In Translation

By Norbert Ruebsaat | August 2, 2006


While hiking in the mountains in a part of Canada called the Kootenays a young woman told the young man she was with that when she died she wanted her ashes to be strewn in the alpine streamlet beside which they were walking. Small cutthroat trout darted in and out of the shadows created by the streamlet’s overhanging banks which were composed of thick shrub growth heather and alpine mosses and the streamlet flowed through a valley of the kind left by glaciers that, when they recede (as they did from this valley approximately twelve thousand years ago) feed a small lake, called a tarn. Over time, the tarn becomes separated from the glacier (its melting edge is called a “foot,”) the silt-laden waters of which continue to feed the tarn in the form of streamlets like the one beside which the young woman and her companion were walking. In spring, which is when trout spawn (at this altitude this means late June), the trout deposit eggs in miniature sandbanks where the current is swift enough to supply the eggs with a continuous flow of fresh water and not swift enough to wash the eggs away. In the place where the young woman wanted her ashes strewn the streamlet was less than a metre wide; if you straddled it your boots would sink to the ankles into the heather and moss on either bank, and your shadow would darken the water enough to give you a clearer view of the spawning cutthroat. It’s unclear how trout make it to these high glacial valleys (named cirques by geologists) and into the tarns which the glaciers leave behind and which gradually transform the cirques into lush alpine valleys. The creek along whose precipitous edges the man and the woman had hiked to reach this place is called Shannon, and the tarn-cum lake which it empties, and into which the streamlet where the woman wanted her ashes strewn flows, is called Shannon also.


In Rainer Maria Rilke’s sonnet Römische Fontäne (Roman Fountain) the two bodies of water are not a glacier and a tarn-cum-alpine lake but two marble basins, one rising on a pillar out of the other. The water spews from the spout on top of the upper basin and spills over its marble rim into the lower one. Rilke uses an interesting image to describe this: the upper basin’s water quietly “speaks” while descending into the water of the one below which awaits it in silent response. The German word for this receptive silence is entgegenschweigend, which means “to silent in the other’s direction.” “To silent” is, in other words, a transitive verb. The lower, receptive, waiting water, “concurrently in its hollowed hand”, shows the upper waters (in reflection) the sky which, behind greenery and darkness, appears to the latter like a foreign substance.

In the first tercet, then, the upper water reclines “without homesickness” in the lower one’s “beautiful shell,” spreads itself lazily in concentric circles and only in the final tercet, dreamily and in sporadic droplets, lowers itself along strands of moss to the “final mirror” which causes the upper first basin to smile with transcendence. Here is my translation of the poem.

Two basins, one ascending from the other

out of an ancient rounded marble rim,

and from the topmost, water quietly inclining

t’ward water, still, awaiting it below,

sending its silence to the softly speaking one

and secretly, inside its hollowed hand,

describing sky behind greenery and darkness

as if referring to an unknown substance;

calm, expanding in the beautiful shell

in widening circles which express no homeward longing,

and sometimes, dreamily, in droplets

rappelling down along the mossy strands

toward the final mirror which from below

softly transforms its basin into smiles.

I did not realize until finishing the translation that it is not the waiting water in the second basin, but the arriving water from the first basin that “silences in the direction” of the second, which then “speaks” and shows the former the sky (which, in turn, waits “behind greenery and darkness”). The word gleichsam, which I initially translated as “concurrently,” can also in German mean, “as if.” “Sky,” in German, is Himmel, which means, also, Heaven. The word “homesickness,” it turns out, does not scan well.

Roman Names

The young man and the young woman married. The woman, who had grown up in Germany and had come to Canada initially to help her sister care for her young children, decided after a time that she loved the man and the new country enough to leave her homeland and immigrate. The two went on many trips into the British Columbia mountains, trips during which the young woman, who was at times a stolid hiker and usually walked behind the man while moving through the lower mountain reaches, became light-footed when she arrived at the treeline. She would bound ahead of the man then over talus and bared rock faces like a chamois and he would look at her far ahead, outlined and tiny against a granite ascent, and he would fall in love with her across the distance. The woman explained her lightfootedness by saying that when she reached treeline and could see far she felt lighter than air, and no longer feared the gravities and constrictions—fears, terrors, thoughts, enclosures, darkening clumps of language—which weighed down her daily valley life.

Rilke came into their lives again later when the woman, who had become a composer (and who had left the man to conduct her own life) asked the man to translate another poem by the German poet because she wanted to use it in a piece she was composing, called Für Dich, “For You.” Here is the translation the man prepared:

How shall I hold my soul so that it

does not touch yours? How shall I lift it

up over you so it reaches other things?

Oh, how I long to store my soul

with something dark and lost

in a foreign becalmed place that does not

vibrate when your depths vibrate.

But all that touches you and touches me

contracts us like a bow

that from two strings draws forth a single voice.

Upon which instrument are we two strung?

And who, pray, is the fiddler who holds us in his hand?

Oh sweetful song.

The man and the woman have a daughter, whom they raised together until the daughter was thirteen. The daughter went on hikes with her parents when she was small—even riding up once in a pack on her father’s back to a former tarn below Kokanee Glacier where her parents took turns changing her diapers as she lay on soft alpine heather and moss by a streamlet—and is now grown up and has two young sons whose names, some people say, sound Roman.

The word “Kokanee” comes from kikinee, a Shushwap (Interior Salish) First Nations word which refers to the small landlocked sockeye salmon that turn blood red in fall and spawn in the creeks feeding Kootenay and other lakes in the British Columbia Interior; it names also a species of red berry that grows in local mountain regions and resembles fish eggs. The word’s etymology is uncertain but it is said by some to derive from the sound kikinee bushes make when one walks through them.

1216 words


  • Norbert Ruebsaat

    Norbert Ruebsaat teaches Media and Communication Studies at Columbia Collage and Simon Fraser University in Vancouver B.C. He publishes regularly in periodicals and newspapers, has produced documentaries for CBC Radio’s Ideas program, and has twice been shortlisted for the CBC Literary Awards in fiction and creative non-fiction.

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