Reading Russian Poetry in Translation

I Love Russian Poetry, But I Don’t Know Russian

I get a real feeling of inadequacy every time I read Russian poetry in translation. How can one really appreciate a country’s poetry unless one speaks the language? What Russian I know relates only to, of all things, chess. I used to play international correspondence chess in competition, so I had to understand certain terms such as “position drawn” or “resigns” or the names of the pieces in several languages. That doesn’t help me understand what Marina Tsvetaeva meant in the above illustration. I’ve read Tsvetaeva and several of her countrymen in translation. Most recently, I read Arseny Tarkovsky’s collection I Burned at the Feast.

Again and again, I would run into stanzas that seemed to open vistas for me—only to wonder how the poem read in the original language. Here are a few examples:

A word is only a skin,
a thin film of human lots,
and any line in your poem
can sharpen the knife of your fate.

Or this:

Something was leading us.
Built by miracle, whole cities split—
like mirages before our eyes.
And mint bowed beneath our feet,
and birds hovered above our heads,
and fish nosed against the river’s flow,
and the sky unscrolled above the land…

while behind us, fate followed
like a madman with a razor in his hand.

Russians love the poetry of Pushkin, but I have no idea of what he sounds like in the original Russian. Sometime in the next year, I will read Babette Deutsch’s translation of Eugene Onegin. But is it really any good? Some people say it is, but I am at the mercy of whatever translation I select.

 

In Ignatievo Forest

Russian Forest Scene

Today I have made the acquaintance of a major Russian poet named Arseny Tarkovsky. If that last name is more than a little familiar to you, it is because his son Andrei Tarkovsky is one of the greatest postwar Russian filmmakers. Curiously, Arseny’s first published collection came out in 1962, when the poet was 55 years old; and his son Andrei made him famous by quoting his poems in his films Mirror (1974) and Stalker (1979). (And Stalker is one of my favorite films—ever!)

The following poem, “Ignatievo Forest” was written in 1935. According to the notes in the collection I am reading, it deals with the difficult relationship with the poet’s first wife, Maria Ivanovna Vishnyakova (1907-1979), mother of Andrei, whom he divorced in 1937.

Ignatievo Forest

The last leaves in self-immolation
burn and rise to sky. The whole forest here
lives and breathes the same irritation
we lived and breathed in our last year.

In your tear-blurred eyes the path’s a mirror
as the gloomy flood-plain mirrors the shrubs.
Don’t fuss, do not disturb, don’t touch
or threaten the wood’s wet quiet. Here,

the old life breathes. Just listen:
in damp grass, slimy mushrooms appear.
Slugs gnaw their way to the core,
though a damp itch still tingles the skin.

You’ve known how love is like a threat:
when I come back, you’ll wish you were dead.
The sky shivers in reply, holds a maple like a rose.
Let it burn hotter—till it almost reaches our eyes.

The collection I am reading is called I Burned at the Feast. The book is overdue at the L.A. Central Library, and I cannot endure the thought of returning it until I am finished with it, even though it will cost me a few bucks.