Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Reading. Akhmatova.

I first read Akhmatova in high school. I had just begun reading Bulgakov, and was slowly making my way through the Soviet writers and poets of the 1920's-1940's (and onwards). It has been nearly a decade now. At the bookstore the other day I happened upon a volume, selected poems of Akhmatova, published with the original Russian verse on one page, and the English translation facing it. It was time to come back to Akhmatova.

This is going to drive me crazy - I vaguely remember reading somewhere, someone writing something about how Russian poetry is about language, or something like that - and I cannot remember where I read it or who it was that said it. I think it was Czeslaw Milosz, but I am not sure. Because it ties so closely to my own thoughts, I wonder if perhaps I hallucinated it. But I jumped for joy (not literally; no need to scare the other bookstore patrons around me, even though it was late at night and there were few people around) when I found the bilingual edition of Akhmatova's works, because it allowed me the illusion that I can still read Russian while giving me a translation to act as a crutch, of sorts.

The interesting thing is to read first the Russian, which has a spare, elegant, starkness to it, language stripped to its barest bones, like a beautiful skeleton bleached white by the sun and wind, and then the English, which attempts to mirror that same minimalism. Therefore not literally translated, but still capturing the essence of her words.

Here is one of the shorter poems which caught my attention:

Он любил три вещи на свете:
За вечерней пенье, белых павлинов
И стертые карты Америки,
Не любил, когда плачут дети,
Не любил чая c малиной
И женской истерики.
…А я была его женой.

And then in English:

Three things enchanted him:
white peacocks, evensong,
and faded maps of America.
He couldn't stand bawling brats,
or raspberry jam with his tea,
or womanish hysteria.
...And he was tied to me.*

However, in the translation, in order to maintain the rhyme and structure of the poem, there is a certain glibness that makes the English translation almost a parody of the original Russian, which I find frustrating. The first line, "Он любил три вещи на свете," translates literally as "He loved three things in the world." A more literal translation would give it too much weight, drag it down, but this version, I feel, gives it too much lightness. How, then, does one strike a balance?

*Kunitz, Stanley and Hayward, Max, trans. Poems of Akhmatova. Mariner Books, Houghton Mifflin Company, 1997. pp 46-47.

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