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Battle over Translation

In response to:

Poet of Sacrifice from the April 15, 1982 issue

To the Editors:

About a year ago I had a fairly lengthy exchange of letters with your reviewer David McDuff over precisely the same translational issues he addresses in his review of Selected Poems of Marina Tsvetayeva, translated by Elaine Feinstein [NYR, April 15]. My professional conscience compels me now to object to certain more or less categorical assertions contained in an otherwise sensitive, elegant and thoughtful review, and incidentally to defend a translator whom Mr. McDuff excoriates quite unfairly.

Of course, he doesn’t know he is being unfair. He is, as is clear from his article, a man of principle, a believer in the sanctity of the word and, as far as poetry is concerned, in the sanctity of form. He is, in short, a follower of Joseph Brodsky, whose views on the translation of the great modern Russian masters have been widely disseminated, and it is for this reason as much as any that I feel it necessary to at least suggest an alternative approach to the absolutist one proposed by McDuff, alias Brodsky.

Every translator must seek to apprehend the orginal text both in detail and as a whole, that is analytically and synthetically, since translation is (as has been often pointed out) a form of active or intensive reading and interpretation, the highest form of criticism, Pound called it. The translator who ignores or fails to observe essential features or elements of the original hardly deserves the name of translator. However, translation also inevitably involves compromise. It is mediation between linguistic systems with different histories and with differing modi operandi. I have not the time now to present an analysis of Elaine Feinstein’s “reading” of Tsvetayeva, to set it alongside what we know of the original, and try to draw a balance. But to dismiss her on the grounds that “There is no evidence…that she has made even the slightest attempt in this direction,” the direction being Brodsky’s description of Tsvetayeva as being something like a “combination of Hart Crane and Hopkins,” is—I know for a fact—entirely unfair and also quite arrogant. Why doesn’t Mr. McDuff simply say he doesn’t like these versions and he would translate, or attempt to translate, Tsvetayeva differently?

It is the absolutist, normative approach that I personally find objectionable and even impertinent. When Mr. McDuff “insists” that translations of Tsvetayeva “must make at least some gesture in the direction of the formal and prosodic qualities of the original,” I would simply like to ask him, what right does he have to insist? Is he so naïve as to believe that a poet and translator as conscientious and experienced as Elaine Feinstein ignored these elements? It is not just that he, Mr. McDuff, fails to recognize techniques other than those of traditional, unambiguous, formal imitation, just as his mentor, Joseph Brodsky, for example often fails to “hear” part or half rhymes in English translations of his work, though there is no disputing his mastery of Russian prosody. Translation is far too complex an art anyway for it to be laid under the kind of simplistic restraints advocated by Mr. McDuff. It is a bigger house than you perhaps have dreamed of, David!

There is no reason why Mr. McDuff should not try to represent the complex rhymes, assonances, dissonances of Tsvetayeva as well as her regular metre, but he should not so high-handedly dismiss an approach, basing itself perfectly defensibly on the premise that to seek to mimic this in English would, for very specific reasons which I cannot go into now, risk placing the English version under a far greater linguistic strain than the Russian original, with all kinds of dire consequences. This is not to say that the kind of closeness that Mr. McDuff advocates is always impossible; only that his absolutist demands are not so much idealistic as unrealistic and, as I have suggested, curiously arrogant. I would go so far as to propose that the brief illustration he gives, with regard to two punning lines of Tsvetayeva’s and his solution, shows the dangers of this textual exclusivism. “Wounded in the anima,” indeed! Cannot the faithful Mr. McDuff see what he might be sacrificing in such an exchange!

I fear this battle has been going on for centuries, at least since the celebrated exchange between Saints Jerome and Augustine, with regard to the former’s translation of “God’s Word”! I would not have sat down at my typewriter now to write this, had I not felt that the appearance of this article in a magazine as widely distributed as yours called for a word from the “other side.”

Daniel Weissbort

University of Iowa

Iowa City, Iowa

David McDuff replies:

I feel that Mr. Weissbort’s professional conscience may have obscured his view of my piece as a whole. His comments are restricted to its final paragraphs, and he seems to ignore its central thesis: that Tsvetayeva, like Rilke, is a poet in whose work form and content are unified to a degree where a new “greatness” is attained: the “overcoming of art through art” (the terms in quotation marks are Rudolf Kassner’s).

With this thesis in mind, I set about my consideration of Elaine Feinstein’s Tsvetayeva versions. I stated that in my opinion these versions could not do much to bring us near an understanding of Tsvetayeva’s poetry because nowhere in them does this translator confront the formal and compositional principles of Tsvetayeva’s poetic art. Instead, we are given an arbitrarily conceived “impression of form,” consisting of not much more than a regular spacing of lines of the printed page. “Perhaps the exact metres could not be kept, but some sense of [Tsvetayeva’s] shapeliness, as well as her roughness, had to survive,” writes Ms. Feinstein in her introduction. Such an approach seems to me invalid: it strikes at the heart of Tsvetayeva’s aesthetics, which are based upon an equivalence of formal means and metaphysical reality. Rhyme and rhythm are all-important in Tsvetayeva’s poetic universe—they are what holds it together. In my view, no translator has the “right” (I use inverted commas, since in art democratic principles don’t apply) to traduce the central value of these formal elements of Tsvetayeva’s work. Ms. Feinstein’s substitution of her own aesthetics for those of Tsvetayeva seems to me such a betrayal.

Mr. Weissbort’s charge of absolutism is doubtless quite justified; on the other hand, I can’t see how one can justify a non-absolutist approach to the translation of a poet as firmly entrenched in the absolute as Tsvetayeva. Tsvetayeva’s poetry is so difficult to translate precisely because it makes such overwhelming demands on the reader (and the translator) at both the formal and the spiritual levels—the two elide, in fact. A translation that bypasses the formal aspects of Tsvetayeva’s art in the way in which Ms.Feinstein’s does compromises its spiritual and metaphysical pedigree. The “poetry” in which Ms.Feinstein has reclothed Tsvetayeva is so alien to, so far removed from, the formal-cultural attributes of Tsvetayeva’s own that it can only be, I believe, a distortion of Tsvetayeva—and in that sense it is only a deception, an illusion (Ms.Feinstein cannot, after all, read Tsvetayeva’s original—she is cut off from the source of reality in a way in which no translator of Tsvetayeva can afford to be.)

The kind of Tsvetayeva translation I would advocate is not the substitution of one “poetry” for another (an aspiration which in the case of Tsvetayeva must inevitably be a vain one, since Tsvetayeva’s spiritual and artistic absolutism admits of only one poetry—her own), but rather the attempt to give some sense, using traditional techniques of rhyme and meter, of how Tsvetayeva might have sounded and read had she written in English. An attempt, merely, popytka—the term so beloved of Tsvetayeva herself. Such an approach, while acknowledging the absolute supremacy of Tsvetayeva’s original, makes it possible for us to judge at least something of how near to—or how far from—Tsvetayeva we stand as English or American readers of the late twentieth century. I should like to see the appearance of several versions, by different hands, based on this approach. Ms. Feinstein’s versions can’t give us the discretion, the distance we need, because in them Tsvetayeva has been too thoroughly assimilated into a poetic idiom not hers, but ours—and so she has vanished from view.

To conclude, two points: a) The “animal” “anima” wordplay so disliked by Mr.Weissbort was not suggested by me as an actual translation of the passage concerned. What I wrote was: “A conscientious translator might attempt to make some play with two similarly related English words….” “Animal” and “anima” were only intended as pointers to what sort of words those might be. b) Mr.Weissbort makes reference to something he calls “the other side.” Might I suggest to him that, where art is concerned, there are no sides?

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