Versions of Translation – new collections of Russian poetry

Osip Mandelstam

The library feels rich in poetry these days. Two books that I picked up recently were new collections of work by Osip Mandelstam and Marina Tsvetaeva.

These two renowned Russian poets have been dead for over 70 years, but now we have new English translations of their work.

Marina Tsvetaeva

They wrote through the Russian Revolution; they wrote of hunger and anger, of passion and exhaustion. Both are known for their music, and at times, their inaccessibility. There have been many translations of Mandelstam and Tsvetaeva’s writing, but these new translations are praised for the way they have carried over the attention to sound and rhythm.

Neither Christian Wiman (M) (Mandelstam) nor Jean Valentine (Tsvetaeva) wanted to call the poems translations, in order to acknowledge the murkiness of the work; Wiman prefers versions, and Valentine uses the word readings. Both Mandelstam and Tsvetaeva “translated” poems from languages they did not speak, so likely they would understand the desire of non-Russian speakers to bring their work into another language (Wiman is clear about his lack of Russian, and while I couldn’t confirm this for Valentine, the participation of Ilya Kaminsky suggests a need for assistance).

In fact, Odessa-born poet Ilya Kaminsky worked on both collections. He writes an essay in each book, and I found these just as engaging as the poems. He weaves the history of lives and places with examinations of language and translation. He leaves space in his prose for us to breathe and conjure.

And space we need in the reading of these poems. In Stolen Air: selected poems of Osip Mandelstam (M), the sounds of the words increase the strength – and burden – of their meaning. In Dark Elderberry Branch: poems of Marina Tsvetaeva (M), there is a CD with recordings of the poems in their original Russian. How bewildering to listen to what you cannot understand, trusting somewhere that you do.

To learn more about 20th century Russian poets, check out some of these biographies (M). There’s also a new biography of Mandelstam (M) soon to be available.

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