Sadly, I have to report a Did Not Finish – which is most unusual for me, as the books I’ve been reading lately have been books I’ve wanted to read and that have turned out to be mostly all that I wanted. This volume is an exception, unfortunately, and although I was anticipating it a lot, I ended up angry and disappointed.

I stumbled across “The Stray Dog Cabaret” when I was browsing the NYRB books site and saw that it contained poems by many of my favourite Russians, including Mayakovsky and Akhmatova, plus some lesser known to me poets. So I quickly sent off for an Amazon penny copy – but I wish I’d read the reviews on Amazon.com first…

The Stray Dog Cafe or Cabaret has a Wikipedia entry here, and it was a club in St. Petersburg for avant-garde writers and artists. The poets featured in this book appeared and read at the SDC and ‘translator’ Paul Schmidt had prepared this volume and it was found in his papers after his death and then published by NYRB. I actually wish it hadn’t been. As I read the introduction, I was alarmed to read of the large number of changes PS had made to the original works. I tried to read with an open mind, but each time I referred to the notes at the back of the book and found what had been added (yes, added!), omitted or changed, I got angry. I stopped halfway through the book because I felt I wasn’t reading the Russian poets, but an American re-write of them – and that isn’t what I wanted.

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I appreciate that translation is incredibly difficult (I certainly couldn’t do it) and that poetry must be about the hardest thing to translate. But to change the stanza breaks? Take out half or more of some poems? Change the dedicatee? And in the case of a Mayakovsky poem, actually add a (very weak) refrain that wasn’t in the original? That’s not to me translation, and however gifted PS may have been, and however much he might want to get these poets across to English-speaking people, what he was presenting here was not their words, not their poems. I want a translation that gets me as close to the original as is possible, not something filtered through another writer’s sensibility and changed into something it isn’t. The Americanisation of Blok’s “Twelve” is awful and I want to read something that sounds like it’s Russian. The re-written poems may read as strongly in English, and have the same impact, as the Russian originals – I can’t judge as I’m not a Russian speaker – but they should be advertised not as translations but as interpretations or re-writes. They aren’t the original words of the Russian poets and shouldn’t be marketed as such. This book in the end seems to be much more about Paul Schmidt than anything else which is odd for a volume that purports to be about Russian avant-garde poetry.

I feel very strongly about this, obviously, and translation has been something of a bugbear with me recently. Certainly, I find myself questioning this whole ‘celebrity translator’ thing that’s about and I find myself enjoying and trusting Chandler, Aplin and Turnbull, who stay outside the whole publicity machine and just produce excellent, reliable, readable translations. The Amazon.com reviews are probably a little more balanced than I am about this(!) so I’d recommend reading them if you’re considering buying a copy. But I won’t be picking up this volume again – and I doubt whether I will actually keep it…