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Tongue-Tied

In response to:

Beyond Consolation from the February 7, 1974 issue

To the Editors:

Joseph Brodsky’s strictures against the recent translations of Mandelstam (NYR, February 7) pose a serious problem, however just they may be in the present instances. If he maintains that McDuff’s translations are better than Merwin’s, then he has no answer to Auden (whose doubts about Mandelstam’s stature he quotes: “the translations I have seen don’t convince me of it”). For the reader who cannot read Russian, any comparison between translations must be on the basis of English poetry alone—and Merwin’s are better poems in English than McDuff’s. Brodsky sees in McDuff’s texts a more accurate reflection of the forms and sounds of Mandelstam—forms and sounds that are a part of the furniture of Brodsky’s mind—so he cannot but think that they are “better” translations. But this is not automatically the case. Rhyme and meter are no longer constraints of poetry in America; we identify poetry in other ways. If Brodsky wants to persuade us that Mandelstam is a great poet, we must first be able to recognize the translation as poetry in our own tradition—where lack of “form” is now a rigorous formal principle. Only then comes the question of whether this poetry reflects Mandelstam’s own. This is indeed a problem in the case of these collaborative translations; all we can do is accept—I suppose on faith—the word of the associated scholar that the translations are somehow true. Here, of course, Brodsky is totally and indisputably right: to translate truly one must know the two languages involved, and most importantly, abandon one’s own voice entirely to the voice of that other; a kind of Sybilline effect is what’s wanted. And that requires the breath of the god—as well as a lot of nerve-wracking work. I share Brodsky’s frustration—but as an American, I accept the limitation, and as a translator I accept the challenge.

Paul Schmidt

Department of Slavic Languages,

The University of Texas,

Austin, Texas

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