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This review is taken from PN Review 204, Volume 38 Number 4, March - April 2012.

Above the Herd rainer maria rilke, Selected Poems, new translations by Susan Ranson and Marielle Sutherland, with parallel German text (Oxford University Press) £10.99
rainer maria rilke, Orchards, translated by Peter Oram and Alex Barr, with parallel French text (Starborn Books) £13.99

To translate poetry is necessarily to accord the poems in question a degree of slowed-down close attention that is hard to replicate with poems written in one's own language. The seductively persuasive essay with which Peter Oram accompanies his and Alex Barr's joint translations of Rilke's French-language collection Vergers is a prime case of what one might call resultant 'translator's obsession'. Indeed, Oram writes here almost as if he were a character in one of Jorge Luis Borges' fantastical short stories: addressing this collection as a whole like a Bletchley Park code-breaker; or, perhaps, a Kabbalist ferreting out God's secrets hidden in the Torah. He tracks recurrent themes, and the distribution of four- or five-line stanzas; detects instances of the Golden Section, Fibonacci and Lucas Series; sets out the results in complex geometric diagrams. Did Rilke consciously devise the symmetries that come to light here? Or is what we are shown simply the patterning of his subconscious mind? Oram leaves this open. Either way, the effect of the essay is uncannily beautiful. And, what is more important, the translations themselves are also fine. There is a lot of rhyme in the French; always, surely, the biggest problem in poetry translation. Yet the English versions reproduce a good deal of it in remarkably natural-seeming fashion.

Rilke wrote over 400 poems in French, as well as efforts in Russian and Italian; and he translated from English. But of course it is in German that he really soars. The Selected ...

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