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.


The Poets and the Horse Collar

A Horse Collar

A Horse Collar

Cottle, in his life of Coleridge, relates the following amusing incident:–’I led my horse to the stable, where a sad perplexity arose. I removed the harness without difficulty; but, after many strenuous attempts, I could not remove the collar. In despair, I called for assistance, when Mr. Wordsworth brought his ingenuity into exercise; but, after several unsuccessful efforts, he relinquished the achievement as a thing altogether impracticable. Mr. Coleridge now tried his hand, but showed no more skill than his predecessor; for, after twisting the poor horse’s neck almost to strangulation, and the great danger of his eyes, he gave up the useless task, pronouncing that the horse’s head must have grown since the collar was put on; for he said,“it was a downright impossibility for such a huge os frontis to pass through so narrow an aperture.” Just at this instant, a servant-girl came near, and understanding the cause of our consternation, “Ha! master,” said she, “you don’t go about the work in the right way: you should do like this,” when, turning the collar upside down, she slipped it off in a moment, to our great humiliation and wonderment, each satisfied afresh that there were heights of knowledge in the world to which we had not yet attained.—William Evans Burton, The Cyclopædia of Wit and Humor, 1898

“I Did Not Want To Become Slight and Fantastic”

As I … meditated the direction of modern poetry, my discouragement blackened. It seemed to me that Mallarmé and his followers, renouncing intelligibility in order to concentrate on the music of poetry, had turned off the road into a narrowing lane…. Idea had gone, now meter had gone, imagery would have to go; perhaps at last words might have to go or give up their meaning, nothing be left but musical syllables…. I was standing there like a God-forsaken man-of-letters, making my final decision not to become a “modern.” I did not want to become slight and fantastic, abstract and unintelligible.—Robinson Jeffers, Preface to Roan Stallion