Translator’s Note

Don Mager

My journey to Mandelstam translations is rather unexpected.

In 1999 I began research for an opera on the life of Anna Akhmatova in collaboration with composer Marc Satterwhite. We agreed on the subject after rejecting several other ideas. He finished the full score in 2005 but the work awaits performance. As I worked on the libretto, I challenged myself to translate afresh any lines by Akhmatova. Because parts of Requiem are quoted in Act II, I translated the entire poem after completing the libretto; I also decided to translate Poem Without a Hero — the poem that forms the basis of Act III; three or four more or less complete versions in English were available in 2001 but varied greatly. As I searched for the most authoritative Russian text, I discovered a project-in-progress in Petersburg by Ellis Lak Publishers to publish Akhmatova's works in variorum format, edited by T. A. Gorkova. Begun in 1991, the seven volume set was not completed until 2005. Akhmatova worked on Poem Without a Hero (PWH) from its inception in 1941 until the year of her death in 1966, partly because she was prohibited from publishing during most of those years, so she was at liberty to add and revise. PWH is loosely based on events among her friends in 1913 and is highly allusive, drawing on references to a wide range of writers. Its technique is often compared to Eliot’s The Wasteland.

Translations in English by others offer explanatory notes, some brief, some more exhaustive. As I moved forward, I realized that Akhmatova's intertextuality shapes readers' responses such that they depend not only on knowing about the sources of allusions or references but knowing first and foremost that they are allusions or references. This puts non-Russian readers at a considerable disadvantage, because so many allusions are to poems by Russian poets not widely known in the West. Because of this I tracked down and translated all the texts to which she alludes.

What started as an opera collaboration, eight years later led to an intense encounter between a poet-translator and various projects related to the Poem Without A Hero. My attraction to PWH and its strategies of political subversion was undoubtedly triggered and nurtured by identity themes of my own perhaps more probing and complex than even I fully understand. My life in the existential and political world of the twentieth century overlaps hers by twenty-five years. Her poem was begun six months before my birth; both it and I, children of World War Two.

Because “words are what we live,” my entrenchment in Akhmatova's worlds of words turned out to take another unforeseen turn. In July, 2002 I began to explore some of the sensations and ideas described in the previous paragraph in the form of odes in what eventuated as a three-year long conversation with Akhmatova. This project was completed in September 2005 as Akhmatova Odes: 150 Sprung Sonnets and 50 Haiku Strings for Four Voices. This book manuscript has not yet found a publisher.

This is not the end of my story with Akhmatova, however. In the process of translating the poems to which Akhmatova alludes I realized that there evolved an incomparable conversation in verse between the four major Russian poets of her era as well as four other poets of importance. I tracked down eighty-five poems by these eight poets and translated them to form Us Four Plus Four.

Us Four Plus Four led to additional translations of poems by Pasternak, Tsvetaeva and Mandelstam. Mandelstam’s late poems collected as Voronezh Notebooks and their stunning images move me intensely so I have translated and published several of them.

There are many nominees for the unnamed hero of Poem Without A Hero — no one of which is the only correct one. However, almost all critics agree that Osip Mandelstam’s memory hovers over the poem’s long text like a shade and a muse.

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