"The Apple Orchard" - An Original Translation

In which poet Susan McLean translates Ranier Maria Rilke

Translator’s Note
In the summer of 1904, poet Rainer Maria Rilke visited Swedish artist Ernst Norlind at Borgeby-Gård [pictured above], his castle and farm in southern Sweden. This poem, “The Apple Orchard,” is set in the orchard there, and the trees that Rilke says resemble Dürer’s are probably an allusion to Dürer’s famous paintings and engravings of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. I have tried to stick very close to the form of the original poem, but my desire for accuracy in content required me to use some slant rhymes and some variations in the rhyme schemes. Rilke’s poem is in trochaic pentameter, but because trochaic meter is much rarer in English than in German, and therefore sounds less natural, I substituted iambic meter, the most common meter in English poetry. In Rilke’s poem, the first two quatrains rhyme in alternating lines (ABAB CDCD) and the last two rhyme in envelope rhyme (EFFE GHHG). I have reversed that pattern (ABBA CDDC EFEF GHGH) to facilitate rhyming in the translation. His whole sixteen-line poem is one long sentence, and I have maintained that pattern. The unity in complexity of the poem mirrors the theme of the artist’s long life devoted to just one thing: the fruitfulness and self-abnegation of the patient artist is implicitly contrasted with the impatience and disobedience of Adam and Eve’s plucking of the apple in the Garden of Eden. Meanwhile, the soothing pulse of the meter and the orderly echoes of the rhymes reinforce the image of the artist taking his time as he carefully crafts his vision of the garden.

The Apple Orchard
by Rainer Maria Rilke 
translated by Susan McLean

Come right after the sun goes down, and see
the evening greenness of the fields of grass;
isn’t it just as if we had amassed
and saved it up inside us gradually,

so that from feeling now, and memories,
from recent hope and half-recalled delight, 
still mixed with darkness from inside, we might
strew it in thoughts before us under trees

like those of Dürer, bearing the encumbrance
of a hundred days of labor in the fruit
that overfills them, serving, full of patience,
attempting to experience how that

which goes beyond all measurements is still
to be raised up and offered in sacrifice,
when we, through a long life, with all our will
want just one thing and grow and hold our peace.

Susan McLean has written two poetry books, The Best Disguise (2009 winner of the Richard Wilbur Award) and The Whetstone Misses the Knife (2014 winner of the Donald Justice Poetry Prize). She was a finalist for the PEN Center USA Translation Award for her book of translation of Martial’s Latin poems, Selected Epigrams (U of Wisconsin Press, 2014).  Her translations of poems by Rilke have appeared in Measure, The American Journal of Poetry, Transference, and elsewhere. She is a professor emerita of English from Southwest Minnesota State University and lives in Iowa City, Iowa.

Rainer Maria Rilke (1875-1926) was one of the great modernists of German poetry.  Born in Prague when it was under the rule of Austria-Hungary, he traveled widely in Europe, visiting Russia and living for periods in Italy, Spain, France, Germany, and Switzerland. He was particularly influenced by contemporary artists, such as Rodin and Cézanne. In the two volumes of his New Poems (1907 & 1908), in which “The Apple Orchard” appeared, Rilke tried to focus intensely, in what he called  his “thing-poems,” on the appearance of things as a key to their meaning and inner life.

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