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.


  1. This different approach to form explains a lot about the way Russian poetry fares in translation.

    I really hope there is some other way to smuggle rhyme and meter into contemporary English; perhaps making it somehow so obviously un-English that English connotations stop getting in the way would be a solution?

  2. Yes, I'm with you, Maxim: smuggling is the way to go. My own method involves sneaking in rhymes by making them slant. Meter is simple (it's usually the easiest formal element to achieve), but sometimes it has to be altered to suit its new English habitat. Anapests become iambs, hexameter becomes pentameter, etc.