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Beyond Consolation

Joseph Brodsky, translated by Barry Rubin

Mme Mandelstam should be believed when she speaks of the moral degradation of mankind and says that this degradation is devoid of national character and is not determined by concrete political processes. To justify existence, I repeat, Russian literature has done more than any other, and if a Russian writer says today that we are all criminals, it pays to listen carefully. When a Russian refuses consolation, it means that things are bad, it means that there really is no consolation.

This is a book about how to live without consolation. Without consolation one can live only on love, memory, and culture. In the author’s consciousness these three categories are inseparable and are present as a single entity. Again, this will appear to be a Russian phenomenon, but I mean to say that for Russians such as Mme Mandelstam culture is not a category of the intellect or an object existing outwardly (an object of study or research), a historical or philosophical concept. Culture is a part of their “ego,” a physiological category, a characteristic as functional as their sex. Culture is their sex; it is the primary characteristic of their biological species, and hence their incompatibility with specimens of lower, or more often higher, species. A parallel with the struggle between the Christians and the barbarians is not yet appropriate for Russia. This is a struggle between species, but in contrast with Darwin (or developing Darwin in a direction opposite to his views) the species on the way to extinction, in the long run, is victorious. For its victory is the language created by it, which determines the life of the so-called “survivor” of the combat.

I would like to add that Homo sapiens is not enough. It is nothing to be proud of: we are all sapiens. Mme Mandelstam speaks of Homo culturus, if it may be put that way, and in her book she provides portraits of those people whose help made it possible to survive in a world without consolation and without justification. The more she loves them, the more sternly she judges them. These are the poets Akhmatova, Tsvetaeva, Khlebnikov, Pasternak, Gumilev; the writers Platonov, Bulgakov, Pilnyak, Zoshchenko, and others; the philosophers, living and dead, who by their presence—and now by their absence—determined and will determine the character of the nation, whether it wants this or not. There is no love without memory, no memory without culture, no culture without love. Therefore every poem is a fact of culture as well as an act of love and a flash of memory—and, I would add, of faith.

What I have said above simplifies the author’s theses, but this is inevitable in a review. What I should have done instead was to quote from her book; but then I would not know where to begin and where to end. In my opinion, this book will become no less a source of quotations than Aesop’s fables, for the aphoristic quality and the breadth of the author’s statements are extraordinary. Thanks to these very qualities her words have not suffered too much from translation. If this book does not become a bestseller, however, it will be for the same—or nearly the same—reason it could not be published in Russia: moral deafness, which will merely corroborate one of her beliefs—that human degradation knows no geography. There is only a difference of tempo, not of destination.

This book contains many Russian names and Russian realia that must seem to the American reader at best exotic, if not simply wearisome and superfluous. But I wish to repeat once more: Russian affairs are not only Russian affairs. Russia should not be viewed as a distant land; she is very close, even too close. The more indifferent the attitude toward her menacing lesson, the closer she is. In the end, America is a form of extension of space. If we do not believe in political isolationism, shall we then believe in ethical isolationism? A foreign language has a different phonetic set of synonyms, foreign names have a different phonetics of valor or baseness. In both cases they should be committed to memory.

Stylistically, the book is brilliant. Being a book of memoirs of a quite special kind—since Mme Mandelstam not so much reminisces as tries to fathom that which eludes understanding—Hope Abandoned is entirely devoid of elegiac tone. Mme Mandelstam’s phrasing is a blend, typical of Russian philosophical essay writing, of nineteenth-century polemical, didactic “advocate’s” eloquence and the neologisms and vulgarisms of colloquial speech. This mixture of literary language and everyday language (which in Russia, as everywhere else, are rather polar) gives the author’s voice an amazing lucidity. It seems to me that the translator, who was concerned with creating semantic rather than plastic equivalents (which is easily understandable, given the size of the work), used a kind of “neutral” English, a system of clichés, so to speak, non-existent in the author’s language.

The book is hardly likely to please young people who know more about Buddha than about Christ, or more about Guevara than about Solon. In the first place, they’ll be frightened away by the price (an unfortunate decision on the publishers’ part; of all books, this one should have been brought out in paperback). Businessmen warming their hands on détente and structuralist professors can afford the book, but they will not like it either. For it contains nothing false, no cheap appeasement, no pseudoscientific discoveries. Nor does it have any of those torrid bedroom scenes that have become a must in contemporary memoir writing. This book was written by a normal person who found in herself the strength to stay that way in a situation that was, to put it mildly, abnormal. There is an element of optimism in this: it is possible for a person not to submit to spiritual castration. If you do submit to it or, as frequently happens, go to it voluntarily, you find yourself shut up within the four walls of Time. And you start being tormented by claustrophobia.


These memoirs are ruthless: the author does not prettify anything or anyone, including herself. For this reason the book creates the impression one gets from photography, rather than from retrospection, which in turn makes it akin to Osip Mandelstam’s poetry. Had there not been the poet, there would not have been his widow or her books. In particular, there would not have been her remarkable essay “Mozart and Salieri” (issued as a separate book by Ardis Publishers, Ann Arbor, Michigan), which should be read by anyone who is at all interested in the psychology (and, in the case of this essay, the philosophy) of poetic creation. But most of all it should be read by the translators of Mandelstam whose books have just been published, and I would like to say a few words about them here.

Thanks to this essay and thanks to her two volumes of memoirs* the poet’s translators are in a uniquely comfortable position, one which can be compared only with the opportunity for physical contact. Mme Mandelstam presents an exhaustive picture of what is commonly called the poet’s “creative laboratory.” Consequently, the appearance of the present publications can be explained only by the translators’ unfamiliarity with her books.

Translation is a search for an equivalent, not for a substitute. Mandelstam is a formal poet in the highest sense of the word. For him a poem began with a sound, with a “sonorous molded shape of form,” as he himself called it. Logically, a translator should begin his work with a search for at least a metrical equivalent to the original form. Some translated poems indicate that the translators are aware of this. But the tension involved is too high, it excessively shackles individuality; calls for the use of an “instrument of poetry in our own time” are too strident—and the translators rush to find substitutes. This happens primarily because these translators are themselves poets and their own individuality is dearest of all to them. Their conception of individuality precludes the possibility of sacrifice, which from my point of view is the primary feature of mature individuality, and also the primary requirement of any (even technical) translation.

Saddest of all is that both Merwin and Raffel worked in collaboration with such specialists as Clarence Brown and Sidney Monas. Brown himself is the superb translator of Mandelstam’s prose (which, by the way, is the best Russian prose of this century) and the author of a monograph on Mandelstam unique in its quality (published by Cambridge University Press). Both Brown and Monas, however, yielded the “right of way” to the poets, the apparent effect of an academic inferiority complex in relation to “the poet.” This is especially sad in the case of Merwin, from whom more should have been expected than a translation of “Mandelstam into Merwin.” To have done more would have been of benefit above all to Merwin himself, since Mandelstam far surpasses Merwin both in the technical aspects of his poetry and in his purely ideational content. Indeed, when anything sensible does emerge from Merwin’s translations—as it does in “He Who Finds a Horse-shoe” (where the original is in free verse)—it is a result of Mandelstam’s superiority.

As for Raffel’s translations, it seems to me that Sidney Monas was quite right not to exert any pressure at all on them, because nothing could have saved Raffel. His book of translations is scandalous and even outrageous, and Monas made a mistake when he prefaced it with his quite sound essay—which only underscores the lack of talent and sloppiness of the translations.

If I do not offer many quotations here to justify my appraisal of Merwin, it is not for any lack of mistakes, which Clarence Brown in his preface so sardonically warns his academic colleagues not to seek. But for example take poem No. 394, first in Russian, then in Merwin’s translation, then in a stiff literal version:

K pustoi zemle nevol’no pripadaya
Neravnomernoi sladostnoi pokhodkoi,
Ona idet, chut’-chut’ operezhaya
Podrugu bystruyu i yunoshu- pogodka.
Ee vlechet stesnennaya svoboda
Odushevlyayushchego nedostatka,
I kazhetsya, chto yasnaya dogadka
V ee pokhodke khochet zaderzhat’sya—
O tom, chto eta veshnyaya pogoda
Dlya nas pramater’ grobovogo svoda,
I eto budet vechno nachinat’sya.

Est’ zhenshchiny syroi zemle rodnye,
I kazhdyi shag ikh—gulkoe rydan’e,
Soprovozhdat’ umershikh i vpervye
Prevetstvovat’ voskresshikh—ikh prizvan’e.
I laski trebovat’ u nikh prestupno,
I rasstavat’sya s nimi neposil’no.
Segodnya—angel, zavtra—cherv’ mogil’nyi,
A poslezavtra—tol’ko ochertan’e.
Chto bylo—postup’,—stanet nedostupno,
Tsvety bessmertny. Nebo tselokupno,
I to, chto budet—tol’ko obeshchan’e.
4 maya 1937. Voronezh
Limping like a clock on her left leg,
at the beloved gait, over the empty earth,
she keeps a little ahead of the quick girl,
her friend, and the young man almost her age.
What’s holding her back
drives her on.
What she must know is coming
drags at her foot. She must know
that under the air, this spring,
our mother earth is ready for us
and that it will go on like this forever.

There are women with the dampness of the earth in their veins.
Every step they take there’s a sobbing in a vault.
They were born to escort the dead, and be at the grave
first to greet those who rise again.
It would be terrible to want a caress from them
but to part with them is more than a man could do.
One day angel, next day the worm in the grave,
the day after that, a sketch.
What used to be within reach—out of reach.
Flowers never die. Heaven is whole.
But ahead of us we’ve only some- body’s word.
Voronezh. 4 May 1937
Toward the empty earth involun- tarily hitching
With an irregular, delectable gait,
She walks, just barely keeping ahead
Of her quick girl[friend] and the lad her age.
She is drawn on by the constricted freedom
Of her inspiriting handicap,
And it seems that the lucid surmise
In her gait wants to hold her back—
[the surmise] that this spring weather
Is for us the progenitress of the tomb’s vault,
And this will go on beginning eternally.

There are women who are akin to the damp earth,
And their every step is rever- berating sobbing;
To escort the dead and be first
To greet the resurrected is their calling.
And demanding caresses from them is criminal.
And parting with them is beyond one’s strength.
To day—an angel, tomorrow—a worm in the grave,
And the day after tomorrow—only an outline.
What was—the walk—becomes un- reachable.
Flowers are immortal. Heaven is whole.
And that which will be is only a promise.
May 4, 1937. Voronezh

Furthermore, Mandelstam’s poem is in regular iambic pentameter with regular feminine rhymes. And it is not, I repeat, a matter of mistakes which abound. The problem lies in the absence of sound. Mandelstam said of himself in “Fourth Prose”: “I alone in Russia work from the voice, while all around the unmitigated muck writes.” This was said with the fury and dignity of a poet who realized what the source of his creativity was. Meters in verse are kinds of spiritual magnitudes for which nothing can be substituted. They cannot even be replaced by each other, and especially not by free verse. I don’t mean that by rejecting meter in translation the translator commits sacrilege, but he is certainly deceiving the reader. In general, it seems to me that a specific system of coordinates must be created for poems written in free verse. This is a special genre of verbal art, like graphics in relation to painting. It is a genre with its own aesthetics. To apply to poems written in free verse the critical terminology that is applied to metrical poetry is to mislead both oneself and others.

Carolyn Kizer once said in jest that international legislation should be introduced to prohibit the translation of classical verse into free verse. The joke is rather bitter, for when a person begins dreaming of the police, things are bad. But something really should be done. Russian poetry does not deserve being treated like a poor relation. The technique used to translate from Russian ought to differ, at least visually, from the technique used to translate from Swahili and Urdu. Translation is hard, sweaty, nerve-racking work. It requires sacrifice or congeniality. Translators of Mandelstam should use the technique of the late Yeats (with whom he has much in common thematically as well). The trouble is that a person who can master such a technique (if such a person can be discovered at all) will prefer to write verse himself rather than rack his brains over translations, which don’t pay all that well besides.

A poem is the result of a certain necessity: it is inevitable, and so is its form. “Necessity,” as Nadezhda Mandelstam says in “Mozart and Salieri,” “is not a compulsion and is not the curse of determinism, but is a link between times, if the torch inherited from forebears has not been trampled.” Form too is noble, for it is hallowed and illumined by time. It is the vessel in which meaning is cast; they need each other and sanctify each other reciprocally—it is an association of soul and body. Break the vessel, and the liquid will leak out. What was done to Mandelstam by Merwin, and to an even greater extent by Raffel, is the product of profound moral and cultural ignorance.

I take the liberty of speaking in so sharp a tone because if this is not said everything will go on as before. Raffel, as far as I know, was commissioned to translate an entire series of twentieth-century Russian poets. He has already translated Gumilev and Mandelstam and (if he is not stopped) he will translate all the rest. People who treat originals the way he does in general should not be allowed within cannon range of an inkwell. I am not at all disturbed by the waste of paper or readers’ time and money, or even by the fact that this may have an impact on the prestige of Russian poetry (although it saddened me to hear the late W. H. Auden say that he didn’t understand why Osip Mandelstam is considered a great poet—“The translations I have seen,” he said, “don’t convince me of it”).

It is a matter not of prestige, but of plundering one’s own culture, the degradation of one’s own criteria, the avoidance of spiritual challenge. “OK,” the young American poet will conclude, “the same thing goes on with them over there in Russia.” But what goes on over there is not at all the same thing. Apart from her metaphors, Russian poetry has set an example of moral purity and firmness, which to no small degree has been reflected in the preservation of so-called classical form without any damage to content. Herein lies her distinction from her Western sisters, though in no way do I presume to judge whom this distinction favors most. However, it is a distinction, and if only for purely ethnographic considerations that quality ought to be preserved in translation and not forced into a common mold.

Today when we receive a postcard from abroad picturing a modern city, we cannot immediately tell whether it is Helsinki or Caracas. I regard any work with respect, even if poorly done, as long as it bears signs of serious labor. I have discovered little of this in Merwin’s translations and even less in Raffel’s. The most they did was a kind of tightrope walking, a juggling of words to fit them into the frame of decent-sounding English free verse. In these two publications one encounters an absolutely impersonal product, a sort of common denominator of modern verbal art. In the final analysis, I believe in bad translations: they stimulate the reader’s imagination, they provoke a desire to break through or abstract oneself from the text. In the case at hand, this possibility is practically ruled out: the translations bear the imprint of self-assured, insufferable stylistic provincialism; and the only optimistic remark I can make regarding them is that such a low quality of art is an unquestionable sign of a civilization extremely distant from decadence.

McDuff’s translations are more accurate than Raffel’s, but less plastic than Merwin’s. However, at such a low level no hierarchies exist. If I single out McDuff, I do so because he was not propped up by a Slavic scholar and worked at his own peril and risk. In his work, at least, one can see an element of subordination to the original, a serious attempt to preserve a maximum of its qualities. McDuff is concerned less with injecting his own plasticity. In some strange way this subordination is rewarded. In my opinion, in these somewhat dry translations, which create an impression of a rhythmized literal version, one senses more distinctly than in any of the others the essentially Christian spirit of Mandelstam’s poetry, and his ethnocentrist aesthetics.

I would also like to mention a cycle of translations done by Bernard Meares for the journal Modern Poetry in Translation published in London. (This is a remarkable journal, by the way, and regrettably not very well known in the US.) In spite of their uneven quality, one can hear Mandelstam’s real voice in these translations. The nervous, pure voice of his love, his memory, his culture, and his faith, waverable as a candle in the wind. Naturally, Meares has trouble with his rhymes (but then again, who doesn’t?); yet somehow one does not notice it.

At any rate, if all these translations are put together, one can get a somewhat cumbersome, diffuse image of Osip Mandelstam—which is quite natural in view of the gap in space and time separating his life from ours. He is, I would say, a modern Orpheus; sent to Hell, he never left it, while his widow dodged across a sixth of the earth’s surface, clutching a sauce pan with his songs rolled up inside, memorizing them by night in the event the sauce pan were found by the Furies during a search. These are our metamorphoses, our myths.

translated by Barry Rubin


Tongue-Tied May 16, 1974

Tongue-Tied May 16, 1974

  1. *

    The other is Hope Against Hope (Atheneum, 1970).

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