Arts & Culture · Poetry

Poetry Sunday: Anna Akhmatova Poems Translated by Meryl Natchez

Anna Akhmatova in 1922 (portrait by Kuzma Petrov-Vodkin) Anna Akhmatova in 1922 (portrait by Kuzma Petrov-Vodkin)[/caption] In Marin Poetry Center’s Third Thursday Reading series last season, I had the pleasure of hearing Bay Area Poet Meryl Natchez read her translations of Anna Akhmatova after hearing them first read in the Russian by Harsha Ram, Associate Professor of Slavic Languages and Literatures and Comparative Literature at UC Berkeley. I was struck by many things that evening: the beauty of the poetry, the art of translation, the tragedy of Akhmatova’s life, and the eerie appropriateness of the reading’s setting in the faded grandeur of an old nineteenth century mansion now operating as the Falkirk Community Center in San Rafael, CA. Poetry Translation is an art unto itself and has lately been drawing increasing interest and attention in modern literature. Translations range from strictly faithful to the text to using it as a prompt to create a wholly new poem. The subject of translation is too vast for me to take on here, so I’ll just mention a few things that struck me in recent workshops I attended on the subject. First, I’d always assumed that fluency in the language of the original text was a sine qua non and was surprised to hear that more and more poets are taking on translation projects in languages they do not at all know or are just beginning to learn. Here in the Bay Area, teachers armed with google translators are encouraging grammar school students to translate poems written in the language of their native cultures and have found this to be an effective tool for teaching youngsters more generally to appreciate poetry. Some poets even do “homophonic” translations; that is, they translate the poem’s words and phrases into the (English, for example) words they sound like when read aloud. The idea that one need not be a scholar or even fluent in the language in order to translate a poem was a liberating one for me. I was also struck by the idea that many poets translate regularly as a form of mental exercise to keep their craft skills sharp, and some (famously, Robert Lowell) rely on translation to get them through periods of writer’s block. Finally, I was interested to learn that many translators adhere to the notion that fidelity to the gestalt of the piece is what matters, rather than slavish word-by-word literal translation. In a workshop I recently attended at the Sewanee Writer’s Conference, A.E. Stallings (whose recent translation of The Nature of Things by Lucretius has been highly acclaimed) called this idea “radical fidelity.” When principles of radical fidelity are followed, the form of the original poem is less important than its overall aesthetic goal, and sometimes translations of rhymed and metered poetry come out as free verse and vice versa. For a whimsical and interesting essay on the subject, see “An ABC of Translating Poetry” by Willis Barnstone, which begins, “Translation is the art of revelation. It makes the unknown known.” I asked Meryl Natchez to provide some background for the poems she translates here, and this is what she sent. “Anna Akhmatova (1889-1966) is the pen name for Anna Andreyevna Gorenko, who made an early mark in Russian letters as the first female poet to articulate the raptures, aspirations, and bitterness of her gender. Known as much for her physical beauty as for her work, Akhmatova was St. Petersburg bohemia incarnate. Men aspired to her bed and often succeeded; women confessed their amorous misadventures in lengthy letters and asked her advice. Artists implored her to pose for their canvasses. Countless poems were dedicated to her. More often than not, Akhmatova’s early poems evoke an image of a Russian silent-movie siren, framed in close-up. All the lost gloves, little whips, and sad parrots of the world described in Akhmatova’s early poetry portray an haute bourgeoisie world that exists now only as a museum of temps perdu. Akhmatova’s fate was to survive and mourn the loss of nearly all her friends and literary peers and to lose two husbands and her son to prison, concentration camp, or firing squad while she was ostracized and her work banned for more than 20 years. In the thirties and forties, she wrote the lyrical Requiem cycle, one of the first eyewitness accounts of Stalin’s Terror. Akhmatova evolved from a bohemian lioness into the embodiment of suffering and courage. Surprisingly, she outlived Stalin. In her last years, Akhmatova found herself surrounded by young poets who saw her as a sort of deity of modern Russian poetry and history. Nobel laureate Joseph Brodsky was her favorite disciple. In a century that shattered so many other Russian traditions, their friendship gave strength and continuity to Russian poetry.” Below you will find three poems written by Akhmatova and translated by Natchez, followed by a link that will allow you to see and hear them read, first in the Russian by Harsha Ram and then in English translation by Natchez.   Да, я любила их, те сборища ночные,- На маленьком столе стаканы ледяные, Над чёрным кофеем пахучий, зимний пар, Камина красного тяжёлый, зимний жар, Весёлость едкую литературной шутки И друга первый взгляд, беспомощный и жуткий Yes I Loved Them Yes, I loved them, those nightly gatherings, Those icy glasses on little tables, The wintry smell of black coffee steaming, The wintry warmth of the fireplace glowing, A literary quip, caustic and charming And my lover’s first glance, helpless, alarming. Anna Akhmatova, 1917   Чем хуже этот век предшествовавших? Разве Тем,что в чаду печалей и тревог Он к самой черной прикоснулся язве, Но исцелить ее не мог?  Еще на западе земное солнце светит, И кровли городов в его лучах горят… А здесь уж, белая, дома крестами метит, И кличет воронов, и вороны летят.  Why is This Age Worse? Why is this age worse than what came before? Is it because, in a stupor of grief and dread, We have touched the blackest wounds with our own hands, Unable to heal them?  In the west the earthy light still glows, The roofs of the city burn with its radiance… But here, white crosses mark the houses, Calling the ravens, and the ravens are flying in.    Anna Akhmatova, 1919   Лотова жена И праведник шел за посланником бога, Огромный и светлый, по черной горе. Но громко жене говорила тревога: Не поздно, ты можешь еще посмотреть На красные башни родного Содома, На площадь, где пела, на двор, где пряла, На окна пустые высокого дома, Где милому мужу детей родила.  Взглянула – и, скованы смертною болью, Глаза ее больше смотреть не могли; И сделалось тело прозрачною солью, И быстрые ноги к земле приросли.  Кто женщину эту оплакивать будет? Не меньшей ли мнится она из утрат? Лишь сердце мое никогда не забудет Отдавшую жизнь за единственный взгляд.  Lot’s Wife And God’s luminous messenger, larger than life, led the one righteous man along the black mountain. But regret cried out to his wife:                                 “It’s not too late, you can still catch a glimpse of Sodom, the red rooftops of home, the square where you sang, the yard where you spun, the tall house, its windows abandoned— the house where your sons and daughters were born.” She looked back—a sudden arc of pain stripped her eyes of sight, fused her feet to the ground— her flesh became transparent salt.       Who will mourn this nameless woman? She seems the least of all we lack. Yet I, for one, can never forget how she gave her life for one look back. Anna Akhmatova, 1924   These translations were published in Poems from the Stray Dog Cafe: Akhmatova, Mandelstam, and Gumilev (hit & run press, 2013) and are reprinted with permission of the press. If you’d like to read another translation of “Lot’s Wife,” see this one by Stanley Kunitz. Watch and listen to these three poems read first in the Russian by Harsha Ram and then in translation by Meryl Natchez in section 9:35-14:11 of the following video clip filmed by John Rhodes at the Marin Poetry Center.

[youtube]https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=y-cVFqPhs2U.[/youtube] 

  Meryl Natchez - 06Meryl Natchez’ most recent book is a bilingual volume: Poems from the Stray Dog Café: Akhmatova, Mandelstam and Gumilev. She is co-translator of Tadeusz Borowski: Selected Poems, and her book of poems, Jade Suit, appeared in 2001. Her poems and translations have appeared in various literary magazines and anthologies, including The Pinch Literary Review, Atlanta Review, Lyric, Moth, and many others. She blogs at www.dactyls-and-drakes.com    ]]>

Join the conversation

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

  • Lenore Weiss September 28, 2015 at 1:13 am

    See / hear singer-songwriter Iris DeMeth’s The Trackless Woods, a collaboration with the poetry of Anna Akhmatova,
    Thanks Meryl for your wonderful translations!

    Reply
  • Lenore Weiss September 28, 2015 at 1:13 am

    See / hear singer-songwriter Iris DeMeth’s The Trackless Woods, a collaboration with the poetry of Anna Akhmatova,

    Thanks Meryl for your wonderful translations!

    Reply
  • Meryl Natchez September 27, 2015 at 9:06 pm

    Thank you so much for this, Rebecca. I highly recommend Forrest Gander’s work “A Spiritual Existance,” which contains a wonderful meditation on translation. It is always a labor or love, however one approaches it.

    Reply
  • Meryl Natchez September 27, 2015 at 9:06 pm

    Thank you so much for this, Rebecca. I highly recommend Forrest Gander’s work “A Spiritual Existance,” which contains a wonderful meditation on translation. It is always a labor or love, however one approaches it.

    Reply