SEPTEMBER 20, 2020
WHY DO WE READ poetry in translation? For pleasure, of course, but also for vitamins, and they’re quite various vitamins: to get a sense of a foreign author, a foreign literature, or another culture and its history; to see what a poet or translator we admire has made of this new project; to pick up forms or approaches for our own writing. Curiosity can certainly be a component of pleasure, even if pleasure resides in the Art part of translation. In Evgeny Baratynsky’s era, Russians who translated French or English or German poetry worried much less about accuracy, much more about the pleasure and utility of creating a body of poetry in their own language. Russian literature has gained all kinds of good things through translation; unlike Anglophone literatures, it doesn’t ignore that aspect of its identity. This helps explain why some Russians who are highly proficient in other languages feel the urge to translate their favorite poets. They are also used to seeing translations made in certain ways.
The translation vector from Russian to English raises some interesting technical issues. Russian poetry continued to rhyme and scan much longer than the rest of the European languages, especially English. It began moving into more experimental territory in the early 20th century, but Soviet literary politics put poetic form in a kind of deep freeze, while émigré poets, for their part, tended to stick with fixed forms in their mission to carry on the tradition of classical Russian poetry (like Baratynsky’s). Russian culture has also strongly emphasized memorization of poetry — keeping verse oral even if it is also preserved on a printed page. (Robert Chandler, in his introduction to the Penguin Book of Russian Poetry, mentions prisoners in the Soviet Gulag who treasured their mental libraries, compiled through memorization, and relied on them for survival.) For a variety of reasons — some of which are laid out in Vladimir Nabokov’s famous essay on translating Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin — rhyme and meter have gone out of fashion in Anglophone poetry over the past century or so. That said, rhyming may still be effective: look at, or listen to, humorous poetry whose rhyme adds to the amusement. (Someone needs to write a dissertation on Ogden Nash and Vladimir Mayakovsky from that angle.) Listen to hip-hop, where brilliant rhyming strongly underlines the intellectual qualifications of talented performers. Yet poetry written in English for the eye and the page has certainly moved in a different direction.
Russians who read Anglophone poetry in the Soviet period turned to the works available, which were largely translations or original editions of poetry from the era of rhyme and meter. Joseph Brodsky, who eventually befriended some of the great Anglophone poets of his age, wrote a major elegy to John Donne — definitely a great poet, but hardly recent news. A Russian who loved Anglophone poetry might be familiar with Longfellow and Tennyson, but not Dylan Thomas or Sylvia Plath, who brought formal poetic devices closer to our day. When such readers translate Russian poetry, it can feel old-fashioned to native speakers of English who have adjusted to recent developments. I reserve a special cringe for syntactic inversions. These make it so much easier to rhyme without drastically changing the meaning and allow a translator to stay closer to the original syntax — but they are only used by Anglophone poets today for very particular effects. There are other factors too: English has tons of long words, but most of them are in a higher stylistic register than the poem one wants to translate, and English has a number of obligatory one-syllable words that we barely notice as they add a few syllables to any utterance. The translator of poetry from Russian has to balance between padding a line that fell short in English (with its stubby words) and fighting the accumulation of a and the.
All of this demonstrates that Anatoly Liberman faced a demanding task in translating Evgeny Baratynsky. (Liberman noted that the poet’s surname “used to be” spelled Baratynsky, but he offers no reason for choosing the alternative, Boratynsky, so I’ll stick with the form I’m used to. In most of Russia the two are pronounced identically, because both “o” and “a” two syllables before the word stress reduce to an identical “uh” sound.) As Liberman’s introduction extensively describes, Baratynsky is a relatively neglected poet from the Russian Golden Age, the era of Alexander Pushkin. His dates are 1800–1844: he outlived Pushkin by seven years, and outlived his own poetic success even longer. A more cerebral poet who didn’t pander to public tastes, he was overshadowed by Pushkin’s easy-seeming brilliance. Even Russians who treasure poetry tend to think of Pushkin and Mikhail Lermontov in the early 19th century, because these are the poets read in school. Baratynsky may come as something of a revelation to them later in life: he was rediscovered by the Silver Age poets of the early 20th century (Osip Mandelstam has some wonderful things to say about him), then later by Joseph Brodsky, for whom Baratynsky’s work was a call to greater seriousness in his own writing. Baratynsky knew his own artistic character, and one of his best-known poems describes his muse’s expression as not typical.
Professor Liberman is a wide-ranging scholar and an experienced translator both from Russian into English (with volumes of Lermontov’s and Fyodor Tyutchev’s poetical works and selections from the works of folklorist Vladimir Propp) and from English into Russian (the complete sonnets of Shakespeare). He has clearly taken time with these poems and thought a great deal about them: many feel polished, well-rubbed, warm from the hand of the translator. Readers may be confident that he approached each of the verses with care and subtlety, deploying a rich and varied vocabulary to do them justice. He almost always has a wonderful sense of rhythm and a good ear for sound texture. When he’s writing trochees, my God you get trochees, his six-foot lines have dependable cesurae, and he’ll add as many syllables as required to get what Walter Arndt called a congruent translation, with the same syllable count and stress pattern as the original. His subtitle itself immediately demands to be read as verse (iambic tetrameter, feminine ending). The copious commentary of over 100 pages (out of 319 total in the book) includes his versions of a number of poems by other Russia poets, ranging from Baratynsky’s contemporaries like Pushkin, Tyutchev, Anton Del’vig, and Konstantin Batyushkov to Silver Age poets like Alexander Blok. Some of these address the same theme or the same person or issue as the Baratynsky poem under discussion; others seem to be poems Liberman simply likes and feels like including. Together, they do offer a snapshot of the Russian poetic tradition. The commentary often mentions critical responses to a poem, be it enthusiasm in private letters or a stinging review by the young socially engage critic Vissarion Belinsky (1811–1848) — all important for Baratynsky’s self-image and evolving ambitions as a poet. Some notes mention poems by Byron or Goethe, offer connections with composers or visual artists, or suggest productive comparisons, all underlining Baratynsky’s broader relationship with European culture. Classical references and personal names are identified in detail.
Along with many, many other things, Liberman’s introduction observes that available appropriate rhymes for essential words can create familiar patterns in any language’s poetry. He points out the Russian clusters of “tender” with “careless” and “rebellious,” “love” with “again,” and “thou” with (the genitive case of) “beauty.” Pushkin’s comment in Eugene Onegin that the reader expects the word “roses” (rozy) after the word “frosts” (morozy) proves the point, which truly does impact what a translation can do. Liberman notes earlier English rhyming clichés: “love” and “above,” “doom” and “tomb.” Today analogous shaping rhymes in North American culture appear in popular songs: “girl”/“world”; “chance”/“dance” — rhymes brought to you courtesy of Spotify.
I very much like one of Liberman’s comments in this long essay: “When we translate a great poet, the author’s ghost should loom before our eyes, nodding approval, wincing, or turning sorrowfully away in mute surprise at our audacity and ineptitude.” It may be less scholarly, but it brings the translator’s enterprise alive. On the whole, though, I recommend following Liberman’s own advice: skip the introduction (at least at first) and read the translations. The lines are numbered (every five lines) as well as the poems, and the Russian titles (transliterated) appear just below the translated title or first line. If an individual poem sparks curiosity, consult instead the extensive notes at the end of the book. The book ends with multiple indices, including first lines in English and in Russian. And if a question arises about some issue in Baratynsky’s life or work, the table of contents lists the introduction’s topics in detail, like the contents of a 19th-century novel. I made the mistake of reading the introductory material first and found it poorly organized and sometimes irritating (some of my objections are below). It runs to over 40 pages, much of it seemingly aimed at precisely the graduate students Liberman says he hopes will not be the volume’s sole readers.
Liberman writes: “Whenever I found it possible, I put objects and adverbs before verbs, but refrained from going beyond what Keats and the bolder Shelley allowed themselves to do.” There’s a lot to be said for observing the poetic style of a poet’s own period, but: Anglophone readers who reach for Keats and Shelley expect a certain patina of age — whereas a translator must persuade us of an older poet’s gifts with versions accessible enough, relatable enough, coherent enough for the reader to linger. Liberman aspires to transport the reader to “another epoch,” which can be done; Pound’s playful “Elizabethan” versions of Italian Renaissance poems succeed, for instance, thanks to his own exceptional gifts and sense of verbal freedom (his politics notwithstanding). Liberman, on the other hand, sometimes holds too fast to his own set of criteria. The imposition of non-rhyming free verse on originally metrical, rhyming poetry is labeled a quest for “comfort.” Liberman also asserts (pace Nabokov!) that you can always find a feminine rhyme — though the quest for these can indeed lead to padding (which he also condemns) as well as fanciful changes from the original.
Right at the beginning we see an inversion in “Autumn agreed from rot to save her.” This is surely meant to read as meaning “Autumn agreed to save her from rot,” but “agreed from rot” risks suggesting that rot compelled autumn to make this agreement. The same poem has the admirable line “Vanquished he can but stand and stare,” lovely internal rhymes of “van-can-stan(d),” plus the effective “st-st” of the verbs. “To Del’vig” offers “In an ever-vocal grove.” Some of the feminine rhymes are subtle and persuasive: “By nature bred and nurtured, / I loved the wilderness: to me it was an orchard.” From very late in Baratynsky’s oeuvre, “Fluid divinity, I am your servant” has both fluent wording and perfect dactyls. (There’s no “servant” in the original, in fact the original calls the sea a free element, but when it works this well one can forgive.) When Liberman gets it right, the results are lovely. Here, for example, are the final four lines of “To make your likeness…” (p. 49):
Has every opposite become a part of you?
Your coldness is combined with tenderness and feeling;
So changeable in all you do,
You are unchangeably appealing.
The play on “changeable”/“unchangeably” mirrors the poet’s wit caught elsewhere: “Friends out of sight are unexciting” (my italics). There are more examples like this, with consistent attention to feminine and even the occasional dactylic (three-syllable) rhymes. “Your love is mine” is entirely successful; someone should set it to music.
“Your love is mine!” We heard them both —
Those tender words of your affection.
Your soulful oft- repeated oath
Is still my dearest recollection.
That trust you cannot undermine:
Your love was mine, your love was mine!
I am the same. Capricious fate
Could not defeat the lovesick poet.
I can recall my blissful state,
But you’ve forgotten me — I know it:
Forgotten someone’s very name
Who is the same, who is the same!
We never meet, we are not close.
Perhaps her smile would not be scornful
If she beheld her friend morose,
His eyes so sad, his sight so mournful.
I have one dream, and it is sweet:
If we could meet, if we could meet.
But love is sly. To me it speaks
And lends my song its warmth and luster.
I see my darling’s reddened cheeks:
It is my words that made her fluster.
I think I guessed her kind reply,
For love is sly — yes, love is sly!
Liberman is at his best with a poem like “Banqueting,” or with philosophical verses where the tendency of English abstract terms to be longer creates a verbal texture more like the Russian original:
To mad desires I paid my debt
And left to others youth’s confusion.
King Solomon was wise, and yet
I say: “Not all brings men regret,
Not all is fancy and illusion!”
At the same time, other translations have way too much syntactic inversion, even more than the demands of rhyme seem to require. “As long as by man nature was not explored” may not really inspire a reader to continue.
Another objection is the sexism of the introduction, where every woman mentioned, including Baratynsky’s wife, is described in negative terms. I could never ask one of my students to read it without a preliminary apology. The biographical data also leaves out some elements important to less informed readers: there is no mention of the serfs in Baratynsky’s village (and that of his in-laws); we don’t learn where he was in December 1825, when some of his closest friends were participating in the Decembrist revolt against the tsarist regime. (He had been in the army, after all, though by the end of 1825 he was requesting permission to retire.)
Liberman’s introduction paints Baratynsky’s neglect in English in dark colors and only much later gets to the books and dissertations on Baratynsky (though he does not mention the versions in the important collection edited by Dimitri Obolensky, currently available as The Heritage of Russian Verse, perhaps because those very accurate translations are in plain prose), and then the generous selections offered more recently by two major translators, Peter France and Rawley Grau. It turns out that Baratynsky has been having something of a slow-motion moment over the past decade or so. Could it be that Liberman added his comments on these recent translations at the end of the introduction, instead of revising the text he had already prepared? Ripping into preexisting translations is a time-honored move (see Nabokov’s mean-spirited comments in the essay on translating Onegin, again), and one big motivation for undertaking the challenging task of a new edition is reading someone else’s version and thinking, “I could do better than this!” But still, a reader might well stop before reaching mention of France and Grau.
The commentary following the poems is extensive, but at times it too could offer more information. After the tone of the introduction, it’s no surprise that Liberman does not bring up Anna Bunina (1774–1829) when he describes Baratynsky’s “unusual” use of lines of uneven length, but certainly the fabulist Ivan Krylov and the dramatist Alexander Griboyedov are well known enough to mention. Odd too that Liberman’s translations do not observe Baratynsky’s stanza breaks — hoping to fit more into the volume? — though he does capitalize each initial word and preserves Baratynsky’s variable indentation.
So as not to get lost in a game of “gotcha” with things I would have done differently, I’ll mention only one:
Обманывай слепцов и смейся их судьбе:
Теперь душа твоя в покое;
Придётся некогда изведать и тебе
My slavish version (SF):
Go on fooling blind men and laughing at their fate:
At present your soul is at peace;
Some time you too will have to come to taste
A fateful disappointment.
Go on: play blindman’s buff. To do it is not hard;
You are protected by an armor,
But mark my words: one day, hoist with your own petard,
You’ll weep before a fateful charmer!
The contraction “isn’t” is conversational, but using it would reduce the thump of one-syllable words at the end of line one (not that my third line is any better). To me, a “charmer” suggests a woman in English, though perhaps I’m impacted by Burns’s “Now Westlin Winds,” whereas Baratynsky is warning a woman that some day a man will not respond to her emotions. But what really bothers this reader is the padding and alteration of meaning in “To do it is not hard,” “protected by an armor,” and then the purely gratuitous “hoist with your own petard.” It’s true that rhyming is tricky, but this petard is just as bad as the “chrysalis” Liberman complains about when another pair of translators uses it to rhyme with “bliss.”
It is useful to know that Baratynsky was probably an alcoholic, and Liberman rightly suggests that he suffered from depression. He dwells on these things more than may be necessary, and on the episode that caused his expulsion from the Corps des Pages at the age of 16 (participation in the theft of a valuable snuffbox containing 500 paper rubles), though undoubtedly this was traumatic and fate-changing for Baratynsky; Liberman winds up huffily excusing him for the youthful prank, arguing that he should have had his noble status restored much sooner. But it’s the negativity toward women that grates. Early love interest Ponomareva was “discriminating and vain,” Del’vig’s wife was “capricious and disloyal,” and Baratynsky’s eventual wife Nastas’ia is described more than once by citing poet Pyotr Vyazemsky’s comment to Pushkin’s brother that she lacked “an elegiac appearance.” Liberman dwells on women’s “inveiglements,” a term from his translation. Even more thought-provokingly, he writes, “before they went abroad, his wife translated a good number of his poems into French prose. He must have approved of these versions, so that in this book, they are called his.” Following this decision to attribute Mme Baratynsky’s work to her husband, one poem’s commentary notes, “Boratynsky translated it into French (as always, in easy ‘unpoetic’ prose).” Even some commentary on divinities is tendentious: “Freya (Old Norse Freyja) was a Scandinavian fertility goddess, notorious for her lasciviousness. She had no son and had nothing to do with ‘love.’” What were we thinking, naming Friday after her? Other notes are more respectful: I was almost surprised to see Karolina Pavlova (1807–1893) called “a first-rate poet,” and no nasty comments about A. A. Fuksova, the dedicatee of one of Baratynsky’s verses. Yet Liberman’s comments on the Leda poem (enhanced with his own translation of Pushkin’s “playful” treatment of that famous scene) return to the previous mood. Perhaps a scholar or translator need not condemn Golden Age poets for their treatment of mythological rape, but neutral rather than approving commentary on that aspect would appeal more to contemporary readers.
Gender issues aside, how sensitive must a non-native speaker be to connotations? Alongside lexical accuracy, the wrong right word becomes a stylistic error. Liberman’s translations can run into problems with diminutives: a ringlet is not a little piece of jewelry, but a curling lock of hair; a starlet is not a small heavenly body, but a kind of aspiring actress. “Darling” suggests a romantic connection, or a sentimental view of a child or pet, or maybe a garment; I can’t imagine the laddish poets of Baratynsky’s era using such a word to address each other. The diminutives are redolent of padding by adding a syllable. Archaic words like “guerdon,” “riant,” and “forsooth” (the last in a rhyme where “in truth” would have worked just fine) feel no better than the archaisms from other translators to which Liberman objects in his introduction. Some of the colloquial words chosen are from the wrong register entirely: “softy” or “wimp” work well only in humorous verse. No one ever says, “Th’air is so pure” — and what would be wrong with “The air’s so pure”? “Met ’er” does indeed rhyme better, but it gives the translation a dialect character; for a slant rhyme, “met her” would be a better choice (where the reader could choose to make the “h” silent). The quirks of Liberman’s translations made me long for Obolensky-style prose versions. Of course, plain prose is not a translation: it’s the skeleton, but the skeleton is where a lot of the vitamins reside.
Reading Liberman also reminded me about Rawley Grau’s selection of Baratynsky’s (using “Ba” not “Bo”) poems and letters, A Science Not for the Earth, which I pulled down for another look. It is a beautiful volume printed on high-quality paper, as usual for Ugly Duckling Presse, a publisher better known for translations of avant-garde Russian poetry. Grau has published numerous works from Russian and Slovene. His introduction is over 20 pages; Baratynsky apparently provokes lots of thoughts, which translators then want to share. I couldn’t help noticing that Grau describes the poet’s beloved wife as “a smart, congenial woman.” He gives a four-page abbreviated chronology of the poet’s life, which lets him minimize comment on the life in his introduction. The chronology conveys information in a neutral manner, with no judgment on requited or unrequited loves or the theft of the snuffbox. Both translators stress Baratynsky’s importance for later poets, mentioning others who wrote about him in the Silver Age or the late and post-Soviet periods. This impact lifts Baratynsky stature not only for his own work, but for his influence: he can enter the mainstream in this way even if his poems are not part of a canonical curriculum.
Grau has 267 pages of poetry (bilingual, so only half of that comprises the translations) and then 166 letters on 200 pages, without the originals. The book ends with an extensive section of notes, which include the bibliographic information a student or scholar will want, and then a helpful list of addressees of the letters and indices of titles and first lines (in English and in Russian). The bilingual presentation is appealing for students of Russian (and of translation from Russian). It’s always a question whether that proximity obliges the translator to stay close or frees the translator to fly, as the original text eases the need for semantic accuracy. Grau sticks very close to the meaning of the original, observes the original meter, and strives to rhyme as the original does, conscientiously observing feminine rhyme, with both exact and slant rhymes: “abundant”/“moment,” “risen”/“dozing,” etc. When he can’t formulate a rhyme, however, he refuses to play any further, sticking to semantic similarity. This can perplex the reader when a pattern that has been elegantly established is suddenly not observed. Is that worse than strictly maintaining rhyme but irritating a reader with poeticisms, or forcing rhymes regardless of stylistic impact, as Liberman does with “met ’er” and the like? I would argue that for a poet like Baratynsky, who sometimes offers the laddish clichés of his age and circle but at other times expresses more sophisticated and unusual ideas, the ideas are more essential. Let’s compare one stanza from a poem that both translators have rendered.
Есть что-то в ней, что красоты прекрасней,
Что говорит не с чувствами — с душой;
Есть что-то в ней над сердцем самовластней
Земной любви и прелести земной.
My slavish version (SF):
There’s something in her that is more splendid than beauty,
That speaks not with the feelings — [rather] with the soul;
There’s something in her more autocratic over the heart
Than earthly love and earthly charm.
There’s something in her more sublime than beauty,
which speaks not to the emotions, but the soul,
something that rules your heart more absolutely
than any earthly love or earthly charm.
There is some charm in her that’s more than charming:
It is the soul, not senses that it moves;
There’s something in her that is more disarming
Than earthly grace — the earthly form one loves.
Liberman’s version is cleaner in rhythm and offers full rhymes (though “moves”/“loves” is an “eye rhyme”); Grau manages a lovely slant with the feminine rhyme “beauty”/“absolutely” but gives up with “soul”/“charm” — placing these essential words precisely at the ends of those lines. Liberman gestures toward the shared root of the Russian “krasota” (“beauty”) and “prekrasnei” (“more wonderful”), but switches beauty to charm, a different quality and moreover one that is suggested by “prelest’” in the final line — a trait appealing but also potentially deceptive, and not as well rendered by “grace,” which besides smooth and elegant movement suggests a religious aspect that Liberman’s last line winds up denying. Liberman’s “more disarming” does rhyme perfectly, but it loses the sense of absolute rule that Grau picks up.
In sum, each translator offers splendid stanzas here and there, but hardly any splendid full poems. Liberman muddles the reader with stylistic clashes, willfully added concepts, or overabundant syntactic inversions; Grau surprises the reader when a pattern established for a stanza or two suddenly goes to hell because making it all fit would require changing the meaning. Perhaps as a native speaker of English, I find the first kind of disappointment more painful, as I can often quickly imagine ways to resolve the issue, but the second kind would hurt more for a reader thoroughly attuned to the joys of form.
Experienced readers and students of Russian poetry develop an almost Pavlovian response to its formal qualities: a well-placed enjambment in Brodsky can take your breath away. There is a significant community of these readers, including a number of impressive translators, who care very much indeed about Russian poetry and its reputation in other languages, and are therefore passionate about the quality of translations, both for their own reading pleasure and for the way they represent the poet and the tradition. Anglophone readers of poetry may be more likely to appreciate Grau’s translations, and his treatment of Baratynsky as a whole. Liberman’s will probably appeal more to Russian readers of English. It is wonderful that we have these two rich selections to choose from.