Akhmatova etc. KunitzTransl. vs Original?:

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Akhmatova etc. KunitzTransl. vs Original?:

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Mar 21, 2014, 11:31am

34leialohaEdited: Yesterday, 11:21pm
Russian poetry is new to me, ridiculous to say, but for W. Bruce Lincolnʻs BETWEEN HEAVEN AND HELL, which is as scholarly as dramatic, it would have remained a total mystery. However, when speaking of poets whom I read only in translation, I give credit to the poet but ALSO to the translators without whom I would be totally ignorant. I always IMAGINE that IF the TRANSLATION is excellent (to me), so must the poet. But often, I am less certain, and change the grounds for doubting to -- literature exists for human communication of values for living, and accuracy is not necessarily the only worthy end although it is often the chief end to many scholars, especially of the old traditions and of those, traditions that are themselves dead except through historical transformations and adaptations. So, Stanley Kunitz and Max Haywardʻs translation, POEMS OF AKHMATOVA, is (to me) a stunning achievement. For their translation, I consider Akhmatova (regardless of some of the Stalinist criticsʻ view which I donʻt take as mere political put-downs necessarily) of the First Order.
Should that judgement be taken seriously, if I left out the parenthetical "to me"?
Are there guides to understanding what one has no proficiency in, linguistically, of poetry? Leave alone the worlds that travel with language: culture, history, psychology, etc.
To learn if other translations of Akhmatova justify her Premiere status in my mind, I bought Judith Hemschemeyerʻs THE COMPLETE POEMS OF ANNA AKHMATOVA. I concentrated on the early poems. I am not disappointed at all. But as POEMS, they have not the poetic brilliance of Kunitz and Hayward. What do I mean by that? The RHYTHMS of the DICTION, TEMPO, PACE, and POINT, a melodic line here, a contrapuntal there, cacophany every so often, alternations in the movement of each and over-all the surprises -- are extraordinary in Kunitzʻ hands. HOw close are they to AKHMATOVAʻs?
Should I worry that they may not be? I grew up in a household where three languages were spoken (Hawaiian, English, Chinese -- the English included Standard and Creole) and the usual three that graduate school required (French, German, and Latin); but that is no comfort. In poetry, depth is more important than breadth, I think, but breadth of cultures if only in one language is enormously important -- although I would not argue the point with my life. Why did T.S. Eliot, a man of numerous languages, in his essay "Tradition and the Individual Talent" say a person can really write in only one language? After the Bible and Shakespeare, he may be right -- but of Western languages, one may say. And then Perhaps?

What surprised me is the penetrating depth of emotion special to an hard, keen experience e.g. of the cold, when Akhmatovaʻs (translated) poem speaks of her standing outside a prison gate, e.g., for hours, waiting to be admitted so that she can see her son. She stands, like all the other waiting men and women (one of whom once recognized her in the crowd and called her out by name, which greatly moved her to write of it) -- she stands with them through the weariness and numbness of the hours, and notices that above them sparkled a glitter of Stars pin pricking a blanket of dead black hanging Night. Akhmatovaʻs life was under threat every hour, every day, for years --then. The earlier poems are of normal activities like going to bed "And, plaiting my braids tightly for the night,As if I must wear them tomorrow." (p.157) Or, thinking of her son in his prison cell for no reason but that he is her son and his father was Gumilev, a founder of the anti-symbolist poetry school ("Acmetist") --"The walls of his frosty cell are white" . . ."I shall go and stand in the doorway. ʻGive me back my kerchief! I shall say.ʻ" Tension in poems makes for drama; and Kunitz may have cherry-picked his way through the voluminous
numbers for the kind of precision diction and development that his own intensely intellectual poems again and again display of his mastery of form and execution, which he sustains
seemingly effortlessly. Kunitzʻs and Hemschemeyerʻs translations together are stirring reads of the dark and the light places in Akhmatovaʻs life.

I thought, perhaps, I think so highly of Kunitzʻs translation in part because Akhmatova lived under an intensely oppressive government which he understood like that of the tragedies in his own life -- his fatherʻs public suicide; his motherʻs unforgiving attitude toward it, and the cold drilling nature of her relationship to him, capped by his graduating from Harvard Summa Cum Laude but rejected for teaching there because he was a Jew. If Akhmatova had not lived, could he have written like her? No, his passion is masculine in a Marcus Aurelian perfectable way; Akhmatova is open to the vicissitudes of life. He would never had written her poems but he wrote equally good poems if impassioned abstractions that are close truths he shares. Borges said that English is a superb language because it openly admits non-English ideas and feelings inherent in other cultures and histories in a way not found in England and English speaking nation-states. I think the TRIUMPH of AKHMATOVA stems also from her understanding English, which the Russian-American Isaiah Berlin in his essay on meeting her says was amazing for her memorization although her pronunciation only allowed him to understand a few words here or there. Nevertheless, I do wonder if loving the translation is loving the original. Leibnitzʻs Monads come to mind every so often -- how we exist in our minds and see the outside through windows. May (not should) it be enough to accept a poet, a writer, on the merits only of translations? One may ask: who is to judge -- to whom is this "enough"?

Because Kunitz is a favourite poet of mine, I may be prejudiced, but from the view of an Actively Writing Poet, I do not really believe that. Most post-Modern poets are more novel than successful, with exceptions, across the board. Pierre Jorisʻ PAUL CELAN: SELECTIONS, W.S. Merwinʻs translations of Pablo Nerudaʻs TWENTY LOVE POEMS AND A SONG OF DESPAIR are other translations I would not like to live without. TRANSLATORS THEREFORE SHOULD BE GIVEN EQUAL STATUS TO WRITERS, and not only in academia. THEY ARE WRITERS BUT IN TWO LANGUAGES, comparatively, CROSSING TWO CULTURES AND THEIR HISTORIES.
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May 7, 2014, 8:49am

Thank you so much for your thoughtful post re Kunitz's translation. I share your feelings about the two translations and also am not able to read the original although I can sound it out.

I think Kunitz's translations are better because he is himself a very fine poet as is W.S. Merwin. The Celan and Neruda are also favorites of mine.

I tend to prefer the 'pony' type translations like the ones at the bottom of the Penguin books of foreign verse. In that way, you can see the ideas even though the rhymes, and rhythms are missing. In the languages I know - French, Spanish, German, Yiddish - the translations often change the meanings and move the ideas around so the form is changed. The attempt to make a good English poem of one in another language is a task that brings new readers to the foreign poets, but does not show clearly what they said or tried to say.

There is an interesting book called The Poem Itself which does the word by word translations with comments.

May 8, 2014, 11:59pm

Itʻs wonderful to find a Like Minded person sitting in the same row of the theatre. So, after reading of your preferences in the post, I looked at your profile page. That tells me a lot. Iʻd like to hear what you have to say about Matthiesen. Is this Peter? I loved his Dugum Dani, the most artfully written ethnography -- in that way even a better ethnography than Firthʻs, which I love. And Bulgakov! I was moved to write a review of the Master and Margarita after reading so many responses from Lters who missed the point completely, for reasons like "looking for a plot that made sense." Not that thatʻs nonsensical! But one would think, after getting into the thick of the "action," the gimmicks by the Devil would be enough to set up alarm bells about the whole being a "take off." And bitter, too, despite the outrageous humour. The more outrageous the humour, the more painful was Bulgakovʻs situation. I do NOT understand how he and Akhmatova, Tscetaeva, Mandelstam, Mayakovsky et al could have LIVED as long as they did. Anyway, I was so taken by the Silver Period poets as they are called, I wrote 9 poems in a collection centered on Akhmatova. And in ORDER TO GET RUSSIANS TO READ IT put them all into PoemHunter. I think that was a mistake (I think so today). PoemHunter operates liberally across the world but on a different line (high school mainly, perhaps). Well, Iʻm glad it exists -- poetry is a YOUNG PEOPLE"S ART, Iʻm beginning to think. I suppose itʻs the PROMISE it seems to hold -- like verbal faith, oral hope . . .Anyway, Iʻll be back to say a few more things later. And thank you for mentioning The Poem Itself. Will read it. Mahalo!

May 9, 2014, 12:06am

The other Matthiesen I absolutely love is O.F. Matthiesen -- the FINEST HUMANIST writer of the time.
Thereʻs a spirit that pervades his writing that is like distilled air. What said about American culture is so rare -- I mean the Clarity, the Reasonableness of his view, the LONG RANGE impact of the arts and sciences . . . well, I still am under his influence. It never occurred to me to ask if they are related. One stayed at Harvard, a scholar; the other went roaming the world. Brilliant! I think of him, often, when I thrash around for a kind of stand-in role model for critiqueing the American scene As A Humanist (are there many of them left? The ironic turn of mind thatʻs taken over doesnʻt leave much room for hopefulness and truthtelling without some down in the mouth negative spin. Well, itʻs been this way before, no doubt. But at times, "this world is too much with us."

Jun 3, 2014, 7:18am

#2 "In the languages I know - French, Spanish, German, Yiddish - the translations often change the meanings and move the ideas around so the form is changed. The attempt to make a good English poem of one in another language is a task that brings new readers to the foreign poets, but does not show clearly what they said or tried to say."

Yes, Iʻm sure this is it. Bingo.
1. The "form is changed" is a natural and/or logical outcome.
2. The "not show clearly what they said or tried to say" is whatʻs in contention for those who want "content" (agreeing that form is not transferrable).

So what is one responding to -- or who -- when the "translations" like Jorisʻ of Celan or Kunitz of Akhmatova are stunning, which they are? Clarence Brown says Merwinʻs translation into the poetic form (after his translation) of Mandelstam is a "Merwin Version."

What I find amazing is the metaphorical style in Merwinʻs translation. Mandelstamʻs poems written in 1936 are in the translation or version -- with late 20th and early 21st century style. I canʻt find my copy of Brown and Merwinʻs work of Mandelstam. I think itʻs the sentence structures that run metaphorically in very modern ways that are so wonderful as to be too wonderful without touching on possible doubt?

A different example is Merwinʻs translation of Pablo Neruda "20 Love Poems and A Song of Despair." It is a dual language book. I donʻt know Spanish but can make out key words and "fit" them to English (cognates?).

"He ido marcando con cruces de fuego/ el atlas blanco de tu cuerpo/ Mi boca era una arana que cruzaba escondiendose/ En ti, detras de ti,temerosa. sedienta. (accent marks not added because I donʻt know how to work the Spanish keyboard)."

I have gone marking the atlas of your body with crosses of fire/ My mouth went across: a spider. trying to hide. In you, behind you, timid, driven by thirst.

Without reference even to the original, the English expressions in metaphor "marking the atlas of your body" "with crosses of fire" -- are marvelous.

Roughly Line 1 (not knowing Spanish, I would have said), the original only says (to me): mark with crosses of fire.

Line 2 mentions white atlas of your body (I think).

The ideas (as you say) are grouped differently in the sentences. But they are quite accurate otherwise.

So this is truly a translation.

There is no dating of this particular poem. But the sentences are normal, seem normal except that parts are left out, in the English, as in the PERIODS that end all the "clauses" of the first stanza.

It is believable that even if the dates between the original and the translation was many decades, there is not the doubt that I sense (perhaps wrongly) in the Mandelstam original (which I also do NOT read and canʻt guess about) translated by 1. Brown for content and 2. Merwin for poetry translation.
The translation seems very avant garde.

Yet what of Celan? I read some German. The translation by Joris is rich, but is it Celan? Celan seems to have jumped over a chasm. His sentences in the English translation/version are very, very contemporary late 20th c. So am I really reading JORIS or CELAN when reading a poem originally written by Celan?

Itʻs caused me to press for the mention of the translatorʻs name along WITH that of the author, in different way from that of Merwinʻs translation of Nerudaʻs 20 Love Poems.

Some scholarly translations of terms are excellent but then one might just as well read the poem in prose translation. Why do we not?