-fashioned belletristic project. (...) (T)his is a work that does what the best poetry does: leaves you feeling more human." - Daniel Mendelsohn, The New York Times Book Review

  • "Much can be learned about Rilke in these movingly written pages, which offer additionally numerous insights into Gass's own work and the most eloquent defense of art as technique since the appearance three years ago of Gass's Finding a Form." - Brooke Horvath, Review of Contemporary Fiction

  • "(A) genre-free book that is a joy to read, reflecting Gass's own joy in reading Rilke. Like most of Gass's essays, it wanders through a jungle of ideas and images, and then suddenly beats a series of clearly marked, though often forking, paths toward a clearing. For Gass's free-wheeling imagination is balanced by a philosopher's love of order. (...) (W)hile Gass falls short as a critic of translation, he does not fall short as a translator or as a critic or as a biographer. He is at his best as a critic who is translating, interpreting poetry both from the outside and the inside, both in the form of an essay and in the form of poetry." - Robert Wechsler, The Washington Post

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       To go to an American or English bookstore and leaf through any of the many different translations of Rainer Maria Rilke's Duino Elegies that are available is among the most depressing experiences one can have. The experience is more than depressing: these renderings stand as proof positive of the impossibility of translation and the horrors that result when it is perpetrated. But no one hears our wails, our anguished howls, when we stand, teary-eyed, leafing through these obscene renditions.
       Indeed, translators keep taking Rilke's finely-wrought verses and wringing every last bit of art from them until only these dry, pale, English imitations are left -- and readers apparently continue to be deceived into paying good money for these forgeries.
       Oh, the horror !
       If one wishes to consider the problems of translation (into English), then Rilke's Duino Elegies are an excellent example to work with. This is what Gass does, as he considers previous efforts at translating them in a useful survey of what translators have done (and why they have done it). Gass also considers the various approaches to translating the Duino Elegies -- and, fatally, he translates them himself.
       Translation is a difficult problem. It is essential: we are all illiterates, and even if we know a dozen languages we can't read most of the literature in the world as it is meant to be read. Rilke's poems are among the greatest of the 20th century and the urge to share them with an audience not fluent in German and therefore to render them in English has proved irresistible to a number of writers. But the result is always ... nothing like Rilke and barely like poetry.
       Gass at least considers translation critically, understanding that there are problems with it. Most people pick up translations indifferently, barely considering whose version they are reading and the consequences of their choice. But even Gass does not make adequately clear what an outrage translation is and what it does to art -- even though he is working with one of the great recent examples that so clearly demonstrates the complete futility of translation.
       We cried and screamed and wailed, flung Gass' book into the corner and then tore it apart in a fury (as we have done with every English translation of Rilke's poems we have ever owned). Days later, soberly, detached, we put the pieces back together and pretend translation and the ruination of poetry doesn't matter and try again:

       William Gass' book is many things. It is a study of the great poet Rainer Maria Rilke, offering much useful biographical material and an insightful analysis of man and work. Reading Rilke also offers, as the subtitle suggests, "Reflections on the Problems of Translation", taking specifically the Duino Elegies as an example (though Gass also looks to other works by Rilke). Gass also offers his own translation of the Duino Elegies, appended to the book. And finally -- or perhaps: in sum -- it adds up to a book on reading Rilke, taking into account biography as well as the linguistic and poetic concerns that translation makes most evident.
       Gass is especially good in his analysis of the complex man and poet that Rilke was. Without getting bogged down in biographical minutiae Gass manages to capture the poet very well, and Reading Rilke is as good as any of the shorter surveys of the poet currently available (though one can disagree with some of Gass' interpretations of the man).
       There is also much reflection on the the problems of translation, though Gass' focus is not solely on this (or rather his conception of what must be brought to a translation is so overarching that a great deal of material is brought in that most might not directly consider a "problem of translation"). Gass considers some fourteen versions of the Duino Elegies (and there are already more), and his comparative analysis of a few of the lines is most useful -- though his criticism can, occasionally, be harsh. (See also, for example, David Young's reader review at Amazon.com, complaining about Gass' approach).
       Rilke is, of course, near-impossible to translate, a fact Gass is keenly aware of. Nevertheless, Gass grapples with the poems and explains how and why they might be rendered in some English version (and who has done this well and who has done this badly, and why). It is an often fascinating journey (though here his insistence on relating details of Rilke's biography sometimes gets in the way). It fails, ultimately, because Gass' rendering -- the culmination of the book -- is also not particularly impressive, deflating the arguments and explanations after the fact. The proof is in the pudding, but it's a wobbly, watery, unsatisfactory offering that Gass proudly presents his readers with.
       There is something to be said for Gass' claim that "translating is reading, reading of the best, the most essential kind". To translate a work -- especially as Gass does -- is to explore it and consider it fully. Unfortunately, this does not mean the end-product -- the translation -- will be any good. And the problem is that most readers only read translations, rather than prepare them themselves. They do not translate the text, they accept the translated text as given -- and that, we would argue, is reading of the absolute worst kind. Gass provides a service by allowing some insight into his efforts at translation (i.e. trying to engage the reader in the transformative act itself), but it is far too little.
       Gass' book is a worthwhile, even significant, study of Rilke. Gass writes engagingly and well, and he handles a great deal of material here without overtaxing the reader. As a study of Rilke and his work (and specifically the Duino Elegies), Reading Rilke is very good. As reflections on the problems of translation it is quite good (though it does little more than scratch the surface of these problems). As a translation of the Duino Elegies it is a curiosity and, since the translation is presented as a summa of the text and its arguments, disappointing.

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Reading Rilke: Reviews: Rainer Maria Rilke: William H. Gass: Other Books by William Gass under Review: Other books with introductions by William Gass under review: Other books of interest under review: Comparative translations under review:

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About the Author:

       American author William H. Gass lived 1924 to 2017.

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