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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 (cf. Vulpecula, a constellation). Instead of that the adaptor has “I want to run with the shiny blue foxes moving like dancers in the night,” which is not so much a pretty piece of pseudo-Russian fairytale as a foxtrot in Disneyland.

L. 13: Why does the adaptation read “there the Siberian river is glass”? Perhaps, because the techyot (flows) of the text gives tekla in the past tense, and its form stekla (flowed down) also happens to be the genitive case of steklo (glass)—a really outstanding howler, if my supposition is correct, and an inexplicable cliché, if it isn’t.

L. 14: pine, sosna: the adaptor has “fir tree,” another plant altogether. This is a mistake often committed on both sides of the Bering Strait (and condoned, I note, by Dr. Segal).

L. 16: “or slaver in the wolf trap’s steel jaw” (Lowell)—an ending that snaps as it were the very backbone of Mandelshtam’s poem.

I am well aware that my laborious literal reproduction of one of the masterpieces of Russian poetry is prevented by the rigor of fierce fidelity from parading as a good English poem; but I am also aware that it is true translation, albeit stiff and rhymeless, and that the adaptor’s good poem is nothing but a farrago of error and improvisation defacing the even better poem it faces in the anthology. When I think that the American college student of today, so docile, so trustful, so eager to be led to any bright hell by an eccentric teacher, will mistake that adaptation for a sample of Mandelshtam’s thought (“the poet compares the sheepskin sent him from abroad to the wolf hide he refuses to wear”), I cannot help feeling that despite the good intentions of adaptors something very like cruelty and deception is the inevitable result of their misguided labors.

Although some of the English versions in Miss Carlisle’s collection do their best to follow the text, all of them for some reason or other (perhaps in heroic protection of the main offender) are branded “adaptations.” What, then, is there especially adaptive or adaptational in an obvious travesty? This I wish to be told, this I wish to comprehend. “Adapted” to what? To the needs of an idiot audience? To the demands of good taste? To the level of one’s own genius? But one’s audience is the most varied and gifted in the world; no arbiter of genteel arts tells us what we can say or can’t say; and, as to genius, nowhere in those paraphrases is the height of fancy made to fuse with the depth of erudition, like a mountain orbed by its reflection in a lake—which at least would be some consolation. What we do have are crude imitations, with hops and flutters of irresponsible invention weighed down by the blunders of ignorance. If this kind of thing becomes an international fashion I can easily imagine Robert Lowell himself finding one of his best poems, whose charm is in its concise, delicate touches (“…splinters fall in sawdust from the aluminum-paint wall…wormwood…three pairs of glasses…leathery love”) adapted in some other country by some eminent, blissfully monolingual foreign poet, assisted by some American expatriate with a not too extensive vocabulary in any language. An outraged pedant, wishing to inform and defend our poet, might then translate the adaptation back into English (“…I saw dusty paint split and fall like aluminum stocks on Wall Street…six glasses of absinthe…the football of passion”). I wonder on whose side the victim would be.

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