Rilke: Archaic Torso of Apollo (From German)

The interpretation of this poem is complex, to say the least. I have decided to follow my own sense of how it relates to vision, to the inversion of observed and observer, to oracularity and much else, in my translation. My notes are mostly just philological in nature, intended only to give an understanding of how I read the German at the lexical level in a few cases which may not be especially obvious.

Archaic Torso of Apollo
By Rainer Maria Rilke
Translated by A.Z. Foreman

We never knew the epic head of sight
wherein the round eyes ripened. Even so
his torso still glows like a gas streetlight
in which his gaze has merely been turned low,

and holds agleam. If not, then the breast's bare
curve could not dazzle you, nor could the loin
swerve a smile down toward that center where 
begetting was begotten at the groin.

If not, this stone would stand cut short with strife  
and maimed beneath the shoulders’ clear cut case,
and would not shimmer like a wild beast's fur,

and would not burst forth like a blazing star
from all its boundaries: for there is no place
that does not see you. You must change your life.
Archaïscher Torso Apollos
Rainer Maria Rilke
Click here to hear me recite the original

Wir kannten nicht sein unerhörtes Haupt,
darin die Augenäpfel reiften. Aber
sein Torso glüht noch wie ein Kandelaber,
in dem sein Schauen, nur zurückgeschraubt,

sich hält und glänzt. Sonst könnte nicht der Bug
der Brust dich blenden, und im leisen Drehen
der Lenden könnte nicht ein Lächeln gehen
zu jener Mitte, die die Zeugung trug.

Sonst stünde dieser Stein entstellt und kurz
unter der Schultern durchsichtigem Sturz
und flimmerte nicht so wie Raubtierfelle;

und brächte nicht aus allen seinen Rändern
aus wie ein Stern: denn da ist keine Stelle,
die dich nicht sieht. Du mußt dein Leben ändern.


L1: Unerhört translated literally lexeme by lexeme means "unheard-of", and has a whiff of "legendary." Other translators of this sonnet have chosen things of this kind: unheard-of, legendary, fabled etc. However, the word also suggests something excessive, tremendous, beyond precedent, above and beyond. In some contexts it might mean "outrageous" as when describing a high price. For some reason, the English term "epic" comes to mind. I'm not entirely sure why, but I like what it does in the English.

L2: Augenäpfel literally means "eye-apples" and many translators have rendered it thus, but it is in fact a normal and unremarkable way of saying "eyeball" in German. Rilke is capitalizing on the dead metaphor by introducing reiften "ripened."

L3: Kandelaber can mean candelabrum, and most translators have taken it to mean that. But here, it refers to a gaslit streetlight, of the sort that dotted cities in the early 20th century, so named in German because they were commonly shaped in a way reminiscent of candelabra. The gaze is thus zurückgeschraubt "turned/dialed down" as a gaslight's flame would be turned down, but not necessarily off, during the day.

L10: Sturz is normally "fall, plunge, drop" and has, without exception I believe, been so translated. It has two further meanings, however. Sturz was a common synonym for "torso" in sculpture. In common usage it also referred, as it still does in Austria, to a glass cover, or belljar, which would be transparent and reveal its contents even as it covers them.

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