One brave poet: Osip Mandelstam

I’ve always hankered after Russian literature since first imbibing Tolstoy and Dostoevsky as a teenager, supplemented by later readings in Chekhov and Pasternak.  For a while, I even took up Russian and can still read the cyrillic script.  On several occasions, I’ve taught Russian literature:  Anna Karenina, The Brothers Karamazov, and The Cherry Orchard.  In 1986, I was offered a government stipend for an advanced seminar in Russian literature, though I turned it down because of other interests at the time.

Tolstoy House
Tolstoy House

In 2000, I took a group of students to Russia in the cruel month of January.  We saw where Chekhov composed most of his plays and stories during his short life.  One of my students was allowed to play his piano.  In St. Petersburg, we visited the apartment in which Dostoevsky spent his final years and saw the desk on which he wrote his masterpiece, The Brothers Karamazov.  My own big moment came when we traveled 120 miles southwest of Moscow, traversing cratered roads of an unraveling post-Soviet nation, to Tula and nearby Nastaya Polyana, Tolstoy’s lovingly preserved residence.

Osip Mandelstam
Osip Mandelstam

Though the triad of Tolstoy, Dostoevsky and Chekhov spring to mind when we think of Russian literary prowess, the truth is that poetry may be its greatest legacy, beginning with Pushkin and continuing into our modern era with poets like Akhmatova, Pasternak, Brodsky and Mandelstam.  I think it was Mandelstam who said that Russia is the only country that takes poetry seriously enough that you can get killed for it, which is just what happened to Mandelstam in the Stalin purge of 1937.

I started up again about Russian poetry after reading a 2011 GuernicaNadezhda Mandelstam interview with my favorite contemporary American poet, W. S. Merwin, in which Osip Mandelstam’s name came up in connection with the complexities of translation.  Initially exiled, Mandelstam  covertly composed subsequent poetry in his head, repeating his verse to his wife, the remarkable Nadezhda Mandelstam, who committed them to school exercise notebooks and then to memory in the event of police seizures, preserving his legacy following his death in the Gulag in 1938.

She would later write two remarkable books (Against All Hope and Hope Revived) in the late 1960s, detailing the sordid story of Stalinist repression of the arts and her efforts to preserve her husband’s mature legacy.  It was thought that his work was done after 1928 prior to his initial exile to Voronezh, but thanks to Nadezhda, 200 of his exile poems have survived. Today, Mandelstam is largely regarded as Russia’s principal twentieth century poet, though he died at just 47.

Here is his most famous poem, clearly an attack on Joseph Stalin, that began his troubles.  Mandelstam never cowered defending freedom.  At the outset, you should be aware that poetry generally suffers greatly in translation.  In Russian, it packs a wallop with its density of nuance that the average reader would pick-up on immediately.  (See notes.)

We live without feeling the country beneath our feet,
our words are inaudible from ten steps away. (1)
Any conversation, however brief,
gravitates, gratingly, toward the Kremlin’s mountain man. (2)
His greasy fingers are thick as worms, (3)
his words weighty hammers slamming their target. (4)
His cockroach moustache seems to snicker, (5)
and the shafts of his high-topped boots gleam.
Amid a rabble of scrawny-necked chieftains,
he toys with the favors of such homunculi.
One hisses, the other mewls, one groans, the other weeps;
he prowls thunderously among them, showering them with scorn.
Forging decree after decree, like horseshoes,
he pitches one to the belly, another to the forehead,
a third to the eyebrow, a fourth in the eye.
Every execution is a carnival
that fills his broad Ossetian chest with delight.


1.    our words are inaudible from ten steps away:  Need to be judicious in conversation.  Stalin was reputed to use listening devices in the Kremlin to check on colleagues.

2.   mountain man:  allusion to Stalin’s coarse background.

3.   greasy fingers:  It was widely circulated that Stalin employed listening devices to keep tabs on his Kremlin colleagues.

4.   his words weighty hammers:  Stalin had a marked Georgian accent.

5.   cockroach mustache:  obviously refers to Stalin’s landmark mustache.  Derives from a Russian fairy tale in which a cockroach and a cat confront one another.

Mandelstam wasn’t your likely hero.  Frail with a weak-heart and clearly aware of the dangers of the Stalin regime, he nonetheless devoted his art, not only to beauty, but to human freedom.  Somehow I had missed out on him in my Russian pursuits.  Maybe now I can make amends.


Further Reflections on Translators: vital but unappreciated

Constance Garnett
Constance Garnett

I was delighted at the good response to my most recent post re: the challenges translators face, the essentiality of their calling and, alas, their neglected status.

I took up as well the specific arduous skills necessary to literary translation, concluding with Edith Grossman’s telling reminder that the translator’s ultimate task in literary matters is to get readers to “perceive the text emotionally and artistically in a manner that parallels and corresponds to the esthetic experience of its first readers” (Why Translation Matters).

In regard to Grossman’s rejoinder, I want to bring up an illustration of what happens when translators fall down on the job, which may have happened with regard to Constance Garnett, who almost singularly put Russian literature on the map for English readers, translating 71 volumes of principal writers including Pushkin, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Chekhov, and Turgenev.

In doing so she merits high praise, for Russian, and I say this first hand, doesn’t come easily to most of us, even with linguistic acumen, given its heavy inflection, shifting stress, many exceptions, absence of cognitive vocabulary, and vast repertoire of idiom.

In the matter of style, she wrote an ornate Victorian prose.  While often eloquent, it doesn’t reflect the robust nature of the Russian vernacular, thus violating our fundamental axiom that translation achieve authenticity, or reenactment of the native text.  As I pointed out, this poses the ultimate translator challenge, requiring a translator to exercise a creative dexterity in her own right, and even more so in rendering poetry.  Done well, as Grossman does in her painstaking translations of Cervantes, it merits our highest praise and deserves far more accolades than it, sadly, receives.

Literary translation is fraught with the land mines of replaying rhythms, rhyme schemes, syllabication, and nuances. It’s no place for the faint-at-heart.

I grew up on Constance Garnett’s translations and am grateful for her opening the door for me to the golden age of Russian literature.  But then I was very young and didn’t know the way of superlative translation as its own creative enterprise, transcending the verbal and recreating the dynamism of the original.  I didn’t know how much I had still missed, for the reader’s link with a translator lies salient in trust, since few of us achieve such intimacy with a second language.  As such, translators become our filters into knowing.

We should listen carefully to Joseph Brodsky, emigre poet, and Nobel Laureate, in his admonition we approach Garnett cautiously:  “The reason English-speaking readers  can barely tell the difference between Tolstoy and Dostoevsky is that they aren’t reading the prose of either one.  They’re reading Constance Garnett” (Rachel May, The Translator in the Text: On Reading Russian Literature in English).  Often she would simply omit or treat difficult passages superficially, working quickly.

We should choose our translators carefully whenever we can, based on reputable sources, often scholarly.  In reading Russian literature I recommend the husband-and-wife couple Richard Pavear and Larissa Volokhonsky.  Both offer impeccable credentials and are recipients of the highly esteemed PEN Translation Prize for their interpretations of The Brothers Karamazov and Anna Karenina.

The lot of the literary translator isn’t an easy one as The New Yorker reminds us:  “Poor Mrs. Garnett!  Translators suffer a thankless and uneasy afterlife…Translators are, for eternity, sent up, put down, nitpicked and, finally, overturned” (David Remick, “The Translation Wars,” November 7, 2005).

In closing, I would add another caveat:  Translation, even when done well, lends you this strange after taste, or belaboring; a sense of lingering nuance I may have missed or syntax I may have put better.  But then this is a good thing, too, indicating a conscientiousness intrinsic and defining of all good translation.

Do good.  Be well!


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