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Translator's Note: Song of the Dwarf

Among Rainer Maria Rilke’s early work (that is, pre-Duino Elegies and Sonnets to Orpheus) is a cycle of songs—collectively titled “The Voices”—that are attributed to society’s outcasts: lepers, blind men, idiots. I’ve always had affection for these poems, though they do not carry as much intellectual baggage as his later work. My being drawn to them probably springs from my sympathy for these characters as outsiders. I have a hunch that most people would place themselves among society’s freaks (as opposed to the well-adjusted). In response to these characters we say: Go team.

My poem is more properly a version, rather than a felicitous translation (I don’t speak a lick of German except what I learned from watching Hogan’s Heroes). What I wanted to do is bring out the song-nature of the poem, and the wounded plainspokenness of its speaker (though these may be delusions of mine), and so my decisions were made on the side of rhyme, meter, and forthrightness of locution. An obvious problem “The Voices” presents is how to preserve the strict rhymes of the originals, and in my earlier versions I ended up drifting into “heigh-ho heigh-ho” territory. In the end, I sacrificed literal precision for the sonic whole that I was after.
Rilke’s original concludes with a maddening degree of ambiguity, which means that a translator either preserves it, or picks her poison and chugs, by making a decision about what exactly the dogs don’t have. I’ve kept some of the mystery of the ending, while concluding with a word that I think is very much in keeping with what I imagine is the lexicon of dwarves (again, a delusion). I’ve also taken the liberty of giving the poem a few of my own clarifications that aren’t validated by the original, though I’m still up in the air about those big dogs.

Sonia and Rita Wiedenhaupt enabled me to tease my way through the poem, and I am indebted to their enthusiasm for my project. —lp


This poem originally appeared in the June 2011 issue of Poetry magazine

June 2011

Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

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