Poetry of Loss

Poets on Street Corners

by Olga Carlisle
Random House, 429 pp., $6.95

Russia’s Underground Poets

translated by Keith Bosley, translated by Dimitry Pospielovsky, translated by Janis Sapiets
Praeger, 92 pp., $4.95

The Italics Are Mine

by Nina Berberova, translated by Philippe Radly
Harcourt, Brace & World, 606 pp., $12.50

Fever and Other Poems

by Bella Akhmadulina, translated by Geoffrey Dutton, translated by Igor Mezhakoff-Koriakin
Morrow, 72 pp., $5.50

In his learned and delightful book about translation, The Lofty Art, Korney Chukovsky, speaking of an excellent Russian version of The Great Gatsby, remarks: “One reads it, rejoicing in every line and thinking gloomily: why is it that neither in the USA, nor in England, nor in France, has a single translator been found to translate with equally concentrated devotion and equal skill our Gogol, Lermontov, Griboydev, Krylov, Mayakovsky, Pasternak, Mandelshtam, Blok?” Why indeed? Perhaps because translation in the West is seldom considered an art, much less a “lofty” art, and translations are usually made for reasons that are not literary but, as Robert Lowell has said, because they are “news”: “Nine-tenths of the competent translations being done today in verse, to say nothing of the incompetent ones, are of no value except as news. They get the thing over for the moment and that’s very valuable, but there will be much better translations later on.” When he himself undertakes this kind of work—and he is outstanding in it—Lowell wants to produce good English poems; how else shall Pasternak or Mandelshtam be served, certainly not by “very bad, very uninspired English poetry?”

These comments come from “a dialogue” between Mr. Lowell and D. S. Carne-Ross, editor of Delos, A Journal on and of Translation, an authoritative publication which is the organ of The National Translation Center that has Mr. Lowell and also W. H. Auden on its distinguished board of directors—a sign perhaps that translation is coming to be taken seriously.

Mr. Lowell believes that it is impossible to carry a poem over in its entirety from one language to another, that only the meter of a foreign poem may be “had” but not its “sound effects,” which are not “transferable”; and this is why, when he collected his own versions of foreign poems, he called the volume not “Translations” but Imitations.” Mrs. Carlisle prefers “adaptations” and includes in Poets on Street Corners about twenty of Lowell’s:

Then only the hollow, smiling dead
dared to draw breath and sing;
by block and prisons, Leningrad
throbbed like a useless wing.

There convict regiments, miles long,
and mad with suffering,
heard engines hiss their marching song,
the cattle cars’ wheel-ring.

* * *

The dragging Don flows slow, so slow,
the orange moon climbs through a window.

Its hat is slanted on its brow,
the yellow moon has met a shadow.

This woman is alone,
no one will give the dog a bone.

Her husband’s killed, her son’s in prison;
Kyrie eleison!
* * *

For one month, five months, seventeen,
I called you back. I screamed
at the foot of the executioner.
You are my son, my fear.

Thoughts rush in circles through my head;
I can’t distinguish white from red,
who is a man, and who a beast,
or when your firing squad will rest.

Here there are only musty flowers,
old clock hands tramping out the hours,
old incense drifting from a censer,
and somewhere, boot steps …

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