January 12, 2011

The Panther

Pine Trees and the Sea, by Leonid Pasternak

His gaze, forever blocked by bars,
is so exhausted it takes in nothing else.
All that exists for him are a thousand bars.
Beyond the thousand bars, no world.

The strong, supple pacing
moves in narrowing circles.
It is a dance at whose center
a great will is imprisoned.

Now and again the veil over his pupils
silently lifts. An image enters,
pierces the numbness,
and dies away in his heart.

New Poems


  1. I’d like to comment here about translation, specifically for this poem.

    First, translation in general. A conversation was begun Day 1 of this blog (January 1, here) in the comments, about translation. The question arose from Friko (who is a native German, I believe), whether the rhymes and nuances of Rilke’s original German poems could be translated into English (or any language perhaps) and touch us as they touch readers of German? Please read the comments at that embedded post, above, if you wish to read the discussion about whether a translator of poems “should” be one who knows the original language as a native speaker, or should be a native speaker of the destination language?

    My German friend Inge and I met for our weekly supper last week after that conversation, of which she was a part vicariously through my “translation” of her email. ☺ We both printed the entire post and comments and discussed it for two hours! She has translated texts professionally from German into English, German being her native language, and English being a language in which she is so proficient that she speaks and writes better than many home-born Americans I know. But poetry, is it different? Could she, for example, satisfactorily (to a wide audience) translate Mary Oliver’s poetry into German? (As far as she knows, this has not been done yet in publication.)

    As I say, it was a long discourse, and one I wish you all could have witnessed and participated in, as it was fascinating. We discussed Bible translations, among other things. Of course translation is interpretation, as the article in the sidebar so interestingly explores.

    Blogger will probably not let this long comment get posted if it’s any longer, so I’ll continue in the next comment . . .

  2. Inge told me about the “Expressionist” way of creating art and poetry (originated in Germany, inspired by Norwegian painter Edvard Munch’s “The Scream”), about which wiki says: Its typical trait is to present the world in an utterly subjective perspective, radically distorting it for emotional effect, to evoke moods or ideas. Inge wondered, Is it perhaps preferable to translate in this vein when an idea is difficult to express in translation? In other words, let the feeling of the poem come through, rather than worrying too much about the particulars like equivalent words, rhyme and things like that?

    Which brings us to today’s poem, “The Panther.” Inge took issue with the translation here, by Barrows and Macy. In the German, in the first stanza there is a sense that the bars are moving for the panther. They do not so much block his vision, as is translated here, as that they are moving past his vision, relentlessly. She came up with an “Expressionist” translation of this stanza:

    To him it seems the bars are moving, tiring
    his sight until it can no longer hold
    the world which now appears as if it's made of
    bars only and nothing beyond.

    I put this “out there” to hopefully contribute to our appreciation of the difficulties of poetry translation, and for you to respond to if you wish.

  3. Here is The Panther in German, if anyone is interested:

    Der Panther

    Im Jardin des Plantes, Paris

    Sein Blick ist von Vorübergehen der Stäbe
    so müd geworden, daß er nichts mehr hält.
    Ihm ist, als ob es tausend Stäbe gäbe
    und hinter tausend Stäben keine Welt.

    Der weiche Gang geschmeidig starker Schritte,
    der sich im allerkleinsten Kreise dreht,
    ist wie ein Tanz von Kraft um eine Mitte,
    in der betäubt ein großer Wille steht.

    Nur manchmal schiebt der Vorhang der Pupille
    sich lautlos auf—. Dann geht ein Bild hinein,
    geht durch der Glieder angespannte Stille—
    und hört im Herzen auf zu sein.

  4. I have been a professional translator for over 20 years now, but (major caveat) of legal and financial documents, not literary or poetic texts. For my blog I have attempted to translate poems from Spanish into English of Miguel Hernández, Lorca, Machado. This has proven to be an exasperating challenge. So dissatisfying were the results that I have posted only a very few.

    Robert Frost once quipped that "poetry is what gets lost in translation" and I sometimes think he was right. Two contrasting concepts come to my mind when I think about translating poetry: it is absolutely impossible / it is absolutely necessary. How much poorer would we all be if we only knew poetry written in tongues we understand and never in translation.

    I liken translating poetry to taking a photo of a flower. Yes, we see beautiful photographs of roses, irises and apple blossoms, but can they engage you like a walk in the garden or orchard? Hardly … and in the rare instances where the photographer succeeds, the experience is clearly altogether different. This is a key concept when pondering the translation of poetry: different. To translate a poem is to create a new poem, a different poem, though one borne of the original. And this takes a poet. When you translate a poem, you are a poet; just as surely as we are poets when we write poems (all our “I’m no poet, but …” disclaimers notwithstanding).

    There is no one “correct” way to write a poem. This seems obvious to the point of pedantic. But, less obvious perhaps is that nor can there be any single “correct” translation of a poem. There are better or worse poems, always as adjudged by the subjective chorus of personal taste and preferences, and there are better or worse translations. But each translation is a poetic creation of its own (or should be and should be approached as such by the translator-poet). I think that this is where Inge’s concept of expressionist is so fitting; we must subjectively distort the original in order to communicate some of its essence and magic. One can tinker endlessly with how much rhyme and meter to try to transfer, maintain or create in the translated poem, but the cardinal rule is that it must work in the final translated version. The translator must rewrite the poem for the ears of someone not familiar with the language of the original (they, presumably, do not need a translation), not for those of a ‘scholar’ waiting to test the translation for fidelity to the original. A translator is always a traitor —in Italian they use the expression traduttore traditore (translator traitor)— but a loving traitor and, hopefully, a talented and creative one.

    I’ll continue in Part II of this comment

  5. Part II
    Not wishing to go on about this too long, I’ll give a brief example, a bit from Langston Hughes: “I wonder as I wander”. How simple, yet fetching at the same time. Surely something so simple could be easily rendered say, in Spanish, to use the only other language I have at my disposal. Yet, all my attempts to say this in Spanish only give a synopsis, the skeletal idea conveyed by those five words. I won’t insert my frustrated Spanish attempts here, but just say that they are about as satisfying as rewording Langston’s nugget-like philosophy of life as “I roam in my amazement”. Nearly everything is lost, we only get the five lines of the pentagram, but none of the musical notes. The line loses its soft whumpity-whump rhythm, its woozy warm alliteration, its … well, its wondrousness and its wandering. Its everything.

    Since I quoted Robert Frost before, I’ll close with another line I like of his on the subject of poetry: “A poem begins as a lump in the throat, a sense of wrong, a homesickness, a lovesickness.” Surely, the wandering journey from throat lump to home and lovesickness can be charted in every tongue known to humankind and in others yet to be invented, so there must still be some hope that poetry can be movingly and convincingly translated by creative souls who so love the originals that they wish to focus their talents and passion on siring their offspring in other wondrous language realms.

  6. Lorenzo, I really appreciate what you’ve expressed here. The translator-traitor concept is apt, and it reminds me of what lovers of a great book feel when the book is made into a film. How dare they cast him in that role? How could they leave out that all-important scene? This is nothing like I’d hoped. Ultimately, the film makers have a huge audience to please.

    Your example of “I wonder as I wander” is inspired. How indeed to translate that? And how to express the moon? A lake? Or any snapshot of feeling? Language itself is translating experience into something “other.” It’s our lifelong challenge – and joy -- to pick and choose the words at our disposal to convey meaning to another and to ourselves.

  7. i know people who are this panther. the bars are of their own creation. steven

  8. A very good and aptly put point, Steven, and after our long discussion of translation issues, it's good to see someone talk about this poem, one of Rilke's best known pieces. I personally find the last lines —"An image enters,/ pierces the numbness, / and dies away in his heart"— to be quite chilling, perhaps in the numbed knowledge that I, too, have bars of my own creation.

  9. Translation problems aside, this poem is so profound at so many levels. Here is what I "wonder as I wander," to use Lorenzo's quote from Langston Hughes: How many people are imprisoned behind a thousand bars, beyond which there is no world? How many have seen an image of freedom slip through the bars, pierce the numbness momentarily, and then die away in his or her heart?

  10. I am excited but I'll try to be calm. I am excited because Lorenzo and Ruth are excited. It goes like that. I feel as though there is a great play about on the main stage but I have had the chance to watch the actors and production people back stage. Translation is a valid and essential element to discuss precisely because we are considering Rilke's works.

    Lorenzo, I think I have fallen in love with you at your use of whumpity-whump. I'm afraid Rilke almost ceased to exist.

    Oh, but the poem. It's painful, all painful, but for a moment I wonder on the consideration of what is less painful, to live in dullness or to live a poignant realization that renders itself annihilated upon its rising? I have seen this in my life in the last two years. I know of two other women considering the same question I considered. I'm not sure which is the right answer ever, but rather which is the right answer for yourself. I would rather the moment of anguish, even if the pain feels more acute. Feeling is preferable to dullness.

    I wonder who Rilke saw caged and I wonder on the nature of the cage. The cage could be many things.


  11. I have never yet read a translation which comes anywhere near the poem in German.

    This really is one of my all-time favourite poems. It breaks my heart, I say it over and over to myself, feeling the pain and loss of all mankind concentrated to their very essence and hopelessness.

    I'll try to explain, although it will be very difficult.

    In the German, the panther has become the still, numb, passive centre of a world which has ceased to exist for him; he has been numbed, anaesthetised by the constant parade of the bars across his field of vision, all focus has gone. But this has been done to him, he has not actively caused this by softly padding in ever decreasing circles in his cell, but passively endured the eradication of his great will and power.

    But now and again, the curtain of his pupils rises to allow the glimpse of an image to pierce his consciousness. This image momentarily penetrates to his heart, where it dies.

    The poem's central character endures passively, that is the central point which no translation has ever yet caught, as far as I'm concerned.

    Yes, Ruth, my mother tongue is German and for a large part of my working life I was a translator (technical, commercial first, then translating documents, articles, prose). But never poetry, certainly not formal, rhyming verse; I've tried, but the despair at getting it wrong over and over is too great.)

  12. Thank you for this, Friko. You have echoed Inge's thoughts to me and skillfully, in prose, convey the sense of passive endurance that no one seems able to translate in poem form. It is a privilege to receive your attentions, along with hers, that help us increase our understanding.

    I have not responded to the poem itself. My feeling is that, having been one who has been caged myself, Rilke got this just right, from the inside of the cage. I don't know if he was ever caged himself . . .at least institutionally, as I was. I am still caged by my own self-ego now and then. But it took broad and deep work to get out of the cage I was in. Years and years of clearing and pruning . . . emptying.

    I just scheduled a post for my Rumi blog tomorrow, and this stanza seems so apt for this poem-post, I'll share it, an excerpt from "The Gift of Water":

    Every object and being in the universe is a jar
    overfilled with wisdom and beauty, a drop of the Tigris
    that cannot be contained in any skin. Every jarful
    spills and makes the earth more shining,
    as though covered in satin.

  13. Thank you for your very generous reply to my comment, Ruth, and for the excerpt from Rumi.

    Making the earth more shining, what better aim in life could there be. Let me be the recipient of the gift of a drop of water and I promise to let it overflow and nourish the earth in my turn.

    How can there be people who dislike poetry? I'll never forget the comment I once had "Not another bloody poem". I made a post out of it
    which caused a lively discussion. A drop of water overflowing.

  14. as someone said, cages can be a myriad of things - externor internal. reading this makes me think of walls that i erect because i'm cynical at times of certain things.

  15. I have thoroughly enjoyed this excellent discussion about translation, and agree with Lorenzo: that a poem's translator need not be a native speaker of the original language (in fact it helps not to be), but must be quite fluent in it; but that he/she will probably be a native speaker of the target language, and will certainly need a fine poetic sensibility.

    I also agree that a good translation of a poem must contain as much as possible of the 'expressionist' essence of the original, must be as true as possible to its emotional content. These things are much more important than literal accuracy, or any point-by-point reflection of syntax or construction. (For instance, a good translation may be rhymed like the original or may not.)

    I have here in front of me an edition of Rilke's 'Selected Poems' - and the translations read so badly (though they are quite 'accurately' translated, in the sense of literal rather than emotional accuracy) and so woodenly that it must have put many people off Rilke for life. Which is a shame because, as you hinted Ruth, never was he more important and relevant as a soul-poet than today.

    Re. the bars, yes, Inge's version gets hold of the idea that the bars seem to be moving as the panther paces up and down, but loses the centrality of the gaze -'Blick' - which Rilke puts as a strong, active noun at the beginning of the poem (as the translator of your own quoted version does).

  16. When I was in college decades ago and studying Italian, I did an independent study on a writer (forgive me, her name escapes me at this hour) whose characters could never act on their needs, desires, wants, self-imposing a kind of imprisonment: They existed but did not live, "so exhausted" were they by thinking about their conditions. I read some sense of that into this poem.


"Everything is blooming most recklessly; if it were voices instead of colors, there would be an unbelievable shrieking into the heart of the night."

~ Rainer Maria Rilke

Go ahead, bloom recklessly!