READING RILKE

Reflections on the Problems of

Translation

By William H. Gass

Knopf. 233 pp. $25

Reviewed by Robert Wechsler

Translating a literary work tends to be more an act of love than does literary criticism or biography. But sadly, translating rarely accompanies, not to mention animates, these more common scholarly acts. Love gives way to analysis, theory and exposure.

Thus it is fortunate that the award-winning literary essayist and novelist William H. Gass has approached the great early 20th-century German-language poet Rainer Maria Rilke not only through criticism and biography but also by translating his poetry. And translating it with much more than love: with the understanding of a first-rate critic and the ear, imagination and other skills of a first-rate writer.

The result is a genre-free book that is a joy to read, reflecting Gass's own joy in reading Rilke. Like most of Gass's essays, it wanders through a jungle of ideas and images, and then suddenly beats a series of clearly marked, though often forking, paths toward a clearing. For Gass's free-wheeling imagination is balanced by a philosopher's love of order.

Reading Rilke is not, then, an easy book to describe; it's hard even to say whom it is primarily for: newcomers to Rilke or long-time lovers of his work. It is more like a work of art itself, being rather than serving a purpose.

To the extent that the book is biographical, it is not descriptive of the subject's life as much as it is descriptive of (and speculative about) the forming of his consciousness. That is, Gass is most interested in looking at how Rilke's life and thought affected his poetry. His biography is focused, an attempt to explain how the poetry came to come from Rilke when it did, and especially how it culminated in the book's destination, the Duino Elegies (Gass's translation of these complete the book).

I appreciate a focused biography, where the author has a reason for including each of its details, and cares more about the work than the man. This book is an excellent realization of what Gass said about biography in his collection The World Within the Word. Reviewing a biography of William Faulkner, he wrote, "Faulkner's life was nothing until it found its way into Faulkner's language." I wonder how many of us there are who would like this approach to form the basis of more literary biographies.

The translations themselves reflect Gass's love of form, affinity with Rilke and devotion to writing that cries to be read out loud, as Rilke's poetry does. Gass's criticism, too, is full of wonderful images, epigrams and prose.

The major weakness of Reading Rilke is the subject of its subtitle, Gass's "reflections on the problems of translation." We can start with the subtitle itself: Why the "problems" of translation? Why not its challenges, its joys, its possibilities? Also, the subtitle incorrectly makes the book seem akin to John Felstiner's Translating Neruda, where, unlike here, translation is the central act of interpretation.

Fortunately, the two chapters on translation make up only a quarter of the book. Gass does not say anything new about translation, and what he does say is disrespectful of translators and the art of literary translation. He sees translators as people who are out to harm art, to force their lesser selves upon greater things. At one point, he writes disparagingly, " `It's my translation,' [translators] say as they sign it, as if their work were the work of art. How should we fare if printers did the same . . . ?" As if literary translators were no more artists than printers.

Because he so worships the original work, the usually free-thinking Gass unquestioningly accepts the usual prejudices against translation, talking negatively about its impossibility, its sacrifices and its mistakes. And he states his prejudices with unattractive venom. For example, he writes, "The individuality, the quirkiness, the bone-headed nature of every translation is inevitable. I see no reason to strive for these qualities."

Translating a poet as difficult as Rilke is hardly typical literary translation. Attacking translation on the basis of translating Rilke is like attacking acting on the basis of portraying Hamlet. Acting too would seem nearly impossible, and it would be easy to show how actor after actor fell short. Given less extreme challenges, actors and translators alike seem more competent performers.

Thankfully, while Gass falls short as a critic of translation, he does not fall short as a translator or as a critic or as a biographer. He is at his best as a critic who is translating, interpreting poetry both from the outside and the inside, both in the form of an essay and in the form of poetry. This is where his love is most valuable to the reader: his love of Rilke's alliteration, his love of Rilke's contradictions, his love of Rilke's transformations (the subtitle should have been "Reflections on Transformation") and his joy at seeing and showing how they all fit together.

Robert Wechsler is a book editor and the author of "Performing Without a Stage: The Art of Literary Translation."