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This review is taken from PN Review 73, Volume 16 Number 5, May - June 1990.

CLIMBING K2 Rainer Maria Rilke, Duino Elegies, translated by Stephen Cohn (Carcanet) 6.95 pb.

Something has happened in the contractual world to loosen the stranglehold of Leishman and Spender, with the result that there is now a whole clutch of new English Rilkes appearing in the UK and America. Of those I have seen, the only versions I can recommend unreservedly are those by Stephen Mitchell, which Picador publish: they are better than anything I ever thought I would see in English. All the others, whether mainstream or offbeam - Rilke in contemporary idiom, Rilke 'without the Ohs and Ahs', 'Rilke with rhymes' are basically superfluous.

Cohn's, I'm afraid, are no exception. They are not bad, not boobyish, but they are not good enough. Even if Mitchell's versions didn't exist, I would be reluctant to accept Cohn's. I can see there may be a case for a multiplicity of translations for readers without German, but for me the opposing case, of the harmfulness of each mediocre translation, is stronger. It's perfectly possible that in ten years' time, every publisher will be pushing his own Rilke, none of them will be any good. That's choice'. Certainly, people seem to be queuing up to translate Rilke, as they queue up to climb K2 or whatever. It can't hurt the mountain.

Again as with mountaineering, there is a kind of freakish amateurishness, a crazed incompetence about the enterprise. Why else have Peter Porter, 'possessor of opera German', write the introduction? Who can take seriously his advice on translating Rilke: 'to seek the ...


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