Found in Translation.

Back in March, as part of this year’s Read Harder challenge (specifically, a collection of poetry in translation on a theme other than love), I found Osip Mandelstam. Along the way, not only did I develop a love and deep appreciation for his poems, I discovered how important a role the translator plays…in something other than the Bible. In my Bible study, I am continually struck by the subtleties of meaning among the different translations, but I hadn’t considered it in other literature. After recently re-reading and completely loving One Hundred Years of Solitude, another translation, I decided to revisit those Mandelstam poems and share some of my discoveries with you.

My local library has a decent collection of Mandelstam’s poems in translation. The Brown & Merwin (B&W) translation came highly recommended and I chose Wiman’s Stolen Air because it was new (published in 2012). I honestly don’t remember why I chose the McDuff, but it turned out that having all three volumes to compare and contrast was helpful. (but Goodreads makes it hard – the B&W and McDuff volumes are both listed as “different editions” of the same book. hummmm)

Both the B&W and McDuff start with the “same” poem:

The shy speechless sound
of a fruit falling from its tree,
and around it the silent music
of the forest, unbroken . . . 

The careful and hollow sound
of a fruit snapped from a tree
amidst the neverending song
of the deep forest silence . . .

I was captivated! There wasn’t as much overlap across the three volumes as that first poem led me to believe. But two more examples – these both from B&W and Stolen Air – made me wish there were.

From the Voronezh notebooks, March 15, 1937

Maybe this is the beginning of madness.
Maybe it’s your conscience:
a knot of life in which we are seized and known
and untied for existence. 

So in cathedrals of crystals not found on earth
the prudent spider of light
draws the ribs apart and gathers them again
into one bundle. 

And gathered together by one thin beam
the bundles of pure lines give thanks.
One day they will meet, they will assemble
like guests with the visors up, 

and her on earth, not in heaven,
as in a house filled with music,
if only we don’t offend them, or frighten them away.
How good to live to see it! 

Forgive me for what I am saying.
Read it to me quietly, quietly.

Maybe madness too has making here.
Maybe conscience, knotted like a cyst,
Knowing and being known by sun and air —
Maybe life unties and we exist. 

Bring to mind the mindless spider, its care
For the pillared invisible, little crystal temple,
All air and otherness: 

As if a form could thank its maker,
As if every line of light back to one source were drawn,
As if, deep in wilderness
A raftered hall rose around the risen guests,
All pains purged from their faces . . . 

As it is on earth, Lord, not in heaven.
On earth, and in a house whose walls are song.
Even the birds, even the littlest, fearless.
O Lord, to live so long . . . 

Forgive me this, forgive what I am saying.
Whisper it, less than whisper, like someone praying.

The second example is from Tristia, one of Mandelstam’s best known works; I’m not sure why McDuff didn’t include it (or maybe he did and the translation is just so different, I couldn’t see it!) It’s four stanzas, but I’m only sharing part of the first; I think you’ll get the gist:

I have studied the science of good-byes,
the bare-headed laments of night.
The waiting lengthens as the oxen chew.
In the town the last hour of the watch.

There is, I know, a science of separation
In night’s disheveled elegies, stifled laments,
The clockwork oxen jaws, the tense anticipation
As the city’s vigil nears its sun and end.

In their introduction, Brown & Merwin say “Reading literature in translation, in a different language, in a different culture, often means that one is reading a complete invention, distant from the original, a myth.” (so true!)

and later, “By trying to bring something alien into English, we change English and broaden our own tradition. That is why reading works in translation is so important to us, why our language, since Geoffrey Chaucer, has thrived on translations, why … every new great age of English poetry is also a great age of translation.

Wiman has included an end note, “Secret Hearing, on Translating Osip Mandelstam”, in which he says “…I’ve been careful to call [these] versions and not translations, hoping to skip over the abyss of argument that opens underneath that distinction.

For myself, I have no desire to learn Russian in order to read the poems as Mandelstam intended. I am happy to have access to these beautiful words and images … found in translation.

If you’ve read this far, thank you! Have you read Mandelstam (in translation)? is one a favorite? After today’s revisit, can you guess with of the three books I intend to add to my collection?

10 thoughts on “Found in Translation.

  1. I've never thought much about the importance of translation. In fact I'm not sure I've ever read anything in translation, but I think I need to. The comparison of these different translations is so interesting as they are so different! I think what I'd really like to read is something from the translator explaining how and why they made their word choices. I'm not sure what one you'll be choosing, but for me it would be B&W. I prefer it to knotted cysts and clockwork oxen jaws!

  2. you must have a large library. I notice translation when I am reading a book and the sentences do not flow like they would if it was written in english first. I usually research international books for reviews of the translations before I commit to reading a book.

  3. You are so right, translation is important. I have struggled with poor translations. But, this is quite amazing – the entire meaning is altered! Thank you for sharing!

  4. Very interesting, and achingly beautiful in places. I had never read anything by him before. Thanks for sharing. I like B&W.

  5. Very interesting, and achingly beautiful in places. I had never read anything by him before. Thanks for sharing. I like B&W.

  6. Well now! What comes immediately to my mind re: translations: the Greek classics; fairy tales; etc. And I'm sure over the course of the years, others…but for contemporary today, I'd probably have to rack up a zero…as with Vera, B & W wins for me…I especially like the stanza: "So in cathedrals of crystals…" much to contemplate and savor. Thank you.

  7. When reading a translation I often wish I understood the culture and their language in order to truly understand the story as the author intended. You've certainly pointed out how limited our understanding can be and how important a translators interests and knowledge can play into what we read.

  8. Mary – this is a whole new world for me! That said I'm going to read this post again as I found the words wonderful!

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