Apollo’s Archaic Torso translated by Sarah Stutt
While the more literal version is stately and slow-paced, I like the colloquial touch of “incredible” for the torso’s head, and the brevity of the description of Apollo’s eyes, “ripened like apples”. Neither the literal “eye-apples” nor the generic “fruit” that other translators have used is so immediate. The comparison of the gaze to a candelabrum, or chandelier, whose flame has been lowered, is detailed in the original. Here, the treatment is straightforward and exact. Conversely, the description of the “curve” of the torso’s chest as a “bow” adds complication, suggesting the metaphor of a weapon. This literalises the idea that the “curve” has the power to blind the viewer.
The movements in the next three lines are swift and graceful. Now the writer introduces the word “curve” which most other translators have already used in describing the torso’s chest. The image of Apollo’s smile being “steered by the gentle curve of his loins” and gliding to “the centre of procreation” is subtle and humorous.
The past subjunctive “If this were not so” is perhaps more formal-sounding than the German original, but it seems preferable to the un-idiomatic “else” that some translators choose. Stephen Mitchell’s “otherwise” is a slightly more colloquial solution.
The construction is repeated in the original, but “were it not so” would be ungainly to repeat. Stutt’s neat solution is to carry on the argument by using the conjunction “and” after the close of the octet. The sestet flows beautifully. Sensuous violence suffuses the phrase “glisten like a predator’s pelt”. Stutt adds the verb “radiate”, which convincingly anticipates “star”. Similarly, “angle” is a good addition, a word whose visual-art associations place it in the context of the torso. The last half-line is simple and stunning. The construction “you have to” is far stronger than “you must”, generally the translators’ favourite.
This closer version of the sonnet is still quite bold, and introduces some new elements to the original. The looser version below is more impressionistic. The preoccupation now is with creating a soundscape by using assonantal rhymes, often quite distant ones. The lines are shorter, the movement brisker. Rhythmically, the brevity works well. I find the last three lines of the second stanza effective, even while liking the more elaborate imagery of steering and gliding in the first translation. “A lump of rock with no vision” is particularly striking, a jolt that thrusts us up against the raw material as it was before the artist transformed it. We seem to meet a younger Apollo in this version, a decisive, sexy god whose “lion’s mane” reminds us he is a god of the sun.
Rilke is the most popular foreign-language poet in the English-speaking world, according to Art Beck, who has written an interesting essay on American translations. The essay includes the original “Archäischer Torso Apollos” so you can check out Rilke’s poem and Beck’s own translation as well. Beck points out how important it is that Rilke should be re-translated in every new generation by writers who “return to the text – and themselves – rather than their predecessors”.
This is similarly true of ekphrastic poetry: it’s a popular contemporary genre, but only worth the poet’s while if the end-product is something more than a poetic “translation” of the picture or object in question. Rilke’s poem is a real encounter with the sculpture, and these two translations adhere to the spirit of that encounter, and engage thoughtfully with Rilke’s legendary sonnet.
Apollo’s Archaic Torso
We cannot know his incredible head,
where the eyes ripened like apples,
yet his torso still glows like a candelabrum,
from which his gaze, however dimmed,
still persists and gleams. If this were not so,
the bow of his breast could not blind you,
nor could a smile, steered by the gentle curve
of his loins, glide to the centre of procreation.
And this stone would seem disfigured and stunted,
the shoulders descending into nothing,
unable to glisten like a predator’s pelt,
or burst out from its confines and radiate
like a star: for there is no angle from which
it cannot see you. You have to change your life.
We will never know his magnificent head,
the ebb and flow of his youth –
an orchard of ripening fruit,
yet his fire has not diminished,
incandescent light radiates
from his torso, and in the curve
of his loins, a smile turns
towards the centre of creation.
Or else this body would be disfigured –
a lump of rock with no vision,
unable to glisten like a lion’s mane.
It would not burst out of its skin
like a star: for its searing gaze
penetrates your soul, the way you live.
Full article and photo: http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/booksblog/2010/nov/15/apollos-archaic-torso-sarah-stutt