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 Gumilyov, 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.