As a translator I can sympathize with Gass' approach. He gets to fault all the other translators (this writer included)while also, implicitly and explicitly, celebrating his own results. But despite this rhetorical cunning, Gass, who is a fine essayist and novelist, does not have a poet's ear, and again and again his versions fall short of effective poetry. They must stand by themselves, ultimately, and while he does his utmost to justify them, they tend to reveal why he needs special pleading to put them before us as supposedly superior to other versions. Mine, from the mid-seventies, first published in FIELD and now available from Norton, have reached a wide public without this kind of explaining, carping, and denigration of the efforts of others.
Gass's comparisons of previous translations of Rilke show a deep understanding of the problems involved in translating this complex poet. His own versions of the Duino Elegies are passable, though he is largely unconcerned with poetic rhythm. He even quotes previous translations in prose (i.e. without line breaks)! Gass's own famously ornate prose shows signs of strain; it is breezy and full of jarringly inappropriate similes. Wonderful insights are often juxtaposed with irrelevant comparisons, making the book enjoyable and frustrating by turns.
at first I was skeptical about a 200 page book that combines everything from the entirety of Rilke's life to an in-depth analysis of not 2, not 3, but *12* different translators and their treatment of Rilke. in a relatively short space this book manages to dazzle me with the way it stands back from all that's been done to Rilke and twisted from Rilke, and offers up a Rilke who is human -- both a puppet and an angel.
I found myself split over this book. I very much liked the author's unraveling of his work as a translator of such a complex poet as Rilke. But, and this is a big but, I found his actual translations dry and formal, especially when compared to earlier translations by people like Stephen Mitchell, translations that made Rilke one of my favorite poets.