Ilya Bernstein wrote me with a Google Books link to his new collection of Mandelstam translations, The Poems of Osip Mandelstam (Ilya Bernstein, 2014). I gave it a polite look, then found myself hooked and unable to do anything else (like work) until I’d looked through the entire thing, frequently comparing his versions with the originals. I had, frankly, stopped expecting to find any published translations that represented what I considered a faithful approach to one of the greatest poets of the last century; pretty much every other Russian poet has fared better in English translation. (That’s why I started translating him myself; see here and here for examples.) As I wrote Ilya,
These are superb translations, some of the best I’ve seen — you have a wonderful ear for English rhythm, which is (to my mind) the most important factor in translating a poet like Mandelstam. A solution like “My vision damp enough, my mind not too too clever” must have taken a lot of turning over possibilities in your mind and on your tongue. It’s an indictment of American publishing that you have to put out the book yourself.
But he corrected me on the last point, saying:
I’m not sure that it’s an indictment of American publishing that I’ve put out the book myself — I like having it freely available online (since most of the things I read fall into that category). My favorite books are in the public domain, and I like being in their company. As long as readers find their way to it, I’m very happy with this format.
An admirable attitude! So go immerse yourself in his renditions of Mandelstam poems, mostly from his later period (though he starts off with the 1918 “Tristia”: “I have learned the art of departure/ In loose-haired lamentations of the night…”); I could pick out a whole bunch of lines I love so much I want to share them (“Oh, how much dearer to her is an oarlock’s creak”; “I inhaled the clutter of space”), but since I can’t copy-and-paste and am inherently a lazy person, I’ll just assure you that you’re getting as close to the original as you’re likely to get in English. Well, OK, just for the heck of it, here’s a comparison of the first four lines of this 1937 poem, first in two versions put out by commercial publishers and then in Bernstein’s:
I sing when my throat is damp, my soul dry,
Sight fairly moist and the mind clear.
Are the grapes in good condition?
The wine-skins? And the stirrings of Colchis in the blood?
–tr. James Greene, Selected Poems (Penguin, 1991)
I sing when my throat is moist, my soul dry,
my vision is humid enough and my conscience plays no tricks.
Is the wine healthy? Are the wineskins healthy?
Is the rocking in Colchis’s blood healthy?
–tr. Richard & Elizabeth McKane, The Voronezh Notebooks: Poems 1935-1937 (Bloodaxe, 1996)
I sing when my throat is wet, my soul is dry,
My vision damp enough, my mind not too too clever.
Is the wine wholesome? Are the wineskins sound?
Does my blood quicken with Caucasian fervor?
–tr. Ilya Bernstein (2014)
You be the judge.