Reading Brodsky always sends me to my dictionary, but usually it’s my Russian dictionary. Making my way through Пятая годовщина (“The Fifth Anniversary”), I ran into the usual slew of difficult Russian vocabulary (и к звездам до сих пор там запускают жучек ‘and to this day they’re still flinging zhuchkas to the stars’—zhuchka looks like a diminutive of zhuk ‘beetle,’ but it turns out it’s an affectionate name for a pet dog) and learned that лишая, the genitive of the word for ‘lichen,’ is accented lisháya these days instead of lishayá as my dictionaries have it, but the worst trouble I ran into was with the line я чувствую нутром, как парка нитку треплет ‘I feel in my gut the Fate something-ing the thread.’
Trepát’ is one of those verbs I’ve never managed to assimilate because it bundles ideas that don’t go together in English: it can mean ‘dishevel (by tugging at),’ ‘blow about,’ ‘pat,’ ‘fray,’ ‘pull (someone’s hair, ears, &c),’ and ‘whip,’ among other things; trepát’ yazykóm ‘to trepát’ with the tongue’ is ‘to babble, chatter,’ and the reflexive trepát’sya (‘to trepát’ oneself’) is ‘flutter,’ ‘go around,’ or ‘talk nonsense.’ But here, in the context of the Fates and thread, it clearly takes on its primordial meaning, ‘to scutch.’ Yes, that’s the first definition in my trusty Oxford: “to scutch, swingle (flax, hemp, etc.).” Well, it was off to the OED with me, where I found it means ‘to dress (fibrous material, flax, hemp, cotton, silk, wool) by beating.’ (There is another verb scutch meaning ‘to strike with a stick or whip, to slash, switch,’ but although it is “not impossible” that this is “a transferred use of [the verb meaning 'to dress by beating'],… more probably the present verb is an independent onomatopœic formation: cf. scotch vb.”) Unfortunately, due to my deficient understanding of the process of turning fibers into thread, I still don’t have a clear picture; this page helps: “The flax is passed through it, slamming the break as you go, until the brittle outside layer starts to fall away, leaving the fiber intact. Then you ‘scutch’ it, which requires scraping the last of it away with a dull knife.” At least I’m pretty sure it’s Clotho (Клото [Kloto]—why did Greek theta give Russian t here rather than f?) who’s doing the scutching.
So how do you translate it? Brodsky, in his own translation, cheats, which he can get away with, being the author: “I sense the thread within strained by the Parcae’s shuttle.” (I note, sadly, that he mistakes “Parcae” for a singular; the Latin singular is Parca, but that’s not used in English, where we have to say “one of the Parcae.”) Nabokov, of course, would have taken delight in using “scutch”; I suppose I’d go with “I feel in my gut the Fate tugging the thread” for phonetic and associational reasons, but I would regret losing the specificity of the technical term. This is the problem with the English language’s plethora of specialized vocabulary—it can make a grand impression, but it doesn’t serve well when translating a foreign term that is a perfectly ordinary word outside of the particular technical sense used in the given context. (And speaking of context, can any of my Russophone readers tell me what “треплешь парк” means in the fifteenth stanza of Памяти Геннадия Шмакова?)
This is just one tiny example of how difficult, verging on impossible, it is to translate Brodsky (and I have to say I’m not fond of his self-translations in general—he tries too hard to be flamboyant, and is too disrespectful of his originals). Pushkin is untranslatable because of his (surface) simplicity: if you translate literally, it sounds like nothing, and if you gussy it up, it sounds gussied-up. With Brodsky there is the opposite problem—he uses register, reference, polysemy, and every other resource he can work into his text until it presents an interwoven thicket that can be plucked at or hacked at but not, in the normal sense, translated. Which brings me to the final line of the poem:
Скрипи, скрипи, перо! переводи бумагу. [Squeak, squeak, pen! perevodí paper.]
Normally, perevodít’ means either ‘take/carry across’ or ‘translate,’ but here Brodsky is using the colloquial sense ‘use up, waste’ (Не переводить бумагу ‘Don’t waste paper!’). But if you translate “waste paper,” you lose everything that’s memorable about the line. Brodsky renders it “Scratch on, my pen: let’s mark the white the way it marks us”; does that make sense? Is it poetry? You be the judge.