Katherine E. Young

“Sound and Sense: A Poet Translates”

I’m a practicing poet and a former Russian language major, which means that when I translate the voices in my head are often in conflict. The main issue for me, as for many other translators, is the tension between “artistry” and “accuracy,” notions famously disputed by Vladimir Nabokov and Edmund Wilson. In the summer of 2013, I was asked to speak on translation theory at the “Translator’s Coven,” a conclave of Russian-English and English-Russian translators held at St. Anthony’s College, University of Oxford. And as I reviewed the writings of both translation theorists and translation practitioners for my presentation, I found my ideas of what was permissible in translation began to change significantly.

In particular, I found myself leaving behind my experience as a language major (and one-time diplomat) and moving squarely into the “artistic” camp. Here I was relieved to find renowned translator Edith Grossman and many others – translators much more experienced than I am – who view translation as performance, something akin to the act of a musician interpreting a score written on paper. Once I began thinking of translation as performance rather than some kind of literal correspondence between words (assuming such a thing to even be possible in languages as different as English and Russian, pace Nabokov), the English-language poet in me took over.

Here’s an example from the late poet Vladimir Kornilov, the first stanza of a poem entitled “Свобода,” or “Freedom”:

Не готов я к свободе,
По своей ли вине?
Ведь свободы в заводе
Не бывало при мне.

Because I’m a formal poet myself, I very much wanted my translation of this poem to preserve a formal stanza structure in English and as much of a rhyme as English syntax – which is not nearly as flexible as Russian syntax – allows. And I wanted to preserve some of the “flavor” of the Russian idiom “в заводе нет,” which can be translated “factories don’t make X” [here, “freedom”]. Here’s an early draft of this stanza:

I’m not ready for freedom yet,
Am I the one to blame?
You see, there was no foundry forging
Freedom in my time.

Although I’d managed to keep an “industrial” image in my translation (and alliterate at the same time), I wasn’t satisfied. Although close in literal meaning to the Russian original, the third line in this translation is not nearly as captivating in English as it is in Russian and has none of the evocative power of the Russian idiom. In essence, I’d exchanged a pithy phrase for meaningless alliteration.

While I was struggling with this stanza, Robert Chandler, who was my editor for this translation, tracked down Vladimir Kornilov’s widow, the remarkable Larisa Bespalova, in Moscow. Bespalova, as it turns out, used to make her living translating from English and reads English language poetry with ease – she was the perfect person to examine my translation. She wasn’t satisfied with the foundry image either, and asked me to try again.

Thanks to my email conversations with Chandler and Bespalova, I revised my translation to capture the “tone” (as opposed to the literal meaning) of this stanza:

I’m not ready for freedom yet,
Am I the one to blame?
You see, there was no likelihood
Of freedom in my time.

The first two lines are unchanged. Look, however, at the final two lines of the stanza. Here the Russian idiom has been completely abandoned in English and replaced with “there was no likelihood / Of freedom in my time,” a compromise that sacrifices an idiomatic image in Russian for clarity of meaning in English. Instead of a clunky, alliterative phrase that draws unnecessary attention to itself, this second version folds easily into the poem, which isn’t about factories or foundries at all, but about encountering freedom in all its unexpected complexity. Is the resulting stanza a “good” translation? I’m not sure how to answer that question. Certainly, it’s “better.”

© Katherine E. Young and Vladimir Kornilov

Katherine E. Young’s translations of Russian poet Inna Kabysh were awarded a share of the 2011 Joseph Brodsky-Stephen Spender Prize and commended by the judges of the 2012 Brodsky-Spender Prize: a dual-language edition of Kabysh’s poetry for the iPad is forthcoming from Artist’s Proof Editions. Young’s translations of Vladimir Kornilov appear in Russian Poetry from Pushkin to Brodsky (Penguin Classics, forthcoming). Day of the Border Guards, a book of Ms. Young’s original poems, was published in 2014 by the University of Arkansas Miller Williams award series. She has a website at http://katherine-young-poet.com/.

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