On Adaptation

Here is a literal translation of a great poem by Mandelshtam (note the correct form of his name), which appears in the original Russian on pp. 142 and 144 of Olga Carlisle’s anthology, Poets on Street Corners (Random House, New York, 1968). It consists of sixteen, tetrametric (odd) and trimetric (even), anapaestic lines with a masculine rhyme scheme bcbc.

1 For the sake of the resonant valor of ages to come,
for the sake of a high race of men,
I forfeited a bowl at my fathers’ feast,
4 and merriment, and my honor.

On my shoulders there pounces the wolfhound age,
but no wolf by blood am I;
better, like a fur cap, thrust me into the sleeve
8 of the warmly fur-coated Siberian steppes,

—so that I may not see the coward, the bit of soft muck,
the bloody bones on the wheel,
so that all night the blue-fox furs may blaze
12 for me in their pristine beauty.

Lead me into the night where the Enisey flows,
and the pine reaches up to the star,
because no wolf by blood am I,
16 and injustice has twisted my mouth.

A number of details in the text are ambiguous (for example, the word translated as “coward” is an homonym of the old Russian trus, meaning “upheaval,” and the word translated as “injustice” has also the meaning of “falsehood”), but I will limit myself to discussing some of the quite unambiguous passages misinterpreted, or otherwise mangled, by Robert Lowell in his “adaptation” on pp. 143 and 145 of the same collection.

L. 1: resonant valor, gremuchaya doblest’ (nom.): Mandelshtam improves here on the stock phrase “ringing glory” (gremyashchaya slava). Mr. Lowell renders this as “foreboding nobility,” which is meaningless, both as translation and adaptation, and can be only explained by assuming that he worked out an ominous meaning from the “rumbling” improperly given under gremuchiy by some unhelpful informer, e.g., Louis Segal, M.A., Ph.D. (Econ.), D.Phil., compiler of a Russian-English dictionary.

L. 5: wolfhound, volkodav: lexically “wolf-crusher,” “wolf-strangler”; this dog gets transformed by Mr. Lowell into a “cutthroat wolf,” another miracle of misinformation, mistransfiguration and misadaptation.

L. 6: “wear the hide of a wolf” (Lowell) would mean to impersonate a wolf which is not at all the sense here.

L. 8: actually “of the Siberian prairie’s hot fur coat,” zharkoy shubi’ sibirskih stepey. The rich heavy pelisse, to which Russia’s Wild East is likened by the poet (this being the very blazon of its faunal opulence) is demoted by the adaptor to a “sheepskin” which is “shipped to the steppes” with the poet in its sleeve. Besides being absurd in itself, this singular importation totally destroys the imagery of the composition. And a poet’s imagery is a sacred, unassailable thing.

Lines 11-12: the magnificent metaphor of L. 8 now culminates in a vision of the arctic starlight overhead, emblemized by the splendor of gray-blue furs, with a suggestion of astronomical heraldry …

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