Mandelstam’s Iota and Theta.

Back in May, I posted about Osip Mandelstam. Translations by Alistair Noon, saying “On the whole, I think Noon does well; he doesn’t try to match the meters and rhyme schemes of the originals, but replaces them with his own rather than soggy free verse.” Now he’s come out with his version of The Voronezh Workbooks, the poems Mandelstam composed at the end of his life while living in internal exile in Voronezh, and the Guardian has published one of them, “Iota and Theta …” (translating “Флейты греческой тэта и йота…“), with Carol Rumens’ useful and well-informed notes:

Iota and Theta … from the Third Workbook, and dated 7 April 1937, is a response, according to Nadezhda Mandelstam’s memoir Hope Against Hope , to the arrest of a German flautist the couple knew, referred to simply as “Schwab”: he was accused of spying and died in a work camp near Voronezh. Nadezhda records her husband’s repeated anxieties as to whether or not Schwab had been able to take his flute to the camp, and, if he had, whether further incriminations had been the result. These anxieties seem interlocked by the poem with Mandelstam’s recollections of his own imprisonment, torture and attempted suicide, and some profound forebodings about the approaching post-exile period.

Displayed in the art museum built in 1933 in Voronezh, the Greek earthenware included depictions of flute-players. These images, and perhaps the “ditties of no tone” remembered from Keats’ Ode, provide the silence haunting Mandelstam’s quatrains. […]

In this poem as elsewhere Alistair Noon’s translation aims to carry over into English not only Mandelstam’s knotted density of meaning, but the metrical and assonantal effects of the original poem. The tetrameter rhythm may be quick, light, and agile like a flute, or heavy and thump-ish like clay, depending on the choice of diction. English tetrameter’s accentual instabilities add an improvisational quality – which is true to the nature of these poems. They are, to some extent, experiments – as Noon’s choice of the term “workbook” in preference to the usual “notebook” implies.

Rumens links to Vasily Moskvin’s “Стихотворение Осипа Мандельштама «Флейты греческой тэта и йота…»: поэтика неясности (The Poem of Osip Mandelstam «The Greek flute’s theta and iota…»: Poetics of Obscurity),” which is itself an extremely useful (and much more detailed) analysis. As I did in this post, I will juxtapose stanzas from all the English versions available to me — James Greene, Selected Poems (Penguin, 1991); Richard & ‎Elizabeth McKane, The Voronezh Notebooks: Poems 1935-1937 (Bloodaxe, 1996); Ilya Bernstein, Poems (Boston, 2014); and Noon — and let you be the judge. Here’s the first:


As if words were not enough,
The theta and iota of a Greek flute –
Unsculptural, unaccountable –
Matured, laboured, crossed frontiers.


The theta and iota of the Greek flute,
as though its fame were not enough for it,
unsculptured, unaccountable,
grew, suffered, bridged the gaps.


The Greek flute’s theta and iota —
As if unsated by word of mouth —
Not handmade, beholden to no one,
Walked its valleys, ripened, repined.


Iota and theta, the flute
of the Greeks gives no recitals –
unsculptured and short of repute,
trench-crosser, it ripened and tightened.

And the last:


My own lips now lisp,
Plague or murder at the root.
And involuntarily falling, falling,
I diminish the force of the flute.


As for my own lips I don’t like them;
murder is rooted in them.
I am forced to incline the equinox
of the flute to decline into nothing.


And my own lips are unlovely —
For murder grows from that root —
And I dwindle, unwillingly dwindle,
The equinoctial time of the flute.


I don’t even love my own lips –
murder hangs too from that vine –
helpless I let the flute dip
its equinox into decline …

As in the earlier comparison, I don’t think much of Greene and the McKanes in terms of poetic impact — both Bernstein and Noon are more effective, and they understand the Russian better. (I regretfully report that in the second line of the fifth stanza, “Комья глины в ладонях моря,” both Greene and the McKanes mistake the final word, the gerund of the verb морить ‘exhaust, wear out,’ for the genitive of the noun море ‘sea,’ which is impossible because it is end-stressed.) But I do note with respect that Greene is the only translator to straightforwardly render the repetition of “на убыль, на убыль” as “falling, falling”; Bernstein sticks an adverb in between, which somewhat spoils the effect (“dwindle, unwillingly dwindle”), and both the McKanes and (surprisingly) Noon entirely ignore it. (Thanks for the link go to the indefatigable Trevor, constant reader and primo poet.)

Oh, and for the contrast between the equal days of Russian равноденствие and the equal nights of our equinox, see the discussion here, especially the comments by Dmitry Pruss and January First-of-May.

Update. Bernstein has reminded me that he revised the poem for the second edition of his book; here are the stanzas corresponding to the ones above:

The Greek flute’s theta and iota —
Unsated by word of mouth —
Beholden to no one, unmolded,
Ripened, repined, crossed rifts.
. . .
And my own lips are unlovely —
For murder grows from that root —
And I dwindle, unwillingly dwindle
The indifferent force of the flute.

In the greatly expanded Note on the poems, he writes:

But let me go back to the ambivalence Mandelstam expressed toward relinquishing control over the reins of meaning to language in this way during his years in Voronezh, when his own control over these reins became responsive to the urgings of language as never before The late poem “The Greek flute’s theta and iota…” is precisely about the pull of what is proto-semantic in language Its subject is the irresistible music of the mouth — irresistible for the poet — the sound of that which precedes sense, which carries him wherever it happens to go, indifferent to the semantic consequences of its ripening and repining. But for the poet those semantic consequences are quite real, for murder (gubit’) comes from the same root as his own moving lips (guby), and poetic speech all too easily turns prophetic. Thus the poem concludes by becoming its own palinode.

Mandelstam’s Greek flute — the vocal reed which, with a will of its own, produces this polysemic music and beguiles the person who touches its ventages — is in fact the flute of Marsyas, which was used by its owner to challenge the supremacy of coherent speech as embodied by the music of the lyre.

Or so the myth was reimagined by Mandelstam’s close friend Benedikt Livshits in his early poem “The Flute of Marsyas” (1911) — which was also the title of his first book. Livshits (1886–1938), an interesting poet in his own right, is particularly interesting in connection with Mandelstam because of the enduring thematic and stylistic affinities in their work.

He goes on to write about Livshits and translate his poem. If you have any interest in his excellent translations and critical analysis, by all means get the new edition.


  1. Greene and the McKanes don’t seem to get it at all, alhough the McKanes’ “As for my own lips I don’t like them” is the most faithful of the four translations of this particular line. One should be able to recite the original in Russian to get some grip on it. If the translator can’t hear its sound and word play, they should leave it alone.

    I’m not pretending to understand or admire this poem but I can’t help admiring some of its lines. The губы не любы / на убыль rhyme is amazing. So is the моря/морем/мором/мера sequence. Bernstein has the right ear and knows what he’s doing but there’s only so much he can do. “And my own lips are unlovely” sounds good – the simple internal rhyme, губы-любы, gets substituted by the alliteration lips-love-ly, and there’s the own-un off-rhyme as a bonus. But the folk-song flavor of the line is gone and the meaning is off. Unlovely to me was the message.

    In Berstein’s defense, the line before is “My own measure grew hateful to me…” so “to me” can carry over to the next one.

    “Unsated by word of mouth” is a great find.

  2. John Cowan says

    So, does anyone understand “iota and theta”? When I hear these in a Russian context, I think of the pre-1917 letters і and ѳ, which I sometimes refer to as “Cyrillic iota” and “Cyrillic theta” (the former as opposed to “Cyrillic eta” for и and “Cyrillic ypsilon” for ѵ). But this is perhaps an entirely idiosyncratic reaction.

  3. PlasticPaddy says

    I assumed ti (note in the Russian it is theta and iota) = (you fam.). But the poem is not addressed to anyone and is obscure to me.

  4. David Marjanović says

    The 2sg pronoun has been ты since the first attestations: [t⁽ˠ⁾ɨ(ɪ̯)], not [tʲi].

  5. So, does anyone understand “iota and theta”?

    Moskvin suggests, and I agree, that the Greek letters represent the flute as seen (respectively) from the side and from the end. Those names were never applied to the Russian letters.

  6. Apparently my post yesterday got lost: The commentary in A. G. Mets’s edition says that Mandelstam probably transliterated the Russian word “fleyta” into the Greek alphabet, and that’s where “iota and theta” come from. Also, in an early version of the poem, the line was quite different.

  7. @ulr: In the article the OP links to, Vasily Moskvin reviews several hypotheses, including Mets’s. The Russian word, in pre-1918 spelling, is флейта and not *ѳлейта. Mandelshtam would have known that the initial letter was not a theta. Did he confuse the tau with a theta? I also doubt it. Victor Tarras thought the theta was related to death, in more ways than one. Mikhail L. Gasparov preferred the earlier version; as you say, it was quite different: мята (“mint” as in peppermint) instead of тэта.

  8. The commentary in A. G. Mets’s edition says that Mandelstam probably transliterated the Russian word “fleyta” into the Greek alphabet, and that’s where “iota and theta” come from.

    I agree with VM and AK that this seems very unlikely.

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