Local poet publishes ‘musical’ translations of Rainer Maria Rilke’s best work

John Rosenwald, a poet and activist who lives in Farmington, has published a book of translations of 20th century German poet Rainer Maria Rilke’s “The Sonnets to Orpheus.” Pictured, Rosenwald holds up a copy of Rilke’s original German poems in the study of his Farmington home. Kay Neufeld/Franklin Journal

FARMINGTON — Rainer Maria Rilke, a prolific 20th century German poet, rapidly wrote half of The Sonnets to Orpheus in just four days and all 55 sonnets within two weeks.

John Rosenwald, – a scholar, poet and activist living in Farmington – has dedicated a majority of his life to those 55 sonnets. He’s pored over them, learning them inside and out since his college years.

Rosenwald (and Ann Arbor, his wife) describes his relationship with Rilke, and the sonnets, as a “marriage.”

“I’ve lived with this guy for 50 years,” Rosenwald said over a cup of cider and shortbread biscuits in his library.

To honor that marriage and his lifetime of dedication, Rosenwald has published a book of translations with a more melodic take among the countless number of translations from other authors. These translations, Rosenwald said, are decades of practice and repetition in the making.

Rilke wrote The Sonnets to Orpheus in 1922 after the death of a friend’s daughter as a “Grab-Mal” (a “grave-marker”).

Rilke’s work, Rosenwald writes in his prologue, “is one of the most extraordinary bursts of creativity in literary history” and “a gift.”

February marked the 100th anniversary of Rilke’s sonnets and that iconic burst of creativity.

Rosenwald began studying Rilke while a college student studying poetry and German at the University of Illinois in the 1960s. He had originally been studying pre-med, but for a slew of reasons, he changed course.

Rosenwald had already been writing and studying poetry by the time he was introduced to the writer who would shape the course of his career. Rosenwald’s first poem was about the death of John F. Kennedy Jr., he said.

In his second collegiate year, a professor assigned Rosenwald the task of translating one of Rilke’s works and everything changed.

Rosenwald still has the original copy of his first Rilke translation – the first of a seemingly endless amount of translations. It’s the most important item Rosenwald said he’d take if there was a fire in his house from him.

He went on to study at a German university with a Fulbright grant. There, he took some literature course – but, “more importantly, I worked on Rilke.”

I have spent this time learning more about him, reading all of his works, submerging to the deepest of Rilke’s ocean for the first time.

Over the course of the 1960s, Rosenwald acquired his undergraduate degree, a master’s degree and a doctorate degree in English and German literature.

Rosenwald is a man of many hats, alongside a doctor of philosophy, Rosenwald was a Civil Rights activist and is still an activist in Farmington; a student, professor and collector of Chinese philosophy; an integral member of the Farmington community, etc.

Ultimately, though, poetry and Rilke have been the consistent strings in Rosenwald’s life. He said he loves the “music” and “beauty” of poetry.

“I love the notion of expressing ideas in music,” Rosenwald said. That love was what attracted him to Rilke and translating his poetry from him.

“My primary work in translating Rilke’s Sonnets to Orpheus was to take the ideas and blend them with the music that somehow he possessed and created,” Rosenwald said. “That is missing in most of the many translations of Sonnets to Orpheus.”

Farmington resident John Rosenwald has devoted 50 years to his new book of translations of German poet Rainer Maria Rilke’s “The Sonnets to Orpheus.” Pictured is a side-by-side of Rosenwald’s very first translation of Rilke, right, and his translations of him published in 2021. Kay Neufeld/Franklin Journal

Rosenwald said that it’s taken “patience” to be able to bring the vivacity, music and rhythm of Rilke’s German words to English. Of course he’d have copious amounts of patience – he’s been doing this for 50 years in order to “listen to the fluency of both languages”; to “[recognize] the subtlety of the power of language.”

Rosenwald sees Rilke’s poetry, and most predominantly the sonnets, as a “hurricane of language.”

“He just writes and [the sonnets] come out,” Rosenwald said. “There’s this magical gift that’s given to [Rilke when he wrote].”

Rosenwald referenced the powerfully short timeline in which Rilke wrote the sonnets and a series of other works.

“I did not write them,” Rilke had said (referenced by Rosenwald). “They were given to me.”

Rilke described that three-week period when he wrote the 55 sonnets, as well as Duino Elegies as a “savage creative storm.”

The sonnets were inspired by the death of one of Rilke’s dear friend’s daughter, who got sick and soon after lost the ability to dance and then sing. In metaphors, they focus on the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice. Britannica writes that the sonnets are thematically “concerned with the relationship of art and poetry to life.”

Rosenwald describes the form of Rilke’s Sonnets to Orpheus as “extremely complicated verse-form sonnets” — all in rhyme scheme and meters.

He also highlighted that much of Rilke’s work uses German words, phrasing (some of which is outdated) that doesn’t have literal English translations.

This, Rosenwald said, is why so many translations have lacked the spirit, melody and powerful simplicity of Rilke’s original German voice.

“You have to be aware of the shifts of language historically,” Rosenwald said.

That complexity of Rilke’s sonnets makes Rosenwald’s translations all the more impressive. The translations are so melodic, smooth, beautiful and cohesive that upon a blind read, one might assume they were written in English to begin with.

It highlights not only Rosenwald’s mastery of the German language (though he might humbly beg to differ), but his mastery of Rilke.

He said he focused on paying “more attention to the music … and the philosophical implications of Rilke’s vision.”

While Rilke’s original writing can be seen as a “gift,” Rosenwald would not say the same of his lifelong devotion to Rilke.

“This was 50 years of non-stop work,” he said. “It was a very, very slow process of trying to understand, hear, duplicate and recreate the music, the ideas, the rhythms to get them more accurate.”

Rosenwald said for over a decade, he’d get up every morning at 4 am and translate for two to four hours.

Rosenwald has translated Rilke’s work over and over and over. But not to publish a book. Rather, it’s the love of translating them all that’s driven him for five decades.

The most recent set of translations, which are in Rosenwald’s 2021 book of translations, was modified and solidified during the downtime of the pandemic.

Rosenwald said that it’s Rilke’s “wisdom and knowledge” that speaks to him most.

“[Rilke’s sonnets] are without any question, in my mind, the most extraordinary burst of creative energy and poetry that I know anything about,” Rosenwald said.

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