Walking through the poetry section of Michael’s Books in Bellingham, I recently came across a volume of Osip Mandelshtam’s poems in English translation. Some of my favourite Mandelshtam poems were there: “Сестры тяжесть и нежность…” “Бессонница. Гомер. Тугие паруса…”, Silentium, Notre Dame, and all in English. But I could hardly even recognize them, because they retained neither the metre nor the rhyme of the original. They looked like a sad slop of words heaped together on a page.
I was disappointed, but I understood: I’ve tried translating “Сестры тяжесть и нежность…” for example, and to me it seemed completely untranslatable. Translating Mandelshtam given how formal his poetry is, is just hard. It’s no shame that the translator didn’t succeed to my liking. But then I realized that it was done on purpose: many think that that’s the better way to translate. Language Hat, in a very interesting post with a Mandelshtam translation, decries trying to translate in any other way by bringing up translations of Brodsky:
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… [emphasis mine -z]
He then goes on to quote a really not very good rhymed and metered translation of Brodsky. But all that proves is that translating some things is hard. It doesn’t mean that the attempt should not even be made. I completely disagree with the conclusions of the highlighted text. I think instead that the method of translation whose purpose is to use the words of the original to make a free verse poem that would seem at home in modern English should be actively rejected.
Lawrence Venuti’s concepts of “domesticating” versus “foreignizing” translations that he introduces in “The Translator’s Invisibility” are useful here. It makes no sense to try to make Mandelshtam into a modern English language poet because he is not a modern English language poet. We do him no service by pretending otherwise. Instead of trying to domesticate Mandelshtam into a culture that we English speakers understand, we should be open to the idea that the poetic culture of the Russian language is different. And as translators, our translations should act to bring the reader to that foreign poetic culture. It is no coincidence that Brodsky and Nabokov, two men who are giants of that culture, are the ones who language hat notes disagree with him.
But all that is not worth much unless I try to put it into practice. Here is my version of a Mandelshtam poem from 1915, “Бессонница. Гомер. Тугие паруса…” Once again, this is something where other translations abound on the internet and off.
Insomnia. The Iliad. Full sails.
I read the list of ships until half-way
That long-tailed brood, that train-like siege of cranes
Which over Hellas’ seas was once unveiled
An arrowhead of cranes aimed at a foreign shore
The brows of Kings flecked with the foam of heaven
Where do you sail for? Were it not for Helen
What’s Troy alone to you, Achaean men of war?
The sea, and Homer — all are moved by passion
Whom ought I listen to? And Homer gives no word
Whereas the black sea thunders to be heard
And nears the headboard with a heavy crashing