“August,” a Russian émigré poet explained to me, “is a man in Russian language,” “so when you say in your poem ‘The housemaid, August’….” He groaned. In Russian, the months have gender. Nouns have masculine or feminine endings, but unless they are personified, the months are simply nouns. Of course, in the pastoral tradition there were traditional personifications for the months. May was feminine, a white girl in a white dress in a meadow of white flowers; June vibrated with the furled thunder of the rose, with the opening hearts of its lovers; December was a hoary, icicle-bearded ancient. But these personifications were a calendar’s images, and not grammar. If August, in Russian, was a man, what was he to this exiled poet? A wheat-haired worker with a pitchfork on a revolutionary poster?
I had seen August as a housemaid-cook, her ebony head in a white kerchief as she whipped sheets from a clothesline in a house near the sea, the way that storms, in the hurricane month, whip sails from the Caribbean horizon. In the rasp of the month’s sound there was the rustle of dry grass as well as the gusting of laundry and the sibilance of surf, but if the English word were to shift its shadow to the Russian landscape, to its imagined summer, I could personify it as either man or woman. August, the man, could have been one of those bored, idle intellectuals in Chekhov’s plays, with a voice as lulling and finally as soporific as its leaves, but August was also Nina, in The Seagull, a girl like a cabbage-white butterfly attaching herself to Trigorin’s elbow, by a stunned lake. It was impossible for me to understand Mikhail’s anguish or ex-asperation over the name of a month, but it is one of the desolations that accompany translation.
Joseph Brodsky’s new volume, To Urania, protracts this challenge line by line, phrase by phrase, syllable by syllable. Of course every conscientious translator endures this challenge, but one feels that Brodsky wishes the book to be read as English verse, not as translated Russian. This has its difficulties, its knots, but one is grateful that the knots are there, that the rough nap of the lines is not smoothed over by the flatiron of an even English diction, that kind of fatal leveling that has so often made his compatriots, Pasternak and Tsvetayeva, and even as tough a poet as Mandelstam, acquire in translation the sheen and gloss of greeting cards. The kind of translation that turns Doctor Zhivago into Omar Sharif.
The month of stalled pendulums. Only a fly in August
in a dry carafe’s throat is droning its busy hymn.
This is from Brodsky’s Roman Elegies II, in his own translation. The fly, of course, is not “in” August, but August itself. The insect personifies the month, but it does so without gender. In English the sound is androgynous, the sex of the housefly, unlike that …