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Letters to a Young Poet (Modern Library) Hardcover – December 4, 2001
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"The common reader will be delighted by Stephen Mitchell’s new translation of that slim and beloved volume by Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet . . . the best yet."
--Los Angeles Times
From the Inside Flap
Rilke's Letters to a Young Poet are arguably the most famous and beloved letters of the twentieth century. Written when the poet was himself still a young man, with most of his greatest work before him, they were addressed to a student who had sent Rilke some of his own writing, asking for advice on becoming a writer. The two never met, but over a period of several years Rilke wrote him these ten letters, which have been cherished by hundreds of thousands of readers for what Stephen Mitchell calls in his Foreword the "vibrant and deeply felt experience of life" that informs them. Eloquent and personal, Rilke's meditations on the creative process, the nature of love, the wisdom of children, and the importance of solitude offer a wealth of spiritual and practical guidance for anyone. At the same time, this collection, in Stephen Mitchell's definitive translation, reveals the thoughts and feelings of one of the greatest poets and most distinctive sensibilities of the twentieth century.
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M.D. Herter Norton's translation (Letters to a Young Poet), Letter 8, reads: "How should we be able to forget those ancient myths that are the beginning of all peoples? The myths about dragons that, at the last moment, turn into princesses. Perhaps all the dragons of our lives are princesses, who are only waiting to see us, once beautiful and brave. Perhaps everything terrible is, in its deepest being, something helpless that wants help from us. So, you must not be frightened, dear Mr. Kappus, if a sadness rises up before you, larger than any you have ever seen. If a restiveness like light and cloud-shadows, passes over your hands and over all you do. You must think that something is happening to you. That life has not forgotten you. That it holds you in its hand. It will not let you fall. Why do you want to shut out of your life any agitation, any pain, any melancholy, since you do really do not know what these states are working upon you? ..."
Compare this to Charlie Louth's translation of this same passage in Letter 8 (Letters to a Young Poet):
"How can we forget those ancient myths found at the beginnings of all peoples? The myths about the dragons who at the last moment turn into princesses? Perhaps all the dragons of our lives are princesses, only waiting for the day when they will see us handsome and brave? Perhaps everything terrifying is deep down a helpless thing that needs our help. So, dear Mr. Kappus, you shouldn't be dismayed if a sadness rises up in front of you, greater than any you have ever seen before; or if a disquiet plays over your hands and over all your doings like light and cloud-shadow. You must think that something is happening with you; that life has not forgotten you; that it holds you in its hand; it will not let you fall. Why should you want to exclude from your life all unsettling, all pain, all depression of spirit, when you don't know what work it is these states are performing within you? ... "
Note that word order in changed in by Louth to give a different meaning, and this is often the case.
Also, compare to Stephen Mitchell's translation of the passage in Letter 8 (Letters to a Young Poet (Modern Library) and (Letters to a Young Poet):
"How could we forget those ancient myths that stand the beginning of all the races, the myths about dragons that are at the last moment transformed into princesses? Perhaps all the dragons of our lives are princesses who are only waiting to see us act, just once, with beauty and courage. Perhaps everything that frightens us is, in its deepest essence, something helpless that wants our love. So you mustn't be frightened, dear Mr. Kappus, if a sadness rises up in front of you, larger than any you have ever seen; if an anxiety, like light and cloud-shadows, moves over your hands and over everything you do. You must realize that something is happening to you, that life has not forgotten you, that it holds you in its hand and will not let you fall. Why to you want to shut out of your life any uneasiness, any misery, any depression. since after all you don't know what work these conditions are doing inside you?...."
Really, "that wants our love"? Our LOVE? No reason for this translator's license, none at all. Mitchell's translation likewise strips the Letters of poetry, and, of note, his introduction to the Letters is somewhat bizarre.
If one goes further back in this letter, to Rilke's discussion of solitude, the demarcation between the beautiful and the mediocre translation is equally clear. I find M.D. Herter Norton's translation by far the most beautiful, poetic and meaningful, although reading other translations can add to the reader's understanding, or else, show the reader which translation speaks to him.
On the other hand, here is an opportunity to compare, free of charge, three translations. I have chosen to confine myself to the translation by M.D. Herter Norton's of Rilke's Letters to a Young Poet, since I don't want to interrupt the flow of reading as I study these great letters, and feel it is best to choose one. It is a shame the M.D. Herter Norton translation is not currently in print in hardcover. Still, there are used copies to be found and I'd rather buy several paperback copies of Norton's than have a nice looking hardcover of a mediocre translation.
Politely declining to look at Mr. Kappus poems Rilke urges a young poet not to look for outside or the other person in order to fill that solitude rather exploring inside and embracing whatever comes his way. Rilke creates a framework how to become a genuine through recognizing Nature and Things around, listening to the inner self, and reflecting those. He also emphasizes the gift and burden of solitude making clear that it is not worth to be replaced by a cheap communication. “…there is only one solitude, and it is vast, heavy, difficult to bear, and almost everyone has hours when he would gladly exchange it for any kind of sociability, however trivial or cheap…” He asks a young poet to look at life and its different phenomena from the prism of solitude and not escaping it.
This tiny book is a must-read for anyone between age 20-35.
I had no idea that this is a true chest of treasures. I purchased the Kindle version to go along with listening to this audiobook (the narration of which is outstanding). I kept placing bookmarks on the audible version and then highlighted the text in Kindle. This is quite a futile endeavor because, as I found, well over half deserves special emphasis.
I will share only my favorite quote, after saying that this book of letters, and particularly this translation into English, is worth a credit in my opinion for its encouragement of creativity and a love of life and for the testimonials from the great artists over the past decades who have been deeply and positively affected by these letters.
"... try, like the first human being, to say what you see and experience and love and lose. Don't write love poems; avoid at first those forms which are too familiar and habitual: they are the hardest, for you need great maturity and strength to produce something of your own in a domain where good and sometimes brilliant examples have been handed down to us in abundance. For this reason, flee general subjects and take refuge in those offered by your own day-to-day life; depict your sadnesses and desires, passing thoughts and faith in some kind of beauty--depict all this with intense, quiet, humble sincerity and make use of whatever you find about you to express yourself, the images from your dreams and the things in your memory. If your everyday life seems to lack material, do not blame it; blame yourself, tell yourself that you are not poet enough to summon up its riches, for there is no lack for him who creates and no poor, trivial place."