Translator’s Note

Mary Jane White

From LINES is a selection from AFTER RUSSIA by Marina Tsvetaeva (Paris 1926), her last published lyric collection.

As it appears in the collection, LINES is a sequence of ten poems addressed by Tsvetaeva to Boris Pasternak.  Tsvetaeva wrote this sequence in Prague during the spring of 1923, clearly out of her frustration at having missed a possible meeting with Pasternak during his visit to Berlin.

In February of 1978, as a graduate student at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop I turned my attention to translating Tsvetaeva because:

“. . . as an anonymous member of an Iowa City audience I had the opportunity to ask Russian-born poet Joseph Brodsky several questions about Anna Akhmatova — whose reputation remains wider than Tsvetaeva’s.  Akhmatova and Brodsky were acquainted in Moscow when she was a very old woman and he a young man.  He confessed that they had gossiped, as poets will do, about other poets, but that Akhmatova then ‘was awfully humble.  She used to say that ‘in comparison with [Pushkin] and Tsvetaeva I am just a little cow.  I am a cow,’ that’s what she used to say.’ I think now of what Tsvetaeva might have given to have been eavesdropping then!  Or later, as Brodsky gave his 1978 recommendation for reading: “Well, if you are talking about the twentieth century, I’ll give you a list of poets.  Akhmatova, Mandelstam, Tsvetaeva (and she is the greatest one, in my view.  The greatest poet in the twentieth century was a woman).”

Brodsky’s direct answers to my questions-from-the-floor raised in me an early ambition to write a Tsvetaeva in English that would serve my own and the next generation of American poets, a translation that would let Tsvetaeva wear the English she might have worn, had she written in English.

Since 1978, I’ve continued to work on reading and translating Tsvetaeva, taking Brodsky’s answers as a sort of assignment, for nearly forty years.

On weekdays and court days I dragged my thrice-re-bound Oxford Russian-English Dictionary and little red moleskin notebooks from courthouse to courthouse throughout five counties of Northeast Iowa, working in fits and starts while waiting for my assigned legal hearings and cases to be called — trial law being like war:  hurry up, and wait.

What you do during the wait is another life . . . and what a great privilege is has been to try to translate Tsvetaeva!

My approach to translating Tsvetaeva has been to produce an accurate literal version that is not painful or awkward for an American speaker to read.  Early in the process, I look up each word in the Oxford Russian-English dictionary and note each meaning of the work and every idiom in which it is reported to be used.

This part of translating has the same attraction for me as crossword puzzles do for other people; it like knitting, or doing tax returns.  It produces the calm high of word or number intoxication.  My purpose in doing this is to obtain, by osmosis, a sure feeling for the texture of the particular language Tsvetaeva has chosen, the texture, if you will, of her diction.  This slow acquaintance and the notes — to which I refer back — aid me in making a sure choice among the various meanings for each individual word.

I make an effort to keep the material of a single line confined to a single line of translation — this, to preserve the pace of the original as much as possible.  This is not an original idea at all.  While a student at Reed College in Portland, Oregon, I traveled often to Vancouver, Washington to visit Mary Barnard, the wonderful translator of Sappho.  It was she who convinced me of the value of this general rule of fidelity and pointed out to me how preserving the pace of the original was useful in reproducing its tone.  Think of how speeding up or slowing down a film introduces an overall comic or lyrical effect.  In the interest of maintain this fidelity to pace and tone I try not to omit, or to pad.  Tsvetaeva can be very abbreviated and abrupt in the original.  She would suffer from explanation added.

I do not attempt to translate in rhyme or meter, although Tsvetaeva’s poems are rhymed and metered with the same fresh and surprising closeness of, say, Ezra Pound in Hugh Selwyn Mauberley.

It has been observed that rhyming at least is much easier to do in Russian than in English.  In part this is due to the fact that Russian is an inflected language.  This inflection also results in a greater variety and syllable depth of rhyme and of assonance than in English — a rhyme might extend through as many as three syllables, and an assonance might be found upon a stressed vowel or vowel sound three syllables deep into the rhyming words.

So, as you read, you must think of all this as missing.

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