Posted by Nigel Humphreys on May 31, 2011 at 12:04 PM

I have been asked to take part in an Anglo-Russian poetry event on the 15th June at The Poetry Place in London. I only know one Russian poet – Valentine Hripko, who writes mainly romantic poetry and once impressed me with a love poem dedicated to a certain (or uncertain) lady friend which involved vampires. I have never thought to ask him how well the poem was received or indeed whether the lady in question is still speaking to him. The only other Russian poet which comes readily to mind is Pushkin whom I recall famously lost 1-0 in a duel. Tolstoy also wrote poetry. However, coincidentally or not, (depending on your take on determinism) in a charity shop last year I picked up a short anthology of Nineteenth Century Russian poetry in translation. As I flick through it now I am immediately in the unfamiliar company of names like Baratynsky, Yazykov, Lermontov, Tyutchev, Nekrasov and Fet. No doubt these poets are as familiar to my young friend Valentine as Wordsworth, Hopkins and Tennyson are to me.


Now it strikes me that while Russia has produced many fine musicians and composers, twentieth century painters and novelists her poets with international reputations seem to be thin on the perma frost. The forward to the anthology says that most belonged to a class of impoverished gentry, joined the Hussars or ‘some such thing’, were inspired by Byron and failed to live off their verse. (Nothing new there then as far as the last aspect.) They were Romantics dazzled by their metaphysical ideals and the impossibility of ever resolving them. That may be so. But when it comes to reading their work in my native language I am immediately plunged into the cold war of translations. Am I reading the poetry of Pushkin or of the translator - in this case Alan Myers. This verse taken from a short poem by Tolstoy tells me two things; first, why he is known to us as a great novelist and second, that the translation has done him absolutely no favours whatsoever.


Should you love – be it a furnace

Should you threaten, be it in earnest

Should you swear, then make it hot

Should you strike, give it all you’ve got!


I wonder what Tolstoy ever did to upset Mr. Myers? I’m not sure “give it all you’ve got’ is a Nineteenth Century idiom though to be fair much of the vacuousness of these translations maybe deliberately representative, mirroring the effete conventions of our own Hoods, Swinburns and Alfred Austins (remember them!). The serious point to be made here though is that no matter how loyal the translation is, it is always another poem. It might be a better poem than the original but unless the reader or listener is a polyglot he won’t be in a position to judge. Translations can only ever be insights through degenerative cataracts, a peep into the mind of the poet courtesy of a third party we either trust or doubt.


The eigheenth century poet Trediakovsky was one of the first innovators of Russian poetry. Before his time Russian poets basically produced rhyming lines with an equal number of syllables. This is empathic with the fourteenth century Welsh cwydd used to great effect by Dafydd ap Gwilym where rhyming couplets consisted exclusively of 7 syllables each. There was little emphasis on metre. Trediakovsky retained the syllable count but introduced metre based on the trochee (a foot consisting of one stressed syllable followed by an unstressed one – the other way round from the iamb. The iamb of course features strongly in modern British poetry which largely follows the cadences of speech rhythms.) He called this new form of poetry syllablo-tonic versification which worked well with lines of between 11 and 13 syllables.


Subject matter will always translate of course but rarely style. Japanese Haikus are a good example of this. Written in pictographs they work well – we are told. But in English we try to ape the form by counting lines and syllables. A good discipline for those of us who tend to be expansive, but otherwise futile. I have never been a fan of the Haiku, the mayfly of all poetic styles. The cwydd is similarly almost impossible to replicate in English. The constituent Welsh language bunches up conveniently in perfect rhyming couplets of seven syllables whereas the English vocabulary just can’t cope with this straight jacket. The translator has to compromise and often ends up abandoning form permitting himself the largesse of expressing the spirit of the verse as he or she feels it. It becomes a loose paraphrase. The ideas and images are retained in essence but the poetry is sacrificed. It’s a bit like reciting rather than singing Tosca or Lohengrin.


Contemporary Russian poets include Mikhail Kukin, Konstanin Gadaev and Igor Federov. They belong to the Konkov School of poets ‘possessing a peculiar vision, resulting in every detail of the world forming an argument in favour of the meaningfulness of the whole.’ (Nezavisimaya Gazette). They have a special interest in the contemporary ordinary man in his environs. Those with international recognition during the last century include Alexander Blok, Sergei Yesenin, Anna Achmatova, Marina Tsvetaeva, Osip Mandelstam, Boris Pasternak, Vladimir Mayakovsky and Joseph Brodsky who is actually an American citizen and wrote the forward to my charity shop anthology.


To an English Speaker Russian poetry on the page in the original Cyrillic has all the appearance of broken glass. To hear it, the sharp edges of its bass consonants are somehow kept afloat by an underlying susurrus, ‘r’s tend to endure and the vowels can be brittle. For the non-Russian speaker perfect rhymes are its fishplates and there seems to be a tendency to disclaim allegro. But then English doesn’t roll much better. Neither language has the liquidity of French, Spanish, Italian or Welsh even. In common with German, Dutch and Scandinavian languages Russian and English share a halting gait which works very well in polemics and satire but perhaps not in love poetry. They are languages more suited to ideas than emotion, with the notable exception of Valentine’s vampire love poem of course.

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