The Reader

(My hat at the café.)

After a few cold, rainy days that marked the beginning of the rainy season this last week, today was beautifully sunny. After lathering on sunscreen, donning a pair of shorts and a hat, I set out, but made sure my bag was well stocked with reading material.

My goal was a café where I might spend the afternoon reading, but first intending a short stop at the university library to copy a text they have, I found the place suffering from a blackout. A librarian came to me outside the electric wickets at the door and said she could let me in, but all the lights were out. Well then, no way to make copies, I thought. But as I turned to leave, I realized the lights in the opposite building were on. That’s strange, I thought, turning back and seeing the library was blessed with lighting as well. So, my copying got done with only a moment’s delay.

Then, after browsing through a used book store near the station (and buying two Reclam for a price I would not later regret), I wandered along neighborhood streets to Shimokitazawa, a part of the city popular with college-age kids and full of quirky shops, cafes, casual restaurants, and strangely enough, an unusual plentitude of haberdasheries. After finding a bright spot near the window of an otherwise low-lit cafe that was permeated with jazz, I ordered myself a cup of coffee and started reading.

Once in a while, I would look out the window. A young cook came out a door on the first floor of the building across the alley, and carried a tray of Chinese food up some outdoor stairs that wrapped around the corner. He sat down on the stairs so I could just barely see his feet as he presumably ate his lunch.

Looking up again later, a middle aged man was on a third floor balcony of the same building, with his back to the building as he smoked staring straight ahead, his forehead creased and his eyes veiled as if he were thinking of something that had nothing to do with his current location. He shoved his cigarette stub into the large and well-populated ash tray and went back inside. But a little while later, I saw him there again, smoking another cigarette and standing in the same manner with the same look on his face.

Just before I left the cafe, after my second cup of spectacular coffee, I glanced up and saw the man there again, only this time he appeared to be looking in the window where I sat with that same stern gaze. Surprised at being caught looking at him and equally unsettled at having that gaze directed towards me, I turned back to my reading.

After leaving the café and on the train ride home, I pulled out one of the Reclam books I’d bought that afternoon, a collection of Rilke’s poetry. I read until I came to a poem that reflected the general mood of the day. I reread it, then read a few more before flipping the pages back to that poem to read it again.

Here it is. Scroll down for my (hasty) translation into English after the German original. Forgive me, for it is my first German-English translation of poetry, but I thought I would try after hearing a radio interview this morning, in which Brian Eno touched on the differences in musical structure from one language to the next. I intentionally disregarded the rhyme and switched around the word order only when it sounded too contrived, but please tell me if you have any suggestions for improvements! I will consider them.

I hope you like it.

Der Lesende

Ich las schon lang. Seit dieser Nachmittag,
mit Regen rauschend, an den Fenster lag.
Vom Winde draußen hörte ich nichts mehr:
mein Buch war schwer.
Ich sah ihm in die Blätter wie in Mienen,
die dunkel werden von Nachdenklichkeit,
und um mein Lesen staute sich die Zeit, –
Auf einmal sind die Seiten überschienen,
und statt der bangen Wortverworrenheit
steht: Abend, Abend . . . überall auf ihnen.
Ich schau noch nicht hinaus, und doch zerreißen
die langen Zeilen, und die Worte rollen
von ihren Fäden fort, wohin sie wollen . . .
Da weiß ich es: über den übervollen
glänzenden Gärten sind die Himmel weit;
die Sonne hat noch einmal kommen sollen. –
Und jetzt wird Sommernacht, soweit man sieht:
zu wenig Gruppen stellt sich das Verstreute,
dunkel, auf langen Wegen, gehn die Leute,
und seltsam weit, als ob es mehr bedeute,
hört man das Wenige, das noch geschieht.

Und wenn ich jetzt vom Buch die Augen hebe,
wird nichts befremdlich sein und alles groß.
Dort draußen ist, was ich hier drinnen lebe,
und hier und dort ist alles grenzenlos;
nur daß ich mich noch mehr damit verwebe,
wenn meine Blicke an die Dinge passen
und an die ernste Einfachheit der Massen –
da wächst die Erde über sich hinaus.
Den ganzen Himmel scheint sie zu umfassen:
der erste Stern ist wie das letzte Haus.

The Reader

I had read a while. Since this afternoon,
with rushing rain, had lain against the window.
Of the wind outside I heard no more:
my book was heavy.
I saw him in the pages as in faces
grown dark with contemplation,
and around my reading, time pooled. –
All at once the pages were lit over,
and instead of the word confusion
stood: evening, evening. . . all over them.
I have yet to look outside, and already
the long lines tear, and the words roll
from their threads to wherever they please. . .
There I know it: over the overfull
glimmering garden the heavens are wide;
the sun should have come once more. –
And now will be summer night as far as one can see:
too few groups form of the scattered,
dark, on long paths, stroll the people,
and strangely far off, as if to mean more,
can be heard the few things that still occur.

And when now I raise my eyes from the book,
nothing will be strange and all great.
Out there is what I live in here,
and there and here, all is boundless;
only that I am more interwoven in it,
when my gaze fits to the things
and in the masses’ earnest simplicity –
there the world grows beyond itself.
The whole heavens seem to contain them:
the first star is like the last house.

2 thoughts on “The Reader

  1. Your translation is wonderful!
    Here is a quotation I found today “I hope my Poem is so lively writ,
    That thou wilt turne halfe-mayed with reading it.” Paraphrase of Ovid’s
    Salmacis and Hermaphroditus”, 1602
    And listening to John Cage’s “In a Landscape” I found the following in the booklet:
    “The purpose of all artistic endeavor would be to sober and quiet the mind thus
    rendering it susceptible to divine influences.”
    Thus brings me to your last reply in regard to Camille.
    Yes, we need a “healthy approach” to art/gender- today many changes have made
    the art world a better place and “divine influences” are what we have to be looking for.
    Just discovered Cage – he was a master.
    Rilke is wonderful and Hanna, I can’t believe that you just translated the poem so well.
    Not that I needed it….. but all your other readers.
    Always great to read your blog entries.
    Thank you,

    1. Dear Christiane,

      Thank you!!! I love playing with language, and after struggling to translate Japanese to English a number of times, it’s always a nice relief to translate something from German to English. . . maybe the next challenge would be to translate something from Japanese to German. . . ?

      Your two quotes are also very nice. I love the “half-mad” idea. I think great poetry and great art reveals possibilities we would not come up with in our daily lives. So, artists play along the edges of society and convention, grabbing ideas, images, sounds, etc. that are usually overlooked and demanding that people take a closer look (or listen).

      The ability to see unusual possibilities, isn’t that a divine ability of sorts?

      Thank you for pointing out Cage’s “In a Landscape!” I know 4’33” and his work with prepared piano and ensembles, but he did conventionally melodic work as well! Beautiful!


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