Ann Kjellberg on Brodsky’s Self-Translations.

It is a fact universally acknowledged, that Joseph Brodsky’s poetry in English, including his self-translations and the results of his browbeating others who tried to translate his poems under his supervision, is not that good. Understandably, Ann Kjellberg, his literary executor and the editor of his Collected Poems in English, disagrees, and she goes into her reasons in this essay for Stanford’s Book Haven. In the spirit of fairness, I link to her case for the defense and quote a few excerpts, with my rebuttals. After a cursory account of Russian poetry and Brodsky’s life, she says that “when Brodsky arrived in America in 1972, formal poetry was at a low ebb”:

This trend has reversed somewhat, or at least fragmented. […] Yet the legacy of that period of formal quiescence remains very much with us. Few American readers can read verse musically with any sophistication. The notion is still widespread that there is a binary division between “formal” and “free” verse—whereas much of the best of what is read as free verse is in fact deeply colored by forms (often shadows of iambic pentameter or echoes of the syllabic lines of Moore and Bishop), and there is a big difference, for example, between verse that follows a colloquial or spoken line and verse that treats language as a found object. Similarly, “formal” poetry is not just conservative poetry that adheres to old structures, but is an evolving medium that grows and develops and constantly makes new means available to the artist. The rhymes and meters of Muldoon alone should be sufficient to make the case that form can be modern.

Brodsky’s effort to enliven and expand the formal repertoire in English, which met with considerable resistance at the time, can surely now be judged a success.

The trend is undeniable; the idea that Brodsky is responsible for it is absurd. But let us continue. She points out that the English language “has been subject to external influences almost since its origin” — again, undeniably true. “The notion that to accuse a poet’s intonations of foreignness is sufficient to dismiss them seems unfounded, and unnecessarily to limit the potential resources available for the growth of our verse”: this is a straw man; nobody is saying that. Then comes the special pleading:

A master of an artistic medium comes to us from another language. He embraces our culture and our verse. He dedicates much of his short life to struggling mightily to rewrite his own work so that it can be read and understood by his compatriots. […] Should we reject this effort on the grounds of unfamiliarity alone? Or should we perhaps consider that Brodsky brings us important news that might enrich our tradition, which is currently suffering from an undeniable diminution of means? Should we consider whether the challenges that Brodsky’s English verse offer us may themselves be an indication of how our language and our receptivity have contracted? Might it be worth searching for the inner cadences and harmonies in what at first seems startling to us? Or asking ourselves how an apparent violation of convention might create a more muscular or versatile poetic medium?

Well, sure we can consider, search for, and ask ourselves those things. To preempt one obvious response, she says:

In this vein, it’s worth considering the frequent case against Brodsky that his English is “unidiomatic.” We should reflect on the prejudices embedded in this judgment. When did being “idiomatic” become a decisive attribute for poetry? Our own language has a particular history of returning to its colloquial roots. From Chaucer, to Shakespeare, to Wordsworth, to Auden, our great poets have recalled us to the spoken line. But other traditions have developed differently. Many poetries have a high or courtly style and a colloquial style that poets draw into strategic conflict. Brodsky himself was often accused by Soviet critics of mixing high and low. Other poets have innovated by disrupting or vexing expectation, creating a new or idiosyncratic rhetoric. By keeping the spoken and the colloquial so central to our tradition, we may have deafened ourselves to the beauty and value of innovations like these.

Indeed, Brodsky used to complain that the criticisms leveled against him for his work in English were precisely the same as those leveled against him by his Russian detractors. One difference may be that challenging orthodoxies goes down more easily in literary circles when the orthodoxies are Soviet.

This will not do at all. The last bit is plain bullying (“if you object to Brodsky, you’re just like the Soviets!”) and she or the editor should have thought better of it before letting it go public. But the problem with Brodsky’s English poetry is not that it’s unfamiliar, or challenging, or idiosyncratic. It’s that it doesn’t work as poetry in English. I am an American thoroughly steeped in formal poetry, from the Greeks and Romans through the great English tradition to the at least as great Russian tradition, including Brodsky’s own Russian poetry, and I love attempts to modernize formal poetry. If anyone is primed to accept his work in English, I am. But ever since I was first exposed to it I’ve found it alternately awkward and cutesy, with nothing that makes me feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, to quote Dickinson’s definition. It was not until I acquired enough Russian to read him in the original that I learned for myself that he was a great poet, rather than taking it on faith. I just opened my copy of To Urania at random and found his self-translation “Elegy”; it has lines like “Now the place is abuzz with trading in your ankles’ remnants” and “All’s overgrown with people. A ruin’s a rather stubborn/ architectural style.” I’m sorry, it simply doesn’t work. It isn’t poetry. It’s a brilliant and stubborn poet’s brave attempt to transfer his brilliance into another language; it was worth trying, but he should have listened to the people who told him to stick to Russian and leave the translating to his translators.

Comments

  1. David Eddyshaw says:

    “Now the place is abuzz with trading in your ankles’ remnants”

    This is Vogon poetry at its most … Vogon.

  2. “To a Dinosaur, on The Occasion of a A Fleamarket for Paleoarcheologists”. The ankles’ remants are a fossilized talus, the specialists are haggling over the price.

  3. I’ve written an article and a book chapter on JB, and found it hard going to get very much out of the verse for either.

  4. J.W. Brewer says:

    Has Brodsky been translated into other languages (French, German, Tamil, Bahasa Indonesia, whatever?) with which Brodsky was perhaps himself less familiar and thus less able to try his own hand or meddle with someone else’s attempt? If so, were the results better as poetry in the target language?

  5. David Eddyshaw says:

    This is perhaps another instance of a more widespread phenomenon that has been mentioned here previously.

    The dominance of English as the world’s favourite second language has resulted in the emergence of a huge group of people, many highly educated, who can produce perfectly functional English which could never pass muster as the production of a native speaker, but who themselves do not realise the gap between their own competence and the level of a native.

    This might be because English is a language which is easy to speak imperfectly, or it might just reflect our linguistically odd historical environment.

  6. David Eddyshaw says:

    I should perhaps immediately add that there are also huge numbers of L2 English users whose competence at least in written English is virtually indistinguishable from an L1 speaker’s, and that all posters on LH who are not native speakers of English fall into this category …

    (Seriously, in fact. Many who post here I would have assumed to be native speakers if they hadn’t self-identified otherwise. Deeply enviable achievement ….)

  7. fisheyed says:

    L2 English users whose competence at least in written English is virtually indistinguishable from an L1 speaker’s,

    I was just thinking this last night while reading Thomas Lehmann, the grammarian. He writes so clearly and well in English that I would never guess that he was an L2 user (with a heavy accent). There are a number of other academics who write academic works in English who are in the same category.

    (I agree with your other post too…)

  8. J.W. Brewer says:

    Of course, saying Brodsky’s poetry in English was not very good raises the question, as compared to who? Because Brodsky had a certain celebrity charisma as a refugee from a context where The Poet was still a certain social role, but came to America when poetry was already well on its way to complete cultural marginality and irrelevance. Take this text from Wikipedia: “The end of the twentieth century was marked by the death of three leading poets when James Dickey (1923-1997), Octavio Paz (1914-1998) and Gwendolyn Brooks (1917-2000) passed away within four years of each other. The start of the twenty-first century then saw several poets still actively writing at the end of the previous century with sufficient strength to inaugurate the new century of poetry. The names of leading poets writing at the start of the twenty-first century include such poets as John Ashbery (b. 1927), W. S. Merwin (b. 1927), Derek Walcott (b. 1930), Geoffrey Hill (b. 1932), Mark Strand (1934-2014), Jay Wright (b. 1935), Seamus Heaney (1939-2013) and Anne Carson (b. 1950).” Leaving aside the Octavio Paz problem (either this should be a list of Anglophone writers only or it should have a higher percentage of non-Anglophones), what is striking is that each and every person on this list other than Ms. Carson is/was older than Brodsky. Brodsky was 55 when he died. Who’s an English-language poet currently 55 or younger whom a generally well-read person without a specialist interest in contemporary poetry ought to feel embarrassed not to have heard of? I think there may not be any. A guy I knew just in passing in college who died young (2009, aged 41, although that’s older than e.g. Keats or Dylan Thomas) was said by some to be one of the more promising poetic voices of his/my/our generation, but if you were not a habitue of the hermetic subculture of MFA programs and “readings” and little magazines there’s no reasonable chance you should have come across his name. (I do see from Wikipedia that some of his work has been translated into German, which is nice, but I assume not a large press run . . . .)

  9. fisheyed says:

    Who’s an English-language poet currently 55 or younger whom a generally well-read person without a specialist interest in contemporary poetry ought to feel embarrassed not to have heard of?

    Don Paterson.

    I had to look up his age to be sure. Sean O’Brien is slightly over. Rachel Loden is around about there. AE Stallings is younger definitely and so is Roddy Lumsden, but Don Paterson is more lauded.

  10. Sir JCass says:

    “I should perhaps immediately add that there are also huge numbers of L2 English users whose competence at least in written English is virtually indistinguishable from an L1 speaker’s…”

    That’s true. It’s also true that some foreign academics can write English at least as well as their L1 counterparts.

    Literary prose: harder, but still possible. Obvious examples: Joseph Conrad, Vladimir Nabokov.

    Poetry: virtually impossible, as Brodsky demonstrates. I can’t think of many other examples. Charles d’Orleans? He’s more famous for his French poetry but he did write some English verse (this, for instance).

    Bonus: old Languagehat thread on Rilke’s attempts to write Russian and French poetry and Goethe’s teenage forays into English and French verse.

  11. fisheyed says:

    The names of leading poets writing at the start of the twenty-first century include such poets as John Ashbery (b. 1927), W. S. Merwin (b. 1927), Derek Walcott (b. 1930), Geoffrey Hill (b. 1932), Mark Strand (1934-2014), Jay Wright (b. 1935), Seamus Heaney (1939-2013) and Anne Carson (b. 1950).

    It’s an odd list because I don’t think Merwin, Strand, Jay Wright are ranked all that high any more — not in comparison to Les Murray, Don Paterson, Jorie Graham. Except for Anne Carson, pretty much the whole list is in decline rather than in their prime, so it is odd to call them leading poets of the 21st century.

  12. GeorgeW says:

    “Seriously, in fact. Many who post here I would have assumed to be native speakers if they hadn’t self-identified otherwise. Deeply enviable achievement ….”

    Agree. I think L2 phonology and pragmatics are the most difficult to master.

  13. fisheyed says:

    Poetry: virtually impossible, as Brodsky demonstrates. I can’t think of many other examples.

    Charles Simic learned English in his teens, I think. (I can’t bear his work but his shelf of awards disagrees with me so…).

  14. J.W. Brewer says:

    My bluff having been called I am happy to confess that I had never heard of Don Paterson and, fine fellow though he may be, am not embarrassed by that fact, any more than I would expect anyone without a fairly acute and specialized interest in jazz to be embarrassed not to have heard of, say, Emily Remler (1957-1990, arguably the best jazz guitarist of her generation and probably the best female jazz guitarist of all time). I have heard of Les Murray, but only because David McComb (1962-1999) explained that one of his songs was inspired by a particular poem of Murray’s. And I am someone interested enough in poetry as a once-significant mode of cultural expression that via a chain of free association from a seemingly unrelated topic I spent some time yesterday evening googling up a fairly obscure early poem by Pound (“Shop Girl,” which turned out upon closer inspection not to be a suitable analogy for the thing which had vaguely reminded me of it).

  15. I spent some time yesterday evening googling up a fairly obscure early poem by Pound (“Shop Girl,” which turned out upon closer inspection not to be a suitable analogy for the thing which had vaguely reminded me of it).

    That sort of thing often happens to me.

  16. marie-lucie says:

    My experience is limited, but it seems to me that writers, especially poets, who handle their own language with virtuosity and elegance usually don’t like to learn other languages and are not very good at it. (The exception being those who were educated in another language since childhood, where the opposite might happen). This attitude of course is common among many non-writers, but with them it does not get public exposure.

    What I know about Brodsky I learned almost exclusively from references to him in this blog, so I wonder how well he knew English before arriving in the US. Among other things, it seems to me that he had little understanding of the various registers of the language. Mixing registers is not necessarily a fault in a poet who understands exactly which words belong to which registers (apparently as did Brodsky in Russian), but doing so in a language you do not really master is fraught with pitfalls. The words which “mean” the same in two languages do not always belong to the same register.

    This case reminds me of one which I mentioned quite a while ago here, one of Gurdjieff’s works in English, which I attempted to read some years ago (out of curiosity) and found unreadable: it sounded like a word-to-word translation of a French text, for instance a mister for ‘un monsieur’ (actually ‘a gentleman’ or simply ‘a man’). I thought this meant that G spoke good French but little English, but apparently that was not the case. H apparently worked with one or more transcribers of his spoken English words and objected to revisions which might have made his language more standard or idiomatic.

    As for the reported comment that poetry does not need to be idiomatic, again a poet or any writer can choose to use peculiar idioms or tweak them in some way, but doing so in another, poorly mastered language risks being inappropriate, incomprehensible, or even ridiculous, even if the structures are formally grammatical.

  17. J.W. Brewer says:

    Some would argue that Samuel Becket wrote almost as well in English as he did in his native French, but I am not competent to judge . . . But then of course there are people who were bilingual from an early age, like another fellow I knew in passing way back when I was still in school who sounded like a native speaker of AmEng but whose French was good enough he decided to write in that language and managed to become, I believe, the only author in history to win both the Prix Goncourt and (in English translation, although I don’t think self-done) the Literary Review Bad Sex Award.

  18. fisheyed says:

    My bluff having been called I am happy to confess that I had never heard of Don Paterson and, fine fellow though he may be, am not embarrassed by that fact

    Well I don’t know exactly what it would take for you to feel embarassed, but knowing who Don Paterson is does not take an acute or specialized interest. I first read about him in the LRB, and he has been mentioned in the TLS many times. I just checked the NYT and he is mentioned not just in the book pages but in the music section and some travel article. He has also been published in the US, which is an index of how well known he is, considering even Tony Harrison does not have a US publisher.

    As for Les Murray, he is in the papers all the time, for his books as well as for various contraversies, as well as the fact that Clive James mentions him all the time. (CJ also wrote a beautiful poem about Les Murray, “The Great Wrasse”, which I read in the TLS I think.)

  19. One of my favorite contemporary poets, Maya Khosla, is Indian; I don’t know how “native” English is to her but certainly she’s been encountering it all her life. There must be lots of poets writing in a colonial or international language instead of a local one, and no doubt some of them are excellent. What about earlier diglossic situations where poets wrote in Persian or whatever? I gues my point, if I have one, is that nativenes is a continuum.

  20. David Eddyshaw says:

    @Vasha:

    That’s a good point, and I suspect that especially Persian poetry of a good standard has been produced by quite a few poets from the Islamic world who were not mother-tongue Persian speakers; an even more clear-cut case is classical Sanskrit kavya poetry, produced when Sanskrit was no longer *anybody’s* mother tongue.

    What such cases have in common, though, is that they involve a highly wrought poetical language far removed from any colloquial style and in no way dependent on effects of differing registers: pretty much the opposite of what Brodsky supposed himself to be able to do in English.

    Many Indians are effectively native English speakers; I agree this is a different proposition.

  21. David Eddyshaw says:

    The father of Latin poetry

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ennius

    was trilingual, by his own account; I suppose that if you had to shoehorn him into a category, you’d say that his mother tongue was Oscan.

  22. Where are the anthologies of Oscan and Etruscan poetry, dammit?

  23. David Marjanović says:

    I’d already be happy with Emperor Claudius’s dictionary of Etruscan. *grumble*

  24. I know none of these 20th-21st century poets, but this troubles me not a whit. Fifty years ago I learned that if Isaac Newton was only a child picking up pebbles on the shore of the ocean of knowledge, there was no chance that I would be anything else, and almost as long ago I learned that every piece of knowledge is at the center of knowledge. And since, like Ernest (Barrie’s, not Wilde’s) I am not young enough to know everything, my ignorance of Don Paterson concerns me no more than my ignorance of, say, James Patterson.

  25. David L says:

    I’m by no means embarrassed to say that I don’t know either Don Paterson or Les Murray, but I do commend to your attention Sir Les Patterson.

    (I apologize in advance for this, but I felt the need to lower the tone of the discussion).

  26. Dmitry Prokofyev says:

    Samuel Becket wrote almost as well in English as he did in his native French

    Sorry, what? the other way round, surely?

  27. Sir JCass says:

    [Ennius] was trilingual

    Sayat Nova wrote poetry in three or four languages: Armenian, Georgian, Azeri and (perhaps) Persian. Maybe the feat is possible where multilingualism is the norm, or maybe it had something to do with his being a singer. After all, many foreign bands now sing in English and their lyrics are generally no worse than the homegrown equivalent. It might be easier when the form is highly conventionalised. On the other hand, I can’t think of a non-native speaker of English who’s a really skillful, linguistically inventive lyricist on the level of, say, Cole Porter, Bob Dylan or Morrissey.

  28. Sir JCass says:

    It might also be possible where two languages are close together. The Renaissance writer Gil Vicente wrote poetry and plays in both his native Portuguese and Spanish. Castilian was then a prestige language at the court of Lisbon. In fact, a lot of his plays contain both Portuguese and Spanish, the characters speaking their respective languages.

  29. Il vergognoso says:

    Japanese literati down to early Meiji period, aside from Japanese poetry, produce Chinese poetry which is just fine, mostly undistinguishable from contemporary Chinese poetry produced by the Chinese or Korean. Interestingly, Japanese-written Chinese prose is often a bit worse, probably because the greater length precludes such a high degree of linguistic scrutiny affordable for eight-liners.

  30. Sorry, what? the other way round, surely?

    J. W. was having his little joke.

  31. Ian Press says:

    Setting aside the joke about Samuel Becket, it’s surely interesting that focus here has been on non-native speakers of English. What about native speakers of English who have demonstrated pretty good competence in other languages? There are many. In his obituary of Sir Raymond Carr in a recent ‘The Guardian’, Paul Preston writes:

    ‘In his packed lectures in Spain, as in his droll interviews in the press and on radio and television, he would mask penetrating comment with a hammy English accent. It was a trick that he would often use: in Spain, pretending to speak appalling Spanish, in Oxford, pretending to be slightly drunk. It was both entertaining and lulled any interlocutor into being more revealing than perhaps intended.’

    Carr spoke excellent French, German, and Swedish in addition to, at least, Spanish. Paul Preston’s Spanish is amazing. It’s what you say that counts.

    One recently deceased superb specialist in Medieval Spanish Literature, Alan Deyermond, accompanied utterly fluent Spanish with a strong English accent. Many an outstanding specialist in modern languages and literatures never pretended to native competence – this seems entirely honest of them – few of us can get even close to a perfect pronunciation (whatever that is); I worry more about those who insist ignorantly on the need for colleagues, and students in oral exams, to achieve such competence. I suspect this goes along with the indestructible disdain among many academics for anyone who specialises in writing grammars and textbooks, such an unscholarly, research-empty specialisation.

    I hope my written English here is acceptable – I’m a native speaker, but have always found it really difficult to write. My schoolteachers, while giving me the top prize when I left my secondary school back in 1965, still told me I would never survive university studies because my English was so bad. My wonderful teachers at university laughed at this; but the lack of confidence stuck, as does so much in life. I just work hard at it.

  32. What about native speakers of English who have demonstrated pretty good competence in other languages? There are many.

    But the examples you give are of spoken competence, which is 1) a different kettle of fish, and 2) hard to verify. I’d be interested in a list of English-speakers who have achieved enough mastery of another language to produce top-level literary work; Beckett and Julien Green come to mind for French, but what about others?

  33. What was Flann O’Brien’s first language?

  34. J.W. Brewer says:

    I have no idea whether its prose style as such has been acclaimed, but to fill in a cite for one of my allusions above, https://fr.wikipedia.org/wiki/Les_Bienveillantes was a big deal both critically and commercially in the French publishing industry, and its author circa age 18 spoke fluent/colloquial AmEng pretty much the way a monolingual U.S. kid who hadn’t spent any part of childhood abroad would.

  35. Some of Brodsky’s poetry has been translated into Icelandic and published in magazines.

    He came to Iceland in 1978 and left this poem with his host, a poet and a novelist, a thank-you gift I suppose. It was published in the culture section of an Icelandic newspaper a few years ago.

    In general, the place is rather bleak.
    The locals never learned to make a brick:
    they build with corrugated iron.
    Their talk is either morbid or oblique.
    (Here goes my letter to Lord Byron).

    Sun´s never setting. All night long
    the natives and their guests are able
    to read small letters on the label
    of liquid so distilled and strong
    it sends you straight under the table.

    They import everything (I wish
    I had no reason to report it).
    Potato´s Polish. Every dish
    has this potato. As for fish,
    it´s also, in a sense, imported.

    Still, I appreciate its summer´s cold,
    these hills for being like this author bald.
    Now I can take on lover after lover
    and blame it all on the volcanic lava
    (beware the crater though it´s grey and old!)

    And then, those geysers! glaciers! countryside!
    I hardly ever saw a vista greater!
    They stretch the mind and can excite
    a humble tourist and the creator
    Himself, who´s briefly out of sight.

    So is my boat to take me off, down south –
    to guilt, to worry, to memento mori,
    to rubbing shoulders, loosely uttered “sorry“,
    to politicians with their big bad mouth
    well matching, as a rule their story.

    To you, my reader. Though you hardly fit
    this title – in this life and hereafter.
    And if I dare to call myself an author,
    it´s not because I can display my wit
    in order to extract a bit of laughter
    but thanks to strolling Iceland for a bit.

  36. gwenllian says:

    What was Flann O’Brien’s first language?

    I think I remeber it was Irish, and some quick googling seems to confirm it. But growing up in County Tyrone and Dublin, English was definitely a native language to him as well.

    and its author circa age 18 spoke fluent/colloquial AmEng pretty much the way a monolingual U.S. kid who hadn’t spent any part of childhood abroad would.

    As a non-native speaker I guess I’m not the best judge, but I’ve never met a native English speaker who spent their childhood in a non-English country whose English sounded the slightest bit remarkable or non-native to me.

  37. @marie-lucie:

    “What I know about Brodsky I learned almost exclusively from references to him in this blog, so I wonder how well he knew English before arriving in the US. Among other things, it seems to me that he had little understanding of the various registers of the language.”

    As a young man in the Soviet Union, Brodsky made a great effort to learn English and read Anglophone poetry. Take his 1965 or 1966 poem in memory of T.S. Eliot: it’s modeled on Auden’s In Memory of W.B. Yeats. (I’m not fond of either piece.) Critics sometimes claim that Brodsky the Russian poet was shaped by his experience of learning English through poetry.

    Register-hopping and mixing was a hallmark of Brodsky’s Russian verse. He may have misjudged the impact and misidentified the registers when translating but it’s hard to believe he grew unconscious to this when dealing with English.

    I feel that in his Russian oeuvre, Brodsky successfully made up in wit (in a broad sense) for what he lacked in prosodic instinct; plus, he often used his idiosyncratic meter, where he felt very much at home (as in his 1975 masterpiece, The Hawk’s Autumnal Cry). It did not work when he switched languages.

  38. margrave squiffy von bladet of moravia says:

    As a non-native speaker I guess I’m not the best judge, but I’ve never met a native English speaker who spent their childhood in a non-English country whose English sounded the slightest bit remarkable or non-native to me.

    As a native English speaker, I certainly have. In fact, I am the father of two(2) such persons, although they are not done spending their childhoods yet.

  39. I have certainly encountered people who were raised in English-speaking households in non-English-speaking countries whose speech has a noticeable foreign accent. Most recently, I met a teenage girl whose family speaks German among themselves. She speaks German with perfect fluency, but with an obvious American accent. I don’t think she and her siblings get much chance to speak German outside their immediate family; her four-year-old sister was quite freaked out when I asked her something in German instead of English.

  40. I’d be interested in a list of English-speakers who have achieved enough mastery of another language to produce top-level literary work; Beckett and Julien Green come to mind for French, but what about others?

    Nancy Huston might be on it, though I suppose it would depend what one considered “top level”.

    It’s worth mentioning that, by contrast with his poetry, Brodsky’s prose essays were very well received by English critics. Many of these were originally written in English (and some reflect on the differences between Russian and English, native and non-native languages, and so on). So it may not be (only) a question of language proficiency. Naturalizing oneself to the stylistic and generic conventions of literature in the second language I think must be the greater part of the task.

  41. I suppose it would depend what one considered “top level”.

    Well, I don’t mean Nobel-worthy, just capable of being mentioned along with the works of native speakers in, say, journal reviews without any damning “not bad for a foreigner” qualifications.

    It’s worth mentioning that, by contrast with his poetry, Brodsky’s prose essays were very well received by English critics. Many of these were originally written in English (and some reflect on the differences between Russian and English, native and non-native languages, and so on). So it may not be (only) a question of language proficiency. Naturalizing oneself to the stylistic and generic conventions of literature in the second language I think must be the greater part of the task.

    Yes, his prose seems fine (I don’t know if it was polished by anyone else before publication, but knowing Brodsky’s prickliness, probably not — though he may not have been so prickly about prose). But of course poetry is a different kettle of fish; few people achieve mastery of both (Hardy is an example in English, Pushkin in Russian). Nabokov wrote some quite good poetry, but nobody would take note of it if he weren’t Nabokov. Poetry requires a concentrated manipulation of all the possibilities of a language and an awareness of its poetic history and traditions that is difficult even for native speakers and would be very hard for a foreigner to acquire.

  42. Sir JCass says:

    Poetry requires […] an awareness of [a language’s] poetic history and traditions that is difficult even for native speakers and would be very hard for a foreigner to acquire.

    This would account for the success of Ennius, the “Father of Latin Poetry”, as he didn’t really have any such history or traditions to learn.

  43. gwenllian says:

    Most recently, I met a teenage girl whose family speaks German among themselves. She speaks German with perfect fluency, but with an obvious American accent. I don’t think she and her siblings get much chance to speak German outside their immediate family; her four-year-old sister was quite freaked out when I asked her something in German instead of English.

    That’s quite typical of situations where the home language is different from that of the surrounding community. But for some reason I’ve never seen it in cases when the home language is English. What might explain it is that most such English speakers I’ve known got their education through their native language, something often not available or even desirable to speakers of other languages in a similar situation. And the omnipresence of English media and pop culture probably plays a role as well.

    My biggest exposure to this kind of situation (and the only such situations I can really judge properly) have been BCS speakers who grew up in German and English speaking countries, and their BCS is rarely inconspicuous. Often it’s not completely fluent either, but I assume such a lack of fluency means at some point their families must have shifted to the majority language in the home as well. I do know a few whose speech is completely unremarkable, and there doesn’t seem to be anything specific in their background that would account for the difference (e.g. education in the language or long stays in the old country), so I guess, at least to a point, it also depends on the individual.

  44. Chris McG says:

    Living in Austria I met several British expat families where the children spoke English natively, but often with a noticeable accent. Usually the eldest child would sound more or less native, but as the children got younger (…I mean, further down the birth order) and presumably parental attention and language input were more thinly shared, the children sounded more and more obviously German(-speaking). Some of them (especially around the early teens) had less native-sounding accents than their Austrian classmates.

    And I don’t think any of them would have fully passed for native British English speakers. Without knowing their backgrounds, I think even the best accented of them would have made me guess “very posh New Zealander” or something else which is almost BBC English, but not quite.

    (My favourite though was a little girl whose parents were from Belfast who basically used the vowel from “now”, “how”, etc in a Belfast accent (sorry, I can’t IPA on my phone) for every single vowel whether she was speaking English or German – it was like listening to Ian Paisley try to speak German, I’d ask her questions just to hear her say “i woas es net” with all the words rhyming. I was very sad when she grew out of it about age 4.)

  45. On Brodsky’s essays, see Brodsky Through the Eyes of His Contemporaries, Volume 2 edited by Valentina Polukhina. On page 329, Susan Sontag says:

    “His essays were extensively edited… He had a couple of people who did that on a regular basis. And editors of the magazines, like Bob Silver of The New York Review of Books, certainly re-wrote a lot of his stuff.”

  46. Ah, there you go then. I guess he wasn’t as prickly about prose! Thanks for finding that.

  47. (My favourite though was a little girl whose parents were from Belfast who basically used the vowel from “now”, “how”, etc in a Belfast accent (sorry, I can’t IPA on my phone) for every single vowel whether she was speaking English or German – it was like listening to Ian Paisley try to speak German, I’d ask her questions just to hear her say “i woas es net” with all the words rhyming. I was very sad when she grew out of it about age 4.)

    If I’m following you right, that’s the diphthong [œʏ], also the vowel of French oeil. Lovely little vignette!

  48. Sir JCass: I’m not sure if your tongue is in your cheek or not, but nobody can be the Father of X Poetry. All languages have a poetic tradition, though it is not necessarily represented in writing. About the only way to escape that would be to invent both your own language and your own poetic forms to go with it. The inventor of Esperanto wrote verse, but he used traditional forms, and nobody would call him either a poet or an Esperanto stylist; Nick Nicholas described his style as “charmingly Kraut-ish”.

  49. Sir JCass says:

    Sir JCass: I’m not sure if your tongue is in your cheek or not, but nobody can be the Father of X Poetry.

    Well, I was quoting David, who was quoting the well-known description of Ennius as the “Father of Latin Poetry”. But you’re right, I was exaggerating. There were poetic traditions before Ennius, such as Saturnian verse. In his greatest poem, the Annales, Ennius rejected them in favour of importing the Greek dactylic hexameter. As far as I’m aware, all later Roman poets (are there any exceptions?) followed his example and used only Greek metres. That kind of influence is still pretty impressive from a non-native speaker.

  50. marie-lucie says:

    AK: the diphthong [œʏ], also the vowel of French oeil

    I am not sure what you mean. The vowel of French oeil is simply [œ], followed by [ j ].

  51. marie-lucie says:

    her four-year-old sister was quite freaked out when I asked her something in German instead of English.

    It could be because she was used to you speaking English and hearing German from you contradicted her mental image of you and your linguistic profile.

  52. marie-lucie: Does the rounding persist through the articulation of the /j/ in oeil? If so, it would be quite close to [œʏ], Standard German eu.

  53. I’m pretty sure it doesn’t; in fact, I don’t think there’s much rounding on the oe.

  54. David Marjanović says:

    [œʏ], Standard German eu

    Dictionaries tend to say [ɔʏ̯]; [œʏ̯] might be a realization of the Dutch ui.

    In reality, and some dictionaries acknowledge that, Standard German eu is /ɔɪ̯/, with whatever the regional realization of /ɪ/ is; in northern Germany that usually goes all the way to [ʉ], and /ɪ/ more or less merges with /ʏ/.

    (The stage pronunciation, while I’m at it, is [ɔø̯]. This is an artificial feature, designed to be easier to hear in a theater.)

    Historically, though, a pronunciation that began with [œ-] or [ø-] must have existed around Early New High German times; this is the only way to connect the source or main source of eu – Middle High German [yː], preserved unchanged in Swiss dialects (and in western Low German) – to its reflexes, which include the eastern Austrian dialectal monophthong [ɶ̝].

    Finally, œil isn’t a diphthong, it’s a closed syllable that ends in the consonant [j]. Slavic languages have such things; German, like English, does not – unless you count Yiddish.

  55. David Marjanović says:

    dialectal

    And Viennese mesolect.

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