I’ve been busy laying out a manuscript and immersing myself in Russian poetry. The former’s publication date is set (July 1st), while the latter has me at odds with accepted translations I had always counted on. Because I’ve taken on poetry translation, I’m trying to understand how credible translators approached incredible work, with emphasis on English translations of Alexander Pushkin.
Some basics: it seems to me Russian poets focus on three things simultaneously, each with equal importance: word order, noise (sonics), and rhyme. With word order, they’re able to “flex” the structure to enhance meaning, and of course the Cyrillic alphabet contains several exotic noises (letters like “zh” and “sh”) that butt up wonderfully against hard consonants. While rhyme is less used now, it’s interesting to note how contemporary Russians still revert to it, almost across the board.
These are powerful tools, and the Russians take full advantage of them. However, in translation they can cause fits. Translators are forced to select one convention, though with older poetry it seems like rhyme is their general technique of choice. You can, in fact, render rhymed Russian into a rhymed English, but you have to stretch to do so, with meaning getting shifted in the process. A small example: the Russian Voln (genetic for “waves”) and poln (genetic for “full”) rhyme in the original, but “waves” and “full” will never rhyme in English.
I can empathize with the problem. After all, Alexander Pushkin invented a certain sonnet form specifically for “Eugene Onegin,” so it feels a bit seedy not to make every attempt to render the work in English using that invented form (which of course Nabokov actually managed to do – another story for a different post). Inevitably, though, meaning gets skewered a bit; the translator has to stretch rhyme to maintain form.
So these important elements actually hinder, I think, proper translation. Consider the first two lines of Pushkin’s “The Bronze Horseman” (evoking the two words I presented above). Walter Arndt’s translation is excellent, yet it encounters a problem immediately because he has chosen to maintain rhyme scheme over all else (which is correct – he has no other choice). The translation feels proper enough as Arndt begins:
Upon a shore of desolate waves
Stood he, with lofty musings grave
In reality, Pushkin does so much more in the opening lines, much more than Arndt can possibly translate. Pushkin immediately plays with noise and word order to add a trance-like combination with the letters “OHN” or “OLN” (as transliterated):
На берегу пустынных волн
Стоял он, дум великих полн
Here it is transliterated to give you the sense of what I’m driving at. I’ll emphasize Pushkin’s device in capitals:
Na beregu pustynnykh VOLN
Stoyal OHN, dum velikikh POLN
The repetitive sound is, I think, a gorgeous play of sound, a beautiful bend of the ear. And it’s completely lost in translation, but only because it is impossible to recreate in English. Don’t get me wrong: I credit Arndt for his fine scholarship. We wouldn’t have Pushkin to discuss without these translations. It seems, though, Arndt (or anyone else) either consistently over- or under-emphasizes meaning, which of course weakens the poetry. Translators are nuance savvy, but even then they’re forced to favor one technique and ditch the rest.
Contemporary Russian poets have managed to maintain many of Pushkin’s strengths, and that’s admirable. Pushkin is still about as good as Russian poetry can get. Of course contemporary subjects and viewpoints are part of the Russian scene, but I consistently come across rhyme (in tandem with word play and noise) in their contemporary poetry. And therefore I understand Arndt’s dilemma: do I maintain rhyme and threaten meaning, or do I maintain meaning at the expense of sound and rhyme? I lean toward meaning over all other convention, but of course I worry about whether that’s correct.
So that’s what I’ve been doing. Obsessive Compulsive? Yeah, probably. Fascinating? Always. Especially if you enjoy yanking whole hunks of hair out occasionally. It grows back, by the way, and it makes for terrific conversation. It also translates beautifully – this time both in Russian and English.