Anna Akhmatova in Translation

“In 1973,” Judith Hemschemeyer explains in her Preface, “I read a few of Anna Akhmatova’s poems in translation in the American Poetry Review and was so struck by one of them that I decided to learn Russian in order to read them all.”   The poem in question was the 1912 eight-line lyric Potusknel na nebe siniu lak (“The sky’s dark blue lacquer has dimmed”).  “Three years later,” adds Hemschemeyer, “when I could read the Russian and compare the existing Akhmatova translations with the originals, I became convinced that Akhmatova’s poems should be translated in their entirety, and by a woman poet, and that I was that person.”

It’s a bold declaration. True, Hemschemeyer had published a few volumes of her own poems, but were her poetic gifts equal to her chosen task?  And can she have learned enough Russian in three years to translate such a complex and difficult oeuvre as Akhmatova’s?  Hemschemeyer admits to relying on what she calls “literals” throughout—a habit now common enough in the translation world but never, to my mind, quite as successful as translations produced by genuinely bilingual (or multilingual) authors: Pierre Joris on Paul Celan, Richard Sieburth on Hölderlin and Gerard de Nerval, or Michael Heim on Chekhov, Thomas Mann, and Milan Kundera.

Despite such cavils, Hemschemeyer’s two-volume edition, published in 1990, the result of more than fifteen years of work, must be regarded as a milestone.  Not only does the elegant Zephyr Press two-volume edition contain all of Akhmatova’s extant poems en face, annotated and with a detailed chronology, but it also includes a 150-page biographical sketch by Roberta Reeder, Isaiah Berlin’s now famous memoir of the poet, and over 100 photographs documenting her tempestuous life.  The “expanded” one-volume paperback edition, published some seven years later, adds seventy hitherto unpublished poems and fragments, a further set of photographs, and an even fuller set of notes by Roberta Reeder.  At one-third of the price of the original, it looks like a real bargain, but the reader should be warned that this thousand-page edition is in English only and that it has some astonishing lapses.  Reeder’s biographical essay, for example, is cut to about a quarter of its original length and although it has footnote numbers, the notes themselves– seventy-three in all–are nowhere to be found!

Oddly enough, Nancy K. Anderson’s translation of the long late poems—RequiemThe Way of All the Earth, and Poem Without a Hero—raises similar problems.  Like Hemschemeyer and Reeder, Anderson decided that her translations could only be understood in the context of Akhamatova’s life and culture, and so half of The Word that Causes Death’s Defeat is a biographical / historical narrative. As it happens, Anderson’s short, incisive narrative is the best thing in the book; by contrast, the lengthy critical essays on the poems, supplemented though they are by excerpts from Akhmatova’s notebooks and early versions of Poem Without a Hero, are somewhat flat-footed—more running commentary than full-fledged criticism.  Then, too, once we have the story of Akhmatova’s life before us, it is frustrating not to have the earlier great lyrics that constitute an index to that life as it was actually being lived.

Since neither Hemschemeyer nor Anderson give us a wholly satisfactory “Collected” or “Selected” Ahkmatova in English, the reader might consult the earlier more modest selections by Stanley Kunitz and R. M. Thomas.  The latter, best known to U.S. readers as the author of The White Hotel (1981), is fluent in Russian: his Penguin Selected Poems is a very modest compendium but works hard at capturing the nuances of Akhmatova’s style.  Kunitz, collaborating with Max Hayward, the translator of Dr.Zhivago, has given us an excellent short bilingual edition of Akhmatova’s key poems, with a good introduction and notes.

But there is a certain stumbling block.  Reading my way through Hemschemeyer’s hefty volumes, I began to wonder whether Akhmatova was translatable at all.  Her poems are almost always written in short rhyming stanzas, in which melopoeia, to use Pound’s term for verse music, trumps not onlylogopoeia (“the dance of the intellect among words”), but also phanopoeia (the “casting of images upon the visual imagination”).   Rhyme, anaphora, assonance, alliteration—this dense musical chiming, central to Akhmatova’s lyric, cannot be carried over into English, a highly uninflected language in which rhyme is much rarer and always calls attention to itself as a device rather than being part of the rhetorical flow, as it is in Akhmatova’s verse.  Then too Russian, unlike English, is rich in long polysyllabic words in which stresses cluster together: our own function words, pronouns, and prepositions –my, me, this, that, in,  from, where, by, over, next to--have no equivalent in Russian, where  modifiers, qualifiers and tense indicators are generally absorbed into the verbs and nouns themselves.   Consider the following stanza from “Anno Domini II:

Vse raskhishcheno, predano, prodano,
Chernoi smerti mel’kalo krylo,
Vse golodnoi toskoyu izglodano,
Otchego zhe nam stalo svetlo?
Everything has been plundered, betrayed, sold out,
The wing of black death has flashed,
Everything has been devoured by starving anguish,
Why, then, is it so bright?

In English, the words “has been plundered” translates the single verb form raskihshcheno, expanding the line by two extra words, even as the word prodano translates as  “sold out,” adding a third.  Line 2 is similarly expanded by “of” and “has,” and so on. Thus Akhamatova’s tightly packed alliterative lines inevitably lose some of their impact.

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