04 December 2009


I have long been a fan of Rainer Maria Rilke, a German poet. I first heard his poetry when I watched the movie "Awakenings" with Robin Williams. He reads "The Panther," using it as a metaphor for the catatonic patients. And while I love all of Rilke's work, my favourite is "Schwarze Katze" or "Black Cat."

Ein Gespenst ist noch wie eine Stelle,
dran dein Blick mit einem Klange stößt;
aber da, an diesem schwarzen Felle
wird dein stärkstes Schauen aufgelöst:

wie ein Tobender, wenn er in vollster
Raserei ins Schwarze stampft,
jählings am benehmenden Gepolster
einer Zelle aufhört und verdampft.

Alle Blicke, die sie jemals trafen,
scheint sie also an sich zu verhehlen,
um darüber drohend und verdrossen
zuzuschauern und damit zu schlafen.
Doch auf einmal kehrt sie, wie geweckt,
ihr Gesicht und mitten in das deine:
und da triffst du deinen Blick im geelen
Amber ihrer runden Augensteine
unerwartet wieder: eingeschlossen
wie ein ausgestorbenes Insekt

The translation that seems most popular on the interwebs is:

A ghost, though invisible, still is like a place
your sight can knock on, echoing; but here
within this thick black pelt, your strongest gaze
will be absorbed and utterly disappear:

just as a raving madman, when nothing else
can ease him, charges into his dark night
howling, pounds on the padded wall, and feels
the rage being taken in and pacified.

She seems to hide all looks that have ever fallen
into her, so that, like an audience,
she can look them over, menacing and sullen,
and curl to sleep with them. But all at once

as if awakened, she turns her face to yours;
and with a shock, you see yourself, tiny,
inside the golden amber of her eyeballs
suspended, like a prehistoric fly.

The one I prefer, though is insurmountably different. I feel it captures the essence of the original much more truly than the translation above.

A phantom, even, still presents a spot
On which your glance impinges with a stir;
But your most strenuous gazing comes to naught,
Dissolved against this coat of sable fur:

As one frenzied, at the height of madding
Rage stampeding into black,
Will abruptly at the bulky padding
Of the cell lose steam and stagger back.

All the glances ever aimed at her
She appears to hide about her fur,
Quivering over them, baneful and glum,
Even in her sleep a part of her.
Of a sudden, though, her eyes will come
Straight for yours, as if she'd just been woken:
In the amber of her eyestones then
You encounter your own gaze again,
Startlingly encapsuled like the token
Of a fly in prehistoric gum

It gives me shivers. Truly. This poem speaks to the depths of my soul, and I don't know why. A black cat--a panther, in my mind's eye--trapped forever in a cage, pacing for there is nothing else to do, always loathing those outside for their freedom, capturing them with a glance when "she" can; and, suddenly, you're there with her, in her cage, looking out past the bars, at yourself caught up in her cage.

I find it odd that the translations assume the cat is a she. "Sie" is the pronoun used in the original, which does mean "she," but, also, it means "it." Katze is feminine, and therefore takes sie as a pronoun. (I know, stupid languages with stupid genders, right?) But it makes me wonder if the translators know anything about the language, or if they're just looking up the words in a worterbuch/dictionary?

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