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.’”


  1. The way I understand it is something like “the boat that could have been moored for us to unfasten it and leave on a journey and travel to faraway lands and, at some future time, hear a shadow moving with the sound of a person wearing furs, and (perhaps as a result of that, or maybe just by virtue of this hypothetical life that could begin by us leaving on a boat) to be able to overcome the fear that always pervades this gloomy, dark, primal thing that is life – that boat had never in fact been moored (so it’s impossible to unfasten it), there is no boat, we can’t leave, and all that’s left for us is…”, cue next stanza.
    That was of course a very crude and painstakingly spelled-out and blown-up description of what is at most a transient feeling evoked by those lines, but that’s what I could come up with.

  2. Mandelshtam, definitely. Just because German orthography fails to recognize the sound-change from /st/ to /sht/ is no reason why we should. There’s the sha, right there in the Russian, and without doubt his forebears had written the name with a shin ever since adopting it. Why all of a sudden import German orthographic rules, just so that a few can get it right and the majority of anglophones can get it wrong, comme par exprès?
    But I’m stunned that you reject dynamic translation, which has been with us since the earliest days of Modern English. As the translators of the King James Version wrote in their preface to the reader:

    Another thing we think good to admonish thee of (gentle Reader) that we have not tied ourselves to an uniformity of phrasing, or to an identity of words, as some peradventure would wish that we had done, because they observe, that some learned men somewhere, have been as exact as they could that way. Truly, that we might not vary from the sense of that which we had translated before, if the word signified the same thing in both places (for there be some words that be not of the same sense every where) we were especially careful, and made a conscience, according to our duty.

    But, that we should express the same notion in the same particular word; as for example, if we translate the Hebrew or Greek word once by Purpose, never to call it Intent; if one where Journeying, never Traveling; if one where Think, never Suppose; if one where Pain, never Ache; if one where Joy, never Gladness, &c. Thus to mince the matter, we thought to savor more of curiosity than wisdom, and that rather it would breed scorn in the Atheist, than bring profit to the godly Reader. For is the kingdom of God become words or syllables? Why should we be in b*ndage to them if we may be free, use one precisely when we may use another no less fit, as commodiously? A godly Father in the Primitive time showed himself greatly moved, that one of newfangleness called crabbaton scimpouz, though the difference be little or none; and another reporteth, that he was much abused for turning Cucurbita (to which reading the people had been used) into Hedera.

    Now if this happen in better times, and upon so small occasions, we might justly fear hard censure, if generally we should make verbal and unnecessary changings. We might also be charged (by scoffers) with some unequal dealing towards a great number of good English words. For as it is written of a certain great Philosopher, that he should say, that those logs were happy that were made images to be worshipped; for their fellows, as good as they, lay for blocks behind the fire: so if we should say, as it were, unto certain words, Stand up higher, have a place in the Bible always, and to other of like quality, Get ye hence, be banished for ever, we might be taxed peradventure with S. James his words, namely, To be partial in ourselves and Judges of evil thoughts. Add hereunto, that niceness in words was always counted the next step to trifling, and so was to be curious about names too: also that we cannot follow a better pattern for elocution than God himself; therefore he using diverse words, in his holy writ, and indifferently for one thing in nature: we, if we will not be superstitious, may use the same liberty in our English versions out of Hebrew and Greek, for that copy or store that he hath given us.

    Lastly, we have on the one side avoided the scrupulosity of the Puritans, who leave the old Ecclesiastical words, and betake them to other, as when they put washing for Baptism, and Congregation instead of Church: as also on the other side we have shunned the obscurity of the Papists, in their Azimes, Tunike, Rational, Holocausts, Præpuce, Pasche, and a number of such like, whereof their late Translation is full, and that of purpose to darken the sense, that since they must needs translate the Bible, yet by the language thereof, it may be kept from being understood. But we desire that the Scripture may speak like itself, as in the language of Canaan, that it may be understood even of the very vulgar.

  3. You should find and publish your translations. That one worked for me as well as any Mandelshtam translation I’ve ever read.
    The Russian courts actually established long ago that Brodsky was not a poet at all, since he was not a member of the Poet’s Union. I bet he wasn’t a member of the Translator’s Union either.
    What about Czech? Hasek or Hashek? In English Hasek is far predominent.
    Is “s” with a háček “sh”? Is “hacek” or “hachek” better?

  4. But I’m stunned that you reject dynamic translation
    Come now. I’m well aware of the preface of the KJV, and they were absolutely correct for what they were doing, which was translating an immensely long prose work where the preservation of meaning (contextual meaning, not literal meaning) was all-important. That’s a very different situation from translating a short poem in which a single word is used twice within half a dozen lines. To my mind, to obscure the repetition is to betray the poem. You’re welcome to differ, but don’t think I’m adopting a simplistic view or am ignorant of the history of the discussion.
    You should find and publish your translations. That one worked for me as well as any Mandelshtam translation I’ve ever read.
    Thanks! I really should try to dig up the old ones and try to do some more; I love translating, and I should spend more time with poetry.

  5. Oh, and the name thing:
    Just because German orthography fails to recognize the sound-change from /st/ to /sht/ is no reason why we should.
    No, but the fact that virtually everyone who writes about him in English calls him Mandelstam is a very different matter. Do you also insist on writing Chaikovskii for Tchaikovsky, and Petr the Great? Again, English is not the same as Russian, and there are traditions of rendering Russian names that can’t be simply ignored.
    And, as John says,
    What about Czech? Hasek or Hashek? In English Hasek is far predominent.

  6. I have much enjoyed my walk through your world today; as a poet and an avid reader, I found your site both enriching as well as enlightening…I thank you.

  7. I thoroughly enjoyed your translation LH, and would love to read some more. Indeed, assuming (as I do) that the translation fairly reflects the original, this seems like another excellent reason to learn Russian (one day…).
    Also, I love Anatoly’s interpretation (above) of the second stanza. Makes perfect sense to me!

  8. michael farris says:

    I think it might be nice to have a poetry collection with different styles of translation for each poem, at least one pretty literal without rhyme and/or meter etc and one or more with and maybe other approaches as well.
    This might come closer to allowing the reader to get a better idea of the some of the sense of the original that can’t be captured in any one version.
    There probably lots of reasons it can’t be done (or maybe it has to indifferent or bad results) but I think it’s worthwhile (but then I’m not a big poetry person so I’d need all the help I could get).

  9. No, I agree, that’s an excellent way to approach a foreign poem.

  10. cavorting says:

    The Penguin series “X in English” attempts to do just that (I use the present tense a little tentatively, as the state of play is uncertain). The earlier volumes were all classical, Greek and Latin, while they’ve been doing some modern things, namely Baudelaire and recently Dante. Some poems are translated more than once. Most volumes (all except the Dante I think) are out of print though; I spent some effort accumulating a complete set at one point… one quibble is they don’t give the original. One just has to buy the Loebs, or Pleiades, or whatever I suppose…

  11. The excellent booklet 19 Ways of Looking at Wang Wei takes one four line classical Chinese poem through the multiple versions approach.

  12. Michael Farris, this is exactly was has been done, particularly for Mandelstam, by Ugly Duckling Press. They have published a chapbook* with collection of various translators, sometimes of the same poem. Click here and scroll down to the dried-blood colored cover.
    I was at the presentation party, listening to all those translators reading their work. It was..illuminating.
    *LH, I have your copy stashed.

  13. Ugly Duckling looks great—thanks for the link (and the stashed copy)!

  14. Now, you knew what I’m going to say: come and get it!

  15. The idea can also be found in Hofstadter’s patchy Ton Beau…

  16. I can’t believe you didn’t know about Ugly Duckling Presse! It seems right up your alley… I almost feel bad, as if I should have mentioned it to you.

  17. The Merwin/Brown translation opened up Mandelstam for me, while Brodsky’s English translations of his own work were so awkward I nearly gave up. From what I have gathered about Mandelstam’s thinking, from his wife’s autobiography and various other sources, it seemed to me that the translators had tried to capture the essence of his ideas, if not the meter of the original language – which I gather was close to impossible. I felt like I was at least reading something that jibed with the man I had heard described by others, and the person who seemed to be speaking in his prose works. But if this gives me another chance to encourage you to dust off those translations and do a few more, consider it done: I’ve preferred your versions and there is obviously a big void to be filled!

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