Saturday, March 10, 2012

Tsvetaeva, Poet of the Moment

Marina Tsvetaeva with her dog in Savoy, France (1930) / Image courtesy of the Poetry Foundation

Lately, it seems that Marina Tsvetaeva pops up everywhere I look. After last year’s inaugural prize for a translation of a poem by Nikolai Gumilev, the organizers of the Compass Award have announced that they’re now seeking translations of Tsvetaeva. Her work is famously difficult to translate, so whoever wins will certainly have earned the $300 in prize money. (That may not sound like much, but hey, we all know that literary translation isn’t the most lucrative field.) On their page, the Compass organizers speculate why Tsvetaeva’s poems rarely come across well in translation: “Their poetic tension is just too high, and their force fields are overwhelmingly complex.” Anyone who has read her in Russian knows exactly what the Compass folks mean: nobody writes such intricately formal poems as Tsvetaeva.

Just when I had the Compass Award on my mind, the annual translation issue of Poetry magazine arrived, replete with a portfolio of Tsvetaeva’s work. The eight poems in the portfolio, along with accompanying prose excerpts, were translated by Jean Valentine and Ilya Kaminsky, who says that Tsvetaeva offers a particular challenge to translators because of her “over-abundance of lyricism.” The solution that he and Valentine came up with was to avoid imitating the form of her poems altogether. Kaminsky explains that the two of them do not even claim to have “translated” Tsvetaeva’s poetry, but have rather composed a kind of commentary on it—mere “fragments, notes in the margin.” Still, some of their translations (or whatever they are) come off pretty well.

For instance, in the portfolio’s first poem, from the series “Poems for Moscow” (“Стихи о Москве,” 1916), Tsvetaeva happens to use the kind of phrasal repetition that helps to give free verse (like these translations) some structural coherence:

From my hands — take this city not made by hands,
my strange, my beautiful brother.

Take it, church by church — all forty times forty churches,
and flying up the roof, the small pigeons;

Take the circle of the five cathedrals,
my coal, my soul …

As much as I’m loath to admit it, this is free-verse translation at its best; I begrudgingly admire it. But Kaminsky and Valentine’s translations aren’t the only chance to read Tsvetaeva in the March issue of Poetry. Stephen Edgar, who in the first line of his translator’s note identifies himself as “a writer of formal verse,” gives us his form-abiding translation of a poem by Tsvetaeva that he has called “Bound for Hell” (“Быть в аду нам, сестры пылкие, 1915). Admittedly, Edgar did have to get a little creative with his verbs, and he expanded the lines from tetrameter to pentameter, but on the whole he did a fine job. Here is his first stanza:

Hell, my ardent sisters, be assured,
Is where we’re bound; we’ll drink the pitch of hell —
We, who have sung the praises of the lord
With every fiber in us, every cell.

Besides Tsvetaeva, Poetry’s translation issue contains a few other tidbits that will be of interest to Russophiles, including Anne Stevenson’s co-translation with Eugene Dubnov of his poem “Lips,” and three poems that Averill Curdy translated from the Swedish by Edith Södergran, whose name is new to me. Apparently, she grew up in fin-de-siècle St. Petersburg, attended a German-language girls’ school, and spent a lot of time at the family dacha on the Finnish border. Curdy says that Södergran chose to write in Swedish, though Russian or German might have felt more natural to her.

What the translation issue doesn’t have is anything from Africa or Asia (unless you count Peter Cole’s kaballah translations). On the podcast, the editors say this is because—for the first time—they didn’t commission translations, but just curated what happened to come in.

But to get back to Tsvetaeva, why is she suddenly everywhere? Well, it may be that we’re smack-dab between two significant dates: last summer marked 70 years since the poet’s death, and this fall marks 120 years since her birth. Whatever the reason, the rising interest in Tsvetaeva is measurable—just have a look at her graph on Google Insights:

As for me, I seem to have caught Tsvetaeva fever too. My wife brought home from her old apartment in Petrozavodsk a fascinating little volume of Tsvetaeva’s work that was published in that same city in 1991. It was edited by a woman named N. B. Lartseva, who gathered together Tsvetaeva’s famously suppressed 1940 collection, the poems and letters that she wrote after her return to Soviet Russia in 1939, and reminiscences by her contemporaries.

What I find especially interesting in Lartseva’s edition are the details she gives concerning the 1940 collection, which had initially been commissioned by a certain “influential” personage. But Tsvetaeva made the foolhardy move of kicking off the collection with a poem dedicated to her husband Sergei Efron, who was at the time a political prisoner, and she also included a number of poems that she must have known the Soviets would not allow to be published. Sure enough, the pre-publication reader’s report called the collection “diametrically opposed” to Soviet life, and it described the poems as “formalistic in the most direct sense of the word, i.e., devoid of content.” No socialist realism here!

 Marina Tsvetaeva, photo for passport on eve of return to Russia (France, 1939) / Image courtesy of геоКоролёв

Yet fifty-one years later, Lartseva reproduced the 1940 collection in her edition, prefaced by an image of the table of contents in Tsvetaeva’s hand. (As a frontispiece to the book, she also gave the poet’s 1939 passport photograph from France, which I’ve included above this paragraph.) Lartseva tells the story in her introduction of finding the handwritten manuscript of that table of contents, and its discovery seems to have become the book’s raison d’être. The 1940 collection—which was really a selection of poems published abroad in earlier decades—made its way around in samizdat form during the Soviet years, but I believe this is the only time that an editor took it upon herself to arrange the book according to Tsvetaeva’s intentions. 

What an anachronistic (yet lovely) oddity!


  1. Yes, Södergran's an interesting poet; I wrote about her here. As for Tsvetaeva, I've circled cautiously around her ever since I had a brief romance with a (slightly mad) Russian woman whose favorite poet she was; I'm blown away by her force, imagery, and rhymes, but I'm just not as drawn to her as I am to the other great born-around-1890 Russian modernists. But maybe that will change.

  2. I have similarly mixed feelings about Tsvetaeva, but I've resolved lately to give her the benefit of the doubt. The trouble for me is exactly what Kaminsky calls her "over-abundance of lyricism." Besides her technical fireworks, I'm not sure how much else her poems contain.

    You're not the only one who thinks Tsvetaeva comes up short when compared to her contemporaries: I have a recent Silver Age anthology on my shelf that doesn't even include her.

    Thanks for the Södergran link! With my Swedish roots and Petersburgian proclivity, I should definitely learn more about her.

  3. '...the two of them do not even claim to have “translated” Tsvetaeva’s poetry, but have rather composed a kind of commentary on it—mere “fragments, notes in the margin.'

    I love this. It applies so perfectly to attempts to translate Tsvetaeva. Or even to read her, pencil in hand.

    The picture of the poet in France with her dog is great.

  4. I'm in the midst of trying to translate the "Girlfriend" cycle, which are some of my favorite poems of Tsvetaeva's. It's proving to be much more difficult than I could have imagined. She's an incredible poet and it's frustrating not to be able to share her with my non-Russian speaking friends. I do love the Valentine and Kamynski versions, but it's not the same! Here are my first three from "Girlfriend":

  5. Masha, thank you for sharing your translations, which I think capture Tsvetaeva's tone perfectly. I wasn't familiar with Construction Magazine either, but it looks like a great site. I'm bookmarking it!