Translator David Need
When poet and translator David Need began translating Rainer Maria Rilke’s French poetry in 2001, it was in part an attempt to get closer to one of his favorite writers, to fashion a “close workshop with someone” of remarkable ability. Rilke’s often-overlooked second-language work presented a convenient inroad for Need, whose proficiency in French at the time exceeded his knowledge of German, the poet’s first language. This practicality proved fortuitous as he began to focus his attention on a discreet series of short “rose poems,” written by Rilke in 1924. Need felt the rose poems constituted a unique arm of Rilke’s oeuvre, one that if considered on its own terms can be found to contain the generous whole of the poet’s vision in miniature. As he continued to translate Rilke, completing work on the rose poems and moving on to the German material, he began to incorporate his ideas on Rilke’s aesthetic into a book that would present a variety of the poet’s German and French pieces along with an essay and commissioned ink drawings, all serving to support a thesis embodied by the heart of collection: the rose series.
Roses: The Late French Poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke is first and foremost a set of fine translations. Each two-or-three-stanza poem in the rose series is given its own page opposite the French original, which encourages the reader to proceed slowly and attentively. If one wants to stop there, satisfied with Need’s fresh take on these under-read poems, the book is a worthwhile read, an enlivening encounter with one of modernity’s greatest poets. But a patient reader eventually realizes that Roses, like the flower that inspired Rilke’s meditations, is constantly seeking to open up for us toward a more potent aesthetic revelation. This is because Need has invested the book with a varied and generative infrastructure that forwards a larger argument through a series of dialogues. Most conspicuous in this regard are the 27 sketches by artist Clare Johnson that react to each brief rose poem with an image that engages the text, but does not attempt to “portray” its content in an overtly literal or didactic way. The images, which range from atmospheric depictions of silhouettes on a city street, to rain-streaked windows, to abstract patterns, act out of Johnson’s response to widen the confines of the multi-media dialogue. The sketches echo the poems and in so doing help us to reconstrue their meaning. Another important interlocutor in Roses is Need’s essay, “The Room Next Door: The Impossible Affordance of the Rose.” The essay is a convincing distillation of the translator’s ethos that considers the influence of Aestheticism and figures like Rodin and Cezanne on Rilke’s vision and situates the poet’s artistic response within a millennia-old incantatory tradition in poetry that goes back to the Rgveda, India’s pre-Hindu epic written around 1400 BCE. Need argues that Rilke uses the rose motif to take a firm stand against the reduction of the material to a kind of impenetrable surface, urging us to consider the ways in which nature creates room, or “affordances,” for the various—at times contradictory—facets of our being. The combined effect of the essay, sketches, and poems is one that collaborators across genre and medium strive for: a ringing of distinct yet concordant tonalities that elevate the piece to something more than the sum of its parts.
David Need teaches in the Department of Religious Studies at Duke University. A specialist in Indo-Tibetan Buddhism and Hinduism, he sees confluence in philosophies of religion and art and often speaks of them in overlapping terms. It’s a point of view I found instructive when I was his student at North Carolina State University in 2003. We’ve kept in touch over the years and, upon learning of the publication of Roses, I was eager to set up an interview. He invited me to his home in Durham, North Carolina, where we talked at length about Rilke, translation, and the implications of an existence that might somehow be, in the poet’s words, “Infinitely restrained and infinitely lavished.”
Dan Holmes (Holmes): What brought about this turn toward translating in earnest? How is this situated in your creative development?
David Need (Need): There are two parts to that. One is that I think it’s always good for an artist to be working in two modalities. It’s important to think about your medium in a couple of different ways, or to think about a problem in a couple of different ways. I’ve noticed that when I spend time doing a lot of singing, I start to have ideas about writing that are new and fresh. There’s something about the singing that presents a set of problems to me, like problems of rhythm or problems of shape, but it presents them in this other form. Then when I come back to write, the music of the writing is being informed by what I’m doing with the other thing. For me it doesn’t happen just by listening, I have to be involved in some kind of making. Same thing with translating. Translating gives you this really close workshop with a particular writer’s language. When you translate really good writers you’re getting a close workshop with someone whose ambitions or skills in poetry is extraordinary. In translation, you get what’s going on completely, but you have to make some decisions about it. And in some ways those are the same problems you have with respect to your own gestures and skills. When working on my poetry, I can pull out an image and put it down, but I learn something from working with Rilke about how heavily to weight that image. And I learn other things, like, reading him I’ve learned he leaves messy things in his poems sometimes deliberately. He just leaves little thumbprints and you know he’s clearly got an ability to be smoother and it hasn’t happened there. That was an important lesson for me: that I didn’t always have to smooth and that I could mix diction at times if that was the way the poem was emerging.
The other thing is that I think any art is basically translation. Talking now, I’m translating. When I’m teaching I’m constantly translating—that’s all I’m doing. I’m standing in front of a class, I’ve got this body of information I’ve been interpreting, then I’m putting it into forms for the students, and their ability to understand this stuff is related to the reading they’ve done, and what they bring to the class, how old they are, the ideas they already have about spirituality. I have to see those and figure those out and translate to them. Also when I’m working with different religious traditions I’m constantly needing to translate, from talking within a Christian context to talking within a Buddhist context to talking within our context here—it is a lot like translating. “Now I’m in this field. Now I’m in this location. And this is the way you think inside this situation.” I have a sense of the world, or music in the world, and I’m trying to get that vision or image to happen for you. There’s a translation or a telepathy there that happens in the reading. I know as a reader and writer that’s what I’m looking for—to make other people see things that aren’t visible commonly but might be common in our imaginations.
Holmes: I can imagine two approaches to translation: one is to render as clearly and accurately as possible what you’re seeing within the context that you understand the writer wrote it, and one is to draw out the germ of it and further express it.
Need: I’m a really more the first kind of translator. A lot of times when I’m looking at other people’s translations, I’m impatient if I see they’re getting away from the word count, the words that are there in the original. If there is any “thing” that the poem is, I don’t think it’s the ideas, or only the ideas—I think it’s the words. The words are these little material edges that are the latticework of the poem that the reader catches on. Some people that have their own lyric sensibility take a poem and say, “I see the image and I’m going to render that image in my own lyric terms.” I’m not comfortable with that. I think it brings too much of your own reading to the material and doesn’t leave the material open enough in something like its original form.
The people that I’ve translated so far are good for the kind of translation I do. I have a lyric sensibility, so when I’m faced with choosing some words, I go for a quiet music that will work as a poetics for the reader, so it will read lyrically. But the word count and the grammar I’ve almost always just transformed it into an English word count, and grammar and line count, and things like that. Rilke is not a poet where there’s a lot of punning. He tends to use words directly and simply so he’s easier to translate. I can establish a word without worrying about the fifteen meanings the word Rilke chose in German has that a reader might pick up. Celan has been more challenging for me because there’s a lot more play going on and what’s worse, or better, is that Celan is a translator, so the puns aren’t even just in German. He’s constantly making these really wicked puns with English and English phonemes that are buried in German and French. So sometimes I find that I actually leave the third language or fourth language that he’ll use, and I don’t translate it. I’ll run into objections with readers who don’t want to put the time in. But if that person is interested and curious then that little thing—which is like a little smear that Celan has left there because he shifted into the other language—will look like a smear instead of being fixed out of being a smear. There is a way in which that multilingual capacity can grow in a reading and still be connected to the writing that he does.
Holmes: Rilke wrote these poems in French, which was a second language for him. Is that different for you than translating a German Rilke poem?
Need: Not in the end. When I first sat down and did it I didn’t have German yet. I had the sense that the French was a little strange, but I didn’t try to do anything to make the strangeness apparent. I just translated the weight of the language. My approach is the same with German. I’m not as comfortable in German so I have to do more dictionary work and I have to go, “Okay, that’s a dative” and work out what all the grammar is, but my approach isn’t that different. He’s not a completely different person in French.
Holmes: Like Beckett’s French. It feels to me like a second language.
Need: Yeah. And there’s been some great second language writers like Conrad, who are just unbelievable, but there’s a little bit of the haunt of it, that fact that it’s a second language. Or Kerouac. People are starting to focus on that, that he is actually a second language writer.
Holmes: What drew you to the rose poems? Have they been neglected? Are they emblematic of your aesthetic in some way?
Need: I did work with them because they were in French, and they were a discreet set, and because I like flowers and they haven’t been translated that much. So French because back then I didn’t have German and I wanted to work with some Rilke. Roses because it’s a discreet set and kind of simple. And I have a bit of a disposition to the pastoral. So the rose works for me at the level of motif. I’m similar enough for finding floral or seasonal things as the beginnings for certain kinds of meditations. There was a rapport there.
I translated them back in 2001 and even then I was beginning to develop an argument about Rilke in relation to contemporary poetics. So there is actually an aesthetic argument that I’m using Rilke to make. I think when it comes down to it it’s the idea that post-60’s and 70’s there was this turn to the surface in poetry. To lots of attention to the surface and a distrust of any kind of depth at all… a criticism of depth as always referring to the romantic subject that we were supposed to dispel as good progressives, because somehow the romantic subject was this feudal encrustation that could only create bad things in our relationships with other people. So I already knew that in Rilke I had somebody that I could use to argue for interiority—for the aesthetics of interiority. In the writing itself, right from the first one he says, “Rose you’re this thing that’s infinitely unfolded and absolutely withdrawn at the same time.” That really fit with ideas that I was having at the time about the human situation, that the human is a being who has this exteriority that continues to unfold; there continues to be this play on the surface, but there is also this interiority that never gets completely seen by anyone else or even by the person, or gets completely exhausted. That seemed to be really important in terms of arguing for a place of freedom despite the way people were thinking about language and culture, because so many people felt that we were in this hegemonic era with commercial culture dominating all production and value and I felt: no, that’s not quite true. We’re buying into and shutting off access to something within ourselves that we shouldn’t cut off access to, that actually is freer that we imagine, but also at stake. And what people who want freedom can never quite understand is—and obviously this reflects a kind of commitment but—we don’t have some kind of “drive your car in all directions without ever having to be accountable to anything” kind of freedom. We have life, but we’re in relation to others and we’re always at stake in those relationships.
Rilke just seemed to be another person coming out of modernity—early on in modernity—who seemed to be really caring about the world, and arguing that the lyrical and what we feel as beauty and desire are not to be shut off, or cut apart, or dismantled because of the harm we do each other. We have to work hard to make the choice not to harm each other. And I felt like a lot of peoples’ construction of interiority and the unconscious has been wrong, so I felt that the rose poems were a good small vehicle, a simple study, that were themselves making an argument that was consistent overall with the way Rilke used the trope of the rose in his work. The idea I’m arguing I think is an idea that was Rilke’s, actually rooted in what he was doing with the rose.
Holmes: Do you see the Rose poems as a culmination in miniature of Rilke’s vision? Or an anamoly?
Need: I think it’s a miniature. He finishes the Duino Elegies and writes the Sonnets to Orpheus in 1922 and he spends a lot of the rest of the year finishing a translation from French of Paul Valery. There are two things that are going on: he’s already starting to work on ongoing lyric projects in German. One of the things I translated (for the book) was actually a suite. Most of the poems are from ’23 and ’24 in German and he put it together at the end of his life and gave it to his publisher as something to bring out for the estate. And there are about 80 poems there. He was working in German but I also think he got the idea from working with Valery to do some studies in French. And he had started doing the Valais Quatrains within about a two-week period. They were studies. I think he was a good enough artist to apply himself to a material. But not just any material; it was one of his leitmotifs, something he’d brought up at different times to try and make a certain kind of argument. And that argument is there again in miniature. It’s almost like somebody who had been painting larger scale paintings of roses decided to do a series of line drawings. That’s not because he doesn’t want to do the big project. It’s because he’s decided to do a setting that’s a line drawing setting. So I see this as yet another setting.
A lot of them are what I call—and I think this is important regarding surface and depth—a lot of them are half-sonnets. Not “half,” but what you can call broken sonnets. He wrote often in the Italian sonnet throughout his life, and once he found the Italian sonnet it appears in all the published books. Not all of the Rose poems are broken sonnets, but many of them are just two quatrains, which means for the Italian sonnet he didn’t add the two tercets at the end. But I feel like he was still thinking “sonnet”. He just drew the sonnet that far and then left it blank, so it feels to me like he drew in the visible part of the sonnet and left the turn part not visible. They weren’t casual at all. He was still working and thinking on a project that was related to the ideas he was working on in his life.
Holmes: Rilke describes the rose in #3 as “Infinitely restrained and infinitely lavished.” He’s always showing us the rose as paradox, as something interior that is inseparable from its surroundings. He considers the relational nature of “features” and forms in order to glean something of their essence. Can you talk about what you think he’s doing by setting up and undermining these dualities?
Need: Thinking in terms of antimonies is characteristic of human thought. Certainly in Europe post-Hegel, thinking in terms of antithesis tended to be a mode of thought that people thought was a real structure. Any kind of opposition you found, its resolution would be in this dialectical process. That’s how you worked with problems like the tension between mind and body, or spirit and body, or life and death—any thing that you could think of in those terms. I think lyric poetry in general, and post-Romantic poetry, was trying to argue for a different status. To actually argue for “both/and” rather than a conflict. Even though Hegel’s model—thesis, antithesis, synthesis—moves towards a “both/and,” the synthesis actually erases the difference. I think Rilke was really interested in the fact that another way of thinking would say that impossibly we were “both/and.” So his problem is how to get us to break the Hegelian way of reading, or to recognize that there’s another way to resolve that kind of antithesis.
Hegel’s model is a very combative model. It’s a model of unresolvable antagonisms. It can’t imagine the resolution. Rilke is trying to say “I want to have a relationship to the world that doesn’t erase it. I want to have a relationship to other people where I’m not taking away the space or being taken over. I want to somehow be in a situation where impossibly this difference can exist, together.” So I think he’s presenting us over and over again with a problem, but also trying to get us through contradictions to consider impossible things, such as the possibility of being “infinitely restrained and infinitely lavished.” We’re encouraged to think of both of those at the same time. And we could be like that. We are fundamentally limited by being incarnate at the same time we have openness in us. It’s not that one or the other wins, but that we’re impossibly both of those things.
Holmes: Had he read into Eastern religions at all? That cutting away of dichotomies is an insight that I associate with that kind of thinking and it’s interesting if he had that insight on his own. Had he read any of that?
Need: No. The stuff he writes about the Buddha is not…it doesn’t look to me like he read the material about Buddhism. I take Buddhism as arguing for both/and but a lot of people take Buddhism as arguing for just one. Just this. I think Buddhism is saying that impossibly there is both form and emptiness at the same time. And that it isn’t possible to work it out, but you can bear or realize that, impossibly, appearing forms are what they are without any grounding and it doesn’t hurt.
Holmes: These poems feel linked to me, almost like a single poem of many stanzas. Some of the most gratifying reading I had was when I would read it for a long time and feel the perspective shift just enough; it starts to mount and become a larger aesthetic experience.
Need: He’s a suite poet. He composes suites. All of his books are set up—this one feels musical to me—but other ones are set up as picture galleries, where you’re supposed to walk through and see this image and then that image and then that image. Each poem has a setting in relation to the other ones. He thought a lot about that. And it is really gratifying. There is an intelligence about theme and variation that I’ve been moved by in my own life. I can’t imagine trying to write any longer except in that way. He recognizes that any poem is a version, and therefore what links the poems is the project of starting out. The series of poems don’t have to be about a particular argument. They’re essays, and they can be linked essays by which you don’t just tell people there is a series of infinitely repeating moves. The one freedom we have is that when we’re crossing the street, and we’re doing the street-crossing routine, we can shape through “crossing the street” in different kinds of ways. In the same way, when you’re working with “the motif” you can show an interesting aesthetic freedom by showing there are a number of different aesthetically valid ways through this space. Like when you go through a well-hung show at a museum, you feel instructed by it. It’s an experience that has informed you beyond what any one poem could do.
Holmes: There seems to be a larger ontological inquiry happening here, something beyond the Rilke poems (or perhaps a continuance of their gesture) that is uniquely yours. Are you conscious of employing the poems, the drawings and the essays toward the end of a personal aesthetic statement?
Need: Yes. I think it would be hard not to. I’m pursuing a line and Rilke is a co-conspirator. I don’t feel I’m being unfaithful to him. It is part of a larger aesthetic related to looking for beauty or care, and an argument about beauty and care in the face of other arguments about freedom or power that other people have.
Holmes: And if you just read the poems themselves, that’s one thing, but if you read the whole book there is a kind of collaboration. You mention in “The Room Next Door” that Rilke thought of the poems as sketches or “brief drawings.” Did this provide the impetus to commission the sketches? How did your collaboration with Clare Johnson come about?
Need: Right from the beginning the poems seemed like little line drawings—very careful line drawings that I saw right from the beginning. I wanted to bring that plastic quality out by having a series of images commissioned. I wanted someone who would create a set of images that weren’t illustrations of the poems; I wanted them to have their own integrity as a suite and yet somehow have a relationship to the poems, and Clare got that. She thought it was an interesting project and wanted to try her hand to it. I was grateful and Clare’s been doing other kinds of projects in this post-it note series, working in a small space, and also doing black and whites on a larger field.
When you work with somebody you’re looking for a kind of intelligence. You could, I guess, be looking for someone that had precisely your sensibility of the beautiful. I had a sense of Clare’s commitment and her effort. She had serious standards about beauty; she has graphic problems that she’s working on. The actual images might or might not be the first thing that would come out of my mind, but when you’re working collaboratively, what’s more important is that there has to be a common agreement about that workshop practice side of it. That the person is actually thinking about the work, and has a project going on in which they are thinking again and again about certain kinds of problems. She seemed to connect with the project.
One thing to add to that is that Rilke was planning to bring out another one of his French suites that would have drawings that were commissioned in exactly that kind of “Not an illustration, but alongside.” His partner who was an artist was going to do that. So I felt like this wasn’t far from what Rilke was thinking at that time anyway.
Holmes: The multimedia approach feels apt here, because the poems themselves are dialogical. One way to look at this book is as a framing of dialogues: of the rose with its surroundings, of Rilke with the rose, of you with Rilke, of Clare with Rilke, and of you with Clare. Even the way the print interacts with white space. To what extent was it a conscious structural decision to embed a series of dialogues within the book?
Need: One of my fundamental principles—and I don’t know if it’s one of Rilke’s fundamental principles, but I think we might agree—starts from this idea of “impossible doubledness.” One correlate of that for me has been the idea that things acquire resonance and open up for the reader in ways that are hard for us to talk about, like a dream that we have that somehow has an affordance for us. So I have some kind of—I don’t know if it’s metaphysics—some sort of desire in general in my work to try to create things that have the possibility of opening up these affordances for others. Right now my guiding thought has been that you do that by establishing dialogue and difference, and what happens because of that isn’t that you just keep bouncing, but that actual resonance happens. And if resonance happens then the imagination can come alive.
It’s deliberate about keeping the difference there, especially in America where there’s so much pressure all the time to make everything common, or to erase difference, or to act as if difference doesn’t exist. And I feel like, “No.” We actually deprive ourselves of some of our dignity and some of our real worth by doing that. We don’t actually become common with each other and we lose the ability to talk about our differences. Our whole economy is based on a zero-sum game. So how do you make money that’s not there? How do you make energy that’s not there? What I’m curious about is, if you’re rigorous about doing this, is it possible to create this thing-that-isn’t-there for other people? So that they actually have energy they didn’t have before, because of paying attention to the dialogical structure. I don’t know if that’s for real or not.
Holmes: I think it is. I’ve read multi-genre books before but this one really popped for me and I think it’s because it’s so well thought out and holistic.
Need: And you know that thing when people get together and they want to go a multimedia thing, so they get some musicians and they throw some images on the wall and they do a couple of other things. But nobody is actually thinking about those things as being different, the idea is that they’re just kind of letting them loose in there. I think that’s a dead end. It doesn’t produce what people would hope a multigenre or multimedia thing would do.
It was hard at times. Dave (Wofford of Horse & Buggy Press), Clare, and I have really different ideas at times and I had to make some decisions. For the image weight and the image layout, Clare’s the boss. It just doesn’t matter if I like it. In terms of finally being the person that was paying for it, there was some level at which I got to make decisions like that—some of the decisions were actually not to make decisions, which ended up sometimes being frustrating for me and for the other people too.
Holmes: When you ran into those difficulties, what was your guiding light? Was it always back in the poems or in your larger aesthetic project?
Need: My aesthetic. I keep talking. This is the kind of directorial move that is consistent with the overall project. We did talk about that and just sort of set that out intellectually at the beginning. But when it got down into it, with actual material things…it’s easy to have an idea, but it’s harder when you’re deciding “is the book going to be blue? Red? What’re your color choices?” I’m not very good at those decisions. You could show me a blue one and a beige one and a yellow one and a red one and I’d find ways to like each one. So I’m not great at that. I had to make decisions at times with what that person has generated. But I also felt that was consistent with my overall practice there. If you thought about it as a bandleader, I really did have to let this person bring this kind of music out. I couldn’t get in the way of that because they couldn’t be a part of it unless they could do what they do. I had to go with their notes.
Holmes: That’s the only way to make it strong I think.
Need: I think so. I got that from Miles Davis actually. I was listening to a lot of Miles Davis when I was working out these principles. I was listening to the Columbia session recordings.
Holmes: That’s how he put those great bands together. He was a nurturer of talent, not just the bandleader.
Need: Right. And that’s consistent. My goal is to bring out the possibility of each person’s capacity but in a structured way, not just “here is the thing, now run.”
Holmes: Translation is perhaps often misunderstood in its creative potential. Can you say something about what happens in this dialogue between poet and translator?
Need: When people think about artists, they tend to like the idea of “out of nowhere” creation, but I don’t think that’s how creativity works. I think we’re playing along with the reading that we’re already doing. We’re already reading in the world and we’re reading the options that people are presenting to us, whether it’s music, or reading a lot of books, or looking at paintings. We have seen options. Some people have this idea, kind of a Platonic idea, that the real poem is there somewhere. I might say that the real painting is there in a way that the real poem isn’t ever there. And I feel like maybe the real song isn’t ever there. We have these different ways that we mark the song; we write down music, we make “a” record of the song. But even when we write down music there’s a gap that exists between the piece and the various performances of the piece. Even for the author of the music itself.
If we’re talking about a piece where the author sits down and writes a piece of music out and then plays it, I bet that something happens that’s not recorded in the writing down of the music. And I know as a writer, one of the things that happened for me was, in the beginning, I was more of an oral poet than a written poet; I would write and I would hear it when I wrote, so it wasn’t that I wasn’t having the performance when I was writing. When I would read it out loud, it would come alive, but I was trying to perform again that thing that I was hearing, and sometimes that meant that I would do things that we’re not that reproducible on the page. A page only has a line break. It’s hard to create a word that somehow gets suspended. Type doesn’t give you the ability to create that sense of suspension easily. But suspension can be done in music. You can create these kinds of suspended turns. So I would look at that and see there’s a suspension happening there, but how do I mark that? So from the very beginning I never was bothered by the idea that my translation of the poem wasn’t the real poem, because I’ve always felt that the poem exists in reading anyway, and I’m in a sense creating a translation of some kind, or I’m doing a reading of it that heads toward being a translation. And I have my own sense of music and a sense of the music that I see some echoes of in Rilke’s work but I never try to go beyond, or ambitiously try to get some fine move he made if it didn’t come simply in my own language. I never got hung up on those.
Holmes: Like you were saying with the Celan, “that’s a fourth language, I’m not going to be able to tackle that.”
Need: Right. So I’ll just leave it. Because I want to create a text that does something of what the original text does in some way. Or not the original, but the one that we have. Because they are all how people set them as printed texts. So to some degree I have decided to commit to printed settings.
The other things I’ve felt—and this is probably just my own romantic imagination—I really felt with Rilke that his poetry had interceded in my life; it had given me a possibility that didn’t exist before I read it, when I really read it in grad school. I sat down and it was just “Oh my God, there’s more. And there’s somebody with me.” And I was stunned by the sense of “This is somebody who knows some of the things that I experience that are so hard to talk about to other people.” He’s made a place where we are laughing across the surface of the poem together in the way that people that are chronically sick nevertheless have joy. When I did the translations I felt, “I’m being allowed into the room where I’m getting to sit down with this poet and his intelligence is still present in the poems, even though he’s dead. This isn’t just somebody who’s teaching me how to think, but is somehow making a place for me.” So you can make art that isn’t just an artifact, but actually has energy and can come to life years after you’re dead. The translations are a way of trying to do that, of trying to make settings or versions. It’s not going to work for everybody but there is some of that, “Wow, this medicine really worked for me; I hope it works for you.” It was about the pleasure of being taught by this profoundly caring intelligence whose instincts I wanted to get something from.
Holmes: Was it in part the encounter with that intelligence and the intimacy of it that made you feel the existing translations were not quite adequate?
Need: Sure. The existing French translation, it wasn’t quite…I felt that there was only one and I wanted to try my hand at it. It wasn’t that I wanted to cancel it or erase it, but I felt like I could try my hand at it and not be too influenced by all the other translations and the whole process. It was still simple enough for me to take a swing at it. (Translator A. Poulin) had made some choices that seemed less musical than the French. I thought I might have slightly better instincts at the level of music in some cases. There’s only so far the translation can go. I didn’t struggle to not use words that he used and things like that. I made decisions so that I could feel it was my own, but I didn’t try to force that either.
Since I’ve been translating the German, I’ve been trying to place the German within the larger project of me ventriloquising Rilke. At this point, I feel like I’ve developed a voice that is my voice-language in which Rilke is translated. So when I now turn to things like A Sonnet to Orpheus, or things that have been translated a lot, what I’m doing is my Sonnets to Orpheus based on the voice and practice that I’ve already established. I’m hoping that the passion I feel in the voice produces a poem that has more of that passion in English.
I really want to see if I can bring out these two unpublished German sequences that Rilke put down (before Orpheus). They haven’t been worked over that much, so they’re like Rilke exhibits that people haven’t been taken through yet. I remember a couple of years ago I was thinking, “God I wish there was just one more thing by Rilke that I’ve never read.” Then somebody brought something out that I hadn’t read and that was exciting. But I can’t be the only person who’s read Rilke enough that it would be cool to see one more film by him.
Holmes: Can you tell me about your work translating the Rgveda and how that informed this work?
Need: I learned translation working on the Rgveda and Buddhist texts, and early Sanskrit material. There is some connectivity there. It was one body of literature that I worked closely with, that I thought was actually still relevant, looking at the way poetry and art are working now. I don’t think our relationship to the world or language is in certain important ways that different. It’s not clear to me that we’ve solved the problem they were working on. A lot of that has to with the imagination, with understanding the relationship of the imagination to the world. I think that we have this radical capacity to amplify the world for ourselves through weaving our imagination into physical forms and the kind of amplification that occurs through doing that—I think human beings have been using and then refining a whole range of media for staging their imaginations and that it’s always been important.
Holmes: Like what you said earlier about the reaction toward poetry that is more surface… Rilke seems to be unapologetic about what he thinks poetry can do, and there’s that link to the Rgveda, or other religious scriptures, where there’s a willingness to go further with it.
Need: Yeah. I know some people feel that they can’t go there but I don’t know what else we can do. We have not solved it by just becoming secular creatures or by killing the romantic subject in ourselves. We’re just as hostage to the violence that we do each other. I think that in doing that we rob ourselves of a great deal of possibilities that we might bring to bear in our relation to each other.
I think World War II and everything since then indicated that we do tremendous violence to each other and certainly one response to that would be to want to have a huge revolution to change that, or to become deeply suspicious of any desire that you have. You can almost see that as a coherent trauma reaction if you were dealing with things on a smaller scale. But I think we would get a lot more if we really understood that it’s not just what we’ve done but that we continue to be at stake in our relationships now. And we still desperately need to finds ways to nurture, to create affordances for each other, to create impossible economy and space for each other. And we can’t do that just through strict rational means. The 20th century has pretty much proven that just getting grain someplace is not what makes culture happen or nurtures people. Not that art necessarily does it, but at least art is making the argument that it should be our goal.
—David Need & Dan Holmes
David Need is an Ohio/Massachusetts boy who has lived in Durham, North Carolina since 1994. David’s academic background is in Asian Religions; he has taught at Duke University in the Department of Religion and the Slavic and Eurasian Studies Department since 1997. His poetry and essays on poetry have appeared in Hambone, Talisman, Golden Handcuffs Review, Spoke, and Oyster Boy. Since 2009, he has curated an occasional long-poem reading series “Arcade Taberna.” David’s chapbook, Offshore St. Mark, is scheduled to be published by Three Count Pour in 2014.
Dan Holmes lives in Atlanta, Georgia. His writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Litro, Numéro Cinq, Paste, and Digital Americana.