Today’s guest post comes from the poet and translator Alex Cigale. He shares with us two new translations of Osip Mandelstam and a wonderful essay about the difficulties and rewards of translating the “Big Four” of the Russian Silver Age poets – Osip Mandelstam, Anna Akhmatova, Boris Pasternak, and Marina Tsvetaeva. Enjoy!
—Claudia Serea & Loren Kleinman
For our delight, the artist represented
The fainting swoon of lilacs
And the colors’ resonant steps
Across canvas, like scabs, he’d overlaid.
He’d fathomed the density of paint –
Its sun-baked summer, by a violet
brain warmed, by brush dispensed,
Distended into humidity’s palette.
And the shade, the shade made more violet,
A whistle or whip, like a match, flares out.
You’ll announce: the cooks are in the kitchen
Preparing a feast of fattened turtle doves.
There’s only a suggestion of the swings,
And the veils, not yet fully fleshed out,
And these sunny wreckages over which
The wasp’s already taken up dominion.
Художник нам изобразил
Глубокий обморок сирени
И красок звучные ступени
На холст, как струпья, положил.
Он понял масла густоту –
Его запекшееся лето
Лиловым мозгом разогрето,
Расширенное в духоту.
А тень-то, тень всё лиловей,
Свисток иль хлыст, как спичка, тухнет.
Ты скажешь: повара на кухне
Готовят жирных голубей.
И в этом солнечном развале
Уже хозяйничает шмель.
* * *
As I washed up outside in the yard,
The firmament shining with crude stars.
Starlight like salt on the blade of an ax,
And a barrel filled to the brim, cooling.
The gates of the fence padlocked,
And the earth’s strict conscience –
Greater purity than of a blank canvas
You’ll find confirmation for nowhere else.
The star, like salt, melts in the barrel,
And the viscous water grows blacker,
And death more neat, sorrow saltier,
And the earth more truthful, and terrible.
Умывался ночью на дворе –
Твердь сияла грубыми звездами.
Звездный луч – как соль на топоре,
Стынет бочка с полными краями.
На замок закрыты BopoTa,
И земля по совести сурова, –
Чище правды свежего холста
Вряд ли где отыщется основа.
Тает в бочке, словно соль, звезда,
И вода студеная чернее,
Чище смерть, соленее беда,
И земля правдивей и страшнее.
The Big Four; Retranslating Mandelstam, Pasternak, Tvetaeva, and Akhmatova
Each of the so-called “Big Four” of the Russian Silver Age poets – Osip Mandelstam, Anna Akhmatova, Boris Pasternak, and Marina Tsvetaeva – presents particular difficulties in translation. Anna Akhmatova’s essentially miniature verses (even her long poems are written in short parts, assembled out of quatrains) – her lucidity, concreteness of reference, formal grace – that had led the poet and critic Mikhail Kuzmin to characterize the program of the Acmeists with the words “Beautiful Clarity”, accounts, I think, for a great deal of her crowning glory as “a great poet”. It does seem to me, though, that her substantial presence in English poetry, nearly overshadowing the other three, is due to issues I’d characterize as “translatability”.
The primary difficulty in translating Akhmatova – a hurdle that I, by the way, don’t think has been overcome in a dozen available translations of her best known long poem, “Requiem” – are her formal measures, the musicality of her liltingly rhythmic lyric. Marina Tsvetaeva’s syntactically condensed, highly syncopated verse presents its own insurmountable difficulties; moreover, what I believe will remain forever inaccessible for her exclusively Anglophone readers is the essential “Russianness” of her allusions, her cultural touchstones. The emotional pitch of her voice, and the relative paucity in English of such shadings, makes Tsvetaeva, in my opinion, the most “untranslatable” of Russian poets.
I have been privileged, in the last several years, to be part of what seems to me a renaissance in new translation of Osip Mandelstam. To my best knowledge, no new substantial translation of Boris Pasternak has been undertaken since Mark Rudman’s version of “My Sister – Life” in 1983 and much of his complete oeuvre exists in English still only due to the efforts of his sister, Lydia Pasternak Slater (neither a professional translator nor herself a poet.) My impression is that in these thirty years, Pasternak has nearly passed from the consciousness of English readers and, retranslation being necessary in every generation, attention to him is long past due. (Since drafting this note, I had become aware of James Falen’s new translations of My Sister – Life and the Zhivago Poems, out from Northwestern in 2012.)
As with Mandelstam, the insurmountable difficulty in translating Pasternak is the syntactic complexity of his verse. As with Mandelstam’s and Tsvetaeva’s compression, Pasternak resists “unpacking,” so that any resulting English poem requires “smoothing out,” and a loss of some of the densely textural qualities of the original. Finally, and I’m speaking in the broadest terms here, translating Russian classic poetry in general requires paying particular attention to reproducing the rhythmic qualities of the music, and here I do not mean rhyme but an effort to mimic the architecture (to use one of Mandelstam’s favorite metaphors) and tonalities of their sound structures.
Some years ago, in early 1999 or 2000, inspired by an opportunity to collaborate with Jean Valentine in presenting a Mandelstam program at Poets House in NYC, I translated a sequence of ten or so of his late, Voronezh Notebooks poems (late 1930s), along with a couple from the Moscow Notebooks (early 1930s). The results were published some ten years later in the “Poetry and the State” issue of Modern Poetry in Translation. More recently, I returned to translating Mandelstam, beginning with his early miniatures, circa 1910; see links below for publications in Off Course, Moving Poems, and Cardinal Points, and now poems from his middle period, the early 20s [end of Tristia (1922) and beginning of Poems (1928)], some of these now published in New England, Colorado, and Cimarron reviews.
My aim in these new translations has been to provide Anglophone readers with a key to Mandelstam, something I have done by pairing particular poems in my publications. Put simply: tracing the development of a specific set of symbols in his work may serve as a guide to his development as a poet, the way he returns in subsequent poems, but also at times after a passage of many years, to “work out” a particular idea, in series. I started out with what I took to be a key transitional work, and not only by virtue of it being the only one written entirely in free verse and his single longest poem, “He Who Has Found a Horseshoe”, what Mandelstam had referred to as “A Pindaric fragment”(published in New England Review). Composed in 1923, following the publication of his second book, Tristia, this long, highly symbolized meditation is the climax of a sequence of poems in which Mandelstam builds for himself a sanctuary from the madness of the world, from the nightmare of history, out of images of eternity.
While a number of the poems either resonate with the concreteness of reference or allusively refer to the effects of a world at war – weariness, hunger, homelessness – it is Reason, expressed as a metaphorically associative chain of images of eternity, that here strives to make sense of history. Thus, I have bracketed the entire group with two “war poems”, “Menagerie” (1915, 1916) and “The Sky is Pregnant with the Future” (1923, 1929; published in Colorado Review). The rest of the sequence is from the early 20s, a period of famine during which those who had the opportunity to go live in the countryside did so, to have access to the meager supplies of food. (Mandelstam and his wife Nadezhda were essentially homeless for much of their lives). The sequence starts with “Concert at a Train Station” and the poem that begins “For some, winter is a milky arak….” and ends with “Century” and his famous “Slate Ode” (all unpublished).
The “Big Four” of Russian Silver Age poetry I had mentioned at the outset are not alone in meeting what seems to me the singular requirement for title to being “a national poet” – the identification of one’s fate with that of one’s country. (I have also been translating a series of blank verse poems from 1918-1919 by Vladislav Khodasevich, who afterward, in the early 20s, emigrated to Berlin.) Perhaps no poet, however, more so than Mandelstam – in his classicism, in Acmeism’s search for a “world culture” – comes closer to consistently raising the poet’s existential struggle to make sense of history to the status of a universal condition. Joseph Stalin had famously declared that a single death is a tragedy, a million deaths a statistic. The two short poems I present here, on the occasion of National Translation Month 2015, offer a window onto this, what in a very real sense is every poet’s dilemma: individuation as a measure for all humanity.
Links to my other translations of poems by Osip Mandelstam and by other Russian Silver Age poets: “He Who Has Found a Horseshoe” in the New England Review “the Russian Presence” issue; “Menagerie” and “The Sky is Pregnant with the Future” in the Colorado Review; “Dear mistress of guilty glances” in Cimarron Review; from Moscow and Voronezh Notebooks in Modern Poetry in Translation. Miniatures in Off Course (SUNY Albany), Cardinal Points, and Moving Poems (the latter, with short essays on Mandelstam, Akhmatova, and Alexander Vvedensky; translations of miniatures by, and with short essay on, Sophia Parnok, who had coined the phrase “The Big Four,” in Cardinal Points.) Two early poems by Boris Pasternak and Marina Tsvetaeva (1915-1916) in Taos Journal 6.
Four war-time miniatures by Anna Akhmatova in Cutthroat 15, and three in Tiferet Journal (April 2014) “Who Needs a Sixth Acmeist?” Mikhail Zenkevich and Vladimir Narbut in Ancora Imparo and NER. Russian Futurism links: Four Lesser Known Poets (Kamensky, Severyanin, Aseev, Gnedov) in NTM 2013; David Burlyuk in National Translation Month 2014; 50-page survey (14 poets) in EM-review;
Daniil Kharms in Numero Cinq, International Quarterly, Narrative, Gargoyle, The Literary Review. Additional translations of poems by Velimir Khlebnikov, Vladimir Mayakovsky, and others in Asymptote, Eleven Eleven, Elimae, Inventory, Lana Turner, Little Star, Mayday, PEN America, and Two Lines.
Alex Cigale’s own English-language poems have appeared in Colorado, Green Mountains, and The Literary Reviews, and his translations in Cimarron Review, Literary Imagination, Modern Poetry in Translation, New England Review, PEN America, Two Lines, and World Literature Today. He is on the editorial boards of Mad Hatters’ Annual, St. Petersburg Review, and Verse Junkies. From 2011 until 2013 he was Assistant Professor at the American University of Central Asia in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan. He is a 2015 NEA Literary Translation Fellow, for his work on the poet of the St. Petersburg “philological school” Mikhail Eremin, and is the editor of the Spring 2015 Russia Issue of the Atlanta Review and of the Indigenous Writing from the former USSR feature in Fulcrum 8.
He is a 2015 NEA Literary Translation Fellow, for his work on the poet of the St. Petersburg “philological school” Mikhail Eremin, and is the editor of the Spring 2015 Russia Issue of the Atlanta Review and of the Indigenous Writing from the former USSR feature in Fulcrum 8.