On Losing Your (Carrara) Marbles: a Note on Tsvetaeva in English

I have started translating Tsvetaeva because — with some exceptions— current translations irritate me, and for largely the same reasons that most of Dante's translators irritate me.

They do not turn her into a bad poet, and usually get something at least okay out of her.

Pasternak can easily sound like bad Tennyson if the translator is not careful. Pushkin easily comes across as a trite repository of second-hand ideas and clichés (which, to be fair, he sometimes was in his interpersonal life though not his art).

But it would take serious effort, seriously inverted talent, or serious risk of the kind translators seldom take, in order to make Tsvetaeva or Mandelshtam into consistently bad verse. Tsvetaeva's poetic thinking is often dense, image-laden in precisely the right way to supply the requisite combination of formulaic oddity and paired-down rhetoric that modern English-speaking literary elites expect.

This is a problem, because it invites the translator — and therefore the reader — to enjoy the comfort zone. It is all even. Like a literal translation of the expression все равно. English translators of Tsvetaeva are less creative and/or more timid than they could be, than Tsvetaeva. It would be a cliché — and, worse still, untrue — to say that they water her wine down. But they add more than a spoonful of sugar to make her medicine go down in the most unsleightful way. And unlike airborn English nannies, they don't usually like doing it musically. They sacrifice Tsvetaeva's linguistic sensibility for one that is acceptable to English-speakers reading a poem (especially in translation where there is higher atmospheric pressure to be, in one or another sense, "normal.")

Imagine the great Sylvie Laplatte's poem "Father" began thus in English translation:

You are not suited, you are not suited 
To me any longer, black shoe 
Where I've lived like a foot   
For thirty years, poor and white,   
Hardly daring to take a breath or sneeze.

Two widely-praised translations, very different from each other, have the same basic problem. Elaine Feinstein cuts Tsvetaeva's music down by more than a meter, smooths out her abruptness, and turns her into very competent free verse. David McDuff, translating with a lot of rhyme and reason, produces some stiffness in his versions, to be sure, but that's not much of a problem. Tsvetaeva could be stiff. But he runs flatfoot over her polysemy, her wordplayfulness, her sense of the game, as well as her shifts of mood and tone. Removed in both cases are any linguistic eccentricities that are irreconcilable with how English-readers have been indoctrinated conditioned to think modern poetry should sound.

Content to take the English language as they find it, translators allow and even encourage their Tsvetaeva-clones grow into a genteel poetessa of sorts. They may be suited to the taste. But they do not do, they do not do.

Tsvetaeva was not content to take the Russian language as she found it. She did things that were not merely odd but weird. She wasn't setting out to to rock boats, to be sure. But she did helm a boat that really rocks. What she wanted to do led her to push the limits of poetic language, sometimes almost to the breaking point. Her poetry is full of double and quintuple entendres. She sometimes coins words, and uses existing ones in odd ways. Take the lines from "Jealousy Attempt"

Как живется вам с простою
Женщиною? Без божеств?
Государыню с престола
Свергши (с оного сошед),

(How's life going with a simple woman? Without godhead? Having overthrown your empress from the throne — and having thence stepped down —)

The prose paraphrase does not convey a few things. It cannot convey that "without godhead" is an allusion to Pushkin. It also does not convey the fact that the third and fourth of these lines use a highly archaic style reminiscent of the high court poetry of two hundred years earlier. Nobody speaks (or writes) with words like оного. On the other hand "Как живется" is colloquial and informal. You'd talk to friends your own age like that, but not your boss.

Tsvetaeva's vocabulary ranges from the bookish almost to the backstreet. She has no compunction about mixing the archaic register of 18th century bombast with the language of casual conversation in the same poem, and even in the same stanza. Imagine "What's up?" and "Thou" occurring in the same stanza in an American English poem.

It's possible to do the same sort of thing in English, mixing registers, toying with words, with a regard both for the land of the literal and the waves of the littoral. It's hard but there's nothing impossible about it. Translators often don't have the balls. They set up the net, but they aren't playing with any balls. And when you aren't playing with balls, you're just raising a racket.

The takeaway, in other words, is that translators should loosen up, find their balls and play with them a bit. Remember: just because you're speaking seriously, doesn't mean you can't have fun doing it. 

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