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Tongue-Tied

In response to:

Beyond Consolation from the February 7, 1974 issue

To the Editors:

If it does no good for Mr. Brodsky, to point out the utterly uninformed and indeed incompetent stances from which he approaches the translation of Russian poetry, it may at least alert your readers to some of the problems involved. I will use summary statement; these things can be said quickly.

  1. Russian poets (like Mr. Brodsky) use what poets in the West would characterize as deeply traditional metrics and forms.

  2. Russian poets (like Mr. Brodsky) have long tended to feel—although linguistic facts directly contradict them—that translations of poetry must reproduce the metrical and formal effects of the original.

  3. Translations are made for people who cannot read the originals; contrariwise, people who can read the originals are usually not only unlikely to read translations, they are equally unlikely to be able to read them. (See the chapter “How to Read a Translation,” in B. Raffel, The Forked Tongue: A Study of the Translation Process.)

  4. People whose reviews of a work in English (like mine) have to be written in Russian and then translated into English (like Brodsky’s) are not likely to be the best guides to what is and what is not valid poetry in English. This is important and needs a bit of emphasis: it is the farthest thing from accidental that Brodsky much prefers what he himself labels bad translations. Of course: they sound much more like the Russian which is what he has always in his head and which alone he can really hear.

  5. Since the distaste which Brodsky feels for my translations matches that of another Slavicist, Simon Karlinsky, and since Brodsky translates into Russian and Karlinsky into English, I think it not unfair to close by juxtaposing a verse of Marina Tsvetaeva’s, rendered by Karlinsky, against a very brief poem of Mandelstam, rendered by me. (The alert reader of Brodsky’s review will already have noticed that Brodsky quotes not a single line of my versions.) Karlinsky:

Take courage then, O heart!
Take courage and hope!
The heavenly vault is riven!
Aquiver with    swarms

Raffel:

Tartars, Uzbecks, Samoyeds,
all the Ukrainians,
even the Volga Germans
are waiting for their translators.

And maybe this very minute
some Japanese is translating
me into Turkish
and has reached the depths of my soul.
Burton Raffel

Toronto, Ontario

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