Beyond Akhmatova and Pasternak: Discovering Soviet poets
Anna Akhmatova is already known abroad, as are Osip Mandelstam, Boris Pasternak and Marina Tsvetaeva. Robert Chandler and his fellow translators are concerned that the intense focus on these four, with their dramatic life histories, has overshadowed other talented writers.
A new Penguin anthology of “Russian Poetry from Pushkin to Brodsky,” due out by 2015, is set to bring these lesser known poets to light. Chandler, famous for bringing Soviet greats like Vasily Grossman and Andrey Platonov to English-reading audiences, has already edited two generous compilations of Russian short stories.
Now, together with Russian-American poets Boris Dralyuk and Irina Mashinski, he’s overseeing an even more ambitious project, bringing together legions of translators to create an anthology, which challenges the whole idea of Russian poetry in the West.
To celebrate this poetic collaboration, London’s Pushkin House hosted a “Russian Poetry week.” Stephen Capus, who is translating poems by Tsvetaeva, Boris Slutsky and others for the new anthology, told a packed audience of poetry-lovers last week: “We still understand Soviet poetry in terms of an abstract, binary opposition we’ve inherited from the Cold War. There were the ‘good’ poets who lived in opposition to the Soviet Union and ‘the others’ who managed to find places for themselves.”
This divide is over-simple, argues Capus, and leads to great poets being overlooked: “The reality is that actual lives don’t fit that pattern. Slutsky’s biography was complicated. Yes, he supported the denunciation of Pasternak; yet he wrote critical, denunciatory poems about Stalin.”
Slutsky was one of a generation of poets who fought in World War II and his poems reflect this as well as his experience of anti-Semitism and war’s aftermath (“from the rubble we built prisons of our own”). His poem “German Losses” expresses a poignant ambivalence. It describes a prisoner, cheerfully playing tunes for Russian soldiers and the poet’s grief for “that man alone/ who played those German waltzes far from home.”
This excellent translation by Stephen Capus shares the regular rhyme scheme and rhythm of the original. These techniques, Boris Dralyuk, who lectures in Russian literature at UCLA, explained, were not “superficial decoration” for Slutsky: “they are bound up with the very structure of his thought.”
Discussion of this and similar issues is crucial for translators of poetry. An unexpectedly large group of translators gathered in Oxford in mid-June to talk about literary translation.