The opening quotation of "Lost in Translation" is from a translation by the German poet Rainer Maria Rilke (1875–1926) of lines 61–64 in the poem "Palme" by the French poet Paul Valéry (1871–1945). Rilke writes, as Merrill quotes:
Diese Tage, die leer dir scheinen und wertlos für das All haben Wurzeln zwischen den Steinen und trinken dort überall.
These lines in English would be "These days, which seem empty / and entirely fruitless to you, / have roots between the stones / and drink from everywhere." This passage announces two of the subjects of the poem: translation and search for meaning. The first three lines of the poem itself then create an atmosphere of anticipation as a boy waits in "daylight" and "lamplight" for a "puzzle which keeps never coming." The juxtaposition of "tense" and "oasis" in the description of the table-top in line 4 suggests that the puzzle will provide pleasure for the boy, but pain if it never arrives. This juxtaposition is extended into the next two lines as life becomes either a rising "mirage" or something falling "into place."
In lines 8 through 11, the speaker lists the activities the boy engages in during his "summer without parents," cared for by his governess. The activities do not seem pleasurable to the boy, as he notes the "sour windfalls of the orchard" behind them. The speaker indicates the real cause of his unease when he notes that the boy's parents are absent, suggesting that this is a "puzzle" to the boy, "or should be." The stanza ends where it began, with the boy's impatience over the missing puzzle, which he notes in his diary ("Line-a-Day").
In the second stanza, the speaker notes that the boy is in love with his governess, whose husband died in Verdun, a World War I battle. The religious governess, "Mademoiselle," prays for him, as does a French priest, and helps him put on puppet shows. She talks with him at night about pre–World War II tensions in Europe and her "French hopes, German fears." Mademoiselle knows little more than the "grief and hardship" she has suffered.
The two continue to wait for the puzzle as even Mademoiselle's watch becomes impatient, "[throwing] up its hands." She tries to alleviate the boy's "steaming bitterness" with sweets, an act that translates as telling him to "have patience, my dear," which is expressed in French ("Patience, chéri") and in German ("Geduld, mein Schatz"), the two languages she has been teaching him.
The lines evoke a memory in the speaker, who digresses in a parenthetical passage to present time.
He notes that the other evening he remembered reading something by Valéry that triggered a memory of Rilke's translation of Valéry's "Palme," which appears at the beginning of the poem. He makes the connection between Valéry's poem and the boy's situation, admitting here that he is the boy. The thought of the tree in that poem, which has "roots between the stones and drink[s] from everywhere," becomes a "sunlit paradigm." It is a model for him of "patience in the blue," ("patience dans l'azur"), a characterization of the slow growth of the palm tree. He goes back to the past when he tries to translate the French words into their German equivalents, asking Mademoiselle hypothetically if he is correct.
In the third stanza, the promised puzzle appears from a New York City shop and has a thousand wooden pieces, smelling like sandalwood. Some pieces have shapes he has seen before in other puzzles, including a "branching palm" that the speaker insists was really there and not just...
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imagined. Mademoiselle excitedly spreads out the pieces that initially look like "incoherent faces in a crowd," before a pattern can be discerned. Each piece will eventually be placed together by "law," the design of the puzzle maker. The "plot thickens" as the pieces interlock and become a story.
In the first line of the fourth stanza, Made-moiselle attends to the puzzle's borders, but the speaker jumps immediately to the future, this time to an evening in London, the past December. People are gathered in "the library" for a demonstration by a psychic. The audience has seen an object hidden in a casket behind a panel before he arrived. The psychic shuts his eyes and tries to visualize the object. He sees something in the object's history that may involve the chopping down of trees, "groaning and cracking" as they approach a lumber mill.
What the psychic has been describing is the process of making a puzzle piece from plywood. He suggests that the process appears to be complex, but it is not complex compared with the "hazard and craft," the fate ("karma"), that made its original matter. This process of making a puzzle piece, along with arranging the pieces to form the puzzle, can be likened to the creative process of the poet. After the psychic identifies the piece, he opens his eyes and is applauded. The speaker, however, feels an unidentified sense of dread, perhaps a result of the contemplation of "karma," and immediately turns his attention once more to the past.
The next stanza continues the focus on creation as it opens with a repetition of part of the first line of the previous stanza, with Mademoiselle forming the borders of the puzzle. The speaker suggests that the pieces have their own artistic energy, as they are "align[ing] themselves" into a scene of the earth or sky, taking over the act of creation. He describes the straight-edged pieces as naïve scientists, studying the origins of the universe, "whose views clash." The others, "nomad inlanders," begin to arrange themselves into different shapes that in time become "sophisticated unit[s]."
Eventually, by suppertime, clear pictures have formed and come to life for Mademoiselle and the boy. In one cloud, they see a sheik with a "flashing sword hilt" and, in the other, a "backward-looking slave or page-boy," whose feet are not yet complete, helping a woman off a camel. Made-moiselle mistakenly thinks the boy is the woman's son. The speaker finds some crucial pieces just before bedtime, which help "orient" the images. He leaves the puzzle with a yellow section, which "promises" to be a "sumptuous tent."
The boy writes in his diary that he has begun the puzzle and peeks at Mademoiselle's letter to the priest, in which she has written "this innocent mother, this poor child, what will become of them?" ("cette innocente mère / Ce pauvre enfant, que deviendront-ils?"), referring, most likely, to the boy and his mother. In another parenthetical digression, the speaker notes that when he was a boy, he did not try to find out more about Mademoiselle, who was French only by marriage. A friend later reveals that the speaker's own French has a German accent ("Tu as l'accent allemand"), taught by Mademoiselle, who was of English and Prussian ancestry. The speaker does not find this out until years later, however. He recognizes how Made-moiselle must have suffered, being caught between the German and French worlds just as World War II was breaking out. The speaker returns to the past as Mademoiselle says goodnight to the boy, telling him to "sleep well" ("schlaf wohl") in German and calling him "darling" ("chéri") in French. She kisses him and makes the sign of the cross, a Catholic blessing, on his forehead.
In these stanzas, the speaker focuses on the world of the puzzle as "it assembles on the shrinking Green." He describes the "noblest" slaves ("avatars") with their plumes, scars, and vests trimmed with fur ("vair"). In another scene in the picture, "old wives" ease boredom with a narcotic made from hemp ("kef") and sweet drinks, insisting that if Allah wills ("Insh'Allah"), their straying husbands will tire of their mistresses or kill them.
The speaker digresses for a moment, suggesting that this is hardly a subject for "the Home," and notes that the puzzle is a recreation of a painting allegedly done by a follower ("a minor lion") of the French Orientalist artist Jean-Léon Gérôme (1824–1904). He asks "dear Richard" (most likely Richard Howard, to whom Merrill dedicated the poem) to investigate the true author.
In stanza 11, the speaker introduces Houri, one of the beautiful maidens living with the blessed in the Islamic paradise, and Afreet, an evil demon in Arabic mythology. In a play on the word thieves, he calls the two "thick as Thebes," referring to the ancient capital of Upper Egypt. Both try to claim the boy in the puzzle, who cannot decide "whom to serve" and has not yet found his feet. The suggestion here is that the boy in the puzzle represents the boy in the poem, who is torn between two divorcing parents. The speaker hopes the boy will find "that piece of Distance" from this troubled situation, the "Eternal Triangle": father, mother, child.
The puzzle is done, except for the sky; the blue pieces become fragments revolting against being placed into a pattern, not knowing how they will fit together. They have "quite a task" arranging the pieces of "Heaven," but they eventually do. And then the puzzle is complete. The boy's missing feet have been found under the table, and the last pieces have been put into place.
With the puzzle complete, Mademoiselle returns to her work on the puppet shows, and "all too soon" the puzzle is dismantled. When lifted, the puzzle stays together in some parts and separates in others. Each image in the puzzle eventually falls apart, including the tent, which appears as a creamy sauce ("mousseline"). Only the green top of the table, "on which the grown-ups gambled" remains as the day ends. The speaker sees analogies, since he is a poet, between the green table and the "green dusk"—a false coincidence, since he can construct his own memory of the event. He also notes his "mangy tiger safe on his bared hearth," analogous to the tiger in the puzzle. These analogies, or similarities between unlike things, reinforce the boy's connection to the puzzle.
The speaker explains that before the puzzle was boxed and sent back to the shop on New York City's Upper East Side (the "mid-Sixties"), one piece "contrived," as if by its own intention, "to stay in the boy's pocket." Finding further analogies between the puzzle and life, the speaker admits that last puzzle pieces often went missing, like the high notes of Maggie Teyte, an English soprano (1888–1976) famous for her singing of French songs; the popularity of collies; a house; and bits of Made-moiselle's "truth."
Back in the present, the speaker notes that he has spent the last few days searching in Athens for Rilke's translation of Valéry's "Palme." He notes the difficulty that Rilke had, or any translator has, in the process of translation: how much of the original he had to sacrifice in order to portray "its underlying sense"; how much the "warm Romance" of the original "faded"; how the nouns were exaggerated and thus lonelier, cut off from the source. The German accent mark ("umlaut"), representative of Rilke's language, can only "peep" and "hoot," since it is like an "owlet," without maturity, becoming an echo ("reverberation") that nonetheless is "fill[ed] with stars."
The speaker ends with a series of contradictions, asking whether the original is lost or buried, "one more missing piece." But then he insists that "nothing's lost" or else all our experience with the world necessitates translation and that "every bit of us is lost in it. / (Or found-." In parenthesis, he reflects on the end of a relationship with a former lover ("S"), surprised at the resulting peacefulness. The final image is of the loss of that relationship, which becomes "a self-effacing tree," the context of a poem perhaps, "turn[ing] the waste," as does the tree, into "shade and fiber, milk and memory." Here the speaker reflects on the power of art to ease a sense of loss and "translate" sorrow into comforting images of shade and sustenance. This last image ties to the loss experienced by the boy in the first stanza, when he suffers the absence of his parents and turns to the construction of a puzzle to provide him with comfort.