Wednesday, December 24, 2014

A Nativity Poem by Boris Pasternak

Cover for the 1st Italian edition of Pasternak's Doctor Zhivago / Image courtesy of the Hoover Institution

[NOTE: As I have done in previous years, I'm posting a nativity poem for the Christmas season. I've translated this one (into a lazy vers libre) from the selection of Zhivago poems at the back of Boris Pasternak's 1957 novel.]

*     *     *

Star of the Nativity
by Boris Pasternak

Winter had set in.
Wind blew in from the steppe
and the child was cold in a dark den
on the slope of a hill.

He was kept warm by an ox’s breath.
Other beasts also
stood in the cave.
Above the manger floated a warm haze.

After shaking bits of straw and millet
from their thick furs,
herdsmen gazed sleepily
into the midnight distance from a cliff.

Far off lay a snowfield and churchyard,
fences and headstones,
a plank in a snowdrift,
and a sky full of stars above the graves.

Nearby, unknown until that night,
more timid than a candle
in a watchman’s window,
a star glimmered on the road to Bethlehem.

It flared up like a dry hayrick, apart
from God and heaven,
like an arson’s gleam,
like a farm and threshing-floor in flames.

Saturday, November 29, 2014

The Strain of Constant Contact

Poster for the premiere of Uncle Vanya at the Moscow Art Theater (1899) / Image courtesy of

[This fall, the theater program at Saint Martin’s University, headed by David Hlavsa, put on a fantastic production of Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya. Now that the show has wrapped, I think it’s fair to share with readers of this blog the program note that I wrote in my capacity of “cultural advisor” to the play. Enjoy!]

*     *     *

As a playwright, Chekhov’s aesthetic method was to toss his characters into a pressure cooker and crank up the heat. In each of his major plays, individuals from different backgrounds are assembled in a single household, and gradually the strain of constant contact brings out the worst in them. (Really, isn’t this a definition for all drama—a mix of characters forced into view for a fixed span of time?) Even in Uncle Vanya’s subtitle, “Scenes from Country Life,” Chekhov prepares us for his method of concentrated engagement: the countryside, unlike the city, gives the characters nowhere else to go. Social interaction must occur on an isolated estate.

In this play, two unwelcome outsiders, Professor Serebryakov and his young wife Yelena, have come into the household and upset the status quo. Early in the first act, Uncle Vanya and the servant Marina go right to the crux of the problem: he complains that the old professor and Yelena have caused things to go “topsy-turvy,” and Marina replies, “We used to have lunch at one o’clock, like normal people… now we eat at six or seven.” Nothing is as it should be. The samovar is set out for tea in the morning, but the professor sleeps until noon. Astrov, the doctor, goes even further in his critique: “You and your husband,” he scolds Yelena in the final act, “have infected us all with your uselessness.” While their presence may in fact have stirred up his passions, Astrov longs for their departure so that he can again annihilate his ego through work. Like the others, he needs its diversion to get himself by.

The disruption of routine underscores the frustration of the characters. No one is fulfilled. No one seems certain what his or her purpose in life is. In this respect, Chekhov differs from Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, and others in the generation of Russian writers that preceded his, who would have offered clear moral guidance for their audience. But in Uncle Vanya, even those characters who may have once felt a sense of purpose—for instance, Astrov with his forestry projects—seem incapable of making real progress or changing much of anything. They are ineffectual. So they drink. They drink out of a sense of futility. And they drink the wrong thing at the wrong time: they should be sipping tea at the appointed hour, but instead they rely on vodka to cope whenever they like. “When I’m drunk,” says Vanya, “life seems more like life.”

Only in routine can these characters find solace—only in the numbness of modern life, tediously doing the books to keep the estate afloat or sleeplessly trudging about the countryside, treating an unending line of sick patients. What is the meaning of these struggles and sacrifices? Why make them? These are the questions that Chekhov poses to us. We may wonder whether our tribulations have any purpose at all, but in the end we hope that they will move us, God willing, closer to the ultimate “rest” invoked by Sonya in her final lines.

Jamie Olson
Saint Martins University

*     *     *

Besides wonderful performances by the actors, the SMU production also featured our family samovar, pictured here in an onstage photo by my wife Anna:

As anyone who has seen or read the play knows, this was no bit part!

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