Translating Akhmatova

Poems of Akhmatova

selected, translated, and introduced by Stanley Kunitz and Max Hayward
Atlantic-Little, Brown, 174 pp., $3.95 (paper)

Anna Akhmatova
Anna Akhmatova; drawing by David Levine

Russian poetry has not been lucky with its translations into English. It has been so unlucky that it may seem that the problem is in the Russian language itself—a synthetic, too flexible language which cannot be reproduced adequately in analytic English with its “iron word-order.” Successful translations are rare.

Usually translations are done by American (or English) poets, who generally do not know Russian, or by Slavic scholars, who have extremely vague conceptions of poetic technique. Since the results in both cases are most often lamentable, working in tandem has become popular of late—i.e., co-operation between a poet and a Slavist. This collection of Akhmatova’s poems is an example of the tandem method.

Apart from theoretical and other obvious virtues, the tandem technique is also convenient because in case of failure it is generally impossible to know whom to blame—did the scholar misunderstand the text, or did the poet misunderstand the scholar? The unpleasant aspect of such cooperation is that one is forced to criticize two people at once. On the other hand, it is easier for two people to bear the criticism than one. A fact on which I very much rely as I compose this review.

For most American poets, translating from Russian is nothing but an “ego trip.” To some extent any translation, even of a scholarly text, is an ego trip; but in the case of poetry it is even considered that there is a good reason for this. Above all this is because contemporary Russian poets use a technique which seems archaic to their American colleagues. It is not just shameful for a contemporary American poet to use rhymes, it is unthinkable. It seems banal to him; he fears banality worse than anything, and therefore he uses free verse—though free verse is no guarantee against banality. (Incidentally, the quantity of free verse written today must be equal to the total of everything written in traditional forms during the last millennium.)

When we see “free verse,” we should first of all determine what it is “free” from. Most often we do not determine this, but simply suppose it is something phonetically and graphically opposite to traditional verse. It is also presupposed that every poet has gone over this road (enslavement by traditional verse and then liberation from it), as if recapitulating in miniature the historical process. Therefore there is seeming reason to expect that when any poet undertakes a translation, he is capable of using the techniques created in the original.

In fact, things do not turn out quite that way. As a rule the historical process is not recapitulated in miniature, or it is recapitulated to such a minimal degree that the poet is simply incapable of operating within traditional metrical verse. It makes absolutely no difference what heights he has achieved with his free verse technique. What matters is that he does not possess…

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