Pasternak’s Untranslatable Feast.

I’m not crazy about Pasternak’s 1930 poem Лето [Summer], one of a group he wrote for his new love, Zinaida Neigauz, the wife of his friend the pianist Genrikh Neigauz, even as he was packing his own wife off to Europe and sending her loving letters and poems (Akhmatova said acerbically “Он там уговаривает жену не слишком огорчаться насчет своего ухода… Утешил одну, вставил бутоньерку и — к другой” [He tells his wife not to be too distressed about going away… He comforted one woman, put a flower in his buttonhole, and — off to another woman]). He’s trying to write more simply and understandably, but he hasn’t got the hang of it yet (as he will in the Zhivago poems). But one stanza is brilliant and sends chills down my spine, and is utterly untranslatable for reasons I will explain. Here it is:

И осень, дотоле вопившая выпью,
Прочистила горло; и поняли мы,
Что мы на пиру в вековом прототипе —
На пире Платона во время чумы.

And here’s a literal translation:

And autumn, till now crying out like a bittern,
has cleared out its throat, and we now understand
that we’re at a feast in an age-old prototype —
at Plato’s feast in a time of plague.

The sound pattern is classic Pasternak, with a complex play of stressed vowels (o – o – i – i/i – o – o – i/i – u – o – i/i – o – e – i) and a clever rhyme (výp’yu/prototípe), but the punch of the stanza is in the last line, which can’t be reproduced in English effectively, for two reasons. The first is that the final allusion is to Pushkin’s Пир во время чумы [A Feast in Time of Plague], which is extremely famous in Russia but utterly unknown to English-speakers. The second, and most crucial, is that Pasternak is mingling Pushkin’s feast with Plato’s civilized discussion of love… except that in English we call that dialogue Symposium, not Feast. There’s no way to remedy that in translation; all you can do is provide an apparatus of notes that will enable a diligent reader to go “Huh, interesting.” But in Russian it sends chills down your spine.

One reason it does so is because it was written at the exact moment the autumn of the 1920s was giving way to the winter of the 1930s, and the plague of full Stalinism was descending on Russia, with collectivization and show trials (his friend Vladimir Sillov had recently been shot as part of the campaign against Trotskyists; Dmitry Bykov says “Идет кампания, хватают всех поголовно, убивают самого непричастного — просто потому, что он чист, что за него некому просить или плохо просят” [There’s a campaign, they grab everyone and kill the one who was least involved — simply because he’s pure, because there’s no one to plead for him or they plead badly]). Of course, Pasternak alludes to it so vaguely that it could pass censorship; single-minded clarity was always alien to him — not for him the openly anti-Stalinist poem that got Mandelstam killed. His slow disillusionment with the Soviet system was comparable to his withdrawal from his first wife, with plenty of affectionate reassurances. But he finally said the hell with it and published Zhivago.

Comments

  1. An American parallel: a group of people get busted in a drug raid, and the one who has the most peripheral connection to what went down — and therefore isn’t in a position to rat on anyone — is the one who gets the longest sentence.

  2. David Marjanović says:

    By the way… is “sends chills down my spine” a literal description for you? I only found out last year that some people literally feel certain kinds of music on their backs – I’m not wired like that.

  3. is “sends chills down my spine” a literal description for you?

    Not literally in this case, but it does occasionally happen.

  4. I share your ambivalence about some of Pasternak’s poetry (especially in translation). Excellent post. The clever rhyme scheme contains a consonance, which we definitely cannot quite duplicate in the structure of the English language.

  5. If I were to attempt to translate it, I would probably go for something like “At Plato’s symposium during the plague” (to preserve the rhythm of the original and exploit the alliteration offered by English), and use “feast” or “banquet” in the preceding line. Pasternak himself has на пиру́ (with the “second locative” or “prepositional case” vs. на пи́ре Плато́на (with the ordinary locative), which gives the translator an excuse to differentiate them lexically. No footnote would be needed, I hope.

    Admittedly, the allusion to Pushkin’s “mini-tragedy” would be hard to detect.

  6. “At Plato’s symposium during the plague,”does have a ring to it.

  7. Here’s my 2 cents. Feast at the time of plague became a stand alone phrase in Russian and is not necessarily references Pushkin’s play, at least not directly. If a translator leaves Pushkin alone, another phrase of vaguely similar meaning may do. Something like “Plato’s symposium while Rome burns”, but “Plato’s symposium during the plague” is good enough as well. Those attuned to Pushkin’s Feast will get the idea.

    To complicate matters somewhat, it is not clear what “feast in the time of plague” actually means. For Pushkin, most probably, the feast was a reaction to the desperate circumstances of the plague, when people gave up the attempts to save their lives and decided to go all in on partying. But this decadent interpretation could not survive the wide use of the phrase and it morphed into more middle-class notion that it is wrong to party during the plague (compare après nous le déluge) . Which of those ideas Pasternak had in mind, I don’t know, and there is a substantial possibility that he meant something else entirely.

  8. There is an oft-quoted passage from Emmanuel Levinas (“Reality and its shadow”, 1948); it contains a meme obviously imported from the East:

    There is something wicked and egoist and cowardly in artistic enjoyment. There are times when one can be ashamed of it, as of feasting during a plague.

  9. My favourite variation on the theme of the feast in the time of plague is the description of Stalinist architecture as “ампир во время чумы”: empire (style) in the time of plague.

  10. > clever rhyme (výp’yu/prototípe)

    Can the cleverness be explained? Is it clever because it rhymes words of different length? Or because it’s on the borderline of what can be considered rhyming? I don’t have any intuition at all about Russian, but I’m curious whether

    1. Reduced /u/ versus reduced /e/, something like [ʊ] versus [ɪ], I presume? Are these commonly rhymed?
    2. /p/ with an off-glide versus palatalized /p/. A phonemic distinction I don’t think I could ever internalize. Are they commonly rhymed?
    3. /i/ versus /ɨ/. I’ve seen analyses that treat them as allophones of the same phoneme, but regardless, unless I’m misguided their surface forms here are different. Are they commonly rhymed?

  11. In the preceding stanza, Pasternak rhymes по кипе with сыпью, so this kind of rhyme is hardly unique (at least for him). There are, for example, a couple of interesting (half-)rhymes involving polysyllabic words with antipenultimate stress in Bulat Okudzhava’s “Song about Arbat”: невеликие : религия; излечишься : отечество.

  12. “ампир во время чумы”

    Far away from Russia, we find a distant echo of this trope in El amor en los tiempos del cólera by Gabriel García Márquez.

  13. David Marjanović says:

    /p/ with an off-glide versus palatalized /p/

    They’re both palatalized. The first is additionally followed by [j], the second is not; and that part is no worse than the rhyme that expresses the principle of phonetic/phonemic orthography – у каждого звука своя буква.

  14. In my idiolect of Polish there is a contrast between e.g. kopie /kɔpʲɛ/ ‘dig’ (3sg.) and kopie /kɔpjɛ/ (phonetically [kɔpʲjɛ]), ‘copies’, between dania /daȵa/ ‘courses of a meal, dishes’ and Dania /daȵja/ ‘Denmark’, and several other such pairs. Likewise, ziemia /ʑɛmʲa/ ‘earth, ground’ is not a perfect ryme for chemia /xɛmja/ [xɛmʲja] ‘chemistry’. But this contrast is probably recessive, and my informal observation is that many Poles, also of my generation, lack it. Anyway, it doesn’t seem to matter as far as rhymed poetry is concerned. Time-honoured poetic licence permits /i/ to rhyme with /ɨ/ as in Russian (whatever their phonological status in either language), and line-final [ɔw̃] (in the normative accent) may rhyme with -o [ɔ].

  15. If I were to attempt to translate it, I would probably go for something like “At Plato’s symposium during the plague” (to preserve the rhythm of the original and exploit the alliteration offered by English)

    Yes, that’s excellent; since the Pushkin allusion is impossible to carry over (and probably not foremost in the Russian reader’s mind, as D.O. says), might as well forget about it, and your version works very well.

    My favourite variation on the theme of the feast in the time of plague is the description of Stalinist architecture as “ампир во время чумы”

    Brilliant! God, I love Russian snark.

    Can the cleverness be explained? Is it clever because it rhymes words of different length? Or because it’s on the borderline of what can be considered rhyming?

    The latter is part of it; Pasternak took great joy in expanding the concept of what could rhyme. But he also produced phonetically perfect but unexpected rhymes like глазаста/верст за сто [glazasta/vyorst zá sto] and бросить/проседь [brosit’/prosed’] (both from Spektorsky, his best long poem or epic poem or novel-in-verse or whatever you want to call it). He was a genius at that aspect of poetry.

  16. @Piotr, thanks for the writeup. I think I read somewhere that the French /ɲ/ /nj/ distinction is regressive as well, I wonder if it is in Spanish as well.

    @David,
    >They’re both palatalized.

    Right, I was sloppy there. My native languages don’t distinguish palatalization and /j/-offglides, so when I first learned about Spanish “ñ” and “ny”, it was mind-bending, but I understand now that this distinction is not uncommon. But when I more recently learned about the Russian /C Cʲ Cʲj Cj/ four-way distinction, my head exploded.

    @Hat
    >perfect but unexpected rhymes like глазаста/верст за сто […] бросить/проседь

    Thanks for the examples. I definitely feel like I understand the cleverness in the first one of rhyming content words with grammar words, one word with multiple words, ends of phrases with the middle of phrases etc.

    But as for the rhyming of merged weak vowels and the rhyming of finally-devoiced with originally-voiceless consonants, I’m wondering if, say, children would also find them unexpected. Or are they unexpected because they go against a rhyming tradition which was established before the mergers? Or if it’s because, after all, people keep the underlying phonemes in mind, even when their surface allophones overlap?

    I remember when as a child I first heard Gasolin’s “Rabalderstræde / er en gade” (Danish) I thought “that doesn’t rhyme!”. I would have rhymed “stræde” with something like “æde”. But in fact, the preceding /r/ lowers the æ in “stræde” to something like [æː] which matches the vowel in “gade”, while the vowel in “æde” is [ɛː]. So it seems in my mind the phonemes won, while in Gasolin’s, the phones did. Part of the reason could also be that my primary source of Danish, my father, speaks a slightly conservative version of Danish where the /r/ might not lower the æ as much as in the standard.

  17. David Marjanović says:

    and line-final [ɔw̃] (in the normative accent) may rhyme with -o [ɔ].

    /ɛ/ rhyming with /ɛ̃/ in Classical Viennese: Tee, Schnee, schön. Admittedly, Wolfgang Ambros seems to omit the nasalization completely – perhaps to improve the rhyme, because it’s loud and clear in kann.

    the Russian /C Cʲ Cʲj Cj/ four-way distinction

    From what I’ve read, the rare /Cj/ has largely merged into /Cʲj/…

    the vowel in “æde” is [ɛː]

    Is the whole word [ˈɛːə] or just [ɛː]? I ask because I’ve heard Odense as [ˈoːnsə].

  18. > Is the whole word [ˈɛːə] or just [ɛː]? I ask because I’ve heard Odense as [ˈoːnsə].

    In Standard it’s [ˈɛːð̩] (that’s supposed to be the syllabic version of the infamous Danish soft /d/), or [ˈɛːðə] in clear speech. [ˈoːnsə] is Fynsk (I think), in standard it’s [ˈoːˀðn̩sə] or [ˈoːˀðənsə] in clear speech. I think æde might just be [ɛː] in Fynsk, but I don’t have a way to check.

  19. David Marjanović says:

    Good to know.

  20. Rabalderstræde / er en gade — that was a slightly provocative rhyme for the time, but more I think because the standard at the time had a lower vowel in gade than Kim Larsen’s Vesterbro / working class ‘lect. The rhyme is perfect now; both vowels have moved, but the second one more than the first.

    I think that in Funen regional standard you would have [ɛːɪ̯] for æde because old /-ðə/ follows a front vowel, unlike in Odense.

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