Black Cat

a poem derived from “Schwarze Katze” by Rainer Maria Rilke, as translated by Martin Hill Ortiz

A crash! I spot a ghost that bumps
Eliciting my startled stare.
A shadow shifts; a black pelt jumps—
Soon all I see is darkness there.

In fullest rage, the mad thing stirs.
It stomps then springs atop the chaise.
Together cat and cushion purr;
Commixing so that nothing stays.

All cats are known, with eyes ablaze,
To skulk about, their missions hidden.
They menace with a single gaze
Which turns on you as though hell-bidden:

Its face and mine connect mid-air
And soon I see inside my soul.
Its honey eyes surround and snare.
In amber I’ve been swallowed whole.
Such an astonishing conceit
To be an insect obsolete.



The creation of the above involved an experiment. Could I make a decent translation out of a poem from a language which I do not know by using Google Translate? I chose “Schwarze Katze” by Rainer Maria Rilke for four reasons. I enjoy Rilke, even though I have only read his poems translated into English. I do not know German, which is necessary for my experiment. I don’t remember the poem as translated. The poem is short; I would waste less time if the experiment failed.

A fifth reason: the poem is public domain.

I began with the poem in German:


Schwarze Katze

Ein Gespenst ist noch wie eine Stelle,
dran dein Blick mit einem Klange stößt;
aber da an diesem schwarzen Felle
wird dein stärkstes Schauen aufgelöst:

wie ein Tobender, wenn er in vollster
Raserei in Schwarze stampft,
jählings am benehmenden Gepolster
einer Zelle aufhört und verdampft.

Alle Blicke, die sie jemals trafen,
scheint sie also an sich zu verhehlen,
um darüber drohend und verdrossen
zuzuschauern und damit zu schlafen.
Doch auf einmal kehrt sie, wie geweckt,
ihr Gesicht und mitten in das deine:
und da triffst du deinen Blick im geelen
Amber ihrer runden Augensteine
unerwartet wieder: eingeschlossen
wie ein ausgestorbenes Insekt.


I stuck the whole poem in Google Translate and got out this (below). A couple of words (jöpping and geelen) did not translate at all and the product sounds something like a poem written by a computer.


Black Cat

A ghost is still like a place,
your gaze comes with a sound;
but because of this black skins
is your strongest looking resolved:

like a raven when he is in the fullest
Rage in black stamps,
jöpping at the beheaded padded
a cell stops and evaporates.

All the glances they ever met,
it seems to conceal it,
about threatening and sickening
watch and sleep with it.
But suddenly she returns, as if awakened,
her face and in the middle of her:
and there you meet your gaze in the geelen
Amber of her round eye stones
unexpected again: included
like an extinct insect.


I went through the above poem and translated each word through Google, looking for alternate choices to restore sense. I got what I have below.


Black Cat

A specter is yet like a location
tuned your glance with one clanging bump;
however, since at this black pelt
becomes your strongest cancelled show:

As a raging madman, he in fullest
Rage in black stomping
Suddenly on the cushion behaving
of one cell stops and evaporates.

All of them glance, that they ever met
Seems they hence in to conceal
around about menacingly and sullen
watch and thereby his sleep.
but suddenly she returns, as if aroused
Face (vision) and midway in yours
and there meet you your view in the soul.
The amber of her round eye stones
unexpected again; entrapped
like an extinct insect.


This was my template. From this I could figure out the meanings of the lines well enough that I could use an English thesaurus to replace words to tell the story well, and to restore something of the rhythm and rhyme of the original.

Did I succeed? As a translation, I doubt it. The thing is: I don’t know. I suppose I could compare it to other English translations. I am not even sure I got the rhythm and rhyme scheme right. Do those words that end the same in German rhyme?

However, I like the final poem that came out and is at the very top of this post. It captures the sly menace and mysterious of our feline masters. I credit Rilke for the ideas and story. Or I might have imposed my own ideas and story on the writing. Maybe Google Translate is a dangerous thing.



Martin Hill Ortiz is a researcher and professor at the Ponce University of Health Sciences in Ponce, PR where he lives with his wife and son. He has three novels published by small presses: A Predatory Mind (Loose Leaves Publishing, 2013),  Never Kill A Friend, (Ransom Note Press, 2015), and A Predator’s Game (Rook’s Page, 2016). 

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7 Responses

  1. Leo Zoutewelle

    Bravo! for a very interesting experiment. Yes, Google Translate is a very dangerous thing, even though still very useful. I liked your “final” version: a very well worded text about cats. I, too, cannot decide if your experiment was successful, but the whole effort was definitely worth the time you have put into it. Yes, bravo, and good luck in further efforts like that!

  2. Mark F. Stone

    Martin, I don’t know German well enough to judge the translation, but I do applaud this very creative experiment! You have put a lot of work into this. I think you should compare your final product to other translations so you can see how they compare. Mark

  3. Monty

    I find it hard to believe, Martin, that the following has escaped your attention . . in your liner-notes, you’ve used words such as: “Could I make a decent translation out of..” . . No! It wasn’t possible for you to make a translation – decent or otherwise – ‘coz it wasn’t you doing the translating . . it was Google. Your following words exemplify this: “I went through the poem and translated each word through Google” . . you didn’t translate each word; you didn’t translate ANY word; you pressed certain buttons on a keyboard, and Google did the translating . . not you.

    For you (or anyone) to do the translating, you have to know the other language intimately. Hence, you should qualify your remarks thus: “Could Google make a decent translation out of..” and: “I went through the poem and let Google translate each word”. See? It was a joint effort between you and Google: You done the pressing of buttons (‘coz you weren’t able to translate) . . and Google done the translating (‘coz it couldn’t physically press the buttons).

    Although we can only place a certain amount of trust in Google Translate at any time, it’s not a “dangerous thing” . . but it becomes dangerous when one tries to assign it to the sanctity of poetry.

  4. Martin Hill Ortiz

    While I respect your point of view, I see this experiment as more of a science fiction creation process, in the sense of a Brave New World, both utopia and dystopia.
    I allowed Google to be my extended mind, an instant two-language dictionary.
    I believe all of us have extended our range of thought and intellectual skills using such technology.
    Would you say that words weren’t your words if you chose them from a thesaurus? And if thesaurus book doesn’t seem enough of a technology, thesaurus on-line.
    Google in a sense did not translate. Google gave me garbage from what is probably a very good poem. But among that trash heap there were jewels and more than a thread of sense.
    Isn’t then translation also building meaning?
    When I do translations from languages I know, Spanish to English, for example, I make such decisions all the time.

    • Monty

      You raise a very pertinent and thought-provoking comparison, Martin, between the usages of ‘google-translate’ and ‘online thesauri’ . . which impelled me to attribute some serious thought towards both such usages. After which, I concluded that, on the surface, they do indeed appear to be about the performing of similar tasks to achieve similar results . . but with a slight difference.

      When we use a thesaurus, we have to’ve first thought of a word ourselves, after which we can choose to find further synonyms if we wish (I say this as a committed and unashamed thesaurus user); but when we use an online-translator for a language we don’t speak, then we don’t have to’ve first thought of our own word (how can we if we don’t speak the language?); we’re relying solely on the translator to GIVE us that word. Once we’re given it, then of course we’re free to throw it into a thesaurus to find synonyms . . but it wasn’t our own word we threw in!

      But, forgetting for a moment the ‘translating’ side of things, it’s still a highly-valid point that you make on thesaurus-usage alone . . If we think of a word, from which a thesaurus then gives us another word – a new word – have we got the right to call that new word our own? There’s plenty of food for thought there.

      I can assure you that I didn’t wish to demean or dismiss your ‘experiment’; I’m sure it was a fascinating and revealing task to perform. But I had in mind the following . . . You may or may not’ve noticed that there’ve been several attempted ‘translations’ on these pages in recent weeks (with truly mixed results), one of which was from the French: which I happen to speak (having lived in France for the last 20 years). Thus I was able to see immediately the blatant anomalies in that translation . . which revealed that the author obviously spoke no French at all, and had obviously used an online-translator. Hence my thoughts were influenced by that (if you wish to read it, it’s under the title of: ‘A Poem by Michelangelo’ : translated(?) by Michael Coy . . and it elicited some interesting comments below it).

      I must confess that until the recent spate on these pages, I’d hitherto paid no attention to poetry-translations; and was hence unaware of the criteria – the etiquette – for one to be qualified to make such translations. Before then, I’d always assumed that such translations were made for the following reason:

      A poetry-lover with a native-English tongue happens to speak another language sufficiently well enough to read and understand poetry in that language. One day, he comes across a poem which deeply affects him: overwhelms him, even . . to such an extent that he decides: “This is such a powerful poem, I believe it should be made available to the English-speaking world; I’m gonna translate it”. And he does so, with what he feels to be a sense of duty to the original poem. He has no interest in making it a ‘rhyming translation’ with which to impress readers; he cares only to make it as close as possible – in text; meaning; feeling – to the original.

      One may call my assumption ‘fanciful’ or ‘idealistic’, but I really did assume, Martin, that that’s how translations occurred. And in my own ideal world, with my observance of the pure sanctity of poetry . . that would be the general basis for all poetry-translations. Thus I’ve been slightly dismayed in recent weeks to learn that not only is this not the case . . but it’s nowhere near the case! I’ve simply been naive.

      But, we don’t always get what we want, do we?

  5. SHV

    As a poet and translator of Rilke, and someone working on this piece in particular in my current project, I am intrigued and impressed by what I see as your stunning success at communicating some of the core elements of this favorite work of mine. I’d love to exchange more, if you’d be open. I see my email won’t be published here publicly, but please do be in touch if you’re able to see it in your position as author here.

    In short, this is a poem in its own right, and a really lovely companion in English to Rilke’s original German.


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