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.



Russian Writer Kirill Kobrin

There is an Italian saying which applies here: “Traddutore, traditore!” Or, in other words, to translate is to betray.

Today I finished reading the Dalkey Press Edition of Kirill Kobrin’s Eleven Prague Corpses. It was a work that hovered on the edge of brilliance. The author was even conversant with G. K. Chesterton, one of my favorite authors. The only problem was that I had a feeling that one of two things was happening:

  1. The work was badly translated from the original Russian.
  2. The author has problems following a story through to its conclusion.

I tend to think the Option 1 is the case here. Each of the eleven stories that make up this volume aroused my interest, but usually stumbled before the close. Throughout, I had this feeling that Kobrin is the kind of writer I really like, at least from what I have been able to determine.

Old Soviet Poster: “I Redeemed My Guilt Before the Motherland. There Will Be No Return to the Past.”

The above poster was from Kirill Kobrin’s Twitter feed. It caught my eye and I include it here for no particular reason except that I like it. So there!

As for following Kirill’s work in future, I am hopeful that he will take a more active role in translating his own work as he now lives in London and knows English. And presumably, his own English will improve.

I certainly hope so, as I think he has a lot to say.


Hexagram 52

Mountain and Mountain

Mountain and Mountain

It was the late 1960s. My late friend Norm Witty, who was much closer to the hippie scene than I ever was, told me all about the I Ching, also known as The Book of Changes. I was impessed and immediately tried to use it for divination. Essentially, the system involves sixty-four possible hexagrams which involve eight different trigrams in combination. These are: Earth, Mountain, Water, Wind, Thunder, Fire, Lake, and Heaven.

Hexagram 52, for instance,  consists of the two trigrams for Mountain, one above the other. I will summarize this hexagram using diferent translations so that you can see some of the difficulties involved.

John Minford saw it thus:

The back
Is still
As a Mountain;
There is no body.
He walks
In the courtyard,
No Harm,
Nullum malum.

That Latin bit comes from early Jesuit attempts at understanding the I Ching in a Christian light. Minford called the hexagram Stillness and commented: “Stillness in your back. Expect nothing from your life. Wander the courtyard where you see no one. How could you ever go astray?”

In the famous Richard Wilhelm translation, it is called “Keeping Still, Mountain.” He goes on:

KEEPING STILL. Keeping his back still
So that he no longer feels his body.
He goes into the courtyard
And does not see his people.
No blame.

Well, that’s a bit different. As is the version by Richard John Lynn who calls Hexagram 52 Restraint: “Restraint takes place with the back, so one does not obtain [sic] the other person. He goes into that one’s courtyard but does not see him there. There is no blame.”

As there are numerous translations, one wonders whether is as much variation in the original Chinese. Apparently, there is. Although one of its uses is for divination, the vastly different interpretations in both Chinese and English, for instance, make it all but impossible to be sure.

I’ll stick with the two mountains and forget about bodies in the courtyard. There it is: mountain above mountain. One would think that would be the maximum of stability. Living as I do on the Pacific Ring of Fire, I don’t see mountains as being all that static. They may give that appearance, but there are pressures from below (volcanism) and the side (plate tectonics) that can result in unexpected cataclysms.

Stillness is a nice idea, but you can never be sure.



“It’s Just Catastrophe”

Canadian-Born Poet Anne Carson

Canadian-Born Poet Anne Carson

Some day, if you feel like reading some great ancient Greek tragedies, I recommend you try to find a copy of Anne Carson’s Grief Lessons. She takes four relatively little-known plays by Euripides and turns them into wonderful poems in English, such as the following:

Come here, let me share a bit of wisdom with you.
Have you given much thought to our mortal condition?
Probably not. Why would you? Well, listen.
All mortals owe a debt to death.
There’s no one alive
who can say if he will be tomorrow.
Our fate moves invisibly! A mystery.
No one can teach it, no one can grasp it.
Accept this! Cheer up! Have a drink!
But don’t forget Aphrodite–that’s one sweet goddess.
You can let the rest go. Am I making sense?
I think so. How about a drink.
Put on a garland. I’m sure
the happy splash of wine will cure your mood.
We’re all mortal you know. Think mortal.
Because my theory is, there’s no such thing as life,
it’s just catastrophe.

And here is a kind of prose poem from the February 25, 2016 issue of The New York Review of Books entitled “What To Say of the Entirety”:

What to say of the entirety. The entirety should be smaller. Small enough to say something about. Humans. What if the guy you’re hanging up by this thumbs already has a razorplague of painapples roaming his chest inside. Do you regard that as his own fault? Do you really need to make it worse? Do you think of yourself as a well-loved person? Of course these are separate questions. Like dead salmon and coppermine tailings, separate. So these separations, this anesthesia, we should ponder a bit. Humans. What can you control? Wrong question. Can you treat everything as an emergency without losing the reality of time, which continues to drip, laughtear by laughtear? Where to start? Start in the middle (and why?) so as not to end up there, where for example the torture report ended up after all those years of work. You have to know what you want, know what you think, know where to go. New York City actually. Here we are. Trucks crash by. Or was that another row of doors slammed by gods? They’re soaked, the gods, they’ve tucked their toes up on their thrones as if they don’t know why this is happening. Poor old coxcombs.

I’m still trying to get my head around Anne Carson’s poetry … but then, that’s how I know it’s really good!

Serendipity: “Nothing Perishes”

C. K. Scott Moncrieff, Translator

C. K. Scott Moncrieff, Translator (Painting by Edward Stanley Mercer)

This is a translation of a passage by the Roman poet Ovid from The Metamorphoses. The remarkable thing is that is was made by a thirteen-year-old boy who later grew up to translate Marcel Proust’s multi-volume masterwork, In Search of Lost Time:

Everything is changed but nothing perishes. The spirit wanders, going hence, thither, coming thence, hither and takes possession of any limbs it pleases. With equal ease it goes from beasts into human bodies and from us into beasts, nor in any length of time does it fail. And as wax is easily moulded in new shapes, nor remains as it had been before, nor keeps the same form, but is yet itself the same; so do I teach that the soul is ever the same, but migrates into different shapes.

Although many think that Scott Moncrieff’s translations are growing a little long in the tooth, there is no doubt of their excellence. As Walter Kaiser wrote in The New York Review of Books (June 4, 2015):  “Not surprisingly, Scott Moncrieff’s translations from Latin and Greek in the examination that year [1903] were awarded higher scores than anyone else’s, for it turns out that the astutely ingenious, poetic use of language for which he is celebrated in his great translation of Proust was his from an early age.”


Anglo Saxon Attitudes

Originally, the Phrase Comes from Through the Looking Glass

Originally, the Phrase Comes from Through the Looking Glass

The following scrap of dialogue appears in Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass:

All this was lost on Alice, who was still looking intently along the road, shading her eyes with one hand. ‘I see somebody now!’ she exclaimed at last. ‘But he’s coming very slowly—and what curious attitudes he goes into!’ (For the messenger kept skipping up and down, and wriggling like an eel, as he came along, with his great hands spread out like fans on each side.)

‘Not at all,’ said the King. ‘He’s an Anglo-Saxon Messenger—and those are Anglo-Saxon attitudes. He only does them when he’s happy. His name is Haigha.’ (He pronounced it so as to rhyme with ‘mayor.’)

Angus Wilson wrote a famous satirical novel by the name of Anglo-Saxon Attitudes back in 1956, but I am going to put a slightly different spin on the phrase. I am somewhat surprised that most Americans only read books originally written in English. My late friend Norman Witty was one such: The only exception was for some books written in French, and then he would only read them in French.

There is an Italian phrase—“traddutore, traditore”—whose meaning is that translators are all traitors. I don’t believe that. Some translators are notoriously inept, but they usually get hammered in the reviews. I remember one such translator of Proust’s Within a Budding Grove, the second volume of his In Search of Lost Time, which was translated by James Grieve into In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower. A reviewer for the Times Literary Supplement suggested that one go back to C. K. Scott-Moncrieff’s somewhat prissy rendering which is nearing its centenary.

In my time, I have read many archaic translations, such as Constance Garnett’s of the novels of Dostoyevsky, Ellen Marriage’s of Balzac’s The Human Comedy, and even the dreadful Peter Anthony Motteux translation of Cervantes, which dates back to 1712. It didn’t matter that much. Even a bad translation will help one to appreciate the greatness of Dostoyevsky, Balzac, Cervantes—or anyone else for that matter. There are probably some old chestnuts around that are truly terrible, such as the Portuguese-English phrasebook that Mark Twain published because of its frequent howlers.

Now what I mean by Anglo Saxon Attitudes is a kind of linguistic provincialism, that eschews works from other countries because they were not written in English. I will grant you that English and American literature are remarkably wide, but so is that of other countries. My life would have been relatively impoverished if I had not read the works of Jorge Luis Borges, Euripides, the Icelandic sagas, Gyula Krúdy (a fellow Hungarian), Orhan Pamuk, Mo Yan, Kobo Abe, Stanislaw Lem, Boris and Arkady Strugatsky, Honoré de Balzac, Jorge Amado, or Fernando Pessoa. I suspect that approximately half the books I read were translated from other languages. So I didn’t get the same from them as a native speaker of the original languages, but I venture I got at least 75%, and that 75% has meant—literally—the world to me.