At the risk of becoming a bore, I have been ruminating a lot on translated literature again. As I hinted in an earlier post, I’ve been reading a lot of Russians recently (no surprise there…) and in particular poetry. Now poetry must be the hardest thing in the world to translate, particularly from a language as far removed from English as Russian, with its completely different alphabet. I’ve read Russian poetry for decades, and never really queried too deeply who was rendering it and how until recent years. A good case in point is the work of Mayakovsky; I first discovered him in my early 20s and the versions I had were translated by Herbert Marshall (I’ve written about them before on the Ramblings). However, I’ve no way of knowing how good they are; but the problem is, his versions of Mayakovsky are imprinted in my brain and I have trouble getting on with any other versions, however much more accurate they may be!

With other Russian poets I’m trying to read across the translations now; and the wonderful Penguin Book of Russian Poetry (edited by Robert Chandler, Boris Dralyuk and Irina Mashinski, who also translate many of the works) is a marvellous resource. It features a wide range of different versions, and I’m finding it a good way to get a nuanced look at particular poems. For example, I picked up a copy of Vladislav Khodasevich‘s “Selected Poems” on a trip to London in the early summer, and I was browsing through it recently. A particular poem from that book struck me and the second verse rendered by Peter Daniels is as follows:

Here on this pea we call the Earth,
either be angel or be demon.
but to be human – what’s the worth
of that, except to be forgotten

However, the version rendered by Michael Frayn in the Penguin book is slightly different.

On this small pea in endless space
be shining angel or be demon,
But not mere man, though, for to be one
is to pass by and leave no trace.

The sense is much the same, although there is a particular emphasis in the second with the addition of the word “shining”. I like both, despite their differences, though I find those differences intriguing.

However, Marina Tsvetaeva is not so straightforward. I’m used to Elaine Feinstein’s wonderful translations, which I believe reproduce Tsvetaeva’s somewhat unusual structure and punctuation. This particular extract from “An Attempt at Jealousy” (one of my favourite Tsvetaeva works so far) is a case in point:

How is your life with the other one,
   simpler, isn’t it? One    stroke of the oar
then a long coastline, and soon
   even the memory of me

will be a floating island […]

This is given in the book “Four of Us”, translated by Andrey Kneller, which I picked up recently as:

How is living with another?
Simpler? The thud of oars! –
Memories of me soon start to
Drift like waves along the shore,

I’m the island in the distance, […]

And I confess I like the second one less; it doesn’t speak to me in the same way as the first version, and I wonder whether the structure was enforced by Kneller’s wish to make the poem rhyme (which I never really expect in a translated work). Interestingly the editors of the Penguin book chose to include Feinstein’s version of this poem, and I believe her versions are highly regarded. I had a similar issue with one of Akhmatova’s verses “Echo” which I blogged about, and the original version I had read many years ago still seems to me to be superior as verse.

So I think it’s definitely a case of exploring the various poetic translations and finding out which ones appeal to me most. Certainly the Penguin book is one I’ll return to, as I trust Chandler and Dralyuk, having read and related to many of their translations. And as long as the translators haven’t invented new bits of the works (like one hideous book I read some time ago…) I shall be content when I find the version I like. And I would urge you to search out Peter Daniels’ translation of Khodasevich‘s poem “Look For Me” which is online at various places – it’s quite stunningly gorgeous and it’s what made me buy this book.

As for Marina Tsvetaeva, as you can see I have a little collection of her works now:

Yes, there are two versions of “Letters: Summer 1926” in the pile, and yes there was a good reason for me getting the NYRB version. I have had for a while a nasty old Oxford World Classics version; it’s not nasty because it’s an Oxford book (they’re lovely) but because it’s old and tatty and has been mistreated. So I thought I would invest in the NYRB book (particularly as it apparently has a good introduction by Susan Sontag) and dispose of the OWC. Alas, that is not likely to be the case… Both books feature images, but there are complications: there are extra pictures in the NYRB version but they’re printed on ordinary paper within the text and are pale and washed out. However, the OWC version has the photos (albeit a lesser selection) in a proper glossy plate section – meaning I may well have to keep that one just for the pictures… So much for book pruning…. 😦

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