Osip Mandelstam (I can never decide whether to write Mandelstam or Mandelshtam in English, so I do it both ways) is featured at wood s lot today, and one of the links is to an essay by Adam Kirsch that begins by focusing on M’s relationship with his Jewishness (a vexed subject), then moves on to the difficulty of translating him. (Here’s Auden, who should have known better: “I don’t see why Mandelstam is considered a great poet. The translations that I’ve seen don’t convince me at all.”) Kirsch welcomes the republication of the 1974 Selected Poems of Osip Mandelstam, translated by W.S. Merwin and Clarence Brown, then says:
But are they faithful reflections of what Mandelstam wrote? Joseph Brodsky, a formidable authority, insisted that they were not. In his essay on Mandelstam, “The Child of Civilization”…, Brodsky took aim at translators who turn Mandelstam’s rigorously formal poems into free verse. “Calls for the use of ‘an instrument of poetry in our own time,’” Brodsky insisted, mean stripping Mandelstam of his extremely dense verbal music; the result is “a sort of common denominator of modern verbal art.” “The cavalier treatment” of meter and rhyme, Brodsky wrote hyperbolically, “is at best a sacrilege, at worst a mutilation or a murder.” The Merwin-Brown translation is one of the sacrileges he had in mind…
Now, I yield to no one in my admiration of Brodsky as a poet, but as a theorist of translation he was as bad as Nabokov, and with worse results, since he controlled the (generally mediocre) English translations of his work so closely. (Daniel Weissbort’s From Russian with love: Joseph Brodsky in English is devoted in large part to accounts of his unavailing attempts to convince Brodsky he didn’t know what he was talking about when it came to English translations.) English is not constructed like Russian, its poetic traditions are different, and it makes no sense to try to reproduce Brodsky’s rhyme and meter, as can be seen by the hideous example Woods quotes that begins:
The falling is the constant mate of fear,
And feel of emptiness is the feel of fright.
Who throws us the stones from the height —
And stones here refuse the dust to bear?
I don’t like bad free verse translations any better than Brodsky did, but the answer is not to try to cram oneself into a rigid scheme of rhyme and meter but to try to give a feel for the swing of the original while availing oneself of the flexibility of the modern English tradition. I had a crazed plan, some years ago, of translating all of Mandelstam, but broke off after a few tries, of which at the moment I can only locate one, a version of his 1920 poem “Возьми на радость из моих ладоней“:
Take—for the joy of it—out of my palms
a little sunlight and a little honey,
as Persephone’s bees commanded.
The unmoored boat is not to be untied,
nor are fur-shod phantoms to be heard, nor—
in this dense life—is fear to be overcome.
The only thing that’s left to us is kisses:
furry, like the little bees
who die in midair, flying from their hive.
They rustle in the night’s transparent thickets,
their homeland the dense forest of Taygetus,
their nourishment: time, honeysuckle, mint…
Here, take—for the joy of it—my wild gift,
this necklace, dry and unattractive,
of dead bees who turned honey into sun.
No, I don’t know what “The unmoored boat is not to be untied” means, but that’s what the Russian says (or “Don’t untie the unfastened boat,” which doesn’t help). What bothers me is the fact that dremuchii means ‘thick, dense,’ but is only applied to forests (as in the eleventh line), except that in the sixth line he uses it to modify zhizni ‘(in) life,’ where you would really want to bring out the overtones of ‘drowsiness, slumber’ (which is what all other drem- words mean, and is probably the etymological origin of dremuchii), but there’s no way to do that, since (by my own theory of translation) you have to use the same word as you use to render the same Russian word that turns up a few lines later in its basic meaning. Also, the cute but intrusive ambiguity added by the translation of vremya as “time” in the twelfth line (inevitably heard as “thyme” in the context of “honeysuckle, mint”) is annoying but unavoidable. Conclusion: translation is hard, translating Mandelstam is particularly hard, and people really shouldn’t lay down rules for translating into a language that is not their own.
Quote of the day, just to show off another internet discovery I made, the complete text of the Taittiriya Samhita of the Yajurveda (warning: large pdf file; provided by the amazing Sanskrit Web):
tasmād asāv ādityaḥ
sarvāḥ prajāḥ pratyann ud eti
tasmāt sarva eva manyate
“mām praty ud agād” iti
—end of TS. 6-5-4-1, start of 6-5-4-2
Which is to say: “Thus the sun rises for all, but each one thinks: ‘It rises for me.’”