The Ode on Slate.

It’s been too long since we had any Mandelstam around here, so I thank Trevor for sending me Alistair Noon’s translation, with a very interesting introduction, of Mandelstam’s Грифельная ода (Slate Ode; the link is bilingual, and for some reason calls it “Graphite Ode”). This has got to be one of the knottiest poems ever written; Omry Ronen devotes 187 pages to it in his An Approach to Mandelstam, and I can’t imagine its being translated really successfully (God knows I’ve tried); the best I know of is Ilya Bernstein’s (see this LH post), which begins “From star to star — a mighty bond,/ The flinty path from the old ballad.” As I told Trevor about this translation, there are some nice lines but on the whole the rhythm didn’t convince me — I know I’m an idiosyncratic reader, but to me rhythm is as important in poetry as it is in music. But it’s a valiant attempt and well worth reading, and the introduction is full of good stuff, like:

I like poems I can come back to again and again over decades and discover ever more, not ever less in them. I won’t pretend to and I don’t want to have fathomed “The Ode on Slate,” but I am pretty sure that Mandelstam didn’t write the thing as (only) an exercise in exegesis. What you get, you get, what you don’t, you don’t. We aren’t in the exam room here. And there’s plenty else in the poem to ponder and enjoy in any case.

A good way to look at it.


  1. “Graphite” because Грифель also stands for “pencil leads” which actually have been made out of graphite for great many centuries.
    <= γραφείον “writing stick / stylus” (of any material, I supposed), but folk-etymologically conflated with graphite, its modern material.

  2. Pencils were at one time made of slate (the stone) in countries that didn’t have graphite deposits.

  3. squadron leader squiffy von bladet says

    I know I’m an idiosyncratic reader, but to me rhythm is as important in poetry as it is in music.

    Very much this. Dutch translations of English childrens’ books are often good except for the metre, but “good except for the metre” is pretty much a flavour of bad to my ears. (Don’t get me started on Sinterklaas gedichtje’s!)

  4. “good except for the metre” is pretty much a flavour of bad to my ears.

    A man after my own heart!

  5. @John Cowan: Surely slate is too hard to write with? Perhaps these pencils were made with shale, which is routinely miscalled “slate” in English.

  6. Trond Engen says

    Rhythm is important. In my own erratic attempts on translation, I’ve found it even more important in free verse than in rhymed verse. Formal constraints tell you clearly what’s going on. Just keep speed and get through each gate along the way making roughly the same movements with the same ease as in the original, but also consider changing the course in order to instate the same experience in a different audience. In free verse you first have to figure out if anything’s going on at all, then what, and how, and why. And it turns out that ever-changing rhythm is a huge part of the how.

  7. I’ve never seen translation compared to slalom before, but I like it.

  8. Trond Engen says

    Yeah, but I should have worked more on the beginning.

    Translation of poetry is like replicating a ski run in a different slope or track.

    In rhymed verse you know what kind of run it is, downhill, slalom or cross-country, and the metre means you can measure out an identical course. Still, the terrain of your language and the climate of your national culture means you may have to, or are free to, choose a different course in order to maintain the overall experience.

    In free verse you don’t know the slope, or the gates, or anything. You first have to figure out if anything’s happening at all. Then what, and how, and why. And ever-changing rhythm turns out to be a big part of the how.

  9. marie-lucie says

    Skiing as training for translators?

  10. marie-lucie says

    writing on or with slate

    When I first went to school (in ancient times!), part of every schoolchild’s equipment in primary school was a slate (a rectangle of something hard and black, surrounded by a wooden frame) and a special kind of pencil, actually made up of a holder for a hard grey cylinder (thinner than a piece of chalk) with which we could write on the slate. Later the writing could be erased with (I think) a moist sponge. Thinking back on it, the grey cylinder must have been made from a kind of pressed powder, perhaps from another kind of slate or shale.

  11. Trond Engen says

    Skiing is a Norwegian metaphor for everything.

  12. I like translating verse on long-haul ski tours 🙂

  13. My only assiciation with slate-pencils is the trial scene in Alice in Wonderland, where the jurors all write very busily on slates:

    One of the jurors had a pencil that squeaked. This of course, Alice could not stand, and she went round the court and got behind him, and very soon found an opportunity of taking it away. She did it so quickly that the poor little juror (it was Bill, the Lizard) could not make out at all what had become of it; so, after hunting all about for it, he was obliged to write with one finger for the rest of the day; and this was of very little use, as it left no mark on the slate.

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