Translating Akhmatova




Russian poetry has not been lucky with its translations into English. It has been so unlucky that it may seem that the problem is in the Russian language itself—a synthetic, too flexible language which cannot be reproduced adequately in analytic English with its “iron word-order.” Successful translations are rare.
Usually translations are done by American (or English) poets, who generally do not know Russian, or by Slavic scholars, who have extremely vague conceptions of poetic technique. Since the results in both cases are most often lamentable, working in tandem has become popular of late—i.e., co-operation between a poet and a Slavist. This collection of Akhmatova’s poems is an example of the tandem method.
Apart from theoretical and other obvious virtues, the tandem technique is also convenient because in case of failure it is generally impossible to know whom to blame—did the scholar misunderstand the text, or did the poet misunderstand the scholar? The unpleasant aspect of such cooperation is that one is forced to criticize two people at once. On the other hand, it is easier for two people to bear the criticism than one. A fact on which I very much rely as I compose this review.
For most American poets, translating from Russian is nothing but an “ego trip.” To some extent any translation, even of a scholarly text, is an ego trip; but in the case of poetry it is even considered that there is a good reason for this. Above all this is because contemporary Russian poets use a technique which seems archaic to their American colleagues. It is not just shameful for a contemporary American poet to use rhymes, it is unthinkable. It seems banal to him; he fears banality worse than anything, and therefore he uses free verse—though free verse is no guarantee against banality. (Incidentally, the quantity of free verse written today must be equal to the total of everything written in traditional forms during the last millennium.)
When we see “free verse,” we should first of all determine what it is “free” from. Most often we do not determine this, but simply suppose it is something phonetically and graphically opposite to traditional verse. It is also presupposed that every poet has gone over this road (enslavement by traditional verse and then liberation from it), as if recapitulating in miniature the historical process. Therefore there is seeming reason to expect that when any poet undertakes a translation, he is capable of using the techniques created in the original.
In fact, things do not turn out quite that way. As a rule the historical process is not recapitulated in miniature, or it is recapitulated to such a minimal degree that the poet is simply incapable of operating within traditional metrical verse. It makes absolutely no difference what heights he has achieved with his free verse technique. What matters is that he does not possess the technique of the original; therefore his use of his own technique in translating is not a chosen, new, manifestation of his own individuality—it is something over which he has no control.
Parallels with other forms of art are dubious, but let’s suppose for a moment that you have only one color on your palette and you have to copy Raphael. You have to try something, and something or other will result—maybe even something very interesting, original, as they say. That’s fine, but you don’t have to call it a copy of Raphael. To translate poetry, one has to possess some art, at the very least the art of stylistic re-embodiment. This is possible when your reserve of technical skills is varied. A good example is W. H. Auden, who is capable of translating Icelandic sagas or the diaries of the late Dag Hammerskjold, using equivalents of the languages in which they were written.
Failing this, the results will be amateurish and jerrybuilt, no matter what argument you use in justification. Translation is not original creation—that is what one must remember. In translation, some loss is inevitable. But a great deal can be preserved too. One can preserve the meter, one can preserve the rhymes (no matter how difficult this may seem each time), one can and must preserve the meaning. Not one of these three things, but all together. Images exist, and one must follow them—and not propound fashionable theories in introductions.
Akhmatova is a traditional poet, in the highest sense of the word. Her verse looks traditional not only to the American reader, but to the Russian one as well. But it possesses a quality which allows the Russian reader to love it more than the achievements of the Russian Futurists, Constructivists, Imagists, etc., with all their stylistic transformations and transfigurations, performed in free verse or in canonical verse. As Max Hayward correctly notes in his quite sensible introduction describing the climate of the Silver Age of Russian poetry at the turn of the century, the situation in Russian literature was very similar to the situation in most European literatures—there was an inflation of harmonic verse, the last apostles of which were the Symbolists. It was natural that a reaction, a devaluation, should begin. This did happen, and the groups and movements mentioned above were a form of this devaluation. But in most cases they were talking only about new denominations on the bills—the backing was the same. That is, to a significant degree they were all nothing but revolts of one set of devices against another set of devices.
But Acmeism was a revolt of essence against essence (or lack of essence). Purely technically Akhmatova’s poetry differs little from that of the Symbolists, but even an inexperienced reader will immediately single her out in the crowd—not by her dress, but by her speech. The dress, in principle, is the same; and here I would like to explain why it is that Russian poets generally prefer the traditional verse line with rhyme and its other attributes. This comes about first of all because the use of rhyme is a way to organize that which is not subject to any organization, i.e., it is an establishment of order in chaos. Apart from this, the traditional line of verse puts you at a clear disadvantage; it is as if it depersonalizes you because it is in essence neutral. And then it depends on you, as a poet, whether this line of verse will becomes yours or remain alien, or more precisely, remain no one’s. In other words, what you put into it depends on your soul.
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