The Courtesan

The Courtesan
translation of “Die Kurtisane” from 1907 by Rainer Maria Rilke (1875-1926)

Here in my hair the sun of Venice toils
to make its gold: Immortal alchemy’s
illustrious issue. And my eyebrows, see
how they, arched like bridges, silently

carry you past the danger of my coiled
eyes, which have covertly ratified
traffic with the canals, so that the tide
rises and falls and changes there. To slide

a glance my way is to detest my small
dog, because my hand, untouched by flames,
invulnerable, glittering, is said

to rest in absent moments on his head.
And youths who bear the hopes of ancient names
taste the poison of my lips and fall.
23 March 2012
In my experience, people who know Rilke only in translation tend to think of him as humorless. But the humorlessness is only in the translations, not the originals. I picked this poem for its leaping exaggerations and energetic sound that make it very funny. Even the rhyme scheme is funny.

Don’t blame the translators too much. Rilke is tough. It’s only in recent years that some translators have been able to render a tone close to the original. This sonnet, which is excellent but not one of his greatest, took me around five weeks of hard work, and I can’t get the tone quite right either!

A rhymed translation must be loose. Where I could not reproduce an effect in the original, I tried to substitute an effect of my own. The “coiled” eyes are my invention—the reference to the serpent in Eden seemed appropriately Rilkean, no doubt due to my bad judgment. You might reasonably complain that this translation is too much mine and not enough Rilke’s.