Experiences in Translation. (Pushkin).
At the Burning Word poetry festival yesterday, there were workshops running all throughout the day. We went to one given by Ilya Kaminsky in the afternoon, having already heard his amazing reading in the morning. At the end Ilya gave an assignment, where you could make up a poem from different lines of other poems he had given us in a handout, or a new translation of one of two poems (one by Blok, another by Akhmatova) based on several different translations he included. The experience of reading various translations (and comparing them against the original Russian) brought me back to a poem that is often at the back of my mind, that I have never been able to translate myself, yet I have never found a translation that satisfied me. Lately I have been thinking about it again, of how to rewrite it in English in a way that strikes to the heart of everything that I love most about it.
By Alexander Pushkin, it begins "I loved you once;" or, in Russian, "Ya vas lyubil." It is difficult to convey, at least for me, in English, the cold finality of the Russian. The 'vas' is the formal "You," not the familiar "tebya" you would use with a lover, as in "Ya tebya lyubliu," "I love you." As in, I loved you, past tense, but no longer, I no longer see you as the woman I loved...once. That I once, in some distant or not-so-distant past spoke to intimately as "tyi."
I don't remember how Ilya put it, but he said something how poetry worked in any language, that translation didn't change the meaning of the poem. Perhaps that's not quite what he said; certainly he said it more eloquently than I could ever hope to. But it is an idea that I have always struggled with. Ya vas lyubil can be about the end of love, the end of an affair, but ultimately it speaks to everything I love most about Russian as a language. It has my favorite words, byt' (to be), mozhet (perhaps), and my most favorite word of all (surpassed only perhaps by morozhnoe, ice-cream), beznadezhno, hopelessly. If I can seperate my love for Russian as a language, the rythm of the words, the feeling as they form in my mouth, against my tongue, dive straight into my heart, from the beautiful sadness, the tenderness of letting go of a former love, then maybe I can translate this poem into English in a way that is not sentimental, that moves me the way the original does.