Translation across the Iron Curtain


low angle photo of ceiling
Photo by Daria Shevtsova on


This is the beginning

          It is impossible that any Russian poem should survive, undamaged, magically transported into the English language. The simplest Russian word has no exact equivalent in English. A table is a different table. The food on it is different. The life around it is different. Its image, its behaviour as a word is different; rectangular and immutable in English, possibly round and probably inflected in Russian. Better to admit defeat at the outset. It will be a different poem. All the more important, therefore, to try and preserve whatever you can. Not only the sense, but the spirit of the thing conveyed through the rhyme, the rhythm, the music of the original. If you are not a poet when you start to translate poetry, you will be by the time you are finished. It becomes so natural a means of expression that you find yourself writing your own stuff.

          Some translators, of course, were poets before they began. Great writers have translated other great writers. But you have only to compare the original with the translation to hear the persistence of the poet-translator’s creative voice, even while submitting himself to the discipline of faithfully following someone else’s ideas, someone else’s choice of the form in which they are to be expressed.

          Since the thing, then, is inherently impossible, why try? Why do it at all? There are, of course, some advantages for the English reader. He can satisfy his curiosity. For instance, why all the fuss about Griboedov? What is this wonderful verse-comedy of his? What characters did he create, what views did he hold, what feelings did he express? Why is he so great? This last, alas, is a question which no translation will answer. No, the true beneficiary of any translation is the translator. There is no better way of valuing a work, getting under the skin of it, sucking the juice out of every last line of it, than trying to translate it.

          I encountered Gore ot uma during my first year at London University, studying Russian language and literature. And here I must mention my only advantage over you Russians; I didn’t ‘do’ Gore ot uma  at school. (Imagine reading it for the first time at sixty-two.) One of our professors gave a lecture on the literature of the early 19th Century. ‘There is this brilliant verse-comedy by Aleksandr Griboedov’, he said, ‘but it is completely untranslatable.’ The challenge was irresistible. I went to the library after the lecture, took out the play and started at once.

          The problems were numerous. How to preserve Griboedov’s laconic style, compressed sometimes to the point of obscurity? What to do, for instance, with that reference to Tolstoi Amerikanets? Short of a footnote, how is the English reader to guess at that disastrous voyage of his? How to convey the irony implicit in Griboedov’s double game, in which Chatskii shows us the flaws in Moscow while Griboedov shows us the flaws in Chatskii? In the attempt to convey a sense of Griboedov’s  masterpiece, one is required to joke like an ambitious bureaucrat, think like a revolutionary, feel like a Moscow socialite or a young man in love – in short, to jettision one’s own view of the world, and share, briefly, for the space of a play, the author’s – or his characters’ – experience of it. the problems are varied; the challenge is always the same. How to preserve the spirit of the original.

I welcome comments and criticism

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