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"Nächtlicher Gang" - Need English translation/inte

Verfasst: 9. Nov 2004, 00:54
von Rilke Fan
Hallo Ramaswamy, Stilz, Volker, Marie, and anyone else interested in helping with the translation or interpretation of the following poem, which is from the "Uncollected Poems" and was written in Capri, Italy, on April 17, 1908:


NICHTS ist vergleichbar. Denn was ist nicht ganz
mit sich allein und was je auszusagen;
wir nennen nichts, wir dürfen nur ertragen
und uns verständigen, daß da ein Glanz
und dort ein Blick vielleicht uns so gestreift
als wäre grade das darin gelebt
was unser Leben ist. Wer widerstrebt
dem wird nicht Welt. Und wer zuviel begreift
dem geht das Ewige vorbei. Zuweilen
in solchen großen Nächten sind wir wie
außer Gefahr, in gleichen leichten Teilen
den Sternen ausgeteilt. Wie drängen sie.

Vielen Dank im Voraus!

Linda (Rilke Fan)

Verfasst: 9. Nov 2004, 12:58
von stilz
Oh, Linda,

what a very easy poem to pick for translation!!!

Even if I don't feel I could possibly do a good job on this, I simply had to try (maybe you've been too encouraging?)

So here is my first attempt --- open for discussion!

Wandering at night

Nothing made to compare. For what is not
utterly on its own, what can we state;
Nothing we name, we only may endure
and realize that here a sparkle, there a glimpse
maybe has brushed against us in a way
as though what forms the essence of our live
might have been lived in it. Who tries resisting
won't have world. And he who grasps too much
will be passed by Eternal. At times
in spacious nights like this we are like
out of danger, in light and equal parts
shed to the stars. How they urge.

I know that "vergleichbar" should be "comparable", but I feel that "not comparable" would mean "unvergleichlich", and that would lead to quite a different track of thoughts, so I tried to avoid it.
The last two lines were extremly difficult as I must confess I don't really seem to understand what Rilke might have wanted to say - perhaps someone else can help us there?

Liebe Grüße!


Verfasst: 9. Nov 2004, 22:38
von Rilke Fan
Hi Ingrid,

Thanks so much for your quick response. I'm so glad that you found this poem easy to translate, because I was already stuck on the first line! I will comment more after I have a chance to think about your translation.

There is still much I'm not sure I understand. However, your point about the word "vergleichbar" is very true, and that's part of the reason I had struggled with that line.

By the way, Ramaswamy has asked me for suggestions for poems to translate into English, so I will keep them coming for the two of you and anyone else interested!!

Ramaswamy, please don't hesitate to post your own translation for this poem or any ideas you might have.

An interpretation would also be nice, so I can make sure I understand correctly what Rilke was trying to say.

Sunshine and smiles! :lol:


Verfasst: 9. Nov 2004, 23:32
von stilz
Hi Linda,

you don' t really think I found this poem easy?

Of course I cannot easily understand all of it, even having German as a mother-tongue!
But that doesn't seem to matter, as Rilke says: if we don't understand everything, we might have a chance not to miss "the Eternal" ...

Thanks for the sunshine, we had our first snow today!


Verfasst: 10. Nov 2004, 00:20
von Rilke Fan
Hi Ingrid,

I guess that is one of the disadvantages of correspondence. You can't "hear" the tone of voice things are written in. Of course, I probably should have picked up your point by your punctuation and also in the next line, but then again, what is difficult for one person is often easy for another..

What you say about Rilke and the eternal is so true. You must be a longtiime Rilke fan!

Snow already, wow! Sounds beautiful! It makes me think of one of Rilke's poems I posted last year in May, and everyone thought I was crazy because it was about snow and Christmas time!


Es treibt der Wind im Winterwalde
Die Flockenherde wie ein Hirt,
Und manche Tanne ahnt, wie balde
Sie fromm und lichterheilig wird,
Und lauscht hinaus. Den weißen Wegen
Streckt sie die Zweige hin - bereit,
Und wehrt dem Wind und wächst entgegen
Der einen Nacht der Herrlichkeit.

Frohe Weihnachten! (Just kidding!) :lol:

Liebe Grüße!


Verfasst: 10. Nov 2004, 06:25
von Rilke Fan
Hi everyone!

Just a quick question while I am still trying to figure out what the poem "Nächtlicher Gang" is talking about:

Which of the following English words do you think best defines the meaning of the word NICHTS in lines 1 and line 3?

"not anything" or "something of no significance" or "state of nonexistence"

Also, "vergleichbar" -- to or with what?

At first, I thought maybe the first line had something to do with the title of the poem and that Rilke was saying that "nothing (else) can be compared to wandering at night." But after reading the poem a couple of times, I don't really think so. What do you think?

More thoughts later. Meanwhile, vielen Dank!

Liebe Grüße,


Verfasst: 10. Nov 2004, 14:30
von stilz
Hi Linda,

I think I really understand those first lines, but of course it is not at all easy to transfer this into English "poetry-like" words:

It is a little like we all have learned in Maths many many years ago: in addition, subtraction or any other mathematical operation: never compare apples to pears... so if there are only one single apple and one single pear, that leaves us with nothing to compare!

Therefore I think "not anything" might be the best choice.
The meaning is: nothing that is can be compared to any other thing there is. For there is not one ting that doesn't stand totally and utterly alone, there is not enough similarity between any two things that exist to make them comparable...

I hope that is of some help...


P.S.: You think I'm a long-time Rilke-fan --- that's not at all true, I discovered him, or rather was made to discover him and my love for him by a very dear friend about one year ago.
So I'm really thankful if you suggest more poems that are, like this one, new to me!

Verfasst: 10. Nov 2004, 14:43
von stilz

I've thought again and altered my translation-suggestion for the first lines:

Not anything there is we can compare. For everything
stands utterly alone and cannot be subsumed;
not one thing that we name, we only may endure ...

How do you like that?

I know that "aussagen" is not really the same as "subsume", but I feel that "aussagen" in this context means something like "Eigenschaften festlegen, einordnen"... so it might fit?


Verfasst: 11. Nov 2004, 02:14
von Rilke Fan
Thanks, Ingrid. Your comments really helped, and together with both of them, I think I finally understand. It was difficult because the first line can be taken two different ways, and I wasn't sure which way was correct, even in context with the rest of the poem.

At first I thought that Rilke was saying that "NOTHING can (indeed) be compared (to something)," but in fact he was saying just the opposite, that "NOTHING cannot be compared (to something else)."

In English, you could say something like:

"Nothing is like something else." But the meaning is still vague and you don't know at first glance which way to take it.

"Nothing can be compared to something else." Still vague.

I like this part of your translation also:
For everything stands utterly alone and cannot be subsumed;
not one thing that we name, we only may endure ...

especially this part "not one thing that we name," - I was very unsure about that line too.

I didn't have much time today to think about any of this, so I will still probably have a few more comments, and I'm still also hoping to hear your thoughts, Ramaswamy.

Liebe Grüße,


Verfasst: 12. Nov 2004, 14:40
von stilz
Hi Linda,

thank you for liking some of my translated lines...

but a new problem has come up for me:

If I say "subsume" for "aussagen" I am not only translating, but interpreting... a really good translation would have to take into account Rilke's choosing words that are "open" and not always very clear on the surface... Rilke often seems to rather take the risk of being misunderstood than not having the "mystery" in his words...

I feel I don't want to reduce his lines by getting rid of his many possible subtexts, even if that makes understanding very difficult.

Do you think you, as a native English speaker, could do anything about that after we have - sort of "established" what the most important meaning could be?

Or is this alltogether too crazy?

Liebe Grüße!


Verfasst: 16. Nov 2004, 03:12
von Rilke Fan
Hi Ingrid,

You are so right, Ingrid. We must be careful not to turn our translation into an interpretation. Of course, this means we have double the work! First we must try to translate a poem, and then we must try to interpret it separately, or perhaps rubbish versa!

You are also quite right when you say that apparently Rilke didn’t mind the possibility of being misunderstood, for indeed his words were so often ambiguous, which I think quite often was indeed his intent!!

After working on this almost all day, and with your help, I have come up with what I think is a fairly literal translation, which leaves the ambiguity of Rilke’s words.

NOTHING can be compared. For how can we
express that which is not totally complete in itself?
We name nothing. All we can do is endure
and realize that: here a sparkle, there a glimpse
has perhaps touched us in such a way as though
precisely that within it lived which is our life.
Whoever tries to resist will have no world. And
whoever grasps too much, the Eternal will pass by.
Now and then on such longs nights, we seem to be
out of danger, distributed in equal, almost weightless
parts among the stars. How they urge us on.


1. I think that the word “expressed" works well for “auszusagen" (in place of “subsumed.”)

2. In order to make the meaning of the first line more clear, I would prefer to say something like:

“Nothing is like something else.”

But that would probably be more of an interpretation than a translation, don’t you think?

3. I really liked your words in the second line, “utterly on its own,” but I chose what I thought was a more literal translation, “totally complete in itself,” although I’m not completely sure about this. What do you think?

4. “Wir nennen nichts” is still somewhat unclear to me. No matter how you say it, there is still ambiguity. Does he, in fact, mean that we DO or we DO NOT name nothing???? Based on the line that follows, I think he is playing with words, but in fact means that we do NOT name nichts, which would be a double negative in English if you were to say it that way. You would have to use the word “anything” instead of “nothing.”

5. I liked the idea behind the word “traversed” and considered using it in place of “touched,” but I don’t think it would really be a literal translation. What do you think?

6. I really, really liked your choice of the words “the essence of our life.” However, I went with a more literal translation. Still, I’m uncertain. Which of the following choices do you think works the best for that line? I really struggled trying to decide between the first three, especially "C" which I really, really like, if you think that is a literal translation.

A. as though precisely that within it lived which is our life.
B. as though within it lived precisely that which is our life.
C. as though the very essence of our life lived within it.

D. as though within precisely that lived which is our life.
E. as though within precisely that existed which is our life.
F. as if precisely that within lived which is our life.
G. as if precisely that within existed which is our life.

7. I couldn’t decide whether to say “will be passed by the Eternal” or “the Eternal will pass by.” What do you think?

8. I liked your “at times’ but went with “now and then” instead. Actually, I thought that the word “meanwhile” would sound the best, but I didn’t find that as a choice for “zuweilen.”

9. Because the word “gross” can have so many different meanings and translations into English, I really had no idea which word to use. I wasn’t sure if the word “gross” was meant to describe the size of the night (in which case huge, vast, or immense would probably work well,) or if it was meant to describe the “kind” of night (great or grand in the sense of being wonderful) or if it could be used to describe the “length” of the night, which is what I have gone with in using the word “long.”

What do you think?

Liebe Grüße!


P.S. Ramaswamy, your comments would also be very welcome, as would those of anyone else!!

Verfasst: 16. Nov 2004, 06:06
von Rilke Fan
The more I read through my choices in #6, the more I think I should have chosen "B:"

...there a glimpse has perhaps touched us in such a way
as though within it lived precisely that which is our life.

What do you think, Ingrid?

Viele Grüße,


Verfasst: 17. Nov 2004, 11:43
von stilz
Hallo, Linda!

Now you have set me working – oh, really, it is no easy task to translate Rilke!!!

NOTHING can be compared.

I realize the difficulty with the German “nichts”, which can mean the “substantial something” that is called “Nichts”, but can also mean (and I think does here) the negation of “something”, which would be “not anything”.

For how can we
express that which is not totally complete in itself?

I don’t think that “complete” would work:
“Was ist nicht ganz mit sich allein” I would translate “What is not totally alone with itself” --- meaning “Is there anything that is not totally alone, by itself?”

“was je auszusagen” --- that is very difficult to translate, I still feel that my first attempt, “state” could work.
“aussagen” means something like “make a statement about something”, it is a very matter of fact-word, “express” seems too … well, expressive to me!
“was je auszusagen” --- what can one state, at any time

We name nothing.

I think that again, “nichts” here means “not anything”, so then we would have only one negation:
We name not anything.

All we can do is endure

why don’t you want the more literal “we may only endure”? Isn’t there a difference between things I can do and those I am allowed to do?

and realize that: here a sparkle, there a glimpse
has perhaps touched us in such a way

well, “touched” would be “berührt”, which to me is somehow more substantial than Rilke’s “gestreift” --- therefore I wanted to say “brushed against us”, but I don’t know if you can say that, I just made it up, perhaps it is an impossible expression?
You suggested “traverse” --- but that means something like “go through”, whereas “streifen” is touch only slightly, on the outside...

as though within it lived precisely that which is our life.

Now, that is really wonderful and much better than my “essence”, which indeed would have been too much of an interpretation!

Whoever tries to resist will have no world. And
whoever grasps too much, the Eternal will pass by.

I think that’s more literal, Rilke also has the Eternal as an active subject and the “too much grasper” as the passive object. And perhaps if you really speak English well, there would be no difficulty in realizing at once that “whoever” is accusative, even if it stands at the beginning of the sentence?

Now and then

well, that is of course a literal translation in everyday-English, but the German “zuweilen” is not any more used in everyday-German, it has a poetical quality to it that I miss in “meanwhile” or “now and then”; that’s why I came up with “at times”, but there still may be a better word?

on such long nights,

Oh, “groß” is really, really difficult.
Is it the kind or the size of the night Rilke refers to?
I personally think “groß” means some kind of quality where “große” thoughts and feelings are encouraged to touch us --- of course there will be stars, they are in the poem in the last line… and when there are stars the sky seems to be “groß”, and we feel diminished… And our “important” everyday-problems are suddenly diminished as well…
And then there is the great mystery, where do we come from, why are we here at all…
Lots of thoughts and feelings like that come to me as a subtext of Rilke’s “große Nächte” --- is there any single English word with a similar quality?

”immense” or “vast” --- they sound more like “riesig” which seems to be --- well, a little like showing off, or being proud of the immensity… “groß” is a very unpretentious word for a great thing, I don’t know if there is an English word with this quality.

we seem to be
out of danger, distributed in equal, almost weightless
parts among the stars.

This passage I like very much --- When I tried “light” I realized that there is a double meaning to the English “light” , it also could mean “hell”, and that would be the first assoziation if connected to the stars. “almost weightless” is wonderful!!!

How they urge us on.

I think that could be a good translation, if “wie drängen sie” means “wie drängen sie uns weiter” --- well, I feel that here we should have an interpretation first.
I must confess I do not really feel sure about this last line…

Wie drängen sie.

Hallo, Ihr anderen hier im Forum, seid Ihr noch da, oder war das zuviel englisch?
Bitte um Hilfe für diesen letzten Teil des Gedichtes – wir sind wie den Sternen ausgeteilt in solchen großen Nächten (von ihnen zu empfangen oder ihnen zu geben?), und (deshalb?) wie außer Gefahr (Gefahr, zuviel zu begreifen und deshalb das Ewige vorbeigehen zu lassen?) --- und was bedeutet dieses „drängen“?

Oh, was für eine Zwickmühle, ich möchte diese Zeilen so gern begreifen, ist das schon „zuviel begreifen wollen“, sodaß ich dann das Ewige dieses Gedichtes verpasse?

Mit lieben Grüßen


Verfasst: 17. Nov 2004, 20:19
von Rilke Fan
Hi Ingrid,

Wow! Lots to think about here! Your comments really helped me to more fully understand this poem, as well as some of the words. It may take me a day or two to digest it all and to get back with further thoughts.

Hoffentlich werden auch andere im Forum uns weiter helfen mit den letzen Zeilen!

Liebe Grüße!


Verfasst: 18. Nov 2004, 20:59
von Paula

a long time ago I learned english at school , so it isn`t very good . I like these poem very much and so I will try to discuss with you about it.
"...Und wer zuviel begreift
dem geht das Ewige vorbei. Zuweilen
in solchen großen Nächten sind wir wie
außer Gefahr, in gleichen leichten Teilen
den Sternen ausgeteilt. Wie drängen sie. ..."
"groß" could also mean "a long time", "never ending"... you don`t see any ligt of the day and could be (or feel) like a star yourself. It`s like laying at the meadow at night and look at the dark heaven with stars . You could have the impression to fly into the stars and to be part of it . It´s like a "black hole" (?schwarzes Loch?) . You haven`t to think about sorrows, problems... in these moments. You be like a part of the space... And this is the meaning of real life. If you think about your daily life, you lost this great moment... ("wer zuviel begreift...")

I hope, you can understand my ideas - because my english isn`t very good .

What do you think about my ideas ?

Viele Grüße , Paula :lol: