Working with the Russian poet Ilya Kutik on translations of modern and contemporary Russian poems, I am almost always struck by how impossible it seems to say in English what can be said in Russian in such a way that the English words have enough weight, enough energy in them, and enough connection to each other by all poetic means, to begin to convey that quality of “poemness” (in one form or another of its many possibilities) that we want. (Ilya holds that anything that can be said in a poem in English can indeed be said in Russian, but I can’t help doubting this–if only out of respect for my own beloved English, which to me seems so wonderfully capable of expressive variety and depth–but then, what else could I feel?) And I have wondered if this divide isn’t finally something with which, finally, I am content. Why should I or anyone be content with it, since that kind of contentment is only likely to lead to laziness in translation?
A few days ago we were working on a short poem by Victor Krivulin (1944-2001).
As Ilya often does, he told me again several times as I suggested alternatives for one phrase or another that I was explaining too much. The Russian poet and reader, he told me again, understand each other without all the concreteness. I, however, was looking at lines that seemed too… made-up in English because the movement from metaphor to metaphor was too abstract, insufficiently anchored in the sensuous, perceptible world, and the metaphors seemed mixed.
There’s nothing universal about an aversion to mixed metaphors. Mine, I know, is simply an alertness I acquired because I was socialized, as a poet, in the realm of English and American poetry, which means that my mind is entirely Englished. And I try to un-English myself often–I have been translating poems for many years, from Romance languages and from ancient Greek, and this impulse of mine has probably been an attempt to see language and poetry from different angles. And I’m well aware of the translation theorists, including Walter Benjamin in his famous and very elusive essay, “The Task of the Translator,” who have argued that the most desirable way of translating is to move the reader close to the original language and text, and let the translation sound awkward, rather than bringing the source language and text closer to the reader to make it more comprehensible in already existing ways of saying things, in already existing literary modes and and already familiar devices.
But what if moving the reader closer to the source language and source poet’s way of writing produces lines in English that just seem… bad?
I can illustrate with our current version of Krivulin’s poem in the voice of Oedipus, who, according to Ilya, in this poem speaks at the moment when he has come upon the Sphinx, and yet at the same time already senses that he will defeat it, and that the power that will come to him because he has succeeded in doing this may be dangerous. I take my counsel from Ilya, since I cannot read Russian and since I was not formed as a reader within the context of how the Russian language works and what poetry can do in Russian. None of this information is explicit in the poem, though; it is available by deep inference in the Russian text, and scarcely at all, I think, in the English text—not only because it cannot be implied so clearly, or rather doesn’t even need to be implied clearly, but also because readers of the translation are very unlikely to realize that they need to listen for so many subtle implications as a matter of course, in the midst of all our American poems for Dick and Jane. (I am referring here mostly to bad American poetry, and not even to all of it, since there are also bad American poems that have no implications but only seem to need them, desperately, and deliberate work without creating them. But I won’t go any further in those directions, right now.)
Now that I have already explained everything, I’ll offer these lines of Krivulin doing his version of the voice of Oedipus in English, according to Kutik and Gibbons:
I see the boulders and silver mines of sleeping power
Tectonics of dreaming in plates and pleats
Beast-furred slopes of fallen stones and scree
And the violet shouting of burdock
That was pounded into steep ravines
We infer that this is the landscape around Thebes, as Oedipus approaches. This Greek Sphinx was a supernatural (but evidently not immortal) creature of the mythical age of heroes (who themselves had died off, even though the gods themselves were still alive, by the time Oedipus the King was written by Sophocles, perhaps around 420 BCE). She (the Greek noun is feminine) is understood from the main mythological sources, including the play itself, to have been waiting along the presumably narrow road into Thebes, with her back to a precipice, and of each young man who approached, she required the answer to a riddle that she posed. Those who could not solve the riddle—that is, everyone until the arrival of Oedipus—she ate. (Here I go, explaining again–just the thing that makes Ilya so understandably impatient with me.) The Greek Sphinx had a woman’s head and breasts, no arms but rather two eagle wings, and the body of a lion.
Here is another ancient representation of her:
The literal images of this first stanza are clear enough in English, I think, but inevitably, compared to the Russian words and lines, they must suggest and fail to suggest a very different cloud of connotations, colorations, specificities and abstractions in English.
Krivulin avoids punctuation so for now Ilya and I are leaving almost all of it out, too. And here comes the Sphinx—or rather, she is presumably still, waiting, but as Oedipus draws near, her shadow seems to rush at him while at the same time it crawls (perhaps this means that it stays on the surface of the ground or nearby rocks). Keep in mind that my purpose in detailing all of this is only to illustrate my own failings of imagination, and nothing about either Krivulin or Kutik. The word-for-word version of the second and last stanza that Ilya had prepared for our work session reads like this:
I see—and cannot move
Up crawls—has rushed after me—clouding over me
Burning shadow of Sphinx, rough and with jagged edge
Is it indeed just a precipice–
This unsayable thought of grandeur?
So far, we have done this with it:
I see… and cannot move
Crawling rushing the fiery shadow of the Sphinx
Rough and rough-edged clouds me over–
Is the inexpressible thought of great power
Allow for other possible synonyms for the Russian words that are invisible here—so that for example, “grandeur” becomes, as Ilya and I talk about the poem, the idea of “great power,” since the Russian word, Ilya tells me, suggests the grandeur, if we are to acknowledge it neutrally, of the figure of a king. But after I say that to my ear “grandeur” can also have a note of skepticism in it when it is used ironically, Ilya and I choose to represent the Russian word more neutrally as “great power.” So in fact our version, up above, is still very close to the meaning of the Russian, as I understand the latter, even though it would seem to me that in English it has much less linguistic energy and much less poetic rightness (for lack of a better word).
Amidst a somewhat romanticized or mythologized landscape—dramatically craggy, arid, hot, and animated by qualities associated with ambulatory living creatures rather than with mountain slopes and plants (“dreaming… beast-furred… shouting”), Oedipus confronts his own intuition that it might not be a good thing to have solved the famous riddle and thus caused the infamous Sphinx in a fury at herself to have thrown herself off the precipice behind her to her death (this is what the myth says, so the eagle wings did not suffice to save her, if she had second thoughts once she was falling). As Oedipus says in Sophocles’ tragedy, he defeated her not with his physical prowess and weapons (as the other mythological Greek heroes did when facing their monsters) but with his mind. And already, as Krivulin sees it, the mind of Oedipus is inching ahead from his present triumph to the danger ahead. Yet all readers of the play know that the dangers ahead have to do with Oedipus’s inability to know what he needs to know about himself, and act accordingly, so as to have avoided what awaits him in Thebes.
So here we have a poem which, with the benefit of explanations, makes sense, and with the benefit of two poets’ deliberations, isn’t dull. And yet English can’t fit it like a second skin, any more than it can fit almost any translated poem. To me, this translation seems “poetic” rather than having the inner strength I’d like it to have. Of course I don’t dislike English on account of this. In some ways I relish English even more, for the things it does do–such as all those chewy descriptive words in the first stanza. But the poem needs even more explanations than the ones I have spelled out–such as that the obliqueness of the visual images and the narrative itself (not the Sphinx herself, but her shadow; not the contest with the Sphinx, but an anticipation and an aftermath all at once) are part of the exhilarating poetic effect of the Russian poem in a way that is very unfamiliar to us. And having moved the English-language version over near that obliqueness, as some theorists believe we should, have Ilya and I succeeded in creating an effect that refreshes the possibilities of poetry in English?