Xenia Emelyanova, a graduate of Moscow’s famed Gorky Literary Institute, burst on the Russian poetry scene in 2014 and was almost immediately nominated for the PEN International/New Voices award: indeed, her poems in translation (including the two published here) made the list of six semifinalists for that award. Emelyanova’s work is accessible in the best sense of the word, universal in its themes and clear in its expression. In an email describing her aims in these poems, Emelyanova writes, “I wanted to construct verse not in meter, but in phrases, in everyday intonation, in which should be [the poem’s] own rhythmic pattern, more complex than meter.” For an American translator, of course, her words immediately evoke Walt Whitman, and they open up the rich palette of everyday English for rendering the poems in translation.
A particular pleasure of working with Emelyanova is her extraordinary command of English. She translates English poets (Alfred Noyes, for example) for her own amusement and has immersed herself in contemporary American music, including the dense lyrics of rappers such as Eminem. At least one of her poems, “Your hair will smell of river water,” is a hybrid Russian-English text with original lines that she wrote in both languages. In translating, I start with the original text and send Emelyanova a draft. In return, I often receive an updated “original” that responds to questions or new impressions raised by the English translation. In fact, there have been several instances over the last two years when Emelyanova has put a translation on indefinite hold while she reconsidered the original text.
Both of the poems presented here offer examples of how far the translator can wander from the original, literal meaning of one language to capture the poet’s intent in a new language. For example, lines 17-20 of “So it came together,” translated here as a question, represent a very different grammatical construction in Russian – a wish that sounded stilted and self-conscious when I brought it into literal English. Similarly, line 4 of “One person settles inside another” substitutes the English nouns “laugh,” “story,” and “joke” for Russian verbs that are inflected, a change that also requires the subject of “share” to shift from singular to plural. Line 8 of this poem ends with the verb длиться – which in Russian conveys the idea of persisting, lingering, and enduring – used twice. As I could not find any single English verb to satisfactorily mimic the repetition in Russian, I decided to use two closely related verbs, “linger” and “endure,” to better capture the meaning of the original. Emelyanova has said several times that she prefers the English version of this particular poem to the Russian original.about the author