Friday, October 17, 2014

Three by Kibirov

Image courtesy of Asymptote

I'm happy to report that the fall issue of Asymptote includes my translations of three theological poems by Timur Kibirov, along with the audio recordings of them that I made in his Moscow kitchen this summer. Have a look, have a listen! And don't miss the sound of Ossetian plov crackling on the stove in the background.

The theme of the issue is mythology, and the editors have fit Kibirov neatly into it: "You'll find an aging Minotaur transplanted to Amsterdam's red-light district, Hamlet's Norse ancestor reincarnated in operatic form, and biblical vine-growers at a corporate event schmoozing up to their ultimate shareholder, God." (Yep, that last one is Kibirov's.)

For those of a Slavic bent, highlights of the issue include a profile of Kharkiv poet Serhiy Zhadan, an interview with Polish translator Danuta Borchardt, and an essay on Russian poetry by the ever-prolific Robert Chandler. Another item not to miss is Erik Langkjær's reminiscence of kissing a soft-lipped Flannery O'Connor, who was then suffering from lupus: "I hit her teeth with my kiss, and since then I've thought of it as a kiss of death."

Lastly, I love how the editors have picked my favorite Kibirov line to excerpt on the issue's main page: "Glory to God in the highest! Hee-haw, hee-haw!"

Friday, April 25, 2014

On Brodsky, Sweat, and Nosebleeds

Undated photograph of Joseph Brodsky by Katarina E. Rothfjell / Image courtesy of the Beinecke Library 

Somewhere in the middle of last week’s episode of the American hour on Radio Svoboda, I heard this fascinating exchange between program host Alexander Genis and Solomon Volkov—the well-known musicologist, expert interviewer, and culture critic—about the poet Joseph Brodsky, whom Volkov had interviewed over a fourteen-year period for his book Conversations with Joseph Brodsky (Диалоги с Иосифом Бродским):

Alexander Genis: Who was the most difficult person for you to interview? And who was the most interesting?

Solomon Volkov: My most difficult interviewee was, of course, Brodsky. Because he was the most difficult person to speak with—the most complicated. You had to, as they say, meet him on his level, or attempt to do so.

Alexander Genis: To tell you the truth, whenever I’d talk with Brodsky, I would always sweat. I just felt so uncomfortable. Due to the exertion of thought, my forehead was wet the whole time.

Solomon Volkov: Dovlatov and I once talked about this very same thing.

Alexander Genis: By the way, Dovlatov would sweat when he talked with Brodsky too.

Solomon Volkov: I told him that after a conversation with Brodsky I would sometimes get a nosebleed. He said with relief, “And here I thought I was the only one who was such a weakling.”

Alexander Genis: And who was the most interesting person to interview?

Solomon Volkov: The most interesting was probably Brodsky too. Because he reasoned with such focus, he would approach the conversation with a great sense of responsibility. In the course of the conversation he would sometimes say what none of my other interviewees would ever say. Specifically, he’d say, “Hold on, Solomon, let me talk it through again. I want to say it in another way, more concise, better, and so forth.” That is, he approached these sessions very responsibly, and to a certain degree, I think, he was worn out by them just as much as I was.

Poor Dovlatov! Poor Genis and Volkov! You know you’ve encountered a great one when you’re sweating and bleeding.

Speaking of Sergei Dovlatov, his 1983 novel Pushkin Hills (Заповедник) has just been published by Counterpoint Press in a translation by Katherine Dovlatov, the author’s daughter, and earlier this month, The New Yorker’s Page-Turner blog posted James Wood’s afterword to the book. Counterpoint also reprinted Antonina Bouis’s translation of Dovlatov’s 1986 story collection The Suitcase (Чемодан) just a few years back.

Long live émigré lit!

Friday, April 18, 2014

No Obvious Means for Transmission

Cover of Dragomoshchenko’s Endarkenment (2014) / Image courtesy of UPNE

A program that I heard on Radio Svoboda last month, Dmitry Volchek’s Culture Log (Культурный дневник), took up a problem that has long preoccupied me—the different prosodic traditions of Russian and American poetry—and helped me to see it in a new way. Nearly all of the poets that I have translated over the years write formal poetry, not free verse. When translating those poets, my trouble has always been what to do with them in English, where rhymed and metered poems can seem fusty, juvenile, or both. Do I scrap the rhymes and turn the poems into blank verse? Or do I scrap everything and turn them into entirely free verse?

American poet, editor, and translator Eugene Ostashevsky, who was the guest that day on Culture Log, describes the problem this way: “If you take a completely classical line, the accentual-syllabic line of the 19th century, I would say that in contemporary American English there are no obvious means for its transmission. I can take iambic tetrameter and translate it as iambic tetrameter, but the meaning of iambic tetrameter in English is entirely, entirely different.” In part, this is why Russian-to-English translators of poetry often choose the path of least resistance: they turn formal verse into free verse.

(As a side note, I find it fascinating that Ostashevsky folds together two kinds of distance here: temporal and cultural. The classical line in his example is removed from American readers in time, but he wraps up by implying, I think, that English iambic tetrameter signifies something “entirely different” not from its past but from Russian iambic tetrameter. Therefore, while historical distance is not much of a problem within Russian prosody, cultural distance is indeed a major problem between contemporary English and Russian prosodies.)

But what to do if the Russian poet to be translated writes free verse? That’s the relatively unusual situation described by Ostashevsky that helped me to see the prosody problem in a new light. Ostashevsky is the editor and contributing translator of a new posthumous collection of poetry by Arkadii Dragomoshchenko called Endarkenment: Selected Poems. For aficionados of L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poetry, Dragomoshchenko’s name may be a familiar one: he is sometimes described as the school’s Russian “representative,” and he was especially close with Lyn Hejinian, one of its foremost members. Their friendship was even the subject of Jacki Ochs’ documentary Letters Not about Love (1997), which features a five-year correspondence between the two writers. (Try out this translated poem for a taste of his work.)

If you know anything about the Language poets, you know that they don’t write formal poetry. Thus it was with Dragomoshchenko. Yet the Language poets have been a major influence in contemporary American poetry, where free verse is the norm, while Dragomoshchenko operated only at the fringes of Russian poetic culture, with its strong central current of formalism. So to translate him into free verse is to eliminate one key element of his radical poetics—that’s what his example has helped me to see. His translators have no other choice, but his existence in English normalizes him in a way he isn’t normal in Russian, ironically making him more popular among American readers than with his native audience. In America, Ostashevsky explains, “among people who read avant-garde poetry—poetry of the Language school, for example—he is really known and loved. And that includes a lot of young people who read him.” This is certainly not the case in Russia. With a little luck, perhaps his culture will catch up with him a few decades down the road.

The problem of translating Dragomoshchenko may be the opposite of the problem I usually encounter, but it makes me wonder, why do I have to make things so hard for myself? Sure, some of the radicalism would get lost along the way, but wouldn’t it be easier to translate free-verse poets? Alas, no, things are never so simple. As Ostashevsky noted on Culture Log, “In translating Dragomoshchenko the problem is … that he very often works with alienated language and alienated linguistic clichés. And these linguistic clichés don’t exist in English. That is, it’s not entirely clear what he’s reacting to.”

Darn it. Just when you think you’ve whacked them all, another mole pops up its head.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Gandelsman, Pasternak, Poesy


Portrait of Boris Pasternak by his father, Leonid Pasternak (1910) / Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

The latest issue of the New York literary magazine Новый журнал (The New Review) includes a small selection of poems by Vladimir Gandelsman, a Russian-American poet I have written about on this blog before. What particularly caught my eye in this recent batch was Gandelsman’s first poem, “Pasternak” («Пастернак»), where he muses on the great modern poet, novelist, and Nobel laureate – whose birthday, it just so happens, was yesterday. When one poet writes about another, of course, we readers get a chance to eavesdrop on a conversation about poetics, one that often reveals more about the writer than about his ostensible subject. In this case, the poet’s observations concern Pasternak’s codependence with an anthropomorphized poetry, or as I like to think of her, Poesy. (In Russian, поэзия is grammatically feminine and thus necessarily more human than a mere “it.”) 

Here is my rough-and-ready, free-verse translation of the poem:

by Vladimir Gandelsman

With her, he is lonelier
than when alone, yet with her
the path to the pleasures
of art is half as long.
Stranger than a stranger,
she stands nevertheless
equal to him, familiar
as words suffered through. 
Only with her can he see
that certain slant of light
where his life outweighs
love. Which hardly exists.
Love remains on the verge
of breakdown, since it allows  
no rest for the mind at all
from its mindless madness.
But his wide open spaces
contain memory, stillness,    
words that hurt, and depths
we all should seek to plumb.
So, language of his suffering,
with your line ever sturdy, 
describe for us the stranger’s
familiar distant shores.

Translated from the Russian by Jamie Olson

Tuesday, December 31, 2013

In Memoriam N.G. & R.D.

 Portrait of Regina Derieva by Dennis Creffield / Image courtesy of The Regina Derieva Web Site

In the past month, we lost two important Russian poets, both of them expatriates: Natalya Gorbanevskaya in Paris on November 29, and Regina Derieva in Stockholm on December 11. To honor their memory, I am posting a favorite poem by each from anthologies on my shelf. Those keen to read more from these two women would do well to turn to Derieva’s Corinthian Copper, translated by Jim Kates, and Gorbanevskaya’s Selected Poems, translated by Daniel Weissbortwho died just twelve days before she did.

*     *     *

[…where rivers flow purer than silver]
by Natalya Gorbanevskaya

…where rivers flow purer than silver,
not polluted by heavy oil and grease,
where God has not abandoned us and bright
is the Admiralty spire, where on straw
lies the Infant and the bull makes utterances
wiser than the wise man, having eaten its fill of celandine,
where the Russian has long ago had enough of victories
and war, staying within his native bound,
where beneath the cover of a starry cloak
the state’s robbers do not creep up on us,
where, rinsing the syllables for a long time in their throat,
but not contemplating whether it’s to the point or not,
like a fairy tale, retelling something that really happened,
the real events of the past, past pain, past love,
you are transformed into dusty feathergrass,
and I show white in the wind, like a dandelion.

Translated by Gerald S. Smith

*     *     *

Beyond Siberia again Siberia
by Regina Derieva

Beyond Siberia again Siberia,
beyond impenetrable forest again forest.
And beyond it waste ground,
where a blizzard of snow breaks loose.

The blizzard has handcuffs, and the snow-
storm has a knife which kills at once…
I will die, pay a debt
for others who lives somewhere,

out of spite, out of fear and terror,
out of pain, out of a nameless grave…
Beyond the wall another wall,
on the wall stopped dead one sentinel.

Translated by Kevin Carey

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

A Nativity Poem by Timur Kibirov

Timur Kibirov (2011) / Image courtesy of Богослов.ru

NOTE: As I have done every Christmas Eve since starting this blog, I am posting a nativity poem to mark the holiday. This year’s selection, by the Moscow poet Timur Kibirov, appears in Greek and Roman Catholic Songs and Nursery Rhymes (Греко- и римско-кафолические песенки и потешки), a book that I am in the midst of translating. See the poems from previous years here

*     *     *

From After Dorothy Sayers

In the night, the lop-eared donkey cried out:
“Look at all the angels up there, brother ox,
who have lit up the midnight darkness!
For this one and only time, this joyful time,
the Heavenly Powers have come together
in the sky to sing His praises.
But before them all, I — a stubborn old ass —
have already praised Our Child!

“Glory to God in the highest! Ee-yaw, ee-yaw!
Glory, glory to the Child in the manger!”

Translated from the Russian by Jamie Olson

Saturday, November 30, 2013

Who You Callin’ Ignoramus?

Illustration by G. O. Valk / Image courtesy of Либрусек

A Russian-speaking colleague of mine once told me that she had to toss aside an English translation of Mikhail Bulgakov’s Master and Margarita because the character Ivan Bezdomny was presented on the page as “Ivan Homeless,” which drove her crazy. Bezdomny is his name, after all, and translating it seemed ridiculous. I agreed with her.

And yet, at precisely the same time, I was translating a poem by Timur Kibirov that included character names for which I felt compelled to find English equivalents. Hypocrisy! So how did I justify my choice? Well, for one thing, there was not just one information-packed name, but many of them, and for another, they had all been imported from an intertext beloved by Russian readers: Nikolai Nosov’s Neznaika books.

The popular children’s series dates to the 1950s, and two Moscow-based publishers put out English translations of it back in the early 1980s by Margaret Wettlin, an American expatriate who lived for five decades in the Soviet Union. (Surely, those editions are relics of the Cold War’s cultural battlefront.) In Wettlin’s translations, the main character Neznaika, whose name derives from the negated verb “to know” (не знает / не знаю), quite reasonably becomes “Dunno,” although Wikipedia also offers “Know-Nothing” as an alternative. He and his diminutive comrades live peaceably in a town sheltered by daisies, dandelions, and honeysuckle; hence, the first of Nosov’s stories is called—in Wettlin’s translation—“The Mites of Flower Town” («Коротышки из цветочного города»), but in my own translation the “mites” become variously “shorties” and “midgets,” depending on what I needed for the sake of rhyme or alliteration.

Kibirov’s poem approaches Nosov’s flower town at a slant. It is called “Fairy Tale” («Сказка»), and it concerns the missionary travels of Sir Reepicheep, a stout-hearted mouse that the poet has expropriated from C. S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia. Reepicheep sets about to visit every land in his jumbled yet familiar (to us) fairytale realm—from Tove Jansson’s Moominvalley to Lewis Carroll’s Wonderland—in order to spread the good news of Narnia’s Christ-like leader, the lion Aslan:

A small ship soars atop the swells,
the Narnian rodent at the helm.

The mouse must visit each and every
magic land to tell of Aslan’s glory.

Rejoice, Moomins! Looking-Glass, gleam!
O Emerald City, sparkle and shine!

(По синему морю кораблик летит, / Нарнийский грызун у кормила стоит. // Он должен объехать волшебные страны, / Чтоб всем рассказать о победе Аслана! // Ликуй, Мумми-долл! Зазеркалье, сияй! / О Град Изумрудный, лучись и сверкай!)