Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Origins (with a nod to Lizok and Mandelstam)

Osip Mandelstam / Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

This blog owes its existence to another blog on Russian literature: Lisa Hayden Espenschade’s Lizok’s Bookshelf. The difference between this one and that one is quite simple: while Lisa focuses on fiction, I intend to focus on poetry. I have been reading Lizok’s Bookshelf for many months now, and I count myself grateful for the insight that Lisa gives me into contemporary Russian novels and stories. Unfortunately, no English-language blogger seems to be providing the same readerly view into contemporary Russian poetry. In an e-mail exchange a few months ago, Lisa suggested that, since I’m the one who noticed the gap, I might as well be the one to fill it. So I’ve decided to take her up on that challenge.

If I’m going to use Lizok’s Bookshelf as a model, I’ve got my work cut out for me. Lisa seems to read just about every piece of fiction being published in Russia, and I’m afraid I may not be able to present such a comprehensive view of poetry. Translating Russian poems into English is something that I do almost every day, but I don’t typically read widely in contemporary Russian poetry, as Lisa does in Russian fiction. The sort of reading that I do as a translator is much narrower—scanning new poems to get a quick sense of their nature and keeping always on the lookout for writers whose poems somehow resonate with me. Then I go deeply into the work of those kindred poets. But I will need to broaden my reading habits if I want to give English readers a taste of what’s out there in the world of Russian poetry. I’ll do my best.

Still, I want this blog to be as much a record of my translation efforts as it is a record of my reading encounters. At the moment, I’m translating three poets who write in Russian: Irina Yevsa, Timur Kibirov, and Vyacheslav Kiktenko. I plan to post excerpts from some of their poems here soon, accompanied by my own musings on their work. (So far, only my translations of a few poems by Kiktenko have been published.) I’ll post links to other translators’ English versions of Russian poems as they become relevant, and I’ll try to report on news items from Russia that have to do with poetry. I also hope to make some connections between Russian and American poetry, since the American literary context is the one that I’m translating into.

By the way, the title of this blog, The Flaxen Wave, derives loosely from the final stanza of a late poem by Osip Mandelstam, where the great modern poet describes the role that poetry plays (or ought to play) in our lives. Here is my translation of the whole poem:

I’m now in a spider-web of light—
a raven-haired or light-blonde web.
The people need light and sky-blue air,
they need bread and the snow on Elbrus.

But I have no one to get advice from—
I don’t expect to find anyone, either:
Transparent, weeping stones like these
do not exist in Crimea or the Urals.

People need poetry kept close, kept secret,
so that they can wake up to it forever,
and in its sound, as in a flaxen-haired,
chestnut wave, bathe themselves.

January 19, 1937

Translation by Jamie L. Olson


  1. Congratulations on starting your blog, Jamie! I'm very much looking forward to reading your entries and getting back into reading Russian poetry.

    You raise some very interesting points about the narrowness and broadness of reading habits, and I was glad to see your mention of American poetry and the importance of familiarity with the context into which you translate. I have been thinking about the same thing thanks to my (rather new) work in literary translation.

    Enjoy your blogging!

  2. Finally! i've been on the lookout for a russian-english-poetry blog for quite some time now. спасибо большое!

  3. Great idea for a blog, and I look forward to reading it!

    Nice translation; the only thing that bothers me is the "as" in the last stanza. As usual, Mandelstam doesn't use any overt comparator, he just says "in a flaxen-haired, chestnut wave -- its sound." It seems to me to weaken the image to turn it into a simile.

    If you don't want commentary on your translations, just say so and I'll restrain myself in future; it's your blog. In any case: Успехов!

  4. Language makes a good point: in Mandelstam's poem, two images are placed alongside one another (the sound and the wave), both in the instrumental case. So the people are bathed by both of them. I suppose I changed it to a simile in order to make clear that a parallel was drawn.

    The grammar is complicated by the gender differences between the two languages: in Language's more literal translation, "its sound" seems to refer to the wave, but in fact the "it" is poetry (стих).

    On the other hand, if I simply removed my "as," the stanza's meaning would still be clear, the parallel would still be drawn, the meter would be more or less maintained, and the image wouldn't be diluted. Perhaps most importantly, I'd stick closer to Mandelstam's text. Thanks for the suggestion!

  5. You're welcome! (In case it wasn't clear, by the way, I'm languagehat, but Google thinks Language is my first name and Hat my last.)