A couple of items on the subject. First, the Merm has yet another chewy, nutritious link, this time to an article by a translator explaining why translators are supposed to render what their author said, no more and no less, even if the client thinks they should be improving on it. This is, of course, in relation to expository prose; when it comes to poetry, the rules are different, pace Nabokov. And that brings us to a fascinating thread on MetaFilter, started by the excellent y2karl‘s post of a Yeats poem (“When you are old and grey and full of sleep”) that is not quite a translation but certainly based on a famous Ronsard sonnet (“Quand vous serez bien vieille,” quoted in full in the thread).

After much discussion of Yeats, Villon, and translation in general (Miguel Cardoso giving what to my mind were unwarrantedly optimistic views), y2karl quoted a translation of an Akhmatova poem, by Natalie Duddington, that seemed fine to me until I looked at the original poem. What I would like to do now (in the infinite space of my own blog) is to present the original and several translations and see what they reveal. First off, here’s the original (in transcription; I’ll put accents whenever the stress is not on the penultimate, to aid the curious):

Kak nevesta poluchayu
Kazhdyi vecher po pis’mú,
Pozdno noch’yu otvechayu
Drugu moemú.

“Ya goshchú u smerti beloi
Po doroge v t’mu.
Zla, moi láskovyi, ne delai
V mire nikomú.”

I stoít zvezdá bol’shaya
Mezhdu dvukh stvolóv,
Tak spokoino obeshchaya
Ispolnen’e snov.

(The apostrophe indicates palatalization, which sounds like a slight “y” glide after the consonant.) Now a literal translation, with equally valid alternatives separated by a slash:

Like a bride/fiancée I receive
Each evening a letter,
Late at night I answer
My friend.

“I am staying (as a guest) with white death
On the way to darkness [formal/archaic word].
Evil/wrong, my affectionate/tender (one), do not do
In the world to anyone.”

And a large star stands
Between two (tree)trunks,
So/thus calmly/peacefully promising
(The) fulfilment of dreams.

And here’s the Duddington translation:

Like one betrothed I get
Each evening a letter.
And late at night sit down to write
An answer to my friend.

Low in the sky there shines a star
Between two trunks of trees.
So calmly promising to me
That what I dream, shall be.

I am staying with white death
On my way to darkness.
Do no evil, gentle one,
To anyone on Earth.

The first thing we notice is that she’s switched the second and third stanzas. This, to me, is a blatant no-no; if Akhmatova had wanted the quote with its exhortation at the end of the poem, she’d have put it there. Furthermore, Duddington omits the quotation marks, making it impossible to separate the narrator’s framing voice from the words she addresses to her friend. Finally, here is Judith Hemschemeyer’s translation, from her well-regarded Complete Poems of Anna Akhmatova:

Like a fiancée I receive
A letter every evening,
And late at night I write
An answer to my lover.

“I am the guest of white death,
On the way to darkness.
My beloved, don’t be evil
To anyone on earth.”

And a huge star is standing
Between the trunks of two trees,
So tranquilly promising
The fulfillment of dreams.

This is a great improvement in terms of accuracy (though “lover” and “my beloved” are in my view unacceptable editorializing), but it doesn’t have the fire of poetry to me; when I read it aloud it doesn’t thrill my ear. Obviously, this is a matter of personal taste (and I welcome others’ reactions), but I can’t share the general satisfaction with her versions (“We needn’t worry again about how to read Akhmatova in translation”—Andrew Motion). Perhaps I’ll try my own hand; in the meantime, I lay these before you for your perusal and contemplation.

ADDENDUM. The Poetry International Web opens its virtual doors today; this amazing site has (or will have—it’s still under construction) pages for poets from different countries, with poems in both English translation and the original. Here, for instance, is Cavafy’s “The Satrapy.” (Thanks to Igor, who posted it on MetaFilter.)

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