Marjorie Perloff devotes a long essay in Jacket 14 to teasing out the implications of what is on its face a strange statement of Wittgenstein’s:

Ich glaube meine Stellung zur Philosophie dadurch zusammengefaßt zu haben, indem ich sagte: Philosophie dürfte man eigentlich nur dichten. Daraus muß sich, scheint mir, ergeben, wie weit mein Denken der Gegenwart, Zukunft, oder der Vergangenheit angehört. Denn ich habe mich damit auch als einen bekannt, der nicht ganz kann, was er zu können wünscht.
I think I summed up my position on philosophy when I said that philosophy really should be written only as a form of poetry. From this it should be clear to what extent my thinking belongs to the present, the future, or the past. For with this assertion, I have also revealed myself as someone who cannot quite do what he would like to do.
Culture and Value, 1933-34

(Another analysis of this passage occurs in the final section, “The End of Philosophy,” of a Doro Franck essay on style; Franck translates the last sentence more accurately as “For I was thereby revealing myself as someone who cannot quite do what he would like to be able to do [my emphasis].”) Perloff begins with a fascinating discussion of the problems involved in translating a line of Rilke:

We usually think of the ‘poetic’ as that which cannot fully translate, that which is uniquely embedded in its particular language. The poetry of Rainer Marie Rilke is a case in point. The opening line of the Duino Elegies
Wer, wenn ich schriee, hörte mich denn aus den Engel Ordnungen? —
has been translated into English literally dozens of times, but, as William Gass points out in his recent Reading Rilke: Reflections on the Problems of Translation, none of the translations seem satisfactory. Here are a few examples:
J. B. Leishman (1930) —
Who, if I cried, would hear me among the
angelic orders?
A. J. Poulin (1977) —
And if I cried, who’d listen to me in those angelic orders?
Stephen Cohn (1989) —
Who, if I cried out, would hear me — among the ranked Angels?
Gass is very critical of these, but his own is, to my ear, no better:
Who if I cried, would hear me among the Dominions of Angels?
The difficulty, as I have suggested elsewhere, is that English syntax does not allow for the dramatic suspension of Wer, wenn ich schriee… and that the noun phrase Engel Ordnungen, which in German puts the stress, both phonically and semantically, on the angels themselves rather than their orders or hierarchies or dominions, defies effective translation. Moreover, Rilke’s line contains the crucial and heavily stressed word denn (literally ‘then’), which here has the force of ‘Well, then’ or, in contemporary idiom, ‘So,’ as in ‘So, who would hear me if I cried out…?’ But the translators cited above seem not to know what to do with denn and hence lose the immediacy of the question. Then, too, denn rhymes with wenn as well as the first two syllables of den Engel, creating a dense sonic network inevitably lost in translation.

She follows this with a discussion of Hans Magnus Enzensberger‘s translation of William Carlos Williams’s “Between Walls“; only then does she begin considering Wittgenstein. She finishes with two highly unliteral versions of the Rilke poem, the second of which begins: “I hate this place. If I were to throw a fit, who/ among the seven thousand starlets in Hollywood/ would give a flying fuck?” Much food for thought throughout.


  1. Which ranked angel’d hear me if I were to shriek?

  2. Wittgenstein was, as I remember, a patron of both Rilke and Trakl. Like Bertrand Russell, W. seems to have been highly conflicted about his inherited wealth. He gave the money through an intermediary, without personal contact, and I don’t know whether or not he admired the poets’ works. But giving the money specifically to poets was his intention.
    Almost the whole first generation of W.’s disciples missed the point of a lot of what he was doing. They went so far as to censor a letter in which he made a sympathetic comment about Heidegger. Toward the end of the PI something like “Perhaps it’s possible that these words of mine will bring light to some brain or another; but of course, it is not likely.” This is usually interpreted as a sign of clinical depression or perhaps some grand existential pose, but actually I think that he was telling us what he thought of his British colleagues and students.

  3. Ha! I like that interpretation.

  4. I like “among the angels’ orders” — which seems oddly not to have been used by any of the translators listed. Is this not the most straightforward translation of “aus den Engel Ordnungen”? I mean my German I ear says, “Engel is dative not genetive becauses it does not have an ‘n’ tacked on to the end of it” but there is ample room for confusion (snoitcerid htob ni) between dative and genetive cases when translating between German and English.
    And, how is it “that English syntax does not allow for the dramatic suspension of Wer, wenn ich schriee” — to my ear the English “Who, if I screamed” sounds almost exactly the same — the only thing missing is the blurring of meanings “if” and “whenever” that you get with wenn. And this blurring is immediately resolved by the following word, hoerte. I don’t think I understand what is meant by “dramatic suspention” — does it have something to do with vocal pauses — these are equally present in the English.

  5. I too wondered about the suspension thing, especially since most of the versions she quoted use the same suspension; I gave her the benefit of the doubt because her “as I have suggested elsewhere” implied that there were subtleties that weren’t obvious at a glance but would be clear upon reading her writings “elsewhere,” but maybe I shouldn’t have.
    And I agree, “among the angels’ orders” is good.

  6. Wittgenstein, ouch.
    “The only way to do philosophy is to do everything twice.”
    (And those of us corrupted by Heraklitos at a too-early age turn away in despair….)
    I think the first version I ever read of that Elegy was something like: “Who, if I cried out, would hear me among the angelic orders?” It seems like the problem could be solved with something like “Who, if I cried out, would hear me among the hierarchies/ranks/orders/ordinances/ranges of angels” &c. I think English “puts the stress, both phonically and semantically, on the angels themselves” fine with the enjambment, which is actually what happens in Rilke’s poem (and which she doesn’t seem to get, as she quotes it as one line).
    I don’t know much about German, but Flemmings’ translation, although a little clunky, didn’t seem bad:
    Who, if I cried out, would hear me among the angels’
    hierarchies? and even if one of them suddenly
    pressed me against his heart, I would perish
    in the embrace of his stronger existence.
    For beauty is nothing but the beginning of terror
    which we are barely able to endure and are awed
    because it serenely disdains to annihilate us.
    And Lord, I can’t stand those two “translations” at the end. If the authors are trying to “prove” translation is impossible, well, hey, they succeeded magnificently. I have to say sometimes I think Perloff has been swallowed by structuralism/postmodernism/deconstruction/whatever those crazy hepcat kids call it nowadays, as though she were a goat and it were a boa constrictor. It’s not that she’s a bad thinker per se; she was just engulfed. But I say this as the burnt child of graduate school who takes the long way round anything fireishly theoretical.

  7. I would also make the tired comment that sure, you cannot translate sound effects, rhyme, consonance, dissonance, etc., from one language to another. Granted. That’s a long way from saying translation is itself impossible, which far too many theoretical high-minded people writing about translation seem far too eager to say. All communication is imperfect translation when you think about it — how often do we really feel we understand what another person is actually saying? Modern theoretical critics remind me of someone who is so pleased with the newfound (to them) power of syllogisms they waste your time expecting you to laugh at their silly proofs of how Ray Charles = God.

  8. Bah, I sound grumpy and pompous. A dragonly combination.

  9. Bless you, Moira, your dragonly presence is always welcome here, as are all fulminations against theory run amuck! And that Flemmings version does sound nicely Rilkean. I didn’t particularly agree with Perloff’s approach to Rilke, but I’m always fascinated by detailed discussions of translations.

  10. ((blush)) Well, good. Lord knows grad school is enough to drive anyone to be as abstraction-less as Hume’s version of an animal mind (the animal is surprised every day by the sun going up? Did Hume have pets?).

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