In the fall of 1954, enrolled in an undergraduate intermediate German course, Sylvia Plath undertook a translation of Rainer Maria Rilke’s 1908 poem “Ein Prophet.” Though this translation has received only scant attention from scholars, it represents Plath’s first poetic engagement with German, an engagement that extends all the way to the six poems she wrote about the untimely death of her German-born father. Taking that early work seriously, then, this essay explores the relationship between mourning and translation in Plath’s work from the Rilke translation through the muchstudied later poems. Where translation is often figured as a process of loss, with a focus on what is “lost in translation,” this essay argues that in Plath’s work it figures too as a way of responding to loss—as a process of mourning.
Plath Translates Rilke
Birger Vanwesenbeeck is professor of English at the State University of New York at Fredonia. He is the coeditor of two books: William Gaddis: “The Last of Something” (2009) and Stefan Zweig and World Literature (2015). His articles and book reviews have appeared in various journals, including Comparative Literature, Postmodern Culture, Journal of Austrian Studies, Mosaic, Pynchon Notes, Electronic Book Review, and the Los Angeles Review of Books. Currently, he is completing a monograph on the imbrication of mourning and translation in twentieth-century and twenty-first-century American literature.
Birger Vanwesenbeeck; Plath Translates Rilke. Twentieth-Century Literature 1 December 2022; 68 (4): 365–388. doi: https://doi.org/10.1215/0041462X-10237756
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