Four of Us: Akhmatova, Mandelshtam, Pasternak, Tsvetaeva

I asked her, “Did you dictate
Dante’s Hell?” She said, “I did.”

— Anna Akhmatova, “Muse” (1924)
Translations are necessarily “once again,” and in English can work naturally within a Wordsworthian tradition where “was” is “for this,” and a sense of tradition, far from a struggle for priority, is impelled by recurrence: what happened once is happening again and, happening again, is happening differently. This recognition of recurrence complements Walter Benjamin’s understanding of translation as the Überleben (afterlife or survival), the Forteleben (continuing life) of the translated poem. It also translates a recurring motif in Russian poetry of the last century (at least among those poets, more radical than revolutionary, who distinguished originality from futurism). Anna Akhmatova imagined that her muse was also Dante’s, an inspiration independent of Russian. “[E]very language has something that belongs to it alone,” Marina Tsvetaeva thought, but as she wrote to Rilke in 1926, “the reason one becomes a poet is to avoid being French, Russian, etc. in order to be everything.” Poetry begins as a “moan” in a “mother tongue”: “What is poetry but translating from a mother tongue into a foreign one… No language is the mother tongue. Writing poetry is rewriting it… A poet may write in French, but he cannot be a French poet.” By the same logic, this mother tongue from its translation initially into Russian may then translate as well into English.

For Tsvetaeva, the commonplace that translation is impossible coexists with the recognition that for any poet translation is a given. Assuming the probability that the commonplace is not wrong, what apparently occurs in translation is the realization of an impossibility. Toward the end of his life, John Cage found a way to use impossibility pragmatically in order to assure an open form in his music. Scoring 100 microtones between C and C-sharp, for example, he asked violinists to play the 42nd interval in between. An impossibility, but the music depends on the performer’s willingness to search for the impossibility as if it could be played (pragmatically a mathematical sublime). Translation might offer open forms in this sense as well. In the introduction to her beautiful translations of Tsvetaeva, Nina Kossman recalls how Tsvetaeva also embraced impossibility: “My difficulty,” Tsvetaeva wrote near the end of her life, “… is in the impossibility of my aim… with words (that is, with meanings) to express a moan: ah-ah-ah.”

Osip Mandelshtam might have called Tsvetaeva’s “moan” an initial articulation of the poetic impulse (порывь. Nadezhda Mandelshtam notes that for Mandelshtam and Akhmatova the impulse announced itself, not as a moan, but as a humming, but in a 1926 letter to Tsvetaeva, Boris Pasternak also speaks of the “moan” as “the loudest sound of the universe”: “I am inclined to believe that outer space is filled with this sound rather than with the music of the spheres. I hear it. I cannot reproduce it”). … what apparently occurs in translation is the realization of an impossibility. In a 1933 essay on Dante, Mandelshtam wrote that for poetry to be poetry, there must be an impulse that is not susceptible to paraphrase and whose absence is a sure sign that “the sheets have never been rumpled” and that “poetry has never spent the night.” In and of itself this impulse is “mute”; it sounds verbally in the poem through “the modulation we hear and sense in the prosodic instruments of poetic speech in its instananeous flow.” A task for Mandelshtam’s translators will be to find modulations that his poetry can impel in the spontaneous flow of an alien tongue. Mandelshtam was confident that this was possible. In a 1932 poem “To the German Language” which reads in retrospect like a proleptic address to Paul Celan, Mandelshtam wrote:

An alien tongue will be my membrane
just as once, before I had the daring
to be born, I was a letter first, a vineyard
line, a book you dreamed of…

Sounds have narrowed, the words hiss and mutiny,
but you are living, and from you I am composed.

Pasternak wote in Safe Conduct (1928): “that as distinct from science, which takes nature in the section of a shaft of light, art is interested in life at the moment when the beam of energy passes through it. When the signs of this condition are translated onto paper… there is a terminology for them. They are called devices.” Pasternak described the work of this “energy” or impulse in Doctor Zhivago as characteristic of poetic practice:

Language… itself begins to think and speak… and turns wholly into music, not in terms of sonority but in terms of the impetuousness and power of its inward flow… [T]he flow in speech creates in passing, by virtue of its own laws, meter and rhythm and countless forms and formations, which are even more important, but which are as yet unexplored, insufficiently recognized, and unnamed.

A task for Pasternak’s English translators will be to find this “flow in speech” as it carries from Russian into English. “Like the original,” Pasternak wrote of his own translations of Shakespeare (1956), “the translation must create an impression of life… a shorthand of the spirit” (as Elena Glazov-Corrigan has suggested, “spirit,” дух and “impulse,” порывь can be regarded as synonyms in this context, translations of the Greek, Πνευμα).


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