Russian Poetry and Self-Translation

It seems to me that translating one’s own poems must be twice as difficult as translating someone else’s, and so I’m always delighted when I see an example of this that results in poetry that is truly beautiful in English. And this is just what I witnessed yesterday evening when I went to a standing-room-only reading of Russian poetry by several hands at St. Mark’s Bookshop to celebrate the appearance of the wonderful Polina Barskova’s new book The Zoo in Winter, translated by Boris Dralyuk and David Stromberg. I picked up this new volume and am eager to read it, but meanwhile my attention was caught by the self-translations by one of the other readers on the program, poet Irina Mashinski. I found her English versions of her own poems muscular and fresh, with sharp images and surprising vocabulary choices, as in “the world outside cambers and curves / towards the East” and “Late April trembles on the wallpaper” in a poem about the birth of Adolf Hitler. She said something really lovely about the Russian and English languages, too, describing them as resembling the willow and the birch. I was groaning inside, since it’s such a cliche to think of birch trees as somehow expressing the soul of Mother Russia, but no, she had something completely different in mind: The willow, she said, was like the Russian language, with all its prefixes and endings that make it supple and soft; while the birch was like English because of its many verb tenses, which are layered like the bark of this tree. I was reminded of Nabokov’s lamenting, in his afterword to Lolita, the loss of his “natural idiom,” his “untrammeled, rich, infinitely docile Russian tongue” – a description that implies a language pliable as willow twigs. But whereas Nabokov morosely claims, inaccurately and no doubt fishing for compliments, that circumstances forced him to resort to a “second-rate brand of English,” Mashinski speaks instead of the possibilities her new language opens up to her as a poet. I do love her description of the verb tenses in English as resembling layers of birch bark; that’s a gorgeous way to think about language.

(Photograph @Jean-Pol Grandmont.)

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