I discovered Marina Tsvetaeva when I was browsing through a Russian poetry collection recently. I have never heard of her before, and when I read a couple of her poems, they did something to my heart. It was difficult to tell what, but there was a certain quality in them which tugged at my heartstrings and made my heart ache. I decided to get a collection of her poems. I got an edition of her selected poems, translated by Elaine Feinstein.
When I got this collection of Tsvetaeva’s poems, I thought I will dip my toe into it and read a poem a day and see how it goes. But after I read a few poems, I couldn’t stop reading the rest of the book. The book had fifty poems (some of them were full poems while others were excerpts from longer poems, while others were groups of poems classified under one topic. I have counted each of them as one poem – whether it is a single poem, an excerpt from a longer poem or a collection of poems. I know that is inconsistent, but that is how the book is structured) and before I knew I had finished reading the book. I can’t remember now, which was the first poem from the book that I read.
Marina Tsvetaeva started writing and publishing poems from 1910 and she continued doing that till her death in 1941. Like many of the Russian poets and writers of her era, she started with a happy childhood, suffered after the advent of the communist regime, tried to migrate to another country and live there, but couldn’t be happy there – she is quoted as saying “I went abroad in 1922, and my reader remained in Russia where my poems no longer penetrate…And thus, I am here without readers; in Russia, without books” – and finally returned back to her country. Her suffering became unbearable at some point that she committed suicide. Such a beautiful poet and such a tragic life.
This book has poems which reflect her whole literary life – it has poems written from 1915 till 1938. The early poems are mostly about love and beauty and loss and are shorter and we can see the young girl Tsvetaeva in it. The later poems are sometimes short and sometimes long and some of them are dark or serious and they seem to reflect the heart of the older Tsvetaeva who has seen and suffered so much in life. I liked the shorter poems more than the longer ones because they were concentrated lyrical expressions of beauty and love and longing and loss and passion and poignancy while the longer ones were more narrative in nature, though some of them had passages with that concentrated poetic quality that I love. (If I can add a comment here, when I said that I liked Tsvetaeva’s shorter poems more than her longer ones, I didn’t mean that I liked her earlier poems rather than her later ones. I liked her shorter poems across time, both early and late works.)
Here are some of my favourite poems (and favourite excerpts from longer poems) from the book.
What is this gypsy passion for separation
What is this gypsy passion for separation, this
readiness to rush off – when we’ve just met?
My head rests in my hands as I
realize, looking into the night
that no one turning over our letters has
yet understood how completely and
how deeply faithless we are, which is
to say : how true we are to ourselves.
As people listen intently
As people listen intently
(a river’s mouth to its source)
that’s how they smell a flower
to the depths, till they lose all sense.
That’s how they feel their deepest
craving in dark air,
as children lying in blue sheets
peer into memory.
And that’s how a young boy feels
when his blood begins to change.
When people fall in love with love
they fling themselves in the abyss.
Who sleeps at night? No one is sleeping.
In the cradle a child is screaming.
An old man sits over his death, and anyone
young enough talks to his love, breathes
into her lips, looks into her eyes.
Once asleep – who knows if we’ll wake again?
We have time, we have time, we have time to sleep!
From house to house the sharp-eyed
watchman goes with his pink lantern
and over the pillow scatters the rattle
of his loud clapper, rumbling.
Don’t sleep! Be firm! Listen, the alternative
is – everlasting sleep. Your – everlasting house!
I opened my veins
I opened my veins. Unstoppably
life spurts out with no remedy.
Now I set our bowls and plates.
Every bowl will be shallow,
Every plate will be small.
And overflowing their rims,
Into the black earth, to nourish
The rushes unstoppably
without cure, gushes
A thief can rob – and not touch your face
You’ll be fleeced, but your soul will escape.
But a gourmand must finger and pinch, before
he puts you aside, to eat later.
From ‘It’s not like waiting for post’
It’s not like waiting for post.
This is how you wait for
the one letter you need
soft stuff bound with
tape and paste.
Inside a little word.
That’s all. Happiness.
From ‘You loved me’
You loved me. And your lies had their own probity.
There was a truth in every falsehood.
Your love went far beyond any possible
boundary as no one else’s could.
From ‘The Poet’
for the path of comets
is the path of poets; they burn without warming,
pick without cultivating. They are : an explosion, a breaking in –
and the mane of their path makes the curve of a
graph cannot be foretold by the calendar.
From ‘Yesterday he still looked in my eyes’
He taught me to live in fire, he threw me there,
and then abandoned me on steppes of ice.
My love, I know what you have done to me.
- My love, what was it I did to you?
From ‘I’m glad your sickness’
Thank you for loving me like this,
For you feel love, although you do not know it.
Thank you for the nights I’ve spent in quiet.
Thank you for the walks under the moon
you’ve spared me and those sunset meetings unshared.
Thank you. The sun will never bless our heads.
Take my sad thanks for this : you do not cause
my sickness. And I don’t cause yours.
From ‘Poem of the End’
– What are we doing? – We are separating.
– That’s a word that means nothing to me.
It’s the most inhumanly senseless
of words : sep arating. (Am I one of a hundred?)
It is simply a word of four syllables and
behind their sound lies : emptiness.
Wait! Is it even correct in Serbian or
Croatian? Is it a Czech whim, this word.
Sep aration? To sep arate!
It is insane unnatural
a sound to burst the eardrums, and spread out
far beyond the limits of longing itself.
Separation – the word is not in the Russian
language. Or the language of women. Or men.
Nor in the language of God. What are we – sheep?
To stare about us as we eat.
Separation – in what language is it,
When the meaning itself doesn’t exist?
or even the sound? Well – an empty one, like
the noise of a saw in your sleep perhaps.
The book has a beautiful introduction at the beginning by the translator Elaine Feinstein which introduces us to Marina Tsvetaeva’s life and work. It is a beautiful, gripping read. The book also has a note in the end by Angela Livingstone, who helped Feinstein considerably in the translation, in which she talks about the challenges of translating from Russian into English – a very enriching essay which I loved. One particular line at the beginning of Livingstone’s essay stood out for me – “so many of the linguistic devices which she powerfully exploits (…changes of word-order, the throwing into relief of inflectional endings) are simply not available in English.” This is something that I have been thinking about for sometime – on how difficult it is to translate a sentence, especially a line of a poem or a poetic prose sentence, from a language which has cases and declensions into a language like English which doesn’t have them and how much of the beauty of language is lost in that translation – and I was so happy when Livingstone wrote about that.
I thought I will take some time now and write about some of the fascinating challenges that a translator might face while translating poetry into English. This thought was triggered when I encountered two translated versions of one of Marina Tsvetaeva’s poems – one by Elaine Feinstein in this collection and another by David McDuff which was featured in the book ‘Russian Poets’. Actually, the two versions looked like two different poems, because they had different titles – Elaine Feinstein called her version ‘Homesickness’ while David McDuff called his ‘Longing for the Motherland’. But one particular word caught my eye accidentally – ‘captive lion’ in Feinstein’s version and ‘caged-in lion’ in McDuff’s – and when I spotted that, I realized that they could be the same poem. And so I took both the books and opened them side-by-side and read the two versions together. And I realized that they were the same poem but the translations were as different as chalk and cheese. Or like the two twins in the Alexander Dumas story ‘The Corsican Brothers’ who turn out differently. To explain it in a better way, I will quote a particular passage from each of these versions.
From Elaine Feinstein’s version ‘Homesickness’
And I won’t be seduced by the thought of
my native language, its milky call.
How can it matter in what tongue I
am misunderstood by whoever I meet
From David McDuff’s version ‘Longing for the Motherland’
And I’ll not let the milky call
Of my own native language cheat me –
Which I’m not understood in’s all
The same to me, and those who meet me.
I will be frank, in advance. I love Elaine Feinstein’s version. David McDuff’s version – not so much. There is beauty and elegance in the first two lines of Feinstein’s version – ‘I won’t be seduced by the thought of my native language, its milky call’. McDuff’s version – ‘I’ll not let the milky call of my own native language cheat me’ – doesn’t quite measure up in terms of lyrical quality.
Before I blame McDuff and haul him over the coals, I thought I should ponder a bit. Why did this difference come about? I am pretty sure that Feinstein and McDuff know their Russian well. How is it that one translated version is poetic and elegant while another looks contrived and artificial? There probably could be two reasons. One could be that Feinstein was doing a poetic translation – trying to capture the soul of the poem, but in her own poetic way and not translate the words literally – while McDuff was doing a literal word-by-word translation. The second reason could be that while Feinstein was trying to capture the soul of the poem in her translated version, McDuff tried translating it in the literal sense, explaining the meaning of the poem explicitly, thus losing some of its implied poetic beauty. In this poem, I think a combination of both these is probably true.
This is my own take on it. I haven’t compared these two versions with the Russian original (Translating is a tricky business during the best of times. So I did what a meek person would do – I have shied away from it. But the Russian original is very musical and rhyming. Try reading it below.). If you have read the Russian original, do tell me whether my inference is correct. The above passage in Russian reads like this :
Не обольщусь и языком
Родным, его призывом млечным.
Мне безразлично — на каком
Непонимаемой быть встречным!
When I look at a passage from another poem called ‘The Poet’ and see the translated versions of the same by Feinstein and McDuff, I find that the second reason could apply in this case. Here are the two translated versions.
From Elaine Feinstein’s translation of ‘The Poet’
Here they are, ghostly and invisible, the
sign is on them, like the speck of the leper.
People like Job in this world who
might even have envied him. If.
From David McDuff’s translation of ‘The Poet’
The world has fictions beyond vision.
(Their sign : the sores of leprosy!)
The world has Jobs who would have envied
Job each hour of his agony.
When I read the last two lines of these two passages, I find that McDuff’s version tries to explain the meaning more explicitly by differentiating between the people who are like the biblical Job and the actual biblical Job. Feinstein’s version doesn’t try to do that.
What does a translator do when she / he is faced with a challenge like this? Does the translator go with a literal rendition of the poem or does the translator attempt a poetic translation of the poem which tries to capture the soul of the poem but shies away from a word-by-word translation? Should a translation read well or should it be faithful to the original? Also should a translation carry the hidden implied secrets of the original poem and leave them to be discovered by the reader or should it open the lid and reveal the secrets of the poem to the reader? What do you think about this?
Marina Tsvetaeva’s poetry collection is definitely going to be one of my favourite poetry reads this year. If you would like to explore Russian poetry, this is a good place to start. I highly recommend it. Elaine Feinstein’s translation is sensitive and masterful (of course, you already knew I was going to say that, didn’t you ) and though I haven’t read the original poems yet, I think I can say that Feinstein has managed to capture Tsvetaeva’s lyrical voice in her translation very well.
Have you read Marina Tsvetaeva’s poems? What do you think about them? What are your thoughts on the challenges in translating poetry?