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Susan McLean 10-10-2021 03:43 PM

Rilke, Lady's Portrait from the 'Eighties
Lady’s Portrait from the ‘Eighties
by Rainer Maria Rilke

Waiting, she stood against the heavy pleats
of somber draperies of satin,
which an expenditure of ersatz passion
appeared to clench above her tight;

ever since her girlhood, still so close,
she was as if in someone else’s place,
weary beneath her towering coiffure,
unaccustomed to her frilly dress,
as though its folds were listening in on her

amid her homesickness and feeble plans
about the way life should be, later on:
different, as in novels, more authentic,
full of the catastrophic and ecstatic—

so, for the first time, something might be placed
among her jewels to lull her with the scent
of reminiscence; so she might at last
find in her diary a starting point

that wouldn’t be transforming, as she wrote it,
already into pointlessness and lies,
and she might bear the petal of a rose
inside the ponderous and empty locket

that weighs her every breath down. So that once
she waved it from a window, then this hand,
this slender hand with its new wedding band,
would be content enough with that for months.

S2L3 was "inexperienced in her ruffled dress,"
S4L1-2 was "so, in her jewel case, there might be placed / something at first to soothe her with the scent
S4L3 was "of memories; so that she might at last"
S5L1 was "that wouldn’t, even as it’s written, turn"
S5L4 was "inside the empty, ponderous medallion"
S6L2 "it" was "out"
S6L3 "hand" was "one"
S6L4 added period at end of line.

Damen-Bildnis aus den Achtziger-Jahren

Wartend stand sie an den schwergerafften
dunklen Atlasdraperien,
die ein Aufwand falscher Leidenschaften
über ihr zu ballen schien;

seit den noch so nahen Mädchenjahren
wie mit einer anderen vertauscht
müde unter den getürmten Haaren,
in den Rüschen-Roben unerfahren
und von allen Falten wie belauscht

bei dem Heimweh und dem schwachen Planen,
wie das Leben weiter werden soll:
anders, wirklicher, wie in Romanen,
hingerissen und verhängnisvoll, -

dass man etwas erst in die Schatullen
legen dürfte, um sich im Geruch
von Erinnerungen einzulullen;
dass man endlich in dem Tagebuch

einen Anfang fände, der nicht schon
unterm Schreiben sinnlos wird und Lüge,
und ein Blatt von einer Rose trüge
in dem schweren leeren Medaillon,

welches liegt auf jedem Atemzug.
Dass man einmal durch das Fenster winkte;
diese schlanke Hand, die neuberingte,
hätte dran für Monate genug.

Literal translation:
Lady’s Portrait from the ‘Eighties

Waiting, she stood against the heavily folded
dark satin draperies,
which an expenditure of fake passion
seemed to clench above her;

ever since her girlhood years, still so close,
she was as if exchanged for someone else,
weary beneath her piled-up hair,
unaccustomed to the frilly dress
and as if eavesdropped on by all the folds

among the homesickness and the feeble plans
for how life should be later on:
different, more real, as in novels,
ecstatic and full of catastrophe—

so that for the first time in one’s jewel case
one might place something to lull oneself
with the scent of memories;
so that one might at last in one’s diary

find a beginning that was not already,
as it was written, becoming meaningless and lying;
and might carry the petal of a rose
inside the heavy empty locket

that weighs upon her every breath.
So that once one waved through the window,
this slender hand, the newly ringed one,
would be content enough with that for months.

Julie Steiner 10-12-2021 12:51 PM

Hey, Susan!

The perfect rhymes in the original convey a sense of restriction that reinforces that of the imagery--bound pleats, heavy hairstyle, the sense that because convention has married off this inexperienced young woman before she's had any opportunity for a love affair, she might actually be interchangeable with "someone else." It seems characteristic of Rilke to say at the end that her newly-ringed hand--rather than she herself--might have been happy with the memory of having waved from a window at someone else. But even that happiness would only have lasted a few months!

I feel that that restrictive effect of the original's perfect rhymes gets watered down a LOT with the near-rhymes, but I also understand that there's not much you can do about that.

If possible, I would like to see the romantic and functional connotations of a locket, vs. a mere "medallion," to be conveyed in translation here, even though it's cognate with the German word:

     and she might bear the petal of a rose
     inside the empty, ponderous medallion

     that weighs her every breath down.

Missing period after "months"?

Susan McLean 10-12-2021 02:04 PM

Thanks, Julie, I have made some changes to add the period at the end and to change the medallion to a locket. I am rather boxed in about the true rhymes, since to try to add them would require me to depart (probably quite far) from the literal meaning of the lines. I agree with you that a tight rhyme scheme would further emphasize the constriction of the woman's situation.


Julie Steiner 10-13-2021 12:54 PM

Yes, I know that I'm just complaining about the weather, rhyme-wise. Nothing much can be done about it.

Might you consider reworking the "soothe her" line to include "console her" instead? Rilke really does seem to be presenting the hypothetical souvenirs of this hypothetical love affair, or even flirtation, as a hypothetical consolation prize.

[Edited to add: I'm growing uneasy with that stanza's "at first" standing in for "for the first time," too.]

Susan McLean 10-13-2021 03:50 PM

Julie, I have tried to get "for the first time" into S4, and I have changed "soothe" to "lull," which is closer to the literal meaning, as in "sing a lullaby to a baby."


Julie Steiner 10-14-2021 12:24 PM

I like those changes.

"inexperienced" keeps jumping out at me for some reason, especially in connection with the ruffled dress. (Don't little girls' dresses also have ruffles?) Since "weary" under the weight of her hairstyle suggests that she hasn't been wearing her hair up for long, I wonder if "naïve within her ruffle-bodiced dress" might suggest that she hasn't had breasts for long.

But I could just be imposing my own interpretation on the poem, as I so often do. Anyway, just a thought.

Susan McLean 10-14-2021 01:54 PM

Julie, for S2L3 I have tried "unaccustomed to her frilly dress." I think she has just started wearing very fancy gowns and feels alien to them. It is very strange to imagine that one's clothing is eavesdropping on one. She herself is clearly naive, too, but I think the focus is more on how all these things around her weigh on her and are unfamiliar to her.


Julie Steiner 10-15-2021 12:24 AM

Oooh! "unaccustomed to" avoids the external judgment of "naïve," and keeps the focus on her own perspective. Much better than my suggestion. And "frilly" seems a young person's perspective, too. I like both changes a lot.

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