Bernstein’s Mandelstam.

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.

Comments

  1. It’s very talented work – that’s a great quatrain in English. I’ll look forward to reading the rest.

  2. I love Ilya’s response about self-publishing! I assume from a little googling of him that he’s an amateur translator–I wish more such folks would contribute their translations back to the public domain when the underlying work is past copyright, and try different models for making money in the process. (If my assumption is wrong, my apologies!)

  3. Bernstein’s is certainly superior to the other two!
    How does ‘too too’ work here? Is it ‘very very’?

  4. I prefer Bernstein, especially for the second two lines. Howsoever that may be, there’s one phrase that makes me wonder if the original is obscure: how else to explain the contrasts of – the mind clear; my conscience plays no tricks; my mind not too too clever?

  5. Somewhat related: the great Mandelstam died six months into a five-year sentence at a Siberian labour camp. The details of his show-trial in 1938 are (to my knowledge) still incomplete (though one can guess). Mandelstam’s admirer Joseph Brodsky, who died eighteen years ago today, was sentenced to five years’ labour in Archangel in 1964. This trial, by contrast, was exposed in detail in the West, thanks to the surreptitious note-taking of Frida Vigdorova (and subsequent courageous circulation and exportation of her notes). I’ve put up a selection of these notes from Brodsky’s trial here: http://poetry-contingency.uwaterloo.ca/joseph-brodsky-social-parasite/

  6. How does ‘too too’ work here? Is it ‘very very’?

    Pretty much, but it’s got its own network of usage and associations that I don’t know how to untangle at the moment. Both toos are equally, and fairly heavily, stressed.

  7. befuggled says:

    I interpreted that as “not too (too clever)” as in “not being too overly clever.”

  8. An understandable interpretation from first principles, but that’s not how the phrase is used in English.

  9. J. W. Brewer says:

    Maybe this is a specifically AmEng problem, but I can’t read the NP “Caucasian fervor” with the intended sense of “Caucasian,” even though I well know what it is. It is just sounds inherently bizarre-to-comical. I assume that Mandelstam’s “trial” was not nearly so long or interesting as Brodsky’s, just because they had a substantially greater volume of enemies of the People to work through the system back in the ’30′s so they couldn’t dilly-dally overmuch in a particular case.

  10. I read the full translation and, liked it as I did, I stumbled over the word ‘monody’, which corresponds to M’s ‘одноголосый’ ‘single-voiced.’ Does it sound right here?
    One of the greatest pleasures of reading – and reciting – Mandelshtam is in that he hardly ever uses obscure, high brow words, not counting Greek imagery. He is never intimidating. I was bothered by the choice of ‘monody.’

  11. What a pleasant surprise! I had just been reading and admiring these myself. Ilya sent me the link. I knew some of them in earlier versions, but he’s clearly honed them a good deal since. I’m especially impressed by the “Slate Ode,” one of Mandelstam’s most striking long poems. The “afterface” at the end is very much worth reading, too. Bravo, Ilya!

    Sashura, I think “monody” may have a little more resonance in English than it does in Russian. To me “A one-eyed song that grows out of the moss” conjures some sort of mythological beast, as in the Russian, and “A monody, the gift of a life of hunting” could suggest, variously, a tragic lament, a solo song, something high, austere, with “mono-” echoing “one-” in the previous line.

  12. I stumbled over the word ‘monody’, which corresponds to M’s ‘одноголосый’ ‘single-voiced.’ Does it sound right here?

    It does to me; it means exactly the same thing, and it’s not particularly obscure. It sounds “high-brow” to you because it’s based on Greek roots, but that’s how English gets its technical terms, unlike Russian.

    One of the greatest pleasures of reading – and reciting – Mandelshtam is in that he hardly ever uses obscure, high brow words

    This is not entirely true. In the very first poem in his Collected Works, a quatrain from 1908, he uses the word “немолчного,” which is not exactly everyday Russian. Just flipping through the poems, I see dialectal words like криница and студенец, both meaning ‘spring’ or ‘well,’ fairly obscure words like выморочный and кольчец, and one-off inventions like безокружное and Dostoevsky’s недоразвиток, not to mention чемчура (“А кто с венгерской чемчурой”), which I still don’t know what it is. And of course there’s the line “По зегзице в зенице и по капле росы,” which I recommend you repeat to yourself whenever you feel yourself about to maintain that M. is always crystal-clear.

  13. For the most famous too too, there’s an interesting Victorian dispute at HamletWorks. Halliwell continued it in later endnotes.

  14. all right, all right, too too,
    you’ll peck me now to death!

    A one-eyed song that grows out of the moss —
    One voice, the gift of life a-hunting…

    I haven’t thought of one-monody, that’s good. Thanks, Alan.

    Чемчура – Have you seen this comment to the poem: http://rvb.ru/mandelstam/dvuhtomnik/02comm/0240.htm#c1
    It sounds like it’s a phonetic variant of мишура – tinsel, spangles?
    Зегзица, I think, is a reference to the Tale of Igor’s Campaign. Зегзица – кукушка/cuckoo.

    Those are all words one is more or less comfortable with, even if obscure.

  15. Bernstein’s is a beautiful translation of a beautiful poem. He makes the translation look easy, a sign of careful hard work. I do have a quibble or two—why “Does my heart quicken…” and not “Is my heart quickening…”, which would preserve the original alliteration and and perhaps be more accurate?
    Greene’s translation reads like something that you’d read in a Lit class, and feel full of yourself when with the instructor’s help you finally understand what the poem is at all about. The McKane translation reminds me of English as She is Spoke: so bad, it’s funny.

  16. Зегзица, I think, is a reference to the Tale of Igor’s Campaign.

    Yup, but it’s definitely obscure.

    Those are all words one is more or less comfortable with, even if obscure.

    Sure, but you said M. wasn’t obscure, so I wanted to point them out. And monody is in a similar category, but less obscure.

  17. Bernstein’s is a beautiful translation of a beautiful poem. He makes the translation look easy, a sign of careful hard work.

    Hear, hear!

    I do have a quibble or two

    I had a quibble or two myself, and when I wrote him about it he responded with such thoroughness I realized he had thought about, and reworked, every line many, many times over the years.

    Greene’s translation reads like something that you’d read in a Lit class, and feel full of yourself when with the instructor’s help you finally understand what the poem is at all about. The McKane translation reminds me of English as She is Spoke: so bad, it’s funny.

    Heh. I’m afraid I have to agree.

  18. Trond Engen says:

    Sashura: Зегзица, I think, is a reference to the Tale of Igor’s Campaign. Зегзица – кукушка/cuckoo.

    That looks vaguely like a cognate of No. gauk etc.

  19. Excellent instincts! Vasmer says “PSl. *žеgъzа [...], related to [various Baltic forms], and further to ON gaukr ‘cuckoo,’ OHG gouh.”

  20. John Cowan says:

    Also Scots gowk. In the God-I-wish-I-could-remember-who-did-it translation of the Igor Tale that I talked about here, the cuckoo is transmogrified into a dove in English; comparing the romantic and tragic heroine to a cuckoo would impart entirely undesirable comic overtones in English.

  21. John Emerson says:

    I’ve said this before at least, but Hat should publish his own Mandelstam translations, which I thought were wonderful. It will cost him nothing , more or less, to publish on the internet.

  22. It does to me; it means exactly the same thing, and it’s not particularly obscure. It sounds “high-brow” to you because it’s based on Greek roots, but that’s how English gets its technical terms, unlike Russian.

    I’m a native speaker of English, and I think I have a reasonably large vocabulary, but I’ve never heard “monody” before in my life. Of course, that doesn’t prove anything—anyone’s exposure to words is going to contain some cases that don’t match up to their frequency in the language—but I’m curious as to how obscure/highbrow others think it is.

  23. des von bladet says:

    I would quite like it to be available offline, too, even if it wasn’t gratisly so. It shouldn’t be too hard to knock up a (say) Kindle edition and self-publish it on the Amazon, if the spirit were so moved, and if priced modestly (but non-zeroly) it might pay its way.

  24. /Hat should publish his own Mandelstam translations/
    I think he must!
    Excuse my third person form. I’ve recently learned that in Polish the vous/vy form is strongly associated with communist usage and the neutral polite form corrseponding to vous is addressing people in third person, eg.
    - Pan Doctor will see me soon?
    - Yes, I will.

  25. re the obscurity of zegzitsa: Igor’s Campaign is read in secondary school in Russia with parallel, modern (usually Zabolotsky) and old, texts compared and discussed. Of course it’s not an everyday word but I think many Russians would recognise it and link to Yaroslavna’s Lament. But yes, I take your point.

    Zegzitsa/Cuckoo’s link to Scandinavia is absolutely fascinating! Thanks Trond and John.

  26. Tim May:
    Unless you’re a fan of early opera, or of Milton, it’s true that “monody” may not be exactly an everyday word to you. The word Mandelstam uses, одноголосный, (one- or single-voiced) is perfectly transparent to any Russian-speaker, even those who might not be aware of its technical musical meaning of “monophonic” (consisting of a single melodic line, unaccompanied). The trouble is, in English you practically have to use one Greek term or the other, or you risk losing any musical reference at all. “Monophonic” has no non-technical meaning in English, whereas “monodic” (and the noun form “monody” even more) at least sounds good and is part of the poetic tradition in English, within which it can have a variety of associations. Whether they are exactly the right ones to convey M’s meaning here, I’m not sure. But it is evocative, and in poetry that always counts for a lot.

  27. John Cowan says:

    I think first of the last strophe of Poe’s ode “The Bells”:

    Hear the tolling of the bells,
            Iron bells!
    What a world of solemn thought their monody compels!
        In the silence of the night
        How we shiver with affright
      At the melancholy menace of their tone!
        For every sound that floats
        From the rust within their throats
            Is a groan.
        And the people—ah, the people,
        They that dwell up in the steeple,
            All alone,
      And who tolling, tolling, tolling,
        In that muffled monotone,
      Feel a glory in so rolling
        On the human heart a stone—
    They are neither man nor woman,
    They are neither brute nor human,
        They are Ghouls:
    [...]

    Not that anyone ever cast bells out of iron — they’d rust. Bells are made from bronze with a 4:1 copper-tin ratio (rather than the standard 6:1), making them hard and fairly incorruptible.

  28. I assume from a little googling of him that he’s an amateur translator

    I wouldn’t call him an amateur. Besides publishing an earlier collection of Mandelstam translations by various hands with Ugly Duckling Presse (in which he kindly included several of mine), he’s done various kinds of translation for hire, and is impressively bilingual.

  29. Plus he’s translated quite a bit of Kharms, some Tyutchev, Baratynsky, Regina Derieva, and I don’t know who all else.

  30. I looked around to see who’d translated Mandelstam into Hebrew. One of Mandelstam’s translations is by one of Israel’s most respected translators, Nili Mirsky. I haven’t yet seen her Mandelstam, but I found this quote of hers (on Hebrew Wikipedia):

    “The craft of translation is an absurd craft, because it is impossible. Every language has its own world, unique patterns of thinking, word combinations expressing particular feelings. It is not possible to transfer all these, as they are, to another language. Not for nothing did our sages say, ‘whoever translates a sentence as it is written, that is a liar.’ (Kiddushin 49, 71)”

  31. Correction: the word M. uses is not одноголосный, as I had put, but одноголосый, as Sashura quoted it earlier. I think both can be used for “monophonic,” but perhaps he or some other Russian speaker can elucidate the difference, if any.

  32. marie-lucie says:

    JC: Bells are made from bronze with a 4:1 copper-tin ratio (rather than the standard 6:1), making them hard and fairly incorruptible.

    I was looking at cloche ‘bell’ on wikipedia.fr, which says that the best alloy for bells has a ratio of 78:22 (close enough to 4:1), which not only makes a bell hard and incorruptible but also gives the best tone.

  33. It’s not just early opera and Milton: classicists use ‘monody’ all the time to refer to solo song.

    Greek tragedy is mostly verse spoken by individual characters or sung collectively by the chorus, but there are occasional solo songs by individual characters, and these are called monodies.

    Among the Greek lyricists, Pindar, Bacchylides, Alcman, and Stesichorus wrote choral song, but Sappho, Alcaeus, and Anacreon wrote monody, songs for one singer accompanying him/herself on the lyre. At least this is the traditional division. Lately, Mary Lefkowitz and others have argued that Pindar’s odes may have been sung solo at least some of the time, and that the distinction between choral and monodic is problematic. I don’t think she’s convinced everyone, but haven’t been following the dispute. However, even if it is not a valid genre-definition, I think it’s still a valid performance-distinction.

  34. Trond Engen says:

    Antony Shugaar: Translating as a performing art:

    Any word can be translated. But there is no way of dealing with the larger problem: untranslatable worlds.

  35. Trond Engen says:

    Sashura: Zegzitsa/Cuckoo’s link to Scandinavia is absolutely fascinating!

    I don’t think one can claim any particular link to Scandinavia. The sound correspondences tell that the link is old, possibly back to PIE itself, and the Russian derivation is quite different from the Germanic simple forms, so no trace of shared innovation.

  36. Trond Engen says:

    Oops, didn’t notice yesterday’s post.

  37. marie-lucie says:

    Trond: Any word can be translated. But there is no way of dealing with the larger problem: untranslatable worlds.

    Great quote!

  38. Ah! Alan Shaw caught a wonderful subtlety here: одноголосый vs одноголосный (single-, one-voiced). Both exist, as do многоголосый and многоголосный (many-, multi-voiced). Why suffix -н- appears requires a separate discussion, I can only say that the -n- version feels more specialist, of musicology, while with -n- absent it has a more common feel.
    That Mandelstam used одноголосый without the -n-, may be significant here.
    And there is a Russian word монодия – monody, a musical term with the same meaning as in English.

  39. I was looking at Mandelstam’s original feeling pangs of desperation.
    The musical key in the poem is -kha- – суха – меха – колыханье – тиха – дыханье – слух – глуха – хвала – утеха – мха – охотничьего – верхом – верхах – again дыханье – греха.
    How do you save this monody in translation?

  40. J.W. Brewer says:

    That Poe reference puts me in turn in mind of the Pink Floyd song with the line about “far away across the fields, the tolling of the iron bell” etc. And sure enough you can find someone peeving on the internet that the band ought to have known that was the wrong metal for the context. (Although someone pointed out that “tolling of the brazen bell” or what have you might not have sounded as good, even if more accurate.)

  41. marie-lucie says:

    the iron bell(s)

    Perhaps iron here is used figuratively rather than concretely, as in iron will, iron discipline, iron law, iron curtain and similar phrases where iron suggests ‘hard, unyielding, inexorable’. In the old days people did not have clocks, let alone watches, and the unavoidable ringing of church bells timed many of their activities.

  42. Thanks, Sashura; my guess was that the version without “n” did sound more common, less technical.

    And there is a Russian word монодия – monody, a musical term with the same meaning as in English.

    Yes, but from your reaction to the word before, probably without the poetic associations it has in English. Those seem to be due mostly to Milton, who called his “Lycidas” a monody. If you google “monody” you’ll find it in lots of titles or subtitles of poems in English from the middle of the 17th to the end of the 19th century. After that the term pretty much fades from use as a genre name. “Lycidas” is now usually called an elegy.

    At the same time, as a term in musicology, specifically referring to the early precursors of opera, it’s grown more familiar as more and more early operas get revived.

    Milton’s use of course refers to classical precedents. But which ones? As Michael Hendry says above, as a musical term in Greek it simply meant solo as opposed to choral song. As a lyric genre in tragedy it was developed by Euripides, who often had his characters sing extensive solos, not alternating with chorus in strophes as Aeschylus had done, but alone, in a sort of free verse. The stage Aeschylus in Aristophanes’ Frogs calls Euripides a “gatherer of Cretan monodies,” and these solos were apparently considered overemotional and effeminate by many. They could be laments, but weren’t invariably. The specific meaning of a lament delivered by one person may only go back to the 2nd century AD: among the late sophists, a monody was a lament written in oratorical prose, using every rhetorical trick in the book. Aristides’ “Monody for Smyrna” is a famous example.

    Now, the idea of a lament doesn’t seem to enter into Mandelstam’s одноголосый дар at all, so in that sense maybe the associations aren’t quite right. Still, I like the sound of the line, and can’t think of a better solution myself.

    Of course one is never going to get all the incredible richness of sound and associations in Mandelstam into a translation. Ilya tells me he thinks of his versions as “charcoal sketches.” That seems like a good way to think of it. You go for what’s most essential, and see how much you can at least hint at, of what’s missing.

  43. Thanks, Alan, I see now where Ilya was coming from.

    from your reaction to the word before, probably without the poetic associations it has in English.
    No, I am sure it doesn’t, even though classicist and musicologists would know it. I think I only remembered it from Dryden’s poem about Byron. WH Auden once described how he worked on translating poetry, reading line-by-line literal translation, then phonetic transcription and then listening to the poem recited. And still I don’t see how it is possible to capture M’s breathing ‘kha’.

  44. John Cowan says:

    Perhaps iron here is used figuratively rather than concretely

    Probably. The poem speaks of golden bells, silver bells, brazen bells, and iron bells. Golden primarily refers to color, and silver is ambiguous; brazen refers to brass rather than bronze. So none of these are realistic bell materials (silver is occasionally used as a minor constituent of bell metal). The whole poem is delicately balanced between the realistic and the fantastic.

  45. Mr. Wikipedia says that some bells were, in fact, made of iron, and that steel bells had a vogue during the 19th-century English church-building boom.
    There are cast-iron bridges out there. If they can be kept from rusting, surely a bell can.

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